The Kuomintang (KMT), once the undefeatable rulers of Taiwan, have an ageing supporter base. It was smashed by Tsai Ing-wen’s progressive Democratic People’s Party at the last national election. But a Gallup poll for Radio Taiwan International on the eve of the Taipei election on Saturday has Chiang well ahead of his nearest rivals: 34.2 per cent of the vote to 22.8 for his rival Chen Shih-chung, Taiwan’s health minister throughout COVID-19. Four out of five public polls have Chiang in the lead.
Chiang, 43, is a high-profile but elusive figure. Despite his international background he has never given a foreign media interview and did not respond to questions when The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age followed him in Taipei this week. His dynastic KMT pedigree also remains shrouded behind a genealogical curtain that has allowed doubts about his legitimacy to flourish.
Chiang was born Wayne Chang in Taipei to Helen and John Chang in 1978. John was the vice-chairman of the Kuomintang and a foreign affairs specialist until an alleged affair with a mistress mired his career in controversy. In high school, John told Chiang that he was actually the illegitimate son of Chiang Ching-kuo and the grandson of Chiang Kai-shek. In 2005, the whole family changed its name to Chiang.
“The change represents a respect for history, a return to the facts, and a realisation of my parent’s wishes,” John said in 2005.
But no tests have ever been formally released.
“It is all bullshit, he’s not even worth trash,” says Democratic People’s Party supporter Chen Rong-hua, who has taken his dog Guai-Guai with him to a DPP rally in a pram.
In the rough and tumble of Taiwanese politics accusations like Chen’s are not uncommon.
Taiwan only had full presidential elections in 1996, but its rallies attract hundreds of thousands of voters, taking over CBDs with marches, blow-up dinosaurs four stories high, bikies, and pharaohs on stilts. It also encourages a mix of characters. The candidates in Taipei’s election this year include Tang Xinmin, who claims he is a reincarnation of the 7th century emperor Tang and warns that a volcano will destroy the Taiwanese capital in 2023; and Hsu Hsiao-chin, a high-profile young city councillor who dresses up as Sailor Moon.
Rival supporters heckle each other as they shut down traffic and go door to door soliciting votes. Millions of Taiwanese are now on their way to their hometowns to cast their ballots – a journey that can take them hours across an island that has no absentee voting system or compulsory voting mechanism but still registers turnouts of more than 75 per cent.
During its six-week election push, the DPP campaigned heavily on protecting this vibrant democratic tradition. In the major cities, voters – tired of the constant threat of war – were often more interested in subsidies, school funding and traffic management, but DPP candidates for local councils, mayors and village chiefs responded instinctively that they were there to “fight for democracy” when asked what their top priority was.
Wen-Ti Sung, a political scientist at the Australian National University based in Taiwan, says the DPP’s tactics reflect the nature of its long time in power.
“The DPP historically underperforms in local-level elections. So DPP’s defeat is to be expected; the only question is the magnitude,” he said. “That in the closing stages of this electoral cycle, the DPP is defaulting back to its second agenda. Taiwanese nationalism is a reflection of this stalling progressive energy within the party.
“Second, on China, this election will show whether the DPP’s China threat card is facing diminishing marginal returns over time.”
The DPP, which has always advocated maintaining the status quo (Taiwan operating separately from China but not declaring formal independence) while pushing back against China’s incursions, argues Beijing’s harassment is no longer an idle threat. In August alone, China sent 446 warplanes towards Taiwan’s median line in response to US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taipei.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has repeatedly threatened to take Taiwan by force if necessary to complete “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” and put an end to what he sees as the Chinese Communist Party’s century of humiliation dating back to when it lost control of Hong Kong and could not stop a rival government from being set up in Taiwan.
US Navy Admiral Philip Davidson said in March last year that China could have the capability to attack Taiwan by 2027.
“I worry that they’re [China] accelerating their ambitions to supplant the United States and our leadership role in the rules-based international order by 2050,” he told a US Senate Committee on Armed Services hearing. “Taiwan is clearly one of their ambitions before that and I think the threat is manifest during this decade – in fact, in the next six years.”
That threat has been harnessed by the DPP to paint the KMT as appeasers who will sell out Taiwan at the first opportunity.
In Taipei, Chen, 71, says he has “been training for democracy since I was little”. “We have to protect it”.
Nearby, public servant Anna Jeng sits with her three children. “Personally, I have this fear for the possible Chinese invasion of Taiwan,” she says.
“We can see it with the experience of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we’ve seen how authoritarianism has been doing whatever they want on a vulnerable country. And indeed, China has been threatening us for decades. The fact that we have children, the younger generation, that’s why we’re so worried about the situation.”
Outside the city hall in Taipei, a giant horse has been inflated accusing Chiang of being a Trojan horse for the Chinese Communist Party.
“Chinese enemies are hiding in the Trojan horse,” says DPP MP Wang Shih-cheng. “The KMT wants to give it to Taiwan.”
The reality is a bit more complex.
In his few public comments, Chiang has criticised the DPP for its handling of the relationship with China but made clear he also wants Taiwan to remain separate from the mainland.
“There’s no need to even think about such a proposal. I’ll definitely oppose it to the end, and uphold the dignity of the Republic of China,” Chiang said in early November, referring to the official name for Taiwan.
The comments reflect a split within the KMT between its older and younger generations. Older KMT voters have tended to be more open to unifying with the mainland, but younger KMT members – while advocating for stronger business ties – have watched on with alarm as human rights crackdowns have unfolded in nearby Hong Kong and a draconian COVID-zero policy has pummelled its economy.
“The major business groups in Taiwan have urged both Taiwan and China to prioritise civilian and economic needs,” Chiang said in August. “The KMT would try to understand the need of young people in startups, Taiwanese businesses and students to maintain the bilateral talks.”
It is these business groups that the DPP has targeted by accusing Chiang of collaborating with Chinese investment firms. Billionaire semiconductor tycoon Robert Tsao and US professor Chen Shih-fen have raised concerns about his work for 12 Chinese corporate clients including state-owned companies North East Petroleum Holdings, China Natural Gas, China Pharma Holdings and Heilongjiang E-U-Kang Biotechnology.
Chiang was forced to defend his work arguing “it complied with US laws”.
On the island of Matsu, just 20 kilometres from the Chinese border, KMT candidate Tsao Ehr-yuan says a Chiang victory would make life easier for locals.
“Taipei is a critical position for Taiwan and is influential in different issues, in the area and regions,” he says. “If Chiang was elected, it will be beneficial for fostering better ties between Matsu and China for sure.”
The DPP’s campaign to paint Chiang as a Chinese Communist Party enabler has had mixed results, partly because the DPP has also had to fend off anger over its response to COVID-19. Though Taiwan was widely successful at keeping deaths low, the measures harmed businesses and tourism, while frustrating some voters now in their third year of a pandemic.
In her apartment in central Taipei, Wendy Cheng says it is time for a change. “President Tsai Ing-wen, she’s more like the president of only DPP, instead of the whole nation,” she says.
Tsai will finish her two terms in power in 2024, meaning a win at the midterm election could open the door for a Chiang run for the presidency at the next national election or in 2028.
“I don’t think his family background matters because it’s just a fact it gives him access, so he can run as a politician more easily,” says Cheng.
In Taiwan, however, Cheng’s background does matter. Her mother is from the mainland. As relations between Taipei and Beijing have spiralled, so have questions about the loyalty of Chinese mainlanders living in Taiwan.
“When I was little, back in school, people assumed that I was stupid, compared to other Taiwanese students, but for my mum, the discrimination was even more obvious because when she first came to Taiwan, people assumed that she was here for prostitution,” she says.
“Now, Taiwanese people’s stereotypes towards Chinese are becoming different in terms of politics. People think that they may be brainwashed by President Xi Jinping. That they’re like birds in cages and that they don’t really know things about the world.”
Cheng says Taiwan is a piece on a chessboard.
“Maintaining the status quo is the most important thing because, in terms of geopolitical position, we can be moved by any country, and any strong power,” she says. “Because we don’t have a large enough population and we are not strong enough to make our own weapons, we cannot protect ourselves properly.”
The 25-year-old does not think the answer to Taiwan’s predicament will be found in Taipei.
“I don’t think there’s a quick solution to this,” she says. “President Xi is more like an emperor now, he’s more authoritarian than ever. It will only be if China has a more open-minded president that we’re able to change this kind of situation.”
With Daniel Ceng
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