UofSC graduate transforms Taiwanese political party during tense time with China
The world is watching Taiwan. And because of that, the world is watching Johnny Chiang, a University of South Carolina graduate trying to remake Asia’s oldest political party.
Johnny Chiang is walking a tightrope, according to Time Magazine.
The University of South Carolina graduate became chairman of Taiwan's oldest political party, the Kuomintang, in 2020, not long after the party suffered a crushing electoral defeat. His term has been marked by rising tensions with China, which claims Taiwan as its own territory. Since September, China has flown hundreds of warplanes in Taiwan’s airspace.
In February, Time named Chiang to its 2021 Time100 NEXT list of emerging leaders and described Chiang’s challenge. On the one hand, his party’s friendliness with Beijing is unpopular with younger Taiwanese. Yet China’s military might poses a threat to the island nation.
According to Time, “Regional stability may rely on the ability of Chiang — a U.S.-trained former academic and economist — to navigate this tightrope while quelling populist voices within his own ranks.”
That’s a delicate balancing act.
But it’s one Chiang has trained for in his studies and his government service.
After studying diplomacy and international relations for his undergraduate and master’s degrees, Chiang came to South Carolina for his doctoral degree because of a dynamic international relations program and friendly relationships between the university and Taiwan.
“My training and experience there have proven very essential to my subsequent success in international relations research, as a legislator specialized in public affairs, or even now as a political party leader,” Chiang says.
He finished his Ph.D. in 2002. Then Chiang taught at Soochow University and worked in the Taiwan Institute of Economic Research. He was leading Taiwan’s Government Information Office in 2011 when his party asked him to return to his hometown, Taichung, to run for the legislature.
The opportunity to serve appealed to him.
“That's the place I grew up and was raised in. I wanted to have a chance to provide service or to devote myself to my hometown," Chiang says. “That became the driving motivation for me to participate in the election."
He won election in 2012 and again in 2016. But in that latter year, the Kuomintang lost the presidency to the Democratic Progressive Party. After another sound defeat, the Kuomintang chairman resigned in January 2020.
The Kuomintang vowed on Twitter, “The party will keep moving forward, with the aim of achieving a rebirth.” The promised rebirth became Chiang’s responsibility when he was elected party chairman two months later.
Chiang has worked to remake the party’s image through online communications, stronger connections with overseas democratic allies and outreach to younger people in Taiwan.
“Our party needs a new brand, a younger face, for the party to win back the support and the trust from the people in Taiwan,” says Chiang. At 48, he is the youngest ever leader of the Kuomintang.
The party’s tenets are getting a makeover, too. The Kuomintang has long supported a “one China” philosophy that views Taiwan (officially the Republic of China) and the mainland (People’s Republic of China) as part of the same country. The idea has lost luster in Taiwan, but just a few days before the 2020 election, the Kuomintang was defending that position on Twitter.
The Kuomintang has since become quieter on the issue, and Chiang and the party itself spoke up in favor of Hong Kong during 2020 protests.
Beijing’s “one country, two systems” policy has “no market” in Taiwan, he told Reuters.
His background in government affairs and international relations has given him a strong foundation, Chiang says, but just as important are the soft skills he refined at South Carolina. He says knowing how to think critically and independently, conduct research and solve problems is vital.
“You have to ask yourself a good question,” he says. “Asking good questions sometimes is even more important than solving the questions. You have to know what is the real problem, what is the real question. I think that really helped me a lot, in terms of thinking about progress, thinking about the challenges I face, in different periods of my career."
Speaking of good questions, what is the future of the Kuomintang?
Chiang, who is running for reelection as Kuomintang chairman, answers that by talking about the party’s strong history of leadership in Taiwan, which has included handling numerous crises, transitioning to democracy and making “an economic miracle.”
“With such fruitful experience and knowledge, as long as we are working hard, eventually we will come back,” says Chiang. “We will come back to government to provide a service for our people again.”