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The Billionaire and the Mayor Disrupting Taiwan’s Elections
Star politician Han Kuo-yu or Foxconn leader Terry Gou could lead the country — if they can convince people they don't work for China.
Forget Pete Buttigieg. The mayor with a real shot at a presidency isn’t in Indiana but Taiwan. Han Kuo-yu, the newly minted Kuomintang (KMT) mayor of Kaohsiung, Taiwan, attracted fervent crowds on his tour of the United States this month. He was topping the polls for the 2020 presidency at home, where political watchers saw a U.S. grand tour to be a precursor to a presidential campaign.
But just as Han’s momentum seemed unstoppable, Terry Gou, Taiwan’s richest man with an estimated net worth of $7.6 billion, announced that he would join the KMT’s presidential primary. Since Han has indicated that he won’t join the primary, the KMT will have to decide between a coronation for Gou or resorting to a special procedure for enlisting Han.
Gou is taking a page out of the playbook of Donald Trump, with whom he maintains a personal relationship, and was reportedly inspired by Han’s surprising electoral victory in Kaohsiung in November 2018. If either Gou or Han leads the KMT to a victory at the presidential election, it could have big implications for Taiwan’s relationship with China—and with the United States. But will the intricate Gou-Han dynamic give the incumbent Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) a window to curtail a resurgent KMT?
Han is good at selling pineapples—one of his city’s main exports—while Gou wants to sell semiconductor chips. Han is an expert in mobilizing support on the ground, while Gou commands from the top down. Han’s welcome parties in Boston, Los Angeles, and San Jose, jammed with his fans and reporters from Taiwan and the United States, ran like political rallies with hundreds of supporters chanting, “Han Kuo-yu! Han Kuo-yu! Run for president and save Taiwan!” Han asked the audience to return home to cast their votes because the 2020 presidential election is “a matter of life and death” for Taiwan.
Then entered Gou, who claimed to have been enlisted by the sea goddess Matsu, a popular deity in Taiwan and southern China, to pursue a presidential bid. Gou is said to be the only Taiwanese citizen who has both Trump and Xi Jinping on speed dial. Like Han, Gou was born to parents who came from mainland China. Han and Gou went to the same primary school in Banqiao, a suburban town near Taipei. Forty-five years ago, Gou founded Foxconn, which became the world’s largest contract manufacturer of electronics, with factories in many countries, including mainland China, where it employs 1.3 million people.
The two have much in common—in March, Gou visited Kaohsiung to pose for pics with Han, promising to bring 3,000 jobs to the city. Like Han, Gou promotes closer ties with Beijing. But Gou’s personal fortune is so much tied to his businesses in China that it inevitably invites questions as to whether his investments will make him susceptible to political influence or blackmail.
Taiwan has long suffered from a country cousin syndrome—eclipsed by China’s outsized economy and growing power despite experiencing rapid industrialization and high growth rates as one of the Four Asian Tigers from the 1960s to 1990s. The unification/independence debate and intermittently flaring tensions with China have paralyzed the island’s economic growth and relationships with the outside world. Gou has openly expressed his fear of a possible war across the Taiwan Strait. His international standing and business acumen could open the doors for Taiwan’s beleaguered industries.
Han is also much friendlier to Beijing than the current DPP government. He has not been afraid of alienating pro-DPP voters in Kaohsiung, a deep green (the DPP’s color) city, by openly recognizing the 1992 Consensus, which he referred to in a speech at Harvard University as a practical and realistic basis to interact with China. Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen has refused to endorse the 1992 Consensus or the idea of “one country, two systems.” Han’s position on China reflects his belief that provocation of China has not helped the cause of Taiwan.
Yet at the same time, he emphasized his view of the 1992 Consensus as “one China, respective interpretations,” rather than “one country, two systems” as currently applied to Macau and Hong Kong. This is a direct departure from Xi’s proposal at the beginning of this year.
The delicate politics inside the KMT saw two other senior politicians, former New Taipei City Mayor Eric Chu and former legislative speaker Wang Jin-pyng, announcing their candidacies. With Gou joining the fray, any botched nomination process could disrupt the party’s unity and could cost it the chance of winning back the presidency and legislature.
Han cannot join the KMT’s primary because he could face potential criticism for using Kaohsiung merely as a steppingstone for his greater political ambition. Based on a survey conducted by the Taiwanese broadcaster TVBS in March, 52 percent of Kaohsiung citizens do not support Han’s presidential candidacy because they want the mayor to focus on his campaign promises to the city. Unless he can prove that has already led the city forward, jumping to the presidency will be a hard sell. This gives Gou a first-mover advantage.
The question is whether Gou can dominate the polls the way Han has achieved. If the KMT prematurely dismisses the possibility of enlisting Han, it could find itself in an awkward spot of trying to resurrect Han’s candidacy if Gou fails to rally the crowd and command a significant margin against his DPP opponents.
According to a survey released by Shih Hsin University on April 18, Gou leads with 35.6 percent support in a three-way race with Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je (25.2 percent), an independent, and Tsai (27.1 percent). If the DPP replaces Tsai with William Lai, who formerly headed the Executive Yun, Gou still tops the polls at 32.1 percent. But a Gou-Han comparison leaves the two neck and neck with 29.8 percent for Han, 29 percent for Gou, and a huge (41.2 percent) number of people undecided.
Among all presidential hopefuls, Han was originally the first to achieve 40 percent support. An Apple Daily poll released on April 15 found Han with 40 percent in a three-way race with Ko (26.5 percent) and Tsai (26 percent). If the DPP selects Lai as its nominee, Han still leads with 39 percent, over Lai’s 26.5 percent and Ko’s 28 percent.
Another TVBS survey released in March showed that young voters aged 20-29 and 30-39 supported Ko more than all other potential candidates. So regardless of the lineup, a KMT candidate will need to win over more support from the millennials, who bear the brunt of Taiwan’s stagnant economy, and watch for a potential Tsai-Ko pairing.
Both Gou and Han are advocates for stronger China-Taiwan relations, but their detractors are already warning against the risk of political infiltration as a result of closer economic ties, pointing to issues such as Beijing’s interference in recent elections. (From my own firsthand observations in Kaohsiung, my hometown, the groundswell of real support for Han was undeniable.) Han’s meetings with officers of Hong Kong and China during a recent trip, while racking up a slew of orders for Kaohsiung’s fresh produce, generated a political firestorm with accusations from Tsai’s government that he had “sold Taiwan out to China.” Gou will face an even heavier barrage of such challenges.
Gou also faces another challenge: whether his communication style will be reminiscent of the old KMT establishment. The DPP will likely also try to dig into Gou’s extensive business dealings and expose any potential flaws.
That’s a real challenge for whoever emerges as the front-runner. In the coming weeks or months, whoever ends up being KMT designee will need to clearly articulate his views about cross-strait relations and come up with concrete proposals to rejuvenate Taiwan’s economy. He also needs to address the thorny subject of safeguarding Taiwan’s security interest by “ring-fencing” the many forms of influence China tries to exert. Any rift within the KMT will give the DPP an opening to hold onto its power.
Taiwan cannot gain by closing its doors to China or the world. Any KMT nominee will need to tread a fine line between seeking broader exchanges with China and maintaining Taiwan’s democratic identity while finding a potential way out of the nonproductive binary oppositions: unification versus independence, engagement versus disengagement, etc. If either Gou or Han can deliver on that without compromising Taiwanese values, advocates for Taiwan in the United States can feel comfortable with the idea of their victory.