TAIPEI–When Taiwan’s heavy metal rock star Freddy Lim ran for parliament last winter, few thought he had any chance.

With his jet-black ponytail dropping to his waistline, and arms heavily tattooed, Lim was seen as just too outlandish for a constitutionally onerous job of making laws.

But Freddy, as he is fondly known to his fans, not only got elected from one of Taipei’s most conservative districts, beating his five-term elected veteran legislator of the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) or Nationalist party, he is now riding herd over the island’s third new party — the New Power Party (NPP) — with five seats in the single-chamber parliament.

Today, the 38-year-old rock star has managed to turn himself into Taiwan’s new political star, a magnet of change for a new generation of Taiwanese pressing for reform. “We’ve shown that we can shake things up and change Taiwan’s archaic political institutions,” he says.

While the question of exactly what institutions need to be changed and how remains under debate, Lim and his cohort of  angry young reformers is aiming their attack at the KMT party that has ruled Taiwan for the past six decades since they arrived here after their defeat in China’s civil war to the communist forces.

Candidate Freddy Lim campaigning with Taiwan voters
Candidate Freddy Lim campaigning with Taiwan voters

In the past eight years under the KMT government, President Ma Ying-jeou is credited with maintaining trouble-free relations with China across the Taiwan Strait. He signed dozens of trade and other commercial relations under the so-called 1992 Consensus under which Beijing and Taipei agreed on the One China principle, with both sides free to interpret which side it really referred to.

But the China-backed KMT lost the January elections for both president and parliament to the island-based Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) that supports independence but for the time being accepts the status quo of peaceful cooperation with the mainland.

Tsai Ing-wen
Tsai Ing-wen

The inauguration on May 20 of the DPP’s Tsai Ing-wen, the first woman to be elected head of government  in the Chinese speaking world, darkens the KMT’s long-term political future as she embarks on an ambitious agenda of modernizing Taiwan’s political institutions. The KMT’s popularity has waned under the impact of a Chinese economic slowdown that has adversely affected the island’s economy. Its strong pro-China policy has also alienated a large part of the island’s populace, especially its youth population, reducing its parliamentary seats from 81 under the previous government, to 35 in the new 113-seat Legislative Yuan. In comparison, the DPP’s strength has surged from 40 to 68. With help from Freddy’s NPP, the broad DPP-NPP coalition now boasts a comfortable majority of 73 seats, capable of passing a reform agenda sought by the two parties.

Just how the island’s mood is changing is demonstrated by Freddy Lim’s campaign against his incumbent rival, the KMT’s Lin Yu-fang, in one of Taiwan’s most conservative districts. A KMT bigwig, Lin was a five-term legislator with a significant voice and influence on foreign and defense policy matters.

KMT tactics backfired

But his emotional lashing at Lim as a political lightweight, and unsupported accusation that he may be a gay backfired, with Freddy Lim’s young fans regarding Lin as a typical KMT face running out of his time.

The youth revolt against KMT erupted two years ago when President Ma Ying-jeou sought to rush through a trade in services agreement with Beijing, prompting suspicions that he was moving too fast and too close to China without the consent of voters. “The KMT government believed its China relations would pay for everything, and in doing so he was diluting Taiwan’s identity,” says Dr Lai I-Chung, vice president for foreign policy at the DPP-related Taiwan Thinktank.

Suspicions that Ma was tilting too heavily to China at the risk of deepening Taiwan’s dependence on Beijing sparked the so-called Sunflower Movement of university students concerned that Taiwan may be swallowed up by China.

But it was not just the perceived pro-China stance that was animating student protesters. In their perception, Ma’s policy was a logical progression of the KMT’s long record of victimizing Taiwanese and short-trading their interests in the name of furthering ties with the mainland. To people like Freddy Lim and Dr Lai, KMT leaders have yet to fully account for their bad record in Taiwan since their arrival in Taiwan. Resentment for wounds inflicted by KMT’s misrule comes alive in political narratives by many intellectuals leading the public debate here. “Our grandfathers belonged to the generation (of victims of KMT repression),” says Rick Chu, a prominent writer who is leading the debate here about the past. “Our fathers’ generation were brainwashed and told to forget their ordeals. Today, we belong to the generation that’s awakening to our history,” he says.

