Taiwan's ruling Nationalist Party, which lost public support last year largely due to its pursuit of closer ties with mainland China, on Saturday picked the mayor of New Taipei City as its new leader in a bid to revive its popularity ahead of presidential elections next year.
The Nationalists chose Eric Chu as chairman to replace President Ma Ying-jeou. Ma resigned from the party leadership -- but not the presidency -- in December to atone for the Nationalists' landslide losses in local elections Nov. 29, when seven of the nine seats it contested went to an opposition party that's more cautious toward China. Chu could well become the party's candidate for president if he can steer the party back to popularity this year, because term limits will force Ma to step aside in 2016.
Taiwan and China have been separately governed since the Chinese civil war of the 1940s, but Communist leaders in Beijing still claim sovereignty over the democratic, self-ruled island, insisting that the two sides must eventually merge. Opinion polls in Taiwan, however, have found most Taiwanese prefer autonomy.
"Eric Chu is not opposed to relations with China but won't emphasize them," said Hsu Yung-ming, political scientist at Soochow University in Taipei. "His focus will be local issues."
Chu, who sought the chairman's job unopposed, has stressed domestic issues, like closing a growing wealth gap. The opposition Democratic Progressive Party has gained new momentum since the Nov. 29 election.
In preparing his bid for party chairman last month, Chu said that benefits from Taiwan's trade and investment deals with China -- inked since Ma took office in 2008 -- should be more evenly distributed to people on the island of 23 million. Some Taiwanese believe the deals have benefitted big business over ordinary people and that China would later leverage them to seek political concessions.
Chu declined to say last month whether he would consider meeting Chinese President Xi Jinping, whose Communist government is eager to expand Ma's 21 economic deals into political dialogue. Lower-level talks with China should continue, he said.
Xi sent Chu a congratulatory message Saturday, suggesting in his capacity as Communist Party general secretary that the two parties oppose Taiwan's formal independence from China, step up dialogue and advance mutual trust. Chu replied that he hoped for an expansion of dialogue and "creation of mutually beneficial double wins."
"The issue is not whether to continue that relationship but how to shape it so that it does not create economic or political vulnerabilities," said Alan Romberg, East Asia Program director with the Stimson Center, a Washington think tank. "Chu will seek to … demonstrate that he can better manage that crucial but complicated relationship."
Chu, 53, is at the young end of senior Taiwanese politicians, and his relative youth is regarded as an asset by the Nationalist Party leadership as it seeks inroads with younger -- and more restless -- voters. University students led mass anti-China protests last year and used social media to organize votes against Nationalist candidates in November.
Recent college graduates also complain of slow-growing entry-level wages and high property prices in parts of Taiwan. Last month, Chu suggested raising taxes on Taiwan's rich and lowering them for the working class.
The former vice premier was first elected in 2010 as mayor of New Taipei City, which has 3.9 million residents and surrounds Taipei, the capital. He was reelected in November, becoming the only Nationalist candidate to win a mayoral victory that day.