Chinese President Xi Jinping spent a week in Europe last month. His diplomatic missions included signing Italy up as a member of his Belt and Road Initiative, and trying to convince the Europeans in general that China isn’t a commercial threat.
Taiwan’s leader Tsai Ing-wen was on her diplomatic travels at the same time. As she explained to the Taiwanese media, her visits to Pacific nations Palau, Naura and the Marshall Islands were scheduled to coincide with Xi’s European trip. The objective, she said, was simple: telling Beijing that “Taiwan wouldn’t yield to China’s suppression”.
In that same week Han Kuo-yu, mayor of the island’s southern city Kaohsiung, was making stops across the Taiwan Strait at cities including Hong Kong, Macau, Shenzhen and Xiamen.
It was Han, the junior politician of the two from Taiwan, who attracted most of the headlines at home. The muted interest in Tsai’s Pacific tour, which included a stopover in Hawaii on her way back to Taipei, was a telling illustration of the falling popularity of Tsai and her ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). But the island’s media outlets have responded more enthusiastically to the ‘Han wave’ (see WiC436) three months after the charismatic politician ended the DPP’s 20-year reign in Kaohsiung.
In fact, CTi TV News was fined NTD$1 million ($32,000) last month for giving what was deemed to be unbalanced exposure to Han. The island’s media watchdog took this action for the first time in the 13 years since it was founded. It was obliged to hand out the punishment after the island’s most popular cable TV broadcaster focused more than 50% of its news items on Han at one point in February.
Han himself could face a serious penalty too. The island’s Mainland Affairs Council said this week that it will investigate whether Han’s recent city tour across the Strait violated Taiwan’s treason law, which threatens persons colluding with a foreign state with life imprisonment and even the death sentence.
So what did Han do during his whirlwind tour?
He met a number of senior mainland officials with a view to “making new friends”, as he termed it. During his election campaign Han had pledged to lure more businesses and tourists to Kaohsiung from across the Strait, as well as helping the agricultural interests in his constituency win more export business. His trip was quite successful in this regard: Han said that he secured contracts worth more than NT$1 billion to sell Kaohsiung’s agricultural and fishery products to Chinese cities.
This economic charm offensive angered figures in the more anti-Beijing DPP. President Tsai warned Han to “only sell vegetables but don’t sell out Taiwan”. Other DPP politicians and pro-independence media outlets were more outspoken, branding him as “a traitor”.
The backlash has burnished Han’s profile among his supporters and the 61 year-old is now being mentioned as a dark horse candidate for the KMT in next year’s presidential election.
Han has been coy on a run next year (2024 might be more likely), insisting that he is committed to his election pledges as mayor of Kaohsiung. But he isn’t the only name being mentioned as a KMT candidate to challenge the DPP next year. Another audacious choice, Taiwan newspapers have gossiped, would be Foxconn boss Terry Gou. He recently opened a Facebook account (he already has nearly 160,000 followers), which some are seeing as a signal that the founder of the world’s biggest contract electronics manufacturer may be considering a bid for the presidency. Although his replies to media questions on the topic have been enigmatic, they have stopped short of direct denials. “Election cannot be the only concern. It is not easy to strive for success in this world,” was his cryptic response this week.
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