After Trump moved out of the White House and the MAGA slogan began to lose its media coverage in the US, a senior media personality in Taiwan, Jaw Shaw-kong, adapted the slogan into “Make Taiwan Great Again” to declare his return to Taiwanese politics by rejoining the Kuomintang (KMT), a possible move for the both the presidency of the party and of Taiwan.
Who is Jaw Shaw-kong?
For Taiwanese youth, Jaw is better known for his career in media than in politics. He owned the Broadcasting Corporation of China, a former KMT-enterprise, and hosted several television and radio programs. His most influential program, Situation Room, with key political figures as its guest speakers and Jaw’s personal influence and network, could easily sway KMT’s political strategies. Candidates for KMT’s presidency or even for the Taiwanese presidential elections often appeared in this program for their campaigns, aiming for the KMT supporters in particular.
However, Jaw’s success and influence in the media world are linked to his equally impressive political career. Jaw, as a Mainlander born in Taiwan, is honored as a “political genius” because of his popularity in earlier elections. His call for reforming the then authoritarian KMT and conflicts with other factions within the party led to a split of the KMT, resulting in Jaw’s founding of the New Party. After his loss in 1994 as the New Party’s candidate for the mayor of Taipei against the future DDP president, Chen Shui-bian, he gradually retreated from politics and soon gained enormous influence in shaping public opinions with his various media programs.
Because of Jaw’s popularity among the Blue-camp (the color of KMT) supporters, he was asked to return to politics for official positions from time to time. But on February 1, 2021, he finally and suddenly announced his return by rejoining the KMT, the biggest opposition party in Taiwan now. His logic is that he’s tired of KMT’s old, bureaucratic politics, and that he spots no competent leaders in the party. The way the DDP is ruling the country is also his major concern. He also signaled the possibility of running for KMT’s next presidential elections, to save Taiwan from damnation, not excluding by representing the party in the 2024 general presidential election.
Identity Politics at Play
As political rhetoric requires, most KMT members publicly expressed their welcome to his return, but some of them started to question his eligibility for KMT’s presidential election. Although he later said on Situation Room that Taiwan’s politics has been only about the boring, trivial issue of provincial identity (省籍問題) for decades, the argument among his eligibility for KMT president is still, in some way, a reflection of the same issue. Jaw, as the son of a Mainlander, was born in Taiwan after the Chinese civil war, so he was still considered as a Wai Sheng Ren (外省人, a person from other provinces, loosely translated as “Mainlander”). Factions more prone to localist (Taiwanese) appeals within the KMT would find it hard to accept his easy entrance to the party’s leadership.
Jaw is considered to be close to the deep Blue, thus the opposition from light Blue with more localist concerns.
The Political Spectrum in Taiwan
As much as he hates the identity argument, Jaw’s deep Blue image will still be a realistic obstacle in Taiwanese politics despite his personal charisma. The New Party, mainly founded by Jaw, is the only party that openly calls for “One Country, Two Systems” on the island, echoing with Beijing on the other shore of the strait. Jaw’s link with the last losing presidential candidate from KMT, Han Kuo-yu, who is also a Mainlander, is another sign of Jaw’s relationship with the deep Blue. Indeed, during Jaw’s press conference, he deliberately emphasized Han’s role in persuading him to return. Jaw could not possibly forget that one of the main reasons of Han’s defeat to the incumbent president Tsai Ing-wen was exactly Han’s deep Blue stance and pro-China attitude.
Cross-Strait Relationship and National Identity in Taiwan
Just like most of Taiwan’s presidential elections since its democratization, the 2020 one was still essentially about how the candidates would deal with China(s)- PRC and ROC. The loss of the Kuomintang candidate Han Kuo-yu, then mayor of Kaohsiung was certainly because of his incompetence, his laziness as a mayor, and his numerous ridiculous remarks about policies, but his inability to support Hong Kong’s democratic movement, his acknowledgement of the 92-consensus which was interpreted by some Taiwanese as the synonym with “One Country, Two Systems”, and his intimate relationship with the Mainland were among the most compelling reasons for electors to vote against him, especially young Taiwanese. On the other hand, Tsai was unpopular for many of her policies and her cold personality, but her commitment to democracy in the context of China’s moves in Hong Kong was enough to enable her to receive the most votes since 1996, the first direct election of the president.
The result of the last presidential election coincides with the changes in national identity among different social groups in Taiwan. Sometimes described as post-materialist, young Taiwanese were the major force of supporters for President Tsai from the DPP. They are more concerned with Taiwan’s independent status and its democracy while strongly detest the encroachment of the influence of an authoritarian China. They also identify themselves more as “Taiwanese” than “Chinese”, especially when “China” carries an authoritarian connotation. Historical reasons and realistic considerations could be an explanation for why older people supported Han, but their influence is certainly weakening as the population of this group diminishes.
For the foreseeable future, this trend in which young people identify themselves as solely “Taiwanese” and support Taiwan’s independent status is most likely to continue. A 2019 survey by Public Television interviewing high school students about their national identity demonstrated that nearly 78.7% of the surveyed identified themselves as only “Taiwanese”, while the options for solely “Chinese” and “both” received 0.8% and 20.1% of the results respectively. Regarding the future cross-strait relationship, the most popular answer (40.3%) was to maintain the status quo and seek independence in the future.
The Prospect for Jaw Shaw-kong
Jaw certainly does not see things this way. In the Situation Room, he mentioned Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden several times to prove that as long as he has great policies, young people could still support him despite his age. But whether he is in the position to offer the policies young Taiwanese want is another question. Even if he could be the next KMT president, the 5.52 million people who voted for the KMT Han Kuo-yu during the last presidential election would still be a strong barrier for a drastic change in KMT policies. Furthermore, Jaw is not the first to try to win young Taiwanese over to the KMT. The current Party President Johnny Chiang, representing the younger faction of the party, has tried everything within his power to rejuvenate the party and attract the youth but without much success. It is hard to imagine that Jaw, deeper a Blue than Johnny Chiang, could win young people over to KMT’s favor.
The “Make Taiwan Great Again” slogan is also difficult to crystalize. The “great” Taiwan that Jaw remembered was during the economic boom of the “Four Asian Tigers” when Taiwan was said to be “drowning in money”. It was a time when mainland China was still isolated or just starting to open itself to the outside world, drawing industries from the West to Japan and then to these Asian tigers. With a completely new international environment where China is already a dominant player, how Jaw could head Taiwan to its past glory is largely unknown. Of course, if he would do so by engaging too much with China, it would further alienate young Taiwanese from him and the KMT.
Fortunately for Jaw, there is still possibly some room that he can maneuver. As a charismatic and determined figure, he could reform the KMT without caring much about the bureaucratic culture and pressures from older generations within the party that has been suffocating Johnny Chiang’s efforts until now. Jaw is also aware of the fact that the maximal consensus in Taiwan is anti-CCP instead of anti-China. If he could distance the KMT from the CCP while maintaining the party’s commitment to Chinese culture and heritage, a ruling DDP that is turning more conservative in pursuing Taiwan Independence could be in less of an advantageous position. The loss of China’s market has not happened even if the DDP assumed power, so there is probably a reason for the KMT to be more audacious.
The electoral process determines how politics plays out, but identity politics is often at the heart of elections, especially more so in Taiwan. Jaw’s sudden reappearance and the personal charisma that he carries would eventually be tested in elections in which the issue of identity is likely to remain pertinent. Without recognizing and conforming to the reality of identity politics in Taiwan, it would be difficult to “Make the Kuomintang Great Again,” not to mention “Make Taiwan Great Again.”