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Taiwan's new 'CEO mayor' plays up economic goals over China ties

Han Kuo-yu of the pro-Beijing Kuomintang stunned the president's party in Kaohsiung

Kaohsiung Mayor-elect Han Kuo-yu, who described himself as a "bald guy who sells vegetables" during the campaign, celebrates his victory on Nov. 25.   © Reuters

KAOHSIUNG, Taiwan -- Three days after a stunning election win, the mayor-elect of the southern Taiwanese city of Kaohsiung made his first public appearance since polling day with an impromptu broadcast on Facebook.

More than 100,000 viewers tuned in at 10 p.m. last Tuesday to watch the 61-year-old Han Kuo-yu, sporting scruffy pajamas, speak on the broadcast hosted by his 23-year-old daughter. The Beijing-friendly Kuomintang (KMT) politician said he had been sleeping off a cold and was trying to form a new team for the city government, before making a slew of promises that echoed his slogan of "showing Kaohsiung the money."

"I want to let everyone know that we've got more than 10 companies telling us that they are willing to make big bets in Kaohsiung," he said, using rhetoric akin to U.S. President Donald Trump's pledge to bring jobs back to America.

Having reached out to Terry Gou, chairman of key iPhone assembler Foxconn Technology Group, after the Nov. 24 election to encourage the company to invest in the city, the self-styled "CEO mayor" then amplified his claims of business interest in the region.

At a news conference on Thursday, he said there were already "some 20 companies" that have voiced interest in making investments in Kaohsiung, including those in the food, information technology and real estate sectors. Other cities on the island are also vying for investment as many companies are looking to diversify production from China amid the escalating trade war.

Han made his first public appearance since election day in a Facebook broadcast.  (Photo by Lauly Li)

The city itself is a symbol of the south's economic decline. Until recently, Kaohsiung was Taiwan's second-largest city after the capital Taipei, and just decades ago its port was one of the world's busiest. But it now suffers from high youth unemployment as heavy industries have gradually moved out of Taiwan. To compound matters, deteriorating relations with China since President Tsai Ing-wen took office in 2016 have also hit the city's tourism hard.

"I've been living in Kaohsiung for decades and I've watched the city go from flourishing to decline," a 50-year-old female resident who voted for Han, told the Nikkei Asian Review. "Many young graduates could only find jobs with a monthly salary of less than 22,000 New Taiwan dollars ($715). My son is one of the many young people that had to leave the city for better jobs."

Now, she said, there is a glimmer of hope. "I see a possibility of change because of Han."

Only a week ago, it was hard to imagine that a KMT candidate could win in Kaohsiung. The city had been held by Tsai's ruling pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party for more than two decades, and was known for its strong resistance to forging closer ties with Beijing.

Han's personal popularity also triggered a spillover effect to help other KMT candidates secure 15 mayoral posts out of 22 cities and counties across Taiwan. With the DPP's share falling to just six, Tsai stepped down as party leader and her prospects of re-election in the 2020 presidential election have sharply receded.

Still, Han's triumph in Kaohsiung and the KMT's other victories across the island are no guarantee that a candidate from the party will win the presidency. While the opposition party currently has the upper hand, people are waiting to see if the new mayors -- especially Han -- can deliver on their promises in the run-up to 2020.

Pan Chao-min, a professor at Tunghai University's Graduate Institute of Political Science in Taiwan, said that people pay more attention to issues that affect their daily lives when picking mayors, but become more ideological in general elections.

Campaign strategies over Taiwan's sovereignty in the presidential election could still "prompt pro-independence DPP or pro-China KMT voters to return to their base," Pan said.

A market in Kaohsiung: The city has been stuck in the economic doldrums, with high youth unemployment. (Photo by Cheng Ting-fang)

Some analysts have attributed the DPP's heavy loss as a significant win for pro-China forces on the self-ruled island that Beijing views as a wayward province.

But signs on the ground in Kaohsiung tell a different story.

Han attracted votes from young people unable to find good jobs at home, a largely overlooked coalition of disgruntled working-class laborers and farmers in rural areas, as well as retired public servants and teachers who are disappointed with Tsai's pension reforms. Many of these people saw the DPP as having taken its eye off the economy because of its determination to keep Taiwan safe from China's hands.

Separately, Tsai has said in recent speeches that fake news from outside of Taiwan has hurt the island's democracy and influenced elections. FireEye, a leading U.S. cybersecurity company, says China may have intervened with cyber operations to help the KMT win in Kaohsiung and other cities. China denies such claims.

The DPP's own campaign strategy may have also backfired. In recent elections, the ruling party has attacked the KMT for a stance that would eventually betray Taiwan, using slogans such as "this is an election between Taiwan and China." Han was accused before voting day of selling the city to China. President Tsai also smeared him, writing on Facebook that Kaohsiung is a key city for Taiwan's democracy and "democracy could not lose to someone who talks big but impractical."

"The campaign language the DPP used is the rhetoric that they've been using for decades," Yang Chiu-hsing, a former Kaohsiung county commissioner who left the DPP in 2010 and joined KMT in 2013, told Nikkei.

"People are not falling for this anymore," he said. "People want a better economy and they don't want to care about politics."

Kang Shih-jiang, a 35-year-old who runs a small noodles shop in the city, said he does not think the DPP's strategy was entirely invalid, but it is simply that people are tired of nothing changing after 20 years of the party governing the city.

Supporters of Kaohsiung's mayor-elect, nicknamed Han-fans, snap photos in front of his campaign office. (Photo by Cheng Ting-fang)

"The reality is far more important than the ideology for the younger generation like me," Kang said. "Government policies only benefit big companies, but not small and medium business owners."

The DPP's Chen Cheng-wen, who failed to be re-elected as a city councilor, said his party had tried to tackle the economic issues that Han pointed out in Kaohsiung, but the public's discontent had grown for so long that they demanded change.

Han came at the election from a very different perspective.

He first entered politics in the 1990s as a county councilor before becoming a national lawmaker for eight years, when he gained a reputation of having a short fuse. He once slapped former President Chen Shui-bian (then just a lawmaker) in an argument over veterans interests.

After failing to be re-elected in 2001, he left politics and about a decade later become the general manager of Taipei Agricultural Products Marketing, an organization that oversees the distribution of farm produce in the capital. During the campaign, he described himself as a "bald guy who sells vegetables."

Han works with his social media team, which made him something of an online sensation. (Courtesy of Han's campaign team)

On the campaign trail, he often made fun of himself and spoke live on social media platforms. In one case he washed and shaved his head while talking about his ideas on how to transform Kaohsiung. His blunt speaking style, charisma and easy-to-understand slogans made him very popular, according to Chen Mei-ya, a KMT Kaohsiung city councilor.

Han refused to hire a public relations agency to run his campaign. He had a tiny team of 15, including a social media squad of five that involved his daughter and two of her friends. They succeeded in making him an online phenomenon.

"Han's team is good at leveraging technological tools to engage with voters, especially they've been interacting with voters through Line and other social networking platforms," the DPP's Chen said. "The DPP needs to adjust its campaign strategy with these new tools in the future."

Chen said he does not think the KMT's victory signals the rise of pro-China forces. "We think the party's failure is the people trying to give us a lesson for the ruling party's underperformance over the past two years," he said.

Perhaps a Kaohsiung taxi driver sums up the feelings of many in the city.

"If Han wants to improve the economy, that's fine," said the driver who gave his surname as Lien. "But if he leans too much to China, that's not acceptable. We can't rely on China for everything... that's dangerous."

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