KMT’s past martial law baggage

Although Chu, Lai and Freddy Lim each belong to a different party and generation, they are all linked by a common thread of experience under the KMT’s misrule, and they resent the fictitious rationale it imposed in justifying its long rule of Taiwan. For Lai and Chu, this is about dealing with transitional justice, which means documenting the KMT’s record of repression under the martial law period that includes the execution and imprisoning of thousands islanders, recovering individual and state assets sequestered by the KMT, and mistreatment of the island’s aborigines.

Freddy Lim in performance mode
Freddy Lim in performance mode

As for Freddy Lim, he is pushing for revision of the KMT’s 1947 constitution under which Tibet, Outer Mongolia and Xinjiang region are defined as provinces of China, now temporarily under Taiwan’s jurisdiction.

“This is a ridiculous claim,” said Lim. This constitution should be scrapped or changed to reflect the reality, “not phantom territory,” he says. He’s even more outraged by the fact that the Taiwan cabinet, under this constitution, appoints  ministers supposedly in charge of “administering” these areas. “These ‘ministers’ are in fact on government payroll,” he fumed. To Lim these ministers — often identified as ministers without portfolios — are even more disdainful for the fact that he is opposed to any colonization. He thus supports Tibetan independence. Before running for parliament, as Amnesty International’s official in Taiwan, he was concerned about persecution of Tibetans by the Chinese government.

Given the nature of their agenda, it’s clear that both the DPP and Freddy’s NPP have their work cut out for them if they mean business. DPP President Tsai Ing-wen in her inaugural address promised to compile a report on the KMT’s past conduct in three years. It will fall under the transitional justice by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to be set up by the presidential office. But the question of revising the constitution originally adopted in China should be far more complicated, even potentially dangerous as it involves the sensitive question of China’s own sovereignty.

But over and beyond all these complicated tasks, is the question of KMT’s own future as a political party in Taiwan. At its central standing committee meeting on May 5, the party’s chairwoman, Hung Hsiu-chu, confirmed that it will continue pushing for cross-strait relations based on the 1992 Consensus which President Tsai refuses to accept in entirety. Under the Consensus, both Beijing and Taipei stick to the One China Principle, with each side free to interpret what that exactly means. President Tsai however, rejects this formula, saying she doesn’t recognize the 1992 meeting as a “consensus” although she will continue the subsequent policy of dialogue and peaceful contacts.

Hung, however, said if the DPP “failed to manage cross strait issues well, the KMT would help by playing the role of stabilizing cross-strait relations in order to safeguard the interests of people on Taiwan.” In short, the KMT will intervene in case the DPP government gets into trouble with Beijing. But it’s not clear if the DPP would allow the opposition KMT to play such role.

What about the possibility that the KMT will reform its pro-China stance as it seeks to return to government?

For the time being, party insiders see little chance of leaders changing their policy vision in order to be accepted by Taiwan voters in the next election. “The party’s leaders are too old and they are mostly from the mainland,” says Yang Wei-chung, a former party spokesman who belongs to the reform-seeking faction. “Unless these old party figures change their mindset,” Yang says, “the party looks without hope.”

That makes the prospect of the KMT rejuvenating any time soon out of question. In Taipei, journalists asking the question of “whither the KMT” elicit only bemused looks from local observers. “I don’t think KMT will break up soon, but conservatives within the party are so powerful that (the) reform-minded younger generation cannot exert any influence,” Yang says. It will wait until the next party congress in 2017 before it decides whether it wants to change or not.

Shim Jae Hoon is a distinguished Korean political analyst and commentator who served as Seoul bureau chief of the Hong Kong-based Far Eastern Economic Review. He also was the Review’s Taipei bureau chief.

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