Written by J. Michael Cole.
After the disaster that was Hung Hsiu-chu, the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) initial pick for presidential candidate, it was expected that Taiwan’s ruling party—a political survivor if ever there was one—would somehow get back on an even keel. With Eric Chu replacing the unpopular Hung in October, it wasn’t unreasonable to assume that the KMT would narrow the immense gap that had developed between it and frontrunner Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). And then the KMT blundered again, this time by picking a vice presidential candidate whose checkered past has succeeded in alienating pretty much every segment of society, including traditional KMT voters.
At first glance, the decision to make Jennifer Wang Chu’s running mate looked like a wise move. A former human rights lawyer, Wang could have helped repair the KMT’s image after a bruising three years, during which Taiwan’s media and civil society exposed a series of human rights violations stemming from urban renewal projects to deaths in the military.
Even then, Wang wasn’t an uncontroversial choice. As President Ma Ying-jeou’s Council of Labor Affairs (CLA) minister, in 2012 Wang hired a team of 80 lawyers to sue more than 2,000 laid-off factory workers, many of them of advanced age, to force them to pay back a “loan” they had received from the government in the late 1990s after their employers declared bankruptcy and failed to pay their salary and provide retirement packages. The lawsuit, for which Wang requested a budget of NT$20.6 million, sparked a series of protests, a hunger strike, and the occupation of public spaces, while undoubtedly tarnishing Wang’s reputation as a human rights lawyer.
In and of itself, this should not have been sufficient to harm the KMT’s chances in the 2016 elections. Small protests by labor groups have occurred at campaign events attended by Wang, but those remained minor affairs.
The KMT’s real headaches began when it was reveled that several years ago Wang had “flipped” several houses built for military veterans and allegedly profiteered from the exercise, which, though technically not unlawful, was highly unethical. Wang has so far admitted to purchasing nine military apartments between 1995 and 2003; her critics claim a much higher number, possibly as many as 19 residences.
How much money Wang made from the transactions, or the actual number of apartments she and her husband acquired during that period aren’t the main issue, though it is doubtful that she only made, as she claims, NT$13.8 million from the sale of seven residences, some of them in posh areas of Taipei. The crux of the problem is that Wang appears to have used her legal expertise, as well as access to confidential information from the Ministry of National Defense, to deceive elderly veterans who presumably didn’t know what they were signing on to, with the result that many of them found themselves with little money, and some with no roof over their heads.
Wang has stuck to a legalistic defense, which misses the point altogether. The optics of the whole affair is what counts, especially when the character of the individual who stands to be second in line as head of state comes under scrutiny. Wang may very well have broken no laws, but that’s beside the point. She acted unethically and demonstrated that she had no compunction in exploiting vulnerable members of society.
What’s even worse, if not inexplicable, is that presidential candidate Eric Chu was aware that this could be a problem and yet still picked Wang as his running mate.
The decision to pick Wang as the V.P. candidate once again highlights the KMT’s inability to read the public mood, which changed dramatically in the past three or four years, or to learn lessons from recent history. Chief among this transformation is the shifting nature of the nationalism that has fueled civic participation in the nation’s politics, a generational change that has shed the “ethnic” nationalism of old and replaced it with what we would describe as “civic” nationalism.
Had the KMT paid attention, it would have known that there exists a direct link between the Wang controversy and the forced evictions at the Huaguang community in Taipei in 2012-13, one of the foundational incidents in recent years that led to the emergence of a much more activist civil society (many of the future Sunflower Movement leaders played a key role in the movement that was created to preserve the community). For it was the tragedy of Huaguang, a predominantly “mainlander” community filled with veterans and their offspring, that drove home the reality that even staunch supporters of the KMT, people who had supported the party for their entire lives, were vulnerable to state predation under President Ma’s KMT. What was even more fascinating from the heartbreaking Huaguang crisis was the support that old, vulnerable “mainlanders” received from young Taiwanese of every ethnicity. In fact, in this new world of “civic” nationalism, one’s ethnic background had become largely irrelevant; people stood shoulder to shoulder in the defense of their rights, of the values and principles that now define what it means to be “a Taiwanese.”
Additionally, the practice of flipping houses has contributed to the housing crisis which has made it impossible for a number of young Taiwanese to buy a house. Surely this won’t be ignored by young Taiwanese voters.
For many, Wang’s past is a painful reminder of Huaguang, proof, if any was needed, that the KMT under Chu is no different, that it remains stuck in the past while the rest of Taiwanese society moves on. It is little wonder, then, that in recent months—and especially over the Wang controversy—many KMT members and supporters, not to mention countless “mainlanders,” have found common ground with Taiwan’s civil society, and even with their nemesis, the DPP. The defense of those overlapping interests is where the future of Taiwanese politics lies; whoever seizes that middle ground—and Ms. Tsai seems to occupy it at the moment—should do very well in the upcoming elections.
In the post-Sunflower context, it was downright foolish of Mr. Chu’s camp to think it that could pick a running mate who had abused some of society’s most vulnerable elements and get away with it. This is a self-inflicted wound that will conceivably cost it dearly in the coming presidential and legislative elections. And this time around, it won’t be able to dispense with its unsightly candidate as it did with Hung. Until January 16, Wang will serve as a reminder that unless it modernizes, the KMT cannot be trusted.
J. Michael Cole is a Senior Non-Resident Fellow at the China Policy Institute and Editor of Thinking Taiwan.