A cross-strait tightrope walk

Last Saturday night, the Kuomintang's (KMT) newly minted presidential candidate Eric Chu posted a heartfelt note on Facebook.

"Just brewed a cup of coffee. I'm facing the computer, the streets are empty of cars and people, the night is deep and silent," he wrote.

The KMT chairman then went on to explain why the party had earlier in the day taken the unprecedented step of ousting its initial nominee Hung Hsiu-chu and why he had broken his own promise not to run for Taiwan president.

One tiny detail: The note was posted at 8.26pm.

Derision came fast and furious. Asked one netizen: "It's not even 9pm, and the streets are empty of people and cars. Eric Chu, where do you live?" Another wrote: "I've brewed my coffee. Waiting to watch KMT exit Taiwan."

The reactions illustrate the challenge Mr Chu faces in the lead-up to the Jan 16 election. Aside from credibility issues, he will be walking a tightrope on cross-strait matters. Ms Hung's forced exit underscores the current suspicion in Taiwan towards closer ties with China. Her call for both sides to sign a peace treaty and reach a consensus on "one China" took even party members aback.

Replacing Ms Hung with a man largely viewed as a moderate is thus a bid by the KMT to align itself closer with mainstream opinion. Yet he trails far behind the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party's candidate, Ms Tsai Ing-wen, in opinion polls.

The signal being sent to Beijing is also clear. After seven years of warming ties under KMT's President Ma Ying-jeou, the Taiwanese are demonstrating a distinct leeriness towards further intimacy.

Last year, China's President Xi Jinping broached the idea of the two sides unifying under the "one country, two systems" model, and said Beijing would never back away from its goal of achieving cross-strait reunification.

For now, that looks farther away than ever.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 21, 2015, with the headline A cross-strait tightrope walk. Subscribe