The Taiwanese Populist Advancing China’s Interests

Han Kuo-yu gained prominence during a successful long-shot mayoral bid. Now he might run for president, and put Taiwan’s democracy at risk.

Han Kuo-yu attends a campaign rally ahead of the Kaohsiung mayoral election in November.
Han Kuo-yu attends a campaign rally ahead of the Kaohsiung mayoral election in November. (Tyrone Siu / Reuters)

TAIPEI—The scene is, on the surface, a familiar one. A populist candidate with unexpected momentum captures nonstop media attention and sees a surge of support online, much of it connected to accounts originating from a rival country. Could he become president?

The candidate is not, however, Donald Trump, and the country where the election is taking place is not the United States, or anywhere nearby. Yet the outcome is of crucial importance to Washington and its foreign policy.

Welcome to Taiwan, where Han Kuo-yu, a once–washed-up former legislator, shocked this island of 23 million last year by beating out the early favorite to become the mayor of Kaohsiung—an office that, in American terms, has the same political currency as that of the governor of Texas or Florida. And with a presidential election coming up in January, a growing chorus of voices on the China-friendly side of Taiwan’s political spectrum is calling for this Trumpian figure to enter the fray. Han has not officially said that he will run, but he has already enchanted much of the Taiwanese electorate, and has a good chance of becoming Taiwan’s next president.

Han has been criticized for making outlandish promises and controversial comments about women and minorities, yet his approach to China and Beijing’s reported efforts to tilt public opinion in his favor have raised the biggest worries. Taiwan holds a precarious position in the world: It is fully autonomous, with its own elected government and military, yet fewer than two dozen countries recognize it diplomatically, granting recognition instead to the Communist government in Beijing. Han being elected Taiwan’s president, many here fear, could destabilize the island’s uneasy relationship with China, erode Taiwan’s hard-earned democracy, and draw into question the loyalty of a strategically located American ally. (The United States has maintained a calculated ambiguity regarding whether it would defend Taiwan.)

Han’s meteoric rise over the past several months will seem familiar to those who observed Trump’s transition from long-shot candidate to disrupter of his party’s political establishment. Han is currently touring the United States, stopping in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Boston—highlights of his itinerary include speeches at Harvard and Stanford, a meeting with a Los Angeles deputy mayor, and talks scheduled with Representatives Ted Lieu and Judy Chu. Han has played coy about a presidential run, but candidates in Taiwan typically visit the U.S. to meet with politicians and officials in what amounts to an unofficial job interview.

On the surface, the parallels with Trump are striking, and here in Taiwan, Han’s off-the-cuff remarks have similarly earned him criticism. Speaking to a women’s association last year about attracting foreign investment, Han said, “If you create 1,000 job opportunities, I’ll give you a kiss. If you create 10,000, I’ll sleep with you for one night.” He recently had to apologize after referring to Filipinos by a derogatory name; hundreds of thousands of Southeast Asian laborers live here, and often suffer discrimination. While campaigning to be mayor of Kaohsiung, he promised to bring Disneyland, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and casino gambling to the city, and to transform it into Taiwan’s richest metropolis—all of which are, at best, unlikely. Some supporters who attended his December inauguration even wore hats emblazoned with Make Kaohsiung Great Again.

For many Taiwanese, though, the most unsettling thing about Han is his views toward China. Despite having never ruled Taiwan, China’s Communist government regards the subtropical island, which lies 100 miles off its southeast coast, as part of its territory and seeks to annex it, potentially by force. Recently, China has been striking a threatening military posture toward Taiwan. In a January speech, Chinese leader Xi Jinping renewed calls for Taiwan’s unification with China under a “one country, two systems” framework akin to that granted to Hong Kong, which he said would preserve Taiwan’s democratic way of life. But under Xi, China’s most powerful ruler since Mao Zedong, political freedom in Hong Kong has eroded quickly and, looking at developments there, many Taiwanese, the overwhelming majority of whom oppose unification, are skeptical.

In Han, Beijing appears to have found its preferred candidate for Taiwan’s presidency. He has pushed for greater economic ties between Kaohsiung and China three years into Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s attempt to diversify the island’s economy away from an overreliance on its threatening northern neighbor. Vowing to bring more trade with, and tourists from, China, Han appealed to voters in Kaohsiung, which in the 1980s was the world’s third-busiest port, “If goods flow out and people flow in, Kaohsiung will become wealthy.”

That was also ostensibly the message of Han’s visit to China in February, during which he promoted the sale of produce and seafood from Kaohsiung. While there he also met with local leaders in several southern Chinese cities, and held closed-door meetings with important members of China’s central government. Among the officials he met with were the directors of the Chinese government’s liaison offices in Hong Kong and Macau, former British and Portuguese colonies, respectively, that were handed over to Chinese administration in the late 1990s, and the director of the Taiwan Affairs Office, a cabinet-level agency in Beijing responsible for setting policy and guidelines regarding Taiwan.

“Han Kuo-yu's meetings with Chinese officials signal his willingness to align himself closely” with China, Bonnie Glaser, the director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., told me. “This raises questions about the extent to which Han, if elected president, would embrace [Beijing’s] positions.”

Han’s visit was covered in granular detail by Taiwan’s media, which are dominated by outlets that lean toward his party, the Kuomintang, whose interests are dovetailing with those of China’s Communist government. Stories breathlessly reported the millions of dollars in agreements signed by Chinese companies that pledged to purchase produce from Kaohsiung. By contrast, very little airtime was given to a concurrent visit by Taiwan’s actual president to the South Pacific, where she was trying to shore up diplomatic support for Taiwan. In another sign of China’s support for Han, a large number of comments from online supporters who helped propel him to victory in the Kaohsiung mayoral election were reported to have originated in China.

Han’s electoral fortunes have significant implications for Taiwan’s future, and for that of the region more generally. The Kuomintang ruled China until it was overthrown by Mao’s Communist forces in 1949, forcing the Kuomintang to re-base its Republic of China government in Taiwan. Across the Taiwan Strait, Mao established the People’s Republic of China. The official position of Han’s party is that Taiwan and China belong to the same country, but that the rulers on each side of the strait can retain their own interpretation of what that country is. That view has historically hewed closer to Beijing’s than to that of Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party, which has traditionally favored formalizing Taiwan’s de facto independence.

In Xi’s January speech, however, he made clear that Beijing’s version of the “one China” vision is different from that of the Kuomintang, and pointedly noted that a military invasion of Taiwan is an option on the table. Those comments swept away Beijing’s pragmatic silence on the issue, making clear that Xi and his government only allow one interpretation—their own. If Han runs for president, he would all but certainly take his China-friendly message across the island, and having an agreeable leader in Taipei would stand to benefit Beijing.

Han’s rise is far from assured. Taiwan’s presidential election is not until January, and should he secure the Kuomintang nomination, he would still have to face Tsai (or perhaps her popular former premier, who is challenging her in their party’s primary) and potentially the mayor of Taipei, an independent. Even with much of the media on his side, many Taiwanese still vocally oppose Han’s overtures to China. This month, an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 protesters took to the streets of Kaohsiung to protest his China trip. Many carried brooms and chanted “Sweep away the national traitor Han Kuo-yu!,” as well as “Reject ‘one country, two systems.’ Resist Chinese annexation!” and “Hong Kong today, Taiwan tomorrow!”

One of the speakers at the protest was Lin Fei-fan, a leader of the 2014 Sunflower Student Movement that derailed a trade agreement with China that was being pushed by Ma Ying-jeou, Taiwan’s president at the time and a member of the Kuomintang. Many Taiwanese viewed, and indeed continue to see, deepening economic ties as a Trojan horse for Chinese influence to further penetrate society and achieve Beijing’s goal of unification without war.

“Han’s approach of cross-strait policy is worrying,” Lin told me, noting that Han’s recent trip to China and his statements afterward showed little disagreement with Xi’s vision for Taiwan. “If he were to become our president, I believe it would become a crisis for Taiwan’s democracy and sovereignty.”