Just two months away from Taiwan’s presidential election, candidate Eric Chu is seen as his ruling party’s last hope for relevancy and victory.
After seven years in power, Chu’s Kuomintang (KMT) party is floundering. For months, it has trailed by huge margins in poll after poll. Things got so bad last month, that party leaders dumped their then-presidential candidate Hung Hsiu-chu and drafted Chu to run.
Now, thrust into an election he had long vowed to sit out, Chu faces an uphill battle. One poll this week pegs him at 21.4 percent compared with front-runner Tsai Ing-Wen’s 48.6 percent. (Notably, if elected, Tsai would be Taiwan’s first female president.)
Given all that, Chu’s trip this past week to the United States is a high stakes affair. A visit to America is somewhat of a tradition among Taiwan’s presidential candidates. Tsai made her own pilgrimage last June, meeting with White House and State Department officials.
It is a chance to appear presidential and connect with the U.S. leaders you hope to be dealing with if elected. In Chu’s case, he also agreed to make a stop at The Washington Post newsroom to answer our questions about how he hopes to resuscitate his party, what a victory for Tsai’s opposing Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) might mean for Taiwan’s future and what the future of his own party might be.
A little background on Taiwan's two parties: For decades the island has been bitterly divided by the two sides. The biggest difference is their approach to Taiwan’s perpetual, existential question of independence from mainland China. China considers Taiwan a rebellious province to be reunified with the mainland (by force if necessary). Taiwan insists on its rights as a self-governed entity.
In that disagreement, KMT leaders tend toward a more conciliatory posture toward China, looking to build on areas of agreement, especially economic ties. DPP leaders have been more vocal about the importance of independence from China.
Notably, this month, Taiwan’s current president (Ma Ying-jeou, from Chu’s KMT party) met China’s communist president, Xi Jinping. It was the first time the leaders of the two entities had met since the civil war that split the Chinese nation more than 60 years ago. Below is a condensed and lightly edited excerpt from our 45-minute interview with Chu:
What is the effect of last week’s meeting between Ma and Xi?
Ma-Xi’s meeting is a historical moment for cross-strait relations [meaning Taiwan-China relations]. Especially after 60 years. It’s the first time the top leaders sit together, meet together, sit together and talk together.
It’s also a great achievement for our party, our administration — to have pursued the peace and stability of the relationship in Taiwan Strait for the past seven and a half years.
Step by step at the beginning, we opened the window, the door, for cross-strait talks, then at the minister level, and now to the top leaders.
What is the next step?
If our party is still the ruling one, the next step would be this kind of meeting becoming regular. And of course the relationship between Taiwan and the mainland will be smoother and smoother. And cooperation, especially for economic relations and nonpolitical issues — both sides can cooperate closer than before.
The shorthand version we’ve heard of your upcoming election is that people in Taiwan may like you, but you’re going to lose because people are worried relations with China have become too close and that Taiwan is becoming too dependent. How do you respond to that?
Maybe in the short run people may not feel okay with this kind of speed or this kind of meeting [with China], but it’s still the right thing to do. I told our supporters that we will deal very carefully in developing the relationship with China.
Even though this administration has always tried to pursue a stable and peaceful relationship between the two sides, we have also been doing what we can to diversify our market. We will not just rely on one market.
Can you spell out what exactly is the difference between you and your opponent Tsai Ing-Wen? Is your approach to China the main difference?
It’s one of the key differences. Their party is viewed as the pro-Taiwan independence party.
Chairwoman Tsai says they won’t accept the so-called 1992 consensus [an agreement between Taiwan and mainland China that there is only “one China,” to which both sides belong, with each having its own definition of that nation].
Our party thinks the 1992 consensus is a very important foundation for the past seven and a half years of cross-strait relations. The 1992 consensus eased the tension between the two sides. Then after 2008, we used this consensus to have peace and development and to open the door between the two sides. If I’m elected as president for the next four to eight years, I would not only open the door for the two sides, we would cooperate together economically or in international spaces together.
If there is no consensus, as the DPP says, what is the basis for the future? Madame Tsai says, "Keep the status quo." The status quo was made mainly by our party and President Ma’s policies.
So I say you are just giving people some wishful thinking or a vision but no formula or no means to achieve it. It is just giving a slogan without the methodology or means. I think it’s your obligation as a responsible stakeholder or responsible party leader or responsible candidate to explain that to supporters and voters.
Can you explain then why KMT is doing so badly in the polls and what you think you can do to fix that?
As the head of the ruling party, I think we should review those policies we have done, especially a lot of domestic policies. For example, we took some wrong steps on capital markets, to levy income tax from capital gains. We tried to make reform in the education system, and it’s not had a positive response.
So these kinds of policies should be fixed. But not cross-strait relations. On cross-straits, we did the right thing, and we should insist on that.
What’s your impression of China’s current leadership?
President Xi is a strong leader. He is also facing challenge, a lot of challenges. Not only an international challenge, but a domestic challenge.
I think democracy someday will be on the Chinese leaders’ agenda, but today their top challenge is how to keep their economy booming as fast as before. The second one is how to face the challenge of fair distribution of economic dividends.
What is President Xi’s direction on democracy, as in Hong Kong for example?
On Hong Kong, there is still a certain kind of compromising process happening, to get to a final solution both sides can accept. I don’t know what final result they will get, but it’s still undergoing that process.
During the 1997 Hong Kong handover back to China, China promised one country, two systems. How do you evaluate how well they’ve kept that promise?
As an outsider to this, I think everybody is watching, including us, including you, including all the world, what they have promised before and what they are doing now.
They promised a free election. What’s the definition? From our point of view, a free election is without conditions. But that doesn’t seem to be the case. So it’s still in the process of compromise.
[Jason C. Yuan, a senior adviser to Chu accompanying him on the U.S. visit, jumped in to further explain why China’s treatment of Hong Kong matters to Taiwan:]
The main purpose I think [China] uses Hong Kong as a model for the “one country, two systems” idea is actually aimed at Taiwan. But Taiwan is totally different than Hong Kong’s situation.
China can control Hong Kong very easily. Cut off the pipeline of water, electricity, and Hong Kong is dead. But Taiwan is very independent from the mainland because it’s an island.
They try to use Hong Kong to tell the world that if [China’s strategy of] “one country, two systems” works in Hong Kong, it will work for Taiwan. They try to create this kind of nationalism. They already got Hong Kong back, they got Macau back, now [they] want to get Taiwan.
That’s why maybe Xi Jinping’s people tried to press Hong Kong more. But that showed the world it’s not a real “one country, two systems,” it’s a we-still-want-to-win system.
[Chu resumes the interview here.]
How do you see the military balance between China and Taiwan? Are you still able to defend yourself?
It’s an obligation for ourselves to be able to defend ourselves, but we know there is a big gap between the two sides. So asymmetric deterrence is the strategy we have to use. But what’s the meaning of asymmetric deterrence? We still need assistance, consultation with our very important partner the United States.
The quality, not the quantity, of arms is quite important. We don’t need such a big amount, but we need the quality.
Today’s software is very important for us, not just hardware. Taiwan needs to upgrade this software to deter possible threats from the mainland.
You recently compared this election and the tough odds you face to the movie “Mission Impossible.” Why run if the odds are so against you?
It wasn’t my plan to run for president, but our party faced a big challenge. As chairman, I had no way but to take responsibility to run, just 90 days before the election. It’s probably historic how short that is for a presidential campaign. As the ruling party, we also have a lot of challenges already, that’s why I said it’s a “Mission Impossible.”
But as [people who saw the movie] well know, if you try to do everything you can, finally the mission impossible will become possible.