As Taiwan's ruling KMT party wanes, a familiar name steps out

The great-grandson of the late dictator Chiang Kai-shek came home to Taiwan two years ago to be close to family. Now he's running for office at a time when the KMT needs fresh faces.

Julian Baum
Chiang Wan-an, a candidate in Taiwan's Jan. 16 legislative elections, campaigns on the streets of Taipei. Chiang is the great-grandson of Chiang Kai-shek, the late dictator and military leader, and is the youthful face of the ruling KMT party.
Wally Santana/AP
Supporters cheer as Taiwan's ruling KMT or Nationalist Party presidential candidate Eric Chu passes through the streets of Linkou in New Taipei City, Taiwan, Wednesday, Jan. 13. Taiwan will hold its presidential election on Jan. 16. 'There is no one I can think of between our chairman Eric Chu and Chiang Wan-an who really stands out,' says a KMT official.

The Chinese Nationalist Party or KMT, forged out of the Chinese revolution more than a century ago, is among the world’s oldest ruling parties.

Now as Taiwanese go to the polls on Jan. 16, the party faces what could be its biggest defeat since losing the civil war on the Chinese mainland and settling on this island seven decades ago. The opposition seems poised to capture the presidency after losing the last two contests.

So is there a new generation of leaders that can revive the KMT's prospects and restore its ideals? So far, few young politicians appear willing or prepared to pick up the baton.

One exception may be Chiang Wan-an. A US-trained lawyer in his mid-30s who returned to Taiwan from California in 2013, Mr. Chiang's warmth and poise on the campaign trail may win him a legislative seat.

Name recognition helps: Mr. Chiang is the great-grandson of Chiang Kai-shek, the legendary military and political leader of republican China who ruled Taiwan with an iron fist from 1949-1975.

Low key, quiet, idealistic

Chiang is reticent to talk about his family. He prefers a low profile and avoids policy controversies and negative campaigning. Instead, he talks about his qualifications to serve and the needs of his urban district in Taipei. 

“People don't want to hear about ideology and problems with China,” he says. “I talk about about things that matter to their lives and how I can bring freshness and professionalism to our legislature.”

Unlike the People's Republic of China, Taiwan lacks a generation of princelings who inherit political power from their well-connected fathers. The offspring of political leaders here must earn their positions in government like everyone else – via competitive elections.

They often struggle to do so. Sean Lien, son of former vice-president and KMT chairman Lien Chan, was soundly defeated last year in Taipei's mayoral election. Former Taipei mayor Hau Lung-pin, son of former military commander and premier Hau Pei-tsun, is struggling to revive his political career by standing for a legislative seat in the port city of Keelung.

Whether Chiang will become a fresh force for his party remains to be seen. Much about the KMT's future is unsettled. But KMT loyalists have seized on his natural instinct for retail politics and his integrity on the campaign trail. Nor has the opposition's accusation that he bought votes when he presented prizes at a community gathering four months ago gotten much traction; independent observers say the claim seems unfounded. 

 “There is no one I can think of between our chairman Eric Chu and Chiang Wan-an who really stands out,” says a KMT official. “It's a huge problem for us. We see a promising star in Wan-an.”

Experience in Silicon Valley

Chiang studied law and diplomacy here before attending law school at the University of Pennsylvania. Upon graduation, he joined a law firm in Silicon Valley where he soon became a partner.  After a decade in the US, he brought his family back to Taiwan. “Life was good in California,” says his wife, Shi Fang-hsuan, “but we wanted to be closer to our parents and educate our son in a Chinese-speaking environment.”

Chiang opened a law office Taipei to expand his firm's practice. He says that politics was not on his mind then. But the Sunflower Movement in early 2014, when protesters occupied the legislature for three weeks to block a trade deal with China, captured his attention and emotions. The protests inspired many young people to get involved in politics for the first time, but most saw the ruling KMT as the villain.

Chiang saw that his party, which he joined at a young age, was losing the younger generation. His decision to stand for the legislature came with a twist. His father, John Chiang, a former foreign minister, had represented the same district until four years earlier when he was defeated in a primary by Lo Shu-lei. The younger Chiang easily defeated Ms. Lo for the nomination.

Since then, he has worked the city's streets, open-air markets, and banquet halls. His wife, a former eBay executive, often campaigns with him. She amplifies his outreach among voters for whom family background and education count less than personal warmth and a sincere smile.

“He's better on the ground than in the air,” says Eric Yu, Chiang's campaign adviser, who has kept his candidate off the rowdy television talk shows and focused on meeting voters.

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