Out of the Blue: Who Is Han Kuo-yu and Can He Win Kaohsiung?

Out of the Blue: Who Is Han Kuo-yu and Can He Win Kaohsiung?
Photo Credit: 中央社
What you need to know

The 'Han wave' is a reality, but the result of the mayoral race in Kaohsiung may be of secondary importance to Han's emergence as a KMT contender for the presidency.

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“How is it that overnight in the last two months it seems like the country has completely changed its stripes? Everything has reversed course. This isn’t public justice, I feel this isn’t a normal society.”

So said former Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Kaohsiung Mayor Chen Chu (陳菊) while campaigning in New Taipei for Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌) recently.

The DPP is suffering from vertigo in the run up to this Saturday’s Kaohsiung mayoral race as Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) candidate Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜) draws huge crowds and sucks the oxygen out of the news cycle with his “Han wave” of support. This bolt out of the (pan-) Blue caught everyone by surprise, including it seems Chen, who presided over Kaohsiung for 12 years as mayor.

One of the most popular politicians in Taiwan’s history, Chen stepped down as mayor to take the post of Secretary General to the President. The move was made with confidence, Kaohsiung has been solidly in DPP hands for 20 years and the KMT was in disarray with no viable-looking candidates for the post.

選前超級星期天,民進黨高雄市長候選人陳其邁18日晚間在岡山舉辦造勢晚會,總統府秘書長陳菊(前)出席力挺,並向國民黨主席吳敦義公開表示她是有尊嚴台灣人的女兒,不是「大母豬」,不要糟蹋人。
Photo Credit:中央社
Former Kaohsiung Mayor Chen Chu (C) is incredulous things could fall apart so swiftly for her Democratic Progressive Party colleagues since she vacated the mayorship in April.

In May, the KMT put forth Han as their candidate, a choice that seemed outright bizarre at the time. Han is a second-generation “mainlander” (descended from those who arrived in the late 1940s with the retreating Chinese Nationalist army) from New Taipei City, thrust into the mayoral race in a city known for its fierce Taiwanese pride.

He has ties to the hardcore Chinese nationalist Huang Fu-hsing (黃復興) faction of the party, is known to have had gangster affiliations, and once punched out and hospitalized ex-President and Kaohsiung resident Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) when they were both legislators (the assault took place inside the parliament building).

But Kaohsiung had largely never heard of Han. He was a stranger to to the city, having served in the legislature from 1993 through to 2002 at the other end of the country, before basically disappearing, only to recently resurface as the head of the Taipei Agricultural Products Marketing Corporation (TAPMC), an organization that handles produce supplies for Taipei City. DPP party leaders no doubt were ecstatic. This was akin to running an unknown conservative Republican of dubious heritage from Alabama for governor of California.

Yet today, an openly rattled DPP is pulling out all the stops, calling out all the troops, cashing in its chips and all but getting on their knees and begging for Kaohsiung to rally behind their candidate, Chen Chi-mai (陳其邁). The Kaohsiung DPP machine has done an impressive job in the past few weeks, pulling together mass rallies, attracting bands popular with younger audiences like FireEX – which produced the anthem of the Sunflower Movement in 2014 – and producing slick ads for their candidate. But that this is now considered necessary was unimaginable just a few months ago.

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Credit: FIRE Ex Facebook
The DPP has mobilized big name celebrity talent such as the band FIRE EX in order to stoke the vote on Saturday.

The Rise of Han Kuo-yu

Han’s campaign began this summer with bold, blunt and sometimes bizarre statements. Like populists the world over, his pronouncements earned him attention, and much of what he’s had to say regarding the parlous state of the economy in Kaohsiung has resonated with the voting public.

This uptick in interest was amplified by the KMT’s formidable political machine and their media allies. Han’s off-the-cuff remarks and unusual proposals made easy coverage for the news media on both sides of the political divide, initially drawing curious and amused attention, in much the same way as Trump at first bemused the U.S. media.

Beleaguered after years of losses, the still sizeable pro-KMT minority in Kaohsiung finally had a candidate that was making a mark, and they rallied to his side in increasing numbers.

Then, suddenly, Han was everywhere. KMT candidates from all over the country wanted to be seen with him, and TV news channels of all political stripes could talk of nothing else but the “Han wave.” The airwaves buzzed with endless speculation around whether the KMT was “back,” and whether the wave would carry the opposition party to victory all across the island – or if this was all just a manufactured movement that wouldn’t carry beyond pan-Blue KMT supporters.

Is the ‘Han wave’ the real deal or a TV news illusion?

The short answer is both, and neither the DPP or KMT narratives appear to completely match the information available. Another question is how much of a wave the KMT is riding outside Kaohsiung – which will be touched on in a forthcoming article in The News Lens.

Much of the media hysteria was initially manufactured, partly by the partisan press on both sides to score political points – but also to make money. But now it has taken on a life of its own: A potential massive out-of-the-blue upset by a colorful and controversial character is a great story, and it has seized the nation’s attention.

陳其邁車隊掃街 與韓國瑜看板交會
Photo Credit:中央社
Han Kuo-yu is a bolt from the Blue.

Much of the social media hype appears to have been manufactured. This author watched as a pan-Blue commentator displayed Han’s growth in LINE messenger friends. The numbers appeared to grow fast, and believably, until his LINE friends jumped from over 200,000 to over 300,000 in a single day. Her talking point was that his LINE friends had surpassed Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je’s, but she didn’t stop to address the obviously artificially induced jump until she was well into her spiel, when she abruptly skipped over that part of the chart.

There is also some Chinese election interference, though the scope, scale and depth remains debatable. This worldwide problem is particularly acute here in Taiwan according to analysts, with the Chinese Communist United Front (UFW) working to undermine the pro-Taiwan DPP, and bolster the chances of the more pro-China KMT. The Taipei Times, the English-language version of the pro-DPP Liberty Times newspaper, has reported that many of the comments on Han Kuo-yu’s social media were from IP addresses in foreign countries, though the source was not named. How much influence this has had will be analyzed post-election, but for now it’s safe to say there has been an impact, though its size is questionable.

In any case, these factors do not explain the huge crowds at Han’s rallies. Reports have put some of his rallies at over 100,000 people, but in Taiwan such estimates consistently overstate (on all sides of the political aisle, which curiously both sides usually respect) by a factor of two to four times. Regardless of the actual numbers, the rallies are very real, very large and very enthusiastic.

However, are these rallies and Han’s supporters simply an excited pan-Blue base with little appeal to crucial independent voters? That is the real tough question to ask, and the answer may be different inside and outside Kaohsiung. Frustratingly, much of the information available is unreliable, anecdotal, intentionally misleading on partisan lines or based on guesswork.

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Credit: Reuters / TPG
Supporters of opposition Nationalist Kuomintang Party (KMT) Kaohsiung mayoral candidate Han Kuo-yu wave national flags during a campaign rally for the local elections, in Taoyuan, Taiwan Nov. 12, 2018.

Anecdotal suggestions that most of Han’s support in Kaohsiung may be highly concentrated in the party base come from his most fervent supporters. This author has noticed a significantly high number of pronounced “mainland” accents, not so commonly heard in Kaohsiung, in interviews with his followers, especially the young ones. The eminent political blogger and professional political analyst Frozen Garlic (Nathan Batto, Assistant Research Fellow at the Institute of Political Science, Academia Sinica and Jointly Appointed Assistant Research Fellow at the Election Study Center, National Chengchi University) visited a Han rally last week, and came to the conclusion that the crowd was basically a rally of Mandarin, not Hoklo (Taiwanese), speaking supporters – though the location of the rally near a military base likely played a significant role. He went on to note the rally was one of the bigger and more enthusiastic he’s seen in decades of observations:

The scale was impressive, but the character of the crowd was stunning. There was almost no mobilization from the campaign. Han claimed that the campaign hadn’t organized a single bus. I did see a couple of busses around the periphery, but the extremely small number of busses supports Han’s assertion. If the campaign gets involved, they are probably going to organize more than five buses. Most people seemed to come via MRT. The crowd was extremely happy and energetic. Again, I have seen more revved up crowds, but not many.

The KMT easily retains enough support to produce an enthusiastic crowd on that size in a city of 2.7 million people, so while he’s clearly generating support, this doesn’t prove any appeal outside of the base – though energized supporters can significantly help with voter turnout.

Publicly available opinion polling, which we can’t cite specifically because it is election law in the last 10 days prior to the election, was spectacularly unreliable, reverting to the dismal state of partisan tools last seen in the 1990s. Generally speaking, they showed growth in support for Han, but if you wanted to find a poll to fit any narrative, you could easily do so.

There is one set of crucial polling that is professionally done, and most likely fairly accurate – political party internal polling. These are closely held secrets, so we can’t for certain be sure what they contain. But we know two things about them. First, the parties take them very seriously and second, they are going to act on the knowledge gleaned from them.

That is the key giveaway that the “Han wave” has gained traction outside of the party base in Kaohsiung: The DPP is taking the threat very seriously, a fact that refutes the argument that this is an entirely manufactured phenomenon. The big question then becomes not if, but how much traction the “Han wave” has gained outside of the KMT base in Kaohsiung.

The appeal of Han Kuo-yu

Many draw the comparison of Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲), or American President Donald Trump. Neither is quite the right fit for Han’s style. True, like both he does share an off-the-cuff image and penchant for bluntly commenting on political problems. Like President Trump, his positive message can be essentially boiled down to “make Kaohsiung great again,” and like Trump he talks a lot about improving the economy by reversing decline.

Unlike Mayor Ko’s practical problem-solving appeal to the intellect, Han’s appeal is his ability to project an everyman image who understands people’s frustrations while recognizing their hopes and offering a fresh approach to realizing them. His proposals vary from plausible initiatives like building a ferris wheel to attract tourists, to virtually impossible pipedreams like suggesting he could double Kaohsiung’s population in 10 years, or the potentially suicidally dangerous, like drilling for oil in the militarily contentious South China Sea – but all that is beside the point. He feels you. He’s going to be the one to try a new approach. Think out of the box. Trust him, he cares and will work to make your hopes for a better future come true.

Unlike Trump he doesn’t appeal to anger, distrust or division – indeed he sometimes goes out of his way to show he’s precisely the opposite, a good guy in a nasty political world. That’s quite an image turnaround for a man previously mostly known for violence and gangster ties.

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Credit: Reuters / Jonathan Ernst
Painting Han Kuo-yu as a Taiwanese Donald Trump is wide of the mark.

Han taps into widespread frustration with Kaohsiung’s stagnation economically and population-wise under the last 20 years of DPP rule. Other cities have been growing and passing Kaohsiung by, with Taichung recently taking Kaohsiung’s long-held spot as second-largest city. Combined with the low popularity of President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文)’s administration and some of her policies, the appeal is easy to understand – Han is doing an excellent job of putting his finger right on the spots it hurts the DPP most. That the reasons for Kaohsiung’s problems are complicated and there is plenty of blame to go around (including the KMT), this is beside the point for Han’s supporters – clearly 20 years of the DPP didn’t fix those problems.

He is also excellent at basic human-level appeal. He is quick to make fun of himself, frequently joking about his bald pate. In this he stands clearly apart from the DPP candidate, Chen Chi-mai (陳其邁).Chen is a trained doctor, eloquent and educated, confident with facts and figures, but comes across as arrogant and elitist, and is about as charismatic as a cash register.

Chen has been trying to emote more recently and show a human side, but in the most recent TV debate it often came across as irritation and frustration as he kept trying to nail down Han for his lack of knowledge and often unrealistic plans. Han deflected Chen’s more knowledgeable appeals cleverly, noting when asked on specific fishing village policies that he didn’t know every detail because he wasn’t running for the role of bureaucrat. When Chen tried to pin him down on his comments about doubling the population to 5 million in 10 years, Han hit back on the mocking he’d received over it, saying they’d “twisted” his words into begging people to have babies or bringing over people from China. He then went on to propose some plausible, if vague plans to increase the population and cited the 7 million population increase in Shenzhen in 10 years as an example. That he’d actually dodged the question and used a totally inapplicable example was beside the point for many voters; he’d successfully painted himself as being wronged when he was trying to actually address the problem.

陳其邁2
Photo Credit: 中央社
DPP Kaohsiung mayoral candidate Chen Chi-mai comes across as wooden in comparison with Han's everyman appeal.
Turning Kaohsiung Blue is still an uphill battle

In spite of his impressive and surprisingly successful run, winning Kaohsiung is still an uphill battle. He has a solid and energetic KMT base that will likely turn out in high numbers, but that alone isn’t enough to overcome the sheer advantage in numbers the DPP has in supporters. Worse for Han, the DPP has done an excellent job of revving up its own base, showing enthusiasm and support obviously lacking only a few weeks ago.

It would also be surprising if Han showed much strength in the intellectual end of the “pox on both of your political houses” independent voters that form much of Taipei Mayor Ko’s support base, they are likely to correctly identify him for being the KMT politician that he really is – and also to note the obvious weaknesses in his plans for the future. He is further hamstrung in that he remains far too pro-China for a city that strongly identifies as Taiwanese, and many are going to view him as an out-of-town carpetbagger. Chen clearly beats him hands down on Taiwanese identity, Kaohsiung identity (Chen’s family moved to Kaohsiung when he was a child), party affiliation, local knowledge, and grasp of policy.

It is the frustrated voters that Han has done a great job of appealing to, and the DPP’s vigorous response proves he’s gained enough traction outside out of the KMT base to concern them. The election could rest with them, but how many of them are there? More importantly, how many are so frustrated and desperate for change they will overlook all the many, many problems with Han as a candidate and the KMT in Kaohsiung that they will go out and vote for him?

Losing Kaohsiung might be the real victory for Han Kuo-yu

The real victory and path forward for Han Kuo-yu would be a strong showing in Kaohsiung, even if he loses. The last two election cycles devastated the KMT, both politically and in morale. hey were left with not a single politician with a positive image on the national level. Once frequently billed as the “world’s richest political party,” the DPP administration’s transitional justice laws have frozen much of the KMT’s vast resources. The KMT’s pro-China ideology and Chinese identification have become increasingly out of synch with the public, and the glaringly out-of-touch old guard seemingly had the party in a death grip.

Han is now the KMT’s star. The party chairman, historically also the party’s presumptive presidential candidate, Wu Den-yih (吳敦義) has largely been sidelined in recent weeks – KMT candidates across the country desperately clamored to be associated with Han, and it is his endorsement that appears on many of their promotional banners. He, along with New Taipei City mayoral candidate Hou You-yi (侯友宜) and to a lesser degree Taichung’s Lu Shiow-yen (盧秀燕) have reinvigorated the party.

吳敦義
Photo Credit: 中央社
The KMT old guard, including Chairman Wu Den-yih are under threat from the success of the Han wave.

This leaves Han with a potential path to the presidency. Much would still need to happen, but it’s no longer inconceivable. That he wants the job is hinted at by his 2017 failed run for KMT party chairman, the traditional KMT path to presidential candidacy.

A weak showing would suggest he can’t appeal outside of the party faithful, but a strong showing would indicate he’d be by far the best KMT candidate. Second, Hou You-yi would need to win New Taipei City, which he has a good chance of doing. That would remove the most likely potential competitor for a KMT presidential run because to run for president he would need to step down from the mayorship less than a year into his term to do a serious campaign. Third, he’d need to keep up the momentum and support both inside the party and with the public at large. Finally, he’d need to convince enough of the public he is the man for the job.

Read Next: ANALYSIS: Political Power Structures Shift Ahead of Taiwan' Local Elections

Editor: David Green (@DavidPeterGreen)

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