OPINION: Looking Back on a Farcical Start to the Han Kuo-yu Era

OPINION: Looking Back on a Farcical Start to the Han Kuo-yu Era
Credit: Reuters / TPG
What you need to know

The start of Han Kuo-yu's reign as mayor of Kaohsiung has been defined by lies, more lies and a lack of accountability.

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It is now nearly three months since Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜) swept to victory in the Kaohsiung mayoral elections and almost two months since his inauguration on Dec. 25.

Given the massive swing that he managed to elicit from the people of Kaohsiung and the wave of adoration that followed him everywhere throughout the campaign, it is probably safe to assume that Han had hoped for a fairly smooth start to life in the most senior elected position he has held during his long career in public service.

However, it is fair to say that things have not exactly gone to plan. His first six weeks in office have been little short of farcical – although this is exactly what those who saw through the bluster and rhetoric of his election campaign predicted.

It is difficult to know where to start when trying to write a summary of the first two months of the Han Kuo-yu era in Kaohsiung. Like trying to choose an inadvisable tweet from Donald Trump’s Twitter feed, there are just so many incidents to choose from.

The big budget inauguration

Maybe his inauguration ceremony is the best place to kick things off. Having campaigned on a platform of prudent financial management and making Kaohsiung richer, it is fair to say that this event did not exactly live up to expectations.

The inauguration cost a staggering NT$3 million (nearly US$100,000) and was so far over budget that his team had to dip into the city’s reserve fund, which is usually set aside to pay for the city’s response to natural disasters or other unpredictable crises.

If this didn’t upset people enough, the initial plans involved shutting six major streets in the city center for five whole days and introducing traffic controls for 100 hours on many others. The disruption the closures would have caused to both businesses and ordinary people led to a huge public outcry. In response, Han reluctantly shortened the interference to two days – but still insisted on the event affecting the same large area of the city.

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Credit: Reuters / TPG
Han Kuo-yu's inauguration plans: A sign of things to come?

Perhaps, if this large expenditure was a one-off, people might have understood. His inauguration was fairly well attended, although the exact numbers are disputed. (Sound familiar?) It did nonetheless illustrate that Han-mania is still gripping certain (mostly older) demographics in the city.

But it is not just Han’s inauguration costs and planning that have sparked the ire of many of the same voters who elected him.

False finances

His financial mismanagement of the city has already come under severe scrutiny. Han claimed during the election campaign that, under the previous Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) administration, Kaohsiung had built up debts of NT$3.1 billion (US$100.5 million). He pointed the finger of blame at both the DPP and former Mayor Chen Chu (陳菊) for this, admittedly, very high figure.

However, as with much of what Han says, these claims simply did not stand up to scrutiny. A recent report from Kaohsiung City Government showed debts of only NT$2.3 billion (US$74.6 million), of which just NT$1 billion had built up during the 12 years Chen Chu was Mayor.

Han has somehow managed to add a massive NT$266 million in debt to the city during his first month in office. That is more than a quarter of what Chen Chu managed in 12 years.

To add to this huge misrepresentation of Kaohsiung’s public finances, Han has somehow managed to add a massive NT$266 million (US$8.6 million) in debt to the city during his first month in office. That is more than a quarter of what Chen Chu managed in 12 years.

Han claims that this borrowing was to pay down other debt, but there is no evidence to show that he has either reduced interests payments on debt or actually paid off any previous debt.

The car crash council appearance

On Jan. 17, Han made his first appearance before the Kaohsiung City Council to answer questions about his administration and its policies. His appearance was, to coin a popular phrase, a complete car crash.

During the election, Han had made 12 key pledges to the people of Kaohsiung. Those pledges were: Make Kaohsiung the richest city in Taiwan; commence drilling for oil in Taiping Island; increase the population of Kaohsiung to five million people; construct a ferris wheel by Love River; build casinos on Qijin; introduce fixed-price medical care for non-Taiwanese visitors to attract health tourists; tempt young people who left for Taipei and abroad to return; build a horse racing course; fix the city’s roads by eliminating potholes; build up a ‘love industry’ based around the river; tackle the issue of an aging population by making them move in with younger people; and open up the property market to Chinese investment.

Under questioning, he admitted that during his four years in office, he expected to deliver just two of them: road improvements and the ‘love industry’. He is yet to provide any information about how he will actually deliver either of these. After saying he would expect his deputy mayor to resign should the city fail to improve its roads, he flat out refused to say which deputy mayor that would be, which does not exactly inspire much confidence.

Depositphotos_129669022_xl-2015
Credit: Depositphotos
Han says he can still use Love River as the centerpiece for a 'city of love' branding campaign. As for his other campaign promises...

Despite positioning himself during the election campaign as the business candidate and a man of the people, under questioning Han reverted back to his usual career politician self. Under questioning, he said that these pledges “had short, medium, and long term time-frames and all would require coordination with central government.” In other words, when he fails to deliver on the majority of them, he plans to blame central government for not supporting him rather than admit they were unachievable in the first place.

Some of the specific answers he gave under questioning were quite remarkable and deserve closer examination.

When asked how he was going to increase the population of Kaohsiung by half a million people in his first year in office, Han’s flippant response was to tell Council member Li Chao-ru (李喬如): “Don’t underestimate what Kaohsiung City can do.” He failed to provide any further detail beyond this complete non-statement.

He was also asked about his plan to tackle Kaohsiung’s aging population by making older people live with younger ones. Many experts have suggested this raises serious concerns over possible social problems and could result in older people being exploited by their young caregivers. Instead of addressing these legitimate concerns, he merely told city councilors not to be so negative.

When he was asked about plans to open up the Kaohsiung property market to Chinese investors, questions focused on the concern that this will push house prices up even higher and make it even harder for young people in Kaohsiung to get on the property ladder. Han comprehensively failed to provide any answers.

Again and again, Han responded to serious and legitimate questions in a manner which suggested complete disregard for either the Council members he was addressing or the people of Kaohsiung he is supposed to represent. This impression was further reinforced when he commented that he might send his officials to answer questions in future rather than having to face up to such scrutiny himself.

The complete lack of substance in any of his answers led to the session concluding with open accusations that Han had been making up policy on the hoof. He laughed this accusation off but, perhaps tellingly, failed to deny it outright.

Han and the ‘1992 Consensus’

The City Council also questioned Han on the controversial issue of the so-called “1992 consensus.” The issue of Taiwanese relations with China hardly arose at all during the election campaign, despite Han’s staunch pro-China views having been well aired previously.

Many people in Kaohsiung were nonetheless rather surprised when, in his first speech as Mayor-elect, Han choose to confirm his support for the 1992 Consensus and commit to building closer ties between Kaohsiung and the communist government of China.

That speech saw a huge spike in Google searches for ‘1992 Consensus’ from IP addresses in Kaohsiung, which shows how uninformed many people in the city were about the true political beliefs of the man they elected. It also led to plenty of conspiracy theories about the original source of much of the pro-Han fake news that had proliferated online during the campaign as well as questions about how the Han campaign had been funded.

Under questioning, Han was defiant in stating his belief on the “1992 consensus” and refuted claims that he was abusing his position and risking national security by bypassing central government and engaging directly with the Chinese Communist Party.

But critics have noted how quickly Han has started taking the Beijing line on a whole host of different issues and is regularly attacking the central government on issues well beyond his remit as Kaohsiung mayor – but certainly within Beijing’s sphere of interest.

Han’s more outlandish ideas

Remarkably, the main policy pledges of Han’s election campaign are at the saner end of his policy spectrum. Some of his other ideas are even more outlandish. There are far too many to look at in detail here, but there are a few which are well worth outlining.

Firstly, Han has, for some reason, taken aim at Kaohsiung Airport. This airport, which has just been named the world’s leading mid-sized airport in On-Time Performance (OTP) for 2018 has a growing number of budget airlines operating routes to destinations across Asia and a growing number of users. It is also perfectly located close to the city center and on the Kaohsiung MRT network, which allows for easy transfers to the High Speed Rail network and to regular rail services. It will never challenge Taoyuan as Taiwan’s principal airport, but with the right investment, it is well placed to become another major international airport.

Han believes the south of Taiwan needs a high-capacity airport to boost the local economy. And, as Mayor of Kaohsiung, where else would he want it to be built than… Pingtung.

