Sun may set on China's historic Kuomintang

January 28, 2000|By Jim Mann

TAIPEI, Taiwan -- One of the first big developments of the year 2000 could well be an epochal change in Chinese politics: the downfall of the Kuomintang, or Nationalist Party.

For most of the 20th century, the KMT, which traces its origins to Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek, has held power, first on the Chinese mainland and then after 1949 on Taiwan. While losing miserably in China's civil war, the KMT has managed for more than 70 years to retain uninterrupted control of the government it calls the Republic of China.

That hold may not last much longer. On March 18, Taiwan will hold presidential elections. And as things stand now, the KMT -- despite the abundant resources it commands as one of the world's richest political parties -- seems headed for a historic defeat.

The KMT's candidate, Vice President Lien Chan, is running third in most polls behind both Chen Shui-bian, the candidate of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, and James Soong, a former KMT official who left the party after a feud with President Lee Teng-hui.

Mr. Lien is saddled with the KMT's image as scandal-ridden. Moreover, Taiwanese regard him as plodding and risk-averse.

Among the three leading presidential candidates, Mr. Lien's was the only one that insisted on receiving written questions before I could interview him. Then, after receiving the queries, Mr. Lien was the only candidate to decline.

Was Mr. Lien reluctant to be asked Question 8, which said: "If you are elected president and Lee Teng-hui remains chairman of the KMT, how will the two of you work together? Will he [Lee] continue to play a significant role in making foreign and defense policy?"

Not so, said Mr. Lien's smooth campaign manager Jason Hu, formerly Taiwan's foreign minister; Mr. Lien's schedule was too tight. As for Question 8, Mr. Hu offered this reply: "As president of the country, Lien would take the lead. ... He has to have his own policy. But this doesn't mean he has to destroy or throw away his relationship with Lee."

Meanwhile, the DPP's Chen Shui-bian has made a disciplined drive for power by moderating his party's long-standing support for Taiwan's independence.

Mr. Chen, in an interview, stressed that he believes Taiwan is already a sovereign and independent country whose future is up to its own 22 million people. But he promised not to enshrine in Taiwan's Constitution President Lee's claim last summer that Taiwan should have "special state-to-state relations" with China.

Indeed, astonishingly, the DPP candidate said he was willing to talk with top Chinese leaders about their bottom-line demand that Taiwan's future be settled under the rubric of "one China."

Mr. Soong, often accused by critics of being sympathetic to Beijing, also emphasized in an interview the importance of conciliatory approaches to China. While Mr. Soong is personally popular, his campaign has been damaged by the revelation that while in the KMT, he controlled a secret fund of several million dollars to channel funds to various Taiwan political figures.

Mr. Soong claims the information about the covert fund was leaked by the KMT in an attempt to "scare away" potential contributors from donating to his renegade campaign. The effort succeeded, at least temporarily; Mr. Soong's campaign draws large, enthusiastic crowds but is short of cash.

Mr. Lien may manage a comeback. It's also conceivable that even if Mr. Lien loses, the KMT may cling to a share of power. For example, if Mr. Soong wins, he might attempt to rejoin and gain control of the KMT. Or, if Mr. Lien grows weaker before the election, some elements of the KMT could split off and join with the DPP.

But even under these scenarios, the KMT, the party of Chiang Kai-shek, won't retain the formidable role it played in 20th century China and Taiwan. The KMT's Mr. Hu and Mr. Soong each volunteered that the KMT was for many decades a Leninist party that now needs democratic reforms. But it may be too late.

"We want to put an end to the historic dispute between the Chinese Communist Party and the KMT," Chen Shui-bian said last week, suggesting that it's time for someone else in Taiwan to try to deal with Beijing.

All dynasties eventually fall. This could be the KMT's year.

Jim Mann covers foreign policy for the Los Angeles Times.

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