TAIPEI — A populist mayor in Taiwan who favors closer ties with China won the opposition party’s nomination to run against President Tsai Ing-wen, who has been sharply critical of Beijing’s attempts to pressure the island into unification.
The nomination of Han Kuo-yu, who survived a challenge from Terry Gou, founder of the world’s largest iPhone assembler, will offer Taiwan’s voters a stark choice in January’s election between governments leaning toward Washington or Beijing.
Tsai, the incumbent from the Democratic Progressive Party, drew sharp condemnation from China last week when she visited New York City and spoke at Columbia University. The speech underlined the warmest ties between Washington and Taipei in two decades.
Han, mayor of the southern Taiwanese city of Kaohsiung, was selected by the opposition Kuomintang based on the results of public opinion and phone surveys taken over the last week that showed he was backed by 45 percent of respondents compared with 28 percent for Gou.
“Han’s primary victory was quite convincing,” said Austin Wang, an associate professor of political science at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, who studies Taiwan politics. “The gap between Han and Gou was huge.”
Han has accused Tsai’s government of failing to improve people’s lives, while suggesting that some recent authoritarian East Asian leaders offer a model for Taiwan, which democratized in the early 1990s after nearly four decades of brutal martial law.
At a large June 1 rally in Taiwan’s capital, Taipei, Han singled out three political figures for praise: Chiang Ching-kuo, the former Kuomintang dictator of Taiwan; Lee Kuan Yew, the late authoritarian ruler of Singapore; and Deng Xiaoping, who initiated economic overhauls in China in the 1980s but was responsible for the Tiananmen Square massacre.
Han visited China earlier this year, where he met with top Communist Party officials in the former British colony of Hong Kong and the former Portuguese colony of Macao. Both territories are administered by Beijing under a “one country, two systems” framework that, in theory, allows a high degree of local autonomy in all areas aside from diplomacy and national defense.
China’s Communist Party claims self-ruled Taiwan as its territory. In January, China’s leader, Xi Jinping, urged Taiwan’s 23 million people to choose peaceful unification with China under a “one country, two systems” arrangement. In the same speech, Xi also said he would not rule out war as a means of bringing Taiwan under Beijing’s control.
Han has promoted the view that Taiwan and China belong to the same country, and had argued that closer ties with China would lift Taiwan’s economy. His tone has changed, however, in the wake of the recent wave of large protests in Hong Kong, where residents have demonstrated against a bill that would allow extraditions to mainland China and against police abuses during the protests.
In June, shortly after one of the biggest protest marches in Hong Kong, Han said that if he were elected president, Taiwan would only accept China’s “one country, two systems” proposal “over my dead body.”
Gou has been critical of the support Han has received from what many Taiwanese call the “red media,” or local news outlets that are more sympathetic to Beijing — led by those belonging to the Want Want Group, which has often been critical of the outspoken tycoon.
There has been widespread speculation that Gou may run for president as an independent. Although he appears to have lost convincingly to Han, the nature of the public poll, which also surveyed nonparty members, led to suspicion that supporters of Tsai had said they backed Han, viewing him as a weaker opponent for Tsai than Gou.
In addition to a possible independent bid by Gou, Taipei’s independent mayor, Ko Wen-je, may also announce his candidacy for January’s election. Should they both join the race, it would most likely benefit Tsai, since like Han they are seen as more China-friendly than Tsai, and would very likely split voters who favor closer ties with China.
Despite his victory, Han faces challenges within his own party, the Kuomintang. Having campaigned as the “president of the common people” who will help Taiwanese get rich — without offering details on how he intends to do so — he now needs to win over the party elite.
“Well-educated Kuomintang elites may not want to openly support Han,” Wang said. “He needs to focus on issues that those elites will want to work on with him.”