Politics & Law

James Soong's unintentional role in expediting democracy

17 November, 2022

The years 2000 and 2004 proved pivotal in the shaping of Taiwan’s democratic landscape. Among the many players that took the stage, one of the most enigmatic and consequential was James Soong, a man with a storied life, but one that left many unanswered questions. 


By Jerome F Keating

Photo credit: James Soong’s Facebook account


Whenever I hear the name James Soong or see it in print, I always think: “There goes the man that almost was king” (read president).


Soong is a man that I never got to interview and even if I had, I wondered if he would truthfully tell all.


To understand that, one has to go back to Taiwan’s 2000 presidential election. It was the second such election by popular vote and Lee Teng-hui, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) incumbent was stepping down.


Chen Shui-bian, Taipei’s former mayor, was the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) candidate while the KMT had chosen Lien Chan, Lee’s vice president over Soong.


Chen vs Lien provided an interesting match-up, but James Soong had other ideas. He also wanted to run. While the lacklustre Lien may have been next in line in the KMT’s hierarchy, Taiwan was no longer a one-party state and the KMT had no formal rules of succession.


Soong was certainly more charismatic than Lien and had already proven his campaign skills by being Taiwan’s first Provincial Governor elected by popular vote. In addition, he had learned Taiwanese (Hoklo) and earned an over 80% approval rating as governor. In short, he knew how “to press the flesh and spread the wealth” throughout the nation.


Soong was also no newcomer; he knew the ropes. In the past, he had proven his mettle many times. He had been Chiang Ching-kuo’s private secretary and followed that with Director General of the Government Information Office (GIO).


In January 1979, when US president Jimmy Carter switched the US embassy from Taipei to Beijing, and gloom settled over the nation, it had been Soong, who stepped into the breach and gave an impassioned speech that inspired and resonated across the island.


While the lacklustre Lien Chan came from an established KMT family, his main identity was simply that of a “loyal party man.” 


Soong even had precedent. Two previous hard core KMT members had run as independents against Lee in 1996. So what was the tipping point that made Soong refuse the offer to run as Lien’s vice-president and run as an independent?


Was it ambition alone? Soong certainly was ambitious, but he was also a hard worker with an established record. He had to sense that he would be a better president than Lien.


Did he not want to wait 8 years for his chance? If a Lien/Soong ticket won in 2000, Lien would no doubt run again in 2004. These are questions that Soong has never openly answered.


The KMT expelled Soong for breaking rank and the race was on. Polls often showed Lien in the lead, but polls at that time were unreliable. Then three months before the election, the KMT accused Soong of “black gold” and the illegal transfer and pocketing of funds in the Chung Hsing Bills Finance scandal. Those charges would later be dropped, and former president Lee would admit that Soong did have proper authorization but at the time the damage was done, and Soong’s clean reputation was at minimum tarnished.


When the dust settled and the votes were counted, Soong came close but still lost. Chen won with 39.3% of the vote, Soong had 36.8% and Lien came in a dismal third with 23.1%.


Had the scandal tipped the balance? Should the KMT have gone with Soong in the first place? In a private post-election talk with a Chen aide, he told me that they had not expected to win. Chen had run, primarily to bolster the party’s image for future elections.


For the KMT, this also had that deja vu feeling. Back in 1994 when Chen ran for Taipei mayor, he won because two KMT candidates split the pan-blue vote. Now he won and became the first DPP president. It was a game changer.


Other questions arose. Why did the KMT break the pseudo scandal, which gave the DPP the victory? Was party loyalty more important than the election? Or did they feel that with Soong out of the race, Lien would win? Unreliable polls had had Lien in the lead.


Regardless, the die had been cast. Soong had lost by a mere 2.5 percentage points and was kicked out of the KMT. He immediately founded the People’s First Party (PFP) two weeks later on 31 March 2000.


One can only speculate: “If Soong had been elected, he would have easily had another four years. How then would Taiwan have developed under a moderate but savvy pro-China Soong?”


A different reality also resulted. Chen’s victory and four years incumbency now told the people that the DPP could handle the presidency. The multi-party system was in full swing.

There is more. Taiwan elections never take place in a vacuum. Observers must always be conscious of National Chengchi University’s annual poll on Taiwan’s changing identity (reference below).


These changes in identity are what sociologist Benedict Anderson calls a nation’s “imagined community” and they had been developing since 1987 when martial law was lifted. By the time of Taiwan’s first presidential election by popular vote (1996), the Strawberry Generation, those who entered or were in elementary school when martial law was lifted, were now of voting age. They would only know democracy and not a one-party state.


This phenomenon became further evident in 2004 when Soong did run as vice president under Lien. At face value, this would have seemed like a slam dunk affair since the combined Lien/Soong percentages of 2000 were 60% to Chen’s 39.3%. However, Chen now had four years of incumbency and the national sense of identity continued changing.


In 2004, the Lien/Soong ticket would lose to the Chen/Lu ticket by a whisker (50.11% to 49.89% or a mere 29,578 votes). It was also an election marred by an assassination attempt on Chen and his vice president. This left new unanswered questions. Was it faked for sympathy? Protests and cries for recount followed and US forensic expert Henry Lee would be called in to prove its authenticity. US president George Bush held off a week before sending his congratulations.


Looking back, though it could not have been realized at the time, the 2000 election had been Soong’s high water mark. He came close but never got the brass ring. Was he satisfied?


The years that would follow were declining years for Soong. He visited China in 2005, to show he could talk to its leaders, but even that tarnished his image. When he ran for mayor of Taipei in 2006, he had a dismal showing of 4.1%.


His main strength now has been to continue to run for president since as long as he garners a minimum of 5% of the presidential vote, he can place PFP legislators in the Legislative Yuan and remain in the game.


Should one feel sympathy for Soong? He has another unexplored side. As GIO head he wrote an article in the February 1980 issue of the GIO’s Free China Review. At the time, the participants of the 1979 Kaohsiung Incident were going on trial for alleged sedition; among them were future DPP vice-president Annette Lu, and current DPP President of the Control Yuan, Chen Chu. They would both be imprisoned with many others.


The title of Soong’s article defending the government was “To heal, not to hate.” It presented the government’s spin about these “misguided democratic souls.” This article had barely come out when the children and mother of Kaohsiung Incident participant Lin Yi-hsiung were murdered in their home while under government surveillance. This was followed by the 1982 high profile murder of Carnegie Mellon professor Chen Wen-chen and the 1984 California slaying of Chiang Ching-kuo critic Henry Liu. This was not healing.


With his many inner connections and top GIO position, Soong had to be knowledgeable of all that was going on. He had to be conscious of the evident hatred for those who were democratically disrupting the KMT’s sense of privilege and entitlement.


The National Chengchi University poll continues. Between 1992 and the present, those who identify as ‘Taiwanese alone’ has risen from 17.6% to 65% while those who identify as ‘Chinese alone’ has dropped from 25.5% to a mere 5%. Those who identify as ‘both Chinese and Taiwanese’ has also dropped from 46.4% to a mere 5%.


As the folk singer Bob Dylan states: “You don’t have to be a weatherman to know which way the wind is blowing.”


Source: National Chengchi University


Jerome F Keating is a consultant, educator, and writer who lives in Taiwan

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