But this isn’t good enough for Han. He believes the south of Taiwan needs a high-capacity airport to boost the local economy. And, as Mayor of Kaohsiung, where else would he want it to be built than… Pingtung.

Yes that’s right, to the bewilderment of people in Kaohsiung, he has begun advocating for the redevelopment of Pingtung Airport into a world-class facility at the expense of his own city’s flourishing mid-sized hub.

This proposal also illustrated Han’s woeful grasp of even basic facts about the city he is supposed to represent. Kaohsiung airport actually has a runway that is 600 meters longer than Taoyuan. This means Kaohsiung can easily handle larger aircraft such as the Boeing 777. The total potential capacity for the airport should the domestic terminal be converted to an international one is around 10 million visitors a year. A city like Kaohsiung really doesn’t need a greater capacity than that.

Kaohsiung_Airport_Terminal
Credit: Wikicommons
Han may have some outrageous plans for the current Kaohsiung airport.

Perhaps one of the reasons he wants to move the airport out of Kaohsiung is his plan for the current airport site. No, not property development or swanky new government offices, but an F1 circuit!

Han was recently overheard telling people that he wanted to turn the airport into a F1 quality circuit in an attempt to attract international racing events to the city. When he realized the media had overheard this comment, he quickly backtracked and admitted it would be impossible. But why is he even countenancing talk of such ludicrous, grossly expensive, and short-term projects when he is supposed to be a mayor who is responsible with money?

Almost as impossible are his plans to build a world class horse-racing course in Kaohsiung. Exactly how many of the world’s horse trainers would want to ship their thoroughbreds to Kaohsiung and expose them to either searing tropical summer heat or choking winter smog is anybody’s guess. But this was one of his 12 main pledges, so it seems likely that at least some of Kaohsiung taxpayers’ hard-earned money will be wasted at least exploring the idea.

If not F1 or horse-racing, then why not Disneyland? During the election, Han pledged to invite Disney to invest in Kaohsiung at all costs. When asked about this after the election, he mocked the reporter by noting: “It’s not that easy to get Disney to invest you know!” He’s right. For one thing, Disney require 100 million tourists a year before they consider opening up a theme park. Taiwan as a whole only gets around a quarter of that. The question is, was Han willfully misleading the Kaohsiung people with this promise? Or was he just ignorant of this pretty basic fact?

It might seem like Han is desperate to attract more tourists on the basis of some of these ideas. But if that is the case, why is he planning to introduce a tourist tax as well? He wants to tax every visitor to Kaohsiung NT$100 a day, a strategy which has been shown to drive tourists away in other places around the world where similar schemes have been introduced. There has been no explanation of what will happen with this money. Perhaps it will leave Kaohsiung more dependent on Chinese tourists as, no doubt, the CCP would be willing to pay.

President in waiting?

It is difficult to see Han’s first two months in office as anything more than an unmitigated disaster. He has lurched from one crisis or PR disaster to another and shown that his campaign was built of policies which were fanciful at best and plain dishonest at worst.

The tide of public opinion against him is already turning in Kaohsiung. The rapid rise in the online popularity of his opponent in November’s elections, Chen Chi-mai (陳其邁) is no coincidence. This is largely down to voters already starting to regret choosing Han.

But among the elderly voters who make up his core demographic, Han-mania continues to flourish. Most of them simply do not see the catalog of errors which dog him wherever he goes. Of those that do see, a fair proportion don’t care. Admitting you were conned, made a fool of, and got something wrong – this is something that does not come easily in Taiwanese culture.

Even more astonishingly, the Kuomintang (KMT) elation over Han’s election means that he is also seen by some as a genuine candidate for the presidential elections in 2020. Han’s persistent meddling in national political issues and his sizable ego shows he would definitely be interested if the opportunity arose.

After observing Han’s first two months in office, if Han were to walk away from Kaohsiung to take a bigger job, there is no doubt that Kaohsiung’s gain could well be Taiwan’s loss!

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of The News Lens.

Read Next: ANALYSIS: DPP Eats Election Bitterness as Han Kuo-yu Leads KMT Revival

Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)

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