Taiwan's Eric Chu to take over ruling Kuomintang, seen as balancing China policy

TAIPEI (Reuters) - Mr Eric Chu will take over as leader of Taiwan's ruling Kuomintang (KMT) on Saturday, inheriting an unpopular party seen as favouring big business and the mainland at a time of growing scepticism about ties with Beijing.

Mr Chu, 53, faces a balancing act - being seen to distance himself from the mainland to win back domestic support but not so much as to alarm Beijing's leaders and damage burgeoning commercial ties.

Mainland China and Taiwan have been at odds since the end of China's civil war when the KMT fled to the island leaving the Communists running the mainland.

But the old enemies have always agreed upon "one China" and Beijing would rather see the KMT ruling the United States-allied island than the pro-independence opposition.

Mr Chu, a former KMT lawmaker, appears to be trusted by China.

But if he cannot improve the KMT's image and convince young and middle-class voters that cross-strait ties do not just benefit the wealthy, the party's candidate for the presidency, who could well be Mr Chu, faces defeat in an election next year when President Ma Ying-jeou steps down.

"China is comfortable with Chu taking charge of the KMT... It has been trying to build mutual trust," said Dr Tung Chen-yuan, a professor at the National Chengchi University and former vice-chairman of Taiwan's China policy-making body.

Mr Chu was the only top politician who two high-level visiting Chinese officials met in 2014, a sign China is betting he will be the island's leader. "Xi Jinping is very happy to meet Chu and he is waiting,"said a KMT source with knowledge of the situation, referring to China's president. Mr Chu was not available for comment.

The mainland was alarmed when Taiwan students occupied the legislature in a "Sunflower Movement" protest against a service trade pact which they said would make the island over-reliant on the mainland.

Weeks later, protests forced China's top official for Taiwan ties to cancel some meetings while visiting the island.

Many in Taiwan voiced support for Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement and the KMT's drubbing in local elections in November underscored the suspicion of the mainland among Taiwan voters.

Beijing will be hoping Mr Chu can turn things around. "China has not been pleased with President Ma because his China policy has led to Taiwan people's discontent toward the mainland," said Mr Tuan Yi-kang of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party.

"Now, Eric Chu needs to consider how to deal with the impressions the KMT is overly leaning toward China."

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