With the inauguration of President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) in May 2016, cross-Strait relations have cooled from the earlier period of rapprochement under Ma Ying-jeou (马英九). Formal cross-Strait communication mechanisms were severed by Beijing, with numerous statements out of the Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO/国台办) calling for recognition of the 1992 Consensus—a purported agreement on “one China” reached between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Kuomintang (KMT)—as the lowest baseline for the resumption of official talks.
Much is to be said—and has been said—on why President Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in unable to accept those terms and whether a “more creative” approach to cross-Strait relations put forth by her administration would ever be sufficient for the Chinese leadership. However, an important unexplored element of current cross-Strait dynamics is how China’s perceptions of the now-opposition KMT has shifted since the 2016 national elections, which saw the victory of Tsai as well as the first-ever DPP majority in the legislature.
A reexamination of how China approaches Taiwan’s domestic players could point to a reconsideration of its policy toward the island more broadly. The KMT undeniably remains China’s preferred interlocutor of choice and a useful tool and partner in its concerted strategy of undermining the current administration-- seen in the continuation of CCP-KMT party-to-party talks and its willingness to engage and sign working agreements with local KMT officials while spurning DPP ones. However, statements out of China in the aftermath of the election serve as an initial sign of the CCP’s increasing disappointment and lack of confidence in the KMT.
For example, the day after the election, Xinhua released an interview with prominent mainland Taiwan scholars that highlighted the successes of the KMT’s cross-Strait policy and the public support behind it, while casting blame on the party and its mismanagement of domestic priorities for the election outcome. In the weeks after, reports and op-eds out of China centered on the KMT in its post-election review, which saw party members reflect on election losses and debate its existing platform and policies. Some, such as an opinion piece featured on Taiwan.cn (the Central Committee’s Taiwan Work Office), warned of the implications of too drastic a shift in policy, noting that the future of the KMT was dependent on its “own path” and if it abandons its cross-Strait policy—grounded in the “1992 Consensus” and opposed to Taiwan independence—then it’s giving up its own advantage against the DPP. The piece was submitted by an outside author, but would most likely not have been published at all if it fell far outside the stance of the Taiwan Work Office.
While such commentaries were likewise aimed at the DPP in advance of Tsai’s inauguration and announcement of her cross-Strait policy, what stands out is the number of pieces that take aim at KMT considerations for a nominal change. Though the proposal was not approved, numerous articles—including one from the People’s Daily Overseas Edition—were released that criticized suggestions within the party that it change its official name from the “Kuomintang of China” [中国国民党] to simply “Kuomintang” [国民党]. This was viewed as indicative of the “localization” [本土化] or “Taiwan-ization”[台湾化] of the party. The People’s Daily Overseas Edition released another op-ed that called any such a move by the KMT disingenuous, going as far as saying that “Chinese blood and common ancestry has always been the lifeblood of the KMT’s political power.”
These fears were seemingly unsubstantiated when the KMT elected Hung Hsiu-chu [洪秀柱]—the party’s once short-lived presidential candidate—as party chair in March 2016 in by-elections. Hung was resolutely opposed to removing “Chinese” from the party’s name and had been removed as party candidate due to weak polling and coming off as “deep blue.” As chair, she advanced policies that were viewed as more hardline and pro-China than those pursued by the Ma administration. She denounced the DPP for attempting to “de-Sinicize” Taiwan, added the pursuit of a cross-Strait peace accord to the KMT party platform, and framed the “1992 Consensus” under just “one China” alone. She met with Xi and was widely commended by Chinese media for her views and stance on cross-Strait politics.
Yet, a year later, former Vice President Wu Den-yih [吴敦义], viewed largely as of the “local faction” of the KMT, was elected chair and fears of “Taiwan-ization” returned—as highlighted in Xinhua’s subordinate publication Cankao Xiaoxi. From the beginning of his chairmanship, it was clear that Beijing preferred his predecessor. This was conveyed through subtle deviations from previous norms: in Xi’s congratulatory remarks to Wu in for his selection as party chair, the Chinese leader used the informal, and more impolite, version of “you” (ni/你), diverging from his use of the formal “you” (nin/您) to Hung just over a year prior. Official media through Taiwan.cn likewise criticized him for removing Hung’s peace accord and reinstating a platform that more or less mirrored that of the previous administration in which he served. Unofficial but well-connected online outlets such as Observer published a commentary on a remark by Wu that was construed as holding reunification in a negative light—another step back from Hung’s more positive views.
Wu’s ties to local factions and his adherence to Ma era policies are exacerbated in the eyes of Beijing because of the stark contrast with Hung and her policies. While Hung’s cross-Strait policies moved party-to-party ties in the direction that the CCP wanted, Wu’s are backpedaling them, and Beijing appears increasingly impatient. Of note is an op-ed out of China that has been circulating in Taiwan recently. Though the original source appears independent of party and government ties, the piece was reposted on sites that are tied to state media outlets—indicating the argument at least is viewed as an acceptable discussion topic. The author holds that there is no longer a path to the peaceful resolution of the Taiwan issue, as the KMT and DPP are one and the same for their opposition to unification, citing the aforementioned remark by Wu. He glorifies Hung as “Mainland China's last hope in the KMT for maintaining a unification stance.”
China’s greater criticism of the KMT is likely also compounded by concerns that the party will shift its policies more towards the median—as per dynamics and two party norms in democratic systems—to better represent the views of the electorate. It’s noteworthy that, after its defeat in the 2000 election, the KMT worked to appeal to a multicultural identity, which is both “Chinese” and “Taiwanese,” to attract a broader swath of the population, diverting from its previous emphasis on a solely “Chinese” identity. Beijing’s preoccupation with “localization” presumably stems from concerns that the KMT, and the island more broadly, is moving towards “de-Sinification,” which would weaken China’s claim that the people on both sides of the Strait share common bonds and heritage. As Xi Jinping noted in 2014 in a meeting with honorary KMT Chair Lien Chan, “compatriots on both sides [of the Strait] are family…rooted in common blood, common history and culture.”
China’s willingness to work with and engage with the KMT has been more or less a constant since Taiwan’s democratization—most specifically after the 2000 election of the first DPP president, Chen Shui-bian (陈水扁), when the KMT and CCP realized a shared opponent and the latter ramped up United Front efforts. Now, however, the KMT may be finding itself in the same unenviable position as its domestic political rival—struggling to balance the preferences of Taiwan’s electorate while treading a thin line with the Mainland.
If Beijing loses patience with the KMT, it could seek a change of course in its overall Taiwan policy. This frustration could stem from a lack of forward-movement in party-to-party dialogue—likely from KMT efforts to resist pressure from the CCP on political talks—or from the belief that the KMT is no longer capable of serving as an effective counterweight to the DPP, “pro-Taiwan,” and “pro-independence” forces, having lost legitimacy in the eyes of the Taiwan electorate. If China defers from its existing approach to the KMT, then it holds two possible alternatives: 1) greater engagement with the DPP or 2) a move towards an even more hardline position.
Observers in both Taipei and Washington believe that any new policy out of Beijing toward Taiwan will not be revealed, or perhaps even formulated, until after the 19th Party Congress. Experts based in the two cities showcase divergent predictions, with some viewing Xi’s consolidation of power as allowing for a greater mandate on hardening Beijing’s approach to the island, while others view it as generating space for greater flexibility. Nevertheless, given the nature of its existing strategy, any shift in policy may not be immediate, but perhaps two years down the road after the 2018 local elections.
The CCP has been offering carrots to local KMT politicians—showcased by the spectrum of exchanges between these officials and the Mainland—who can boast of concrete deliverables and thus garner electoral support, while at the same time signaling discontent and warnings to the party’s leadership not to stray too far from its “Chinese” origins, reassess and better manage its priorities and members, and secure a victory in the 2020 national elections. If the KMT is unable to do so, then Beijing may then seek alternative approaches to Taiwan. Of note, the TAO’s response to Tsai’s recent 10/10 speech excluded mention of the “1992 Consensus”—perhaps signaling to KMT leadership that backtracking to Ma era policies will no longer be sufficient.
The views in this essay are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of any organization with which she is affiliated.
 The precedent for the KMT was to follow mention of “one China” with “with different interpretations,” allowing for ambiguity on which “China”—the Republic of China or the People’s Republic of China—that entailed. The KMT under Wu has since reverted back to this framing of the “1992 Consensus.”
 Dafydd Fell, Government and Politics in Taiwan (Oxon: Routledge, 2012), 88-90
Image Source: South China Morning Post