Taiwan’s oldest political party turns to Chiang Kai-shek’s great-grandson for a boost

Between internal strife, muddled campaign messages and an attitude toward China that has become a political liability, Taiwan’s oldest political party is mired in an existential crisis.

The Chinese Nationalist Party, better known as the KMT or Kuomintang, was founded in mainland China but went into exile in Taiwan in 1949. She ruled the island for 50 years before losing her power.

The party has long pushed for closer ties with China, a position that has put it increasingly out of touch with a younger generation who identify as Taiwanese and have grown suspicious of the Chinese Communist Party’s plans on the island.

Now, 110-year-old KMT is looking for a rising star to boost its image: Chiang Wan-an, who is believed to be the favorite for Taipei’s next mayor — among thousands of local offices up for election in Saturday’s statewide election stand.

The charismatic 43-year-old former MP and lawyer has portrayed himself as a thoroughly modern figure who can lead the party into the future. He supports same-sex marriage and lowering the voting age from 20 to 18. His handsome looks and young children have not hurt his attractiveness either.

At the same time, as the great-grandson of revolutionary Chiang Kai-shek, he claims to be deeply rooted in the party’s past.

Under Chiang Kai-shek, the party fled to Taiwan after losing the Chinese Civil War to Mao Zedong’s Communist Party. Anticipating one day retaking the mainland, the KMT often used brutal means to quell political threats, eventually lifting martial law in 1987 when Taiwan began to democratize.

Now it is the Communist Party that wants to take back Taiwan. With growing aggression under President Xi Jinping, who considers the 23-million-strong democracy part of China, much of the national political discourse has focused on the best way to defend the island.

President Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was re-elected in a landslide victory in 2020 thanks to rising Taiwanese nationalism and anti-China sentiment. But this year, KMT has seen a boost in support that could help it clean up at local races.

The Taipei mayoralty is often a stepping stone to the presidency. According to recent polls, Chiang is leading independent candidate Huang Shan-shan, former Taipei deputy mayor, and the DPP’s Chen Shih-chung, who as Minister of Health and Welfare oversaw Taiwan’s response to the pandemic.

“He’s the young, fresher and slightly updated face that KMT needs,” said Lev Nachman, professor of political science at National Chengchi University. “But a candidate does not make a successful political strategy.”

In local elections, cross-strait tensions will fade to more immediate concerns. The mayoral candidates have talked a lot about urban renewal, rising housing costs, subsidies for new parents and ways to make the city more pet-friendly. Chiang wants to improve health insurance for animals and expand programs to allow them to be taken on public transportation.

He has also sought to capitalize on voter dissatisfaction with the Tsai government, noting in particular a lack of transparency around the launch of the vaccine early in the pandemic.

“It’s a value competition: Democracy against the black box,” he said at an election campaign event on Saturday evening. “Hard work versus laziness, integrity versus lies, light versus darkness.”

In the crowd that night was Mark Chu, a 30-year-old IT worker, who found the event a moving morale boost for KMT supporters. However, he couldn’t help but notice a distinct lack of people his age.

“There’s a sense of distance between KMT and young people,” Chu said. “They are moving further and further away from mainstream ideas.”

But Chiang managed to persuade Bernie Hou, a 33-year-old public relations worker who has supported politicians from various parties over the years.

His decision to support Chiang is in large part a vote against the DPP for its handling of the pandemic. He was also impressed with Chiang’s performance during the mayoral debate.

“He has all the makings of a capital city mayor,” Hou said. “And he’s very handsome.”

But even with local races, strained relations between Beijing and Taipei are an unavoidable factor.

The ruling DPP leans toward Taiwan independence and has taken a confrontational stance toward China, an approach that appeals to those who have come of age under Taiwan’s democracy and dismisses Beijing’s calls for unification. These voters are wary of giving too much leeway to an authoritarian regime that threatens to use force to enforce its territorial claims.

The president, whose term ends in 2024, has recently stepped up efforts to capitalize on these fears. But their calls for opposition to China have failed to generate broader support for the DPP in this election.

“It’s a difficult balancing act,” said Sung Wen-ti, a political scientist at Australia National University’s Taiwan Studies program. “The DPP has been riding the wave of its Taiwanese nationalism since 2014 and is inevitably facing some voter fatigue.”

The KMT wants to maintain the status quo of Taiwan’s democratic governance but favors a friendlier relationship with Beijing. Their support comes largely from older generations, who associate the party with their Chinese identity and mainland roots. A minority within the party still hopes for reunification with China.

As the KMT grapples with how to both appease its traditional base and reach a new one, Chiang could help fill that gap.

His father Hsiao-yan, a former vice premier and foreign minister, was born with the surname Chang, but he changed it after collecting evidence that he was Chiang Kai-shek’s illegitimate grandson. Although some still doubt this claim, his son also changed his last name.

Senior KMT members revere the former generalissimo for his contributions to Taiwan’s industrial development and his experience fighting Japanese and communist forces. Younger Taiwanese see him as a symbol of the island’s authoritarian past.

Chiang Kai-shek’s legacy has come under closer scrutiny in recent years due to initiatives to compensate the families of victims who suffered during his reign and to remove statues glorifying him.

Chiang Wan-an has sometimes found himself in the middle. Earlier this year, he campaigned to have Chiang Kai-shek’s name removed from a famous memorial hall in Taipei. But he dropped the proposal after KMT supporters criticized him for belittling his own history and Chinese identity.

“It’s risky to lean too much on family background,” said Brian Hioe, a founding editor of Taiwan-based media company New Bloom. “Now there’s a lot more backlash against these second generations and political dynasties.”

The KMT’s bigger challenge ahead of the 2024 presidential election may be convincing voters that it can skillfully manage cross-strait relations without yielding to pressure from Beijing.

Wendy Chang, a 25-year-old returnee from studying business in the Netherlands, watched Chiang greet voters in Taipei on Monday and said he seemed more modern than traditional KMT candidates. Still, she finds it hard to swallow the party’s friendlier stance on China.

“I feel like Taiwan’s elections are ultimately all about cross-strait relations,” she said.

Yang is a Times staff writer and Shen is a special correspondent.

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