TAIPEI -- Foxconn Chairman Terry Gou, who was once seen as a likely front-runner in Taiwan's presidential election, is struggling to expand support as his sprawling business empire on the mainland raises concerns about his priorities.
Gou's business experience was expected to become a great asset when he announced his bid in April. Gou founded Foxconn, formally Hon Hai Precision Industry, in 1974 and has turned it into a major Apple supplier that reported sales revenue of 5.29 trillion New Taiwan dollars ($171 billion) for 2018.
But Foxconn could actually prove a liability for Gou in the political arena. Among those eyeing the Kuomintang nomination, Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu is now in the lead, with 35% support, according to a poll released on May 10 by broadcaster TVBS. Gou trails far behind at 20%. The party is expected to choose its official candidate as early as June based on public opinion, leaving Gou with just over a month to close the gap.
Taiwanese voters worry that Gou's loyalties will be divided between the island and his company, which holds 74% of its fixed assets on the mainland and employs 800,000 to a million people there. Media leaning toward the Democratic Progressive Party, the independence-leaning force behind current President Tsai Ing-wen, have been highlighting potential conflicts of interest.
Gou is eager to dispel these concerns. He met with U.S. President Donald Trump at the White House on May 1. He has also told Taiwanese media that he is not afraid of China, but rather that China is afraid of him, given the amount of employment created by Foxconn on the mainland.
But the Taiwanese public appears unconvinced, especially amid growing economic and military pressure by Beijing.
Han's entry into the race likely took Gou by surprise as well. Though the Kaohsiung mayor has yet to officially declare his candidacy, he is quickly gaining support as a champion of the people among low- and middle-income voters, making him a challenging opponent to a billionaire tycoon. Gou visited a fried-chicken shop on Friday, helping out with cooking and stressing his support for the everyday economy.
Gou announced the same day that he will step down as Foxconn's chairman at the shareholders meeting June 21. "This demonstrates my determination to run for president," he said.
But he said he will remain on the board. "He could be keeping the option open to return to Foxconn's management in case he loses the Kuomintang nomination," said Chung Hsi-mei, associate professor in the Department of Business Administration at I-Shou University in Kaohsiung.