What you need to know
Comparisons between Terry Gou and Donald Trump go far deeper than their similar taste in headwear.
Cover image by Stellina Chen
Terry Gou, the man behind the success of technology giant Foxconn and Taiwan’s most famous businessman, announced last week his intention to run for president by seeking the Kuomintang (KMT) nomination, saying the sea goddess Mazu had told him in a dream to seek the nation’s top office.
While Gou is known internationally for Foxconn’s role in supplying parts for Apple’s iPhones, his attempt to capture the presidency of Taiwan is reminiscent of the saga of U.S. President Donald Trump’s rise to power.
Terry Gou: A Brutally Efficient Businessman
Terry Gou founded Foxconn in 1974 with the help of NT$100,000 (US$3,250 at current exchange rates) obtained from a “bidding union” (標會), an informal network of capital holder traditionally used to fund personal needs before the establishment of legal credit systems. This amount of cash, significant in the pre-miracle Taiwan where private capital was scarce, draws a close resemblance to the “small loan of a million dollars” Trump used to start his real estate career.
Foxconn cooperated with major US firms such as Hewlett-Packard and Apple in supply chips as Taiwan’s largest and most successful Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM). For several years, Gou was Taiwan’s richest man, but he has recently been displaced by Want Want Group’s Tsai Eng-meng (蔡衍明). Tsai, unrelated to President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), is known for his influence and funding of the pro-China CTI Television Inc, recently in the spotlight for its fawning coverage of Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜).
As a businessman who is often compared to Genghis Khan, Gou’s attitude towards his business resembles a path of brutal yet efficient conquest. His efficient management comes at the cost of his employees. Despite the success of Foxconn, the high stress combined with a lack of labor standards in China led to the suicide of many Foxconn workers. In 2010 alone, 10 workers committed suicide, including a 18-year old intern who worked only for three days.
Terry Gou: A Womanizer Who Refused to Pay Hush Money
Just as Genghis was known for his many wives and Trump for his many marriages as well as his involvement with pornography actress Stormy Daniels, Gou is not too different. He has had a major affair scandal during his first marriage as well as many rumors of dalliances with high-profile models after his first wife’s death.
Reported by Apple Daily citing Next Magazine, a now-defunct magazine then known for exposes and graphic depiction of celebrity news, Gou kept a girlfriend named Chen Chung-mei (陳崇美) when his wife Serena Lin (林淑如) was living in the U.S. with their school-aged children. When Gou attempted to break off the relationship in 1992, Chen hired private investigators to install surveillance cameras in her apartment and recorded a sex tape. In the aftermath, Chen claimed that though Gou promised her 5 percent of Foxconn’s stock, valued at NT$5 million (US$162,500), as “a breakup fee,” only three of the five million dollars were wired to her.
Chen again hired private investigators to contact Gou and the two agreed to meet in 1993. Gou then informed the police, accusing Chen of blackmailing him. Chen and her investigator were then arrested and indicted for blackmailing in 1995, sentencing them to three and four months of jail time, respectively. Her investigator told Liberty Times in 2007 that Chen had a total of three abortions throughout her and Gou’s five-year relationship.
After the death of Gou’s wife in 2005, Model Lin Chiling (林志玲), a face known to virtually all Taiwanese at the time, was among those Gou was rumored to have a relationship with. In 2007, Gou married Delia Tseng (曾馨瑩). The couple now have three kids together.
Perhaps common among the world’s rich and powerful men, Trump also underwent a hush-money scandal during his presidency. Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, similarly faced an alleged blackmail attempt over sex tapes. Women in the cases of Trump and Gou eventually failed in their attempts for money after the conclusion of the extramarital affairs.
Had Gou’s case in 1995 been brought up today, in the era of the #MeToo movement, the outcome could have very much been different. Let us also not forget that Gou’s ties to the KMT may have certain implications under a legal system commonly known to be corrupt even well after democratization in 1996.
Gou’s reference to the sea goddess Mazu as an aspiration could be considered more of less an act of cultural appropriation.
Terry Gou: Here to ‘Make the ROC Great Again’
Just as Trump touts his notorious “Make America Great Again” merchandise, Gou too appeared with a Foxconn hat depicting the flag of the Republic of China (ROC).
The status of the ROC is under dispute within Taiwan. Many groups supporting Taiwanese sovereignty see the ROC flag as a remnant of its authoritarian past and a symbol of oppression. On the other hand, the KMT, which ruled Taiwan from 1945 until its democratization in 1996 in a one-party system, is seen as close to today’s China. It favors closer economic ties with Beijing and its leaders have promoted a cross-Strait peace treaty in the leadup to Taiwan’s 2020 election. The KMT emblem contains the symbol which adorns the ROC flag.
Gou has been a member of the Kuomintang since 1970. Although his membership reportedly lapsed in 2000 (only for Gou to renew it last week), he has always politically supported the KMT. A NT$45 million (US$1.5 million) donation was made to the party in 2016 in the name of Gou’s mother when it was struggling with its finances as a result of new laws governing “ill-gotten party assets.”
