The Lien Family: Calculating, Loyal or?

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Saturday September 12, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

Call him traitor, call him turncoat, call him unwise, but one certainly has to wonder on what goes through the mind of Lien Chan, who recently returned from yet another trip to Beijing. In the past, Lien's many visits to China had been sanctioned if not encouraged by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) of which he is Honorary Chairman. This trip, however, proved much more controversial. It's not so much that he met with Xi Jinping, President of the People's Republic of China (PRC), but what he said at that meeting and that he attended the PRC's victory parade. By that parade, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) proclaimed its leadership role in the Chinese War of Resistance against Japan, and by word and deed, Lien was openly supporting the CCP's narrative of China's history.

Lien may face disciplinary measures from the KMT; he had been advised not to go by many of its notable leaders in Taiwan including President Ma Ying-jeou, yet he went. So where lay the answer as to why he went?

Part of the answer may actually be found in the Lien family history, a history that, shall we say, celebrates a peculiar brand of pragmatic opportunism. Lien Heng, Lien Chan's grandfather was born in Tainan in 1878. The family had been there a long time and maintained distaste for the Manchu Qing. Yet, one of Heng's claims to fame is that after Taiwan became part of Japan (1895) he wrote and published the General History of Taiwan (1921) with an opening endorsement from the colonial leadership of Japan. Lien Heng also helped edit a pro-Japanese newspaper and supported the Japanese opium trade into Taiwan. He managed to fit in.

Lien Heng's history book is known for its classic statement that despite the many unique features of Taiwan, its sorrow is that it has no history. Heng's expression of Taiwan's sorrow stands in complete contrast to what Taiwan's former president Lee Teng-hui would describe as Taiwan's sorrow when talking with Japanese historical novelist, Ryotaro Shiba in the 1990s. For Lee, Taiwan's sorrow is that it has had so many past colonial rulers and this kept it from developing any sense of deserved nationhood.

Lien Heng's family would eventually move to Shanghai, not because it fell out of favor with the Japanese, but because Heng's sense of Taiwanese identity did not mesh with that of the growing Taiwan Cultural Association. In China, he would direct Lien Chen-tung, (his son and Lien Chan's father) to Chang Chi of the KMT and with that allegiance the family would begin to prosper.

When the Communists drove the KMT out of China after World War II, the KMT had to take refuge in Taiwan and knew little about it. Lien Heng's history was resurrected and republished (the Japanese endorsement removed of course) and a pro-China KMT perspective was given to it. Land deals increased the family wealth and Lien Chan eventually went off to get his doctorate in Political Science at the University of Chicago. The family did well in this new one-party state on Taiwan. Lien Chan would hold several positions rising from ambassador to eventual Vice President.

Lien Chan's name had been given to him by his grandfather; it means "successive battles." This would prove strange in Taiwan, for once Taiwan became a full democracy in 1996, and Lien Chan would be known for never winning a democratic election there.

After Lien Chan lost his second bid for the presidency he went in 2005 to visit China and talk with then PRC president and General Secretary of the CCP, Hu Jintao. Since that time Lien has made regular visits to China as the Honorary Chairman of the KMT. All this raises again the issue of what was the purpose of his most recent visit?

Lien Chan won the PRC's first Confucius Peace Prize (China's substitute for the Nobel Prize) in 2010 yet at that time he cautiously claimed to know nothing about it - a strange claim for one that has been on regular visits to China meeting with its leaders. China is an autocratic one party state little happens there on an international scale without approval or at least knowledge of the authorities.

Later, back in Taiwan, Sean Lien, Lien Chan's son, maintained the "family tradition" when he lost in his only attempt at running for office (the mayor of Taipei). Other questions were an issue from Sean Lien's past. One was the unresolved assassination attempt at a KMT political rally where it was disputed as to who was the target of the assassination, Sean or the candidate. This remains one of those unsolved cases. The police have the gun, the shooter, witnesses and a dead innocent bystander, but they never seemed to want to dig more deeply into it for resolution.

Finally, Sean Lien's recent political defeat in the traditionally pan-blue stronghold of Taipei brings Taiwan back to Lien Chan's recent decision to attend the CPC Victory Parade in Beijing. As was said, many, even those in the KMT opposed it. Certainly, some might speculate that such KMT opposition was moved more by concerns over how this could affect the party's opportunities in the upcoming January 2016 presidential elections. The current mood of the nation remains extremely wary of any party that proposes too close ties with China. But is there more?

One possibility is that the Lien family business opportunities may function better in a one-party state such as China. Would the Lien family be laying the ground for a move back to Shanghai or Beijing if the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) would win not only the presidency but also control of the Legislative Yuan in the coming 2016 elections?

The Lien family has worked well with the Japanese, and then the KMT. Is there any reason that it could not also work well with the CCP? How important is a man's loyalty and where does it lie? The seeming ability to change loyalties is certainly a question that Taiwanese are becoming more conscious of for future elections, so will the KMT discipline Lien Chan?