Two unconnected developments that occurred this weekend provided further proof that next year’s presidential election will be a bitterly fought contest between two radically different visions of Taiwan’s future. On the pro-independence side, a continuation of the President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) administration’s “Western pivot” and program of democratic reforms, or, on the pro-China side, a radical political realignment involving concessions to and appeasement of Beijing in exchange for the promise of untold riches.
China Unification Promotion Party founder Chang An-le (張安樂) on Saturday held a news conference in Chiayi announcing his support for Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜), the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) presidential candidate. Chang said his party would not be fielding a candidate in the election and predicted that a Han presidency would bring “eight years of peace” to both sides of the Taiwan Strait.
Han has not made any effort to distance himself from Chang’s ringing endorsement, which is telling, as Chang is no ordinary politician.
To say that Chang has a checkered past would be a gross understatement. Chang is more commonly known by his Bamboo Union triad nickname “White Wolf.” The Bamboo Union, the largest of Taiwan’s three main criminal syndicates, has historically had close ties to the KMT and was used by the party during the Martial Law era to carry out its dirty work. Chang spent 10 years behind bars in the US during the 1980s for drug trafficking. In 1996, pursued by Taiwanese police for suspected involvement in organized crime, Chang fled to China. During his sojourn in Shenzhen, Chang founded his pro-unification party, returning to Taiwan in 2013. These days he performs the function of a rabble rouser and is Beijing’s “united front” agitator-in-chief.
Add to this Han’s closed-door meeting with Chinese officials during a visit to Hong Kong earlier this year and his frequent boasts that he will “make the country rich” through closer ties with China, and a picture emerges of a man who, if elected, could be Taiwan’s most pro-Beijing president to date.
Meanwhile, Tsai’s other main challenger looks to be Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲), who last week founded a new political party, but has yet to formerly toss his hat into the ring. Ko might be less overtly pro-China than Han, but he could still be a liability.
Ko’s carefully crafted public statements are often contradictory to the point of saying nothing at all. His words often leave the impression that he has no principles whatsoever. His remarks on Sunday were no exception as he waded into the controversy over Taiwanese beverage chains forced to take a stance on the protests in Hong Kong.
“This is an example of politics suppressing economics,” Ko said. Speaking out of the other side of his mouth, Ko went on to say: “Taiwan’s democratic development in the past 30 years can serve as an inspiration for the mainland,” in a sop to the pro-independence camp.
It is often said that there are two types of politicians: those who enter politics to do something and those who want to be someone. Ko appears to fall into the latter category. This is potentially dangerous: In office he might be as pliable as plasticine and before long, well and truly under Beijing’s thumb.
Han’s and Ko’s campaigns are, to varying degrees, essentially arguing for a similar type of future for Taiwan: a part or full reversal of Tsai’s reforms, which have achieved diplomatic breakthroughs and brought Taiwan closer to the US and