Beijing’s Man in Taiwan Crashes and Burns

Han Kuo-yu fails miserably to expand power with China’s support

By: Jens Kastner

The astonishing political career of Han Kuo-yu, who came from nowhere to run for Taiwan’s presidency just four months ago, seems set to end on June 6 in disgrace in a recall vote that seeks to oust him from the mayoralty of Kaohsiung, Taiwan’s second-largest city.

Belonging to the Kuomintang, the island’s relatively-China-friendly main opposition party, Han has been a backbench lawmaker, an unemployed husband and the general manager of an agricultural marketing company. Then an out-of-the-blue, overwhelming media campaign apparently orchestrated by Chinese agencies and paid for by Taiwan’s China-friendly tycoons catapulted him into the mayoral job in 2018 and into the presidential race in January this year, in which he was drubbed, 57.13 percent to 38.61 percent by incumbent president Tsai Ing-wen.

Han’s fortunes turned around for myriads of reasons, including the Hong Kong protests, which turned the electorate against the KMT. Some of his ideas, such as scaling down military purchases and bypassing longstanding laws barring investment by China in the real estate sector, strayed far from mainstream public opinion. Piecemeal revelations about his shady private life played a role, too.

Han was caught lying about a gambling habit and of buying and selling an expensive house in Taipei while he was trying to portray himself as a poor or middle-class individual. Even his KMT comrades accused him of heavy drinking and womanizing. Nevertheless, the recall vote is not based on the compromising results of due diligence investigations but the accusation that Han is neglecting his mayoral duties, including by taking a three-month leave from his job during his presidential campaign.

“Han told Beijing what it wanted to hear but not what Taiwanese wanted to hear, and Beijing’s hope in Han is just another sign it doesn’t ‘get’ Taiwan despite claiming Taiwanese as its own,” said Sean King, a Taiwan expert affiliated with the University of Notre Dame Liu Institute for Asia & Asian Affairs.

“90 percent of Taiwanese oppose unification under any scenario and no amount of trade and investment is going to change that,” he added.

Han won the mayoral elections in 2018 after two local media stations controlled by pro-China business bigwigs – namely TVBS of HTC Corp chairwoman Cher Wang and CtiTV of rice cracker king Tsai Eng-meng – for months bombarded the public with a ceaseless stream of flattering news about Han.

TVBS and CtiTV allegedly paid local eateries and hotels and other such popular sites NT$500 (US$16.70) a month to have their broadcasts running 24/7, with algorithms doing a similar job in terms of social media coverage.

Similar to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, Han campaigned as an anti-intellectual, anti-elite man of the people, deploying a tough-talking style with grandiose economic promises, such as bringing a Disney theme park and Formula 1 racing to Kaohsiung. He promoted the Macauization of Kaohsiung as Duterte sought to facilitate the Macauization of the Philippines, allowing Chinese gaming interests to swarm into Manila.

Han will hardly be able to expand his political power with China’s support, unlike Duterte, who won the presidency and subsequently in exchange for Chinese grants and loans allowed Beijing to gain control over Philippine-claimed parts of the South China Sea while terminating a key defense agreement with the U.S.

Indeed, auguring that the noose is going to tighten for Han, Taipei prosecutors on May 8 indicted seven suspects on suspicion of using money from China’s Taiwan Affairs Office to buy votes for him in the presidential campaign in January in breach of the Presidential and Vice Presidential Election and Recall Act that could entail long prison sentences.

Bringing Han’s bleak outlook for June 6 into context, Han won only 62,000 Kaohsiung votes in the presidential elections in January, and a simple majority will suffice to oust him from the mayoral job. As a last desperate resort, Han’s city government has been trying to limit space in schools and temples to be used for the recall vote, citing Covid-19 prevention measures.

“He looked so good after the 2018 election, but a lot changed in 14 months,” said John F Copper, a Taiwan expert and professor of international studies (emeritus) at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee.