The Debate

Han Kuo-Yu: Taiwan’s Populist President?

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The Debate

Han Kuo-Yu: Taiwan’s Populist President?

Han is wildly popular, but his policy positions — or lack thereof — should be cause for concern, given Taiwan’s delicate situation.

Han Kuo-Yu: Taiwan’s Populist President?
Credit: Facebook/ Han Kuo-yu

Whoever wins the 2020 Taiwan presidential elections will inherit a difficult office. Taiwan’s ailing economy and its fraught relations with the Chinese mainland demand strong and careful leadership. Current polling indicates that some 50 percent of Taiwanese voters believe Han Kuo-Yu, the popular (and populist) mayor of Kaohsiung, is fit for the job. His brash, direct way of speech has won him broad support, and his popularity is such that the media have called his brand of politics the “Han Wave.” Han is the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) party’s best chance at election, with a clear lead over other presidential contenders, such as Eric Chu, the former mayor of New Taipei and the KMT’s presidential candidate in 2016, and the incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen, of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

Though Han has yet to confirm his run, all his movements indicate a serious presidential bid. In the past year, Han has met with mainland Chinese officials and businessmen, and has confirmed on record his support for the “1992 consensus” that there is only “one China.” Most tellingly, he has gone to America. Given Taiwan’s dependence on American industry and military support, it is customary for Taiwanese presidential hopefuls to travel to the United States to seek “consent” for their run. In February of this year, Eric Chu, a declared KMT candidate, visited the United States on a week-long trip of Silicon Valley. In April, Han did the same.

Han, who rose from relative obscurity to viral popularity in only a few short months, is still largely an unknown quantity to foreign observers. His past statements suggest that he holds centrist positions on most major policy issues, though his style of expression is colored with coarse, nationalistic language that has won him votes at home and scrutiny abroad. Han’s U.S. visit, which took him to Boston, Los Angeles, and the San Francisco Bay area, holds special importance as his informal “introduction” to American academics and policymakers.

As part of his American debut, Han, like Chu before him, visited Stanford University to hold an unofficial conversation with Chinese students on campus. Unscripted settings like this are a rare opportunity to get a sense of the political personality at hand, away from the prompters and the press. The following quotations are taken from the private sessions Han and Chu held with Stanford students. The impressions they left are a study in contrasts.

Chu presents himself as a secure, experienced politician, with the education and linguistic skill — he attended New York University for graduate school and speaks perfect English — to navigate the charged office of the Taiwanese presidency. Han, meanwhile, openly derides the benefits of such elite education, saying that the law degrees held by the past three presidents of Taiwan have done little to help the economy or the people. Where Chu welcomed conversation in both Chinese and in English, Han made a point of saying that he preferred Chinese. Speaking English, he said, gives him a headache. And by the way, would the group mind if he delayed the session by 10 minutes? “I’m getting old and tired,” he explained. “I also need to pee very badly.”

Han projects an unabashedly folksy image. At Harvard earlier this April, Han gave a speech titled, “The Power of Down to Earth: They Talk the Talk, I Walk the Walk.” But how does this self-described humility translate into effective policy? What, exactly, are the ideas powering his campaign?

At Stanford, both presidential contenders were asked to discuss the cross-strait relationship. Chu’s answer, that the China-Taiwan relationship is a “complex one” that requires mutual understanding, was a boring but considered recitation of the party line. In a position as sensitive as the Taiwanese presidency, restrained rhetoric — or “strategic ambiguity,” in political science terms — comes with the office.

Han, however, answered this same question by way of a crass analogy. Taiwan, Han explained, was like a bai-fu-mei (a slang term in Chinese meaning “white, rich girl,” the ideal beauty standard in Taiwan), who had attracted three “boyfriends”: China, Japan, and the United States. “She [Taiwan] can go on dates with them, go for dinner, and talk romance,” Han said, “but she cannot marry, or risk being beaten up by the other two, who would be jealous.”

His penchant for off-color commentary is well-publicized, but more than the indelicate handling of race and sex in his speech, these comments betray a paucity of thought — a troubling trait in a would-be leader. On serious issues like environmental concerns, or language education, Han deflected the question to his entourage of legislators, academics, and staff. When the conversation turned to Taiwan’s economic malaise, Han began with the most tired of political clichés: “I spoke with some taxi drivers the other day, and they tell me…” In response to a question about the perception that Taiwan offers few economic opportunities for skilled workers, Han related this anecdote: “I have a friend who visited a beach in America once. On that beach, a black man came up to her, poked her in the back, and asked” — here, Han adopted a sing-song voice – “for ‘money, money.’ Now my friend’s perception of America is that everyone who goes there will be poked in the back and be asked for ‘money, money,’ but that doesn’t mean that perception is real.”

For Han, perception is key. More than any other candidate in the 2020 race, Han understands the power of branding and of social media outreach. His staff wear conspicuous Harvard and Oxford ties to denote the prestige and authority of his inner circle. Han himself is never photographed in the stolid black suits that are the uniform of Asian politicians, favoring instead simple button-up shirts reflective of his irreverent, earthy approach to politics. Before he arrived at his session with Stanford students, Han’s entourage made a point of demanding that their staff photographer cover the meeting. When they were told that indiscriminate photography violated Stanford’s student consent policy, the disagreement went on for several minutes. “They let us take photographs at Harvard,” one staff member argued. At the end of the meeting, Han welcomed students to take selfies with him and to share them online.

Han’s popularity speaks to the disillusionment the Taiwanese electorate feel toward the governing class, who often are educated abroad and come from wealthy, cosmopolitan backgrounds. But by exploiting the rift between people and their representative body, the Han Wave may prove to be the prelude to a greater flood. Taiwan is, at present, already caught between competing forces: The claim that the Taipei government is the true inheritor of China’s civilizational legacy on one hand, and the desire for independence on the other. Against this backdrop is a dramatic generational divide separating Taiwanese youth from an aging adult population. Whoever is elected the eighth president of Taiwan will represent a quasi-nation fractured by divergent self-conceptions. Failure to reconcile these battling factions will result in an internal instability with grave international implications.

Han’s comportment at Stanford is no doubt different from his behavior in more official contexts. The substance of Han’s platform (or lack thereof), is constant across his political appearances. Han’s divisive personality is a dangerous addition to Taiwan’s presidential office, whose very existence is a contested political statement. Every year Taiwan declines in relative strength to the mainland, but its importance as a model democracy in the Asia-Pacific will remain constant. Taiwan needs a president who reflects the tolerance of its democratic society, and not one who sees issues of race, gender, and class as gambits in his political game.

Jeffery C. J. Chen is a Ph.D. student in history at Stanford University and the lead China researcher for General H.R. McMaster’s forthcoming book, “Battlegrounds.”