Undoubtedly, Gou would likely promote closer ties and economic integration with China, consistent with KMT platforms. Gou, who has heavy business interests in China due to his current role as Foxconn’s head, is of “mainlander” (waisheng, 外省) origin. This means that he was one of the latter arrivers to Taiwan, during Chiang Kai-shek’s (蔣介石) move to the island in 1949.
His “ancestral homeland” is in Shanxi (山西), an inland province of China. From this, his reference to the sea goddess Mazu as an aspiration could be considered more of less an act of cultural appropriation. The Mazu Goddess was first worshipped in Fujian and Guangdong province, origins of the Hoklo and Hakka people, the first groups of Taiwanese to arrive in Taiwan who later became disenfranchised during KMT authoritarian rule.
Terry Gou: A Trustworthy Candidate?
As Trump struggles in delivering his campaign promises to “bring jobs back” and faces credibility issue over potential Russian involvement in his election, Gou too struggles with his promise to create blue-collar job positions with his notorious investment in Wisconsin.
Despite having been granted tax breaks by Wisconsin, the “Wisconn Valley Science and Technology Park” project, touted as a job creator by Gou and Trump in 2018, is said to now have transformed into a research and development-focused center which would primarily hire researchers and engineers rather than manufacturing workers. The slow start to the project is worrisome to many and is projected to under-deliver on creation of blue-collar jobs.
Terry Gou: Hostile to the Fourth Estate
Trump is known for his assault of what he deems “liberal” media, such as CNN and the New York Times. Gou is no too different. He is known for pursuing legal action against journalists and media for not-so-pleasant information published on him. He also once publicly ripped up a Commercial Times newspaper at a Foxconn press conference. Not too different from Trump, his relentless attacks on the press have often given him even more public attention.
At a panel held to honor the 40th anniversary of the Taiwan Relations Act, Gou forcefully stood up to ask a question even when the moderator signaled that the time for Q&A was up. He then accused Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Legislator Hsiao Bi-khim (蕭美琴) for “not looking straight at him” when he insisted on pushing through with his question on Taiwan’s economic future.
Yes. Gou, a powerful male businessman wearing a ROC hat, demanded a female legislator to “look at him when he talks.”
For many, Gou’s candidacy and the amount of support he has backing him is worrying.
A BBC report points out that a President Gou would bring Taiwan closer to China, but this is an understatement. For those supporting Taiwanese nationalism, a President Gou could very much reverse the democratic progress many of the first-generation activists made. Gou, a man with significant business interests in China, should be questioned over whether he would be willing to accept Chinese demands against the interest of the Taiwanese people for his personal interest. Foxconn, like many businesses in China, has a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) attache.
Gou’s personal success with his business almost directly suggests his lack of faith and commitment to help Taiwan transform into an innovation economy, an effort pushed by the current administration.
Gou has shown his unrelenting willingness to silence all voices that could raise potential opposition of him. This may very well signal a reversal in the development of Taiwan’s free press. In 1984, writer and KMT critic Henry Liu, known by his pen name Chiang Nan (江南), was assassinated at his home in California under direction from the regime for writing an "unauthorized” biography of then-leader Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國), the son of Chiang Kai-shek. The people of Taiwan should worry over Gou’s attitude towards the press in context of this history. Taiwan has come a long way since the time when writers had to hide behind pen names in concern of their personal safety.
Gou’s personal success with his business almost directly suggests his lack of faith and commitment to help Taiwan transform into an innovation economy, an effort pushed by the current administration. Foxconn has already terminated all production lines located in Taiwan and relocated most of its business to China. Though he has promised to set up a center in Wisconsin promising blue collar jobs, that plan has since transformed to become a research and design center hiring primarily white-collar engineers and scientists. But Gou could very much have invested in Taiwan with the current business-friendly environment. His ambition for a “Wisconn Valley Science and Technology Park” almost seems like a desire to set up a personally-directed competition against Taiwan’s Hsinchu Science Park, which is already robust in activity.
For foreign Taiwan watchers and those concerned with Taiwan’s future, these subtle yet significant details of Gou must be kept in mind when considering his candidacy. Gou’s conceptions of the importance of trust, open media, democracy and dictatorship certainly run against a Taiwanese culture which has come to embrace and treasure democratic values and free speech.
Though Gou is a very successful businessman and credit is clearly in order for his role in helping Taiwan develop, we must also question whether he is willing to do so as he takes all of his eggs out of the Taiwan basket and into the China basket. Gou has also run Foxconn with little concern for the livelihood of his subordinates, and he is a master of shaping the press around him. He has already made more than NT$170 million (US$5.5 million) in Foxconn stock, which shot up when he announced his campaign last week.
As we look at Gou, we should see the eerie similarities between Trump’s rise to power and Gou’s attempt today. Taiwan can look at Trump and the many unresolved concerns about him. The Mueller report, collusion with Russia, human rights issues at the southern border and more: These all constitute potential and growing threats to U.S. democracy. Taiwan must evaluate whether it is willing to expose itself to potential threats to its own democracy during this critical 2020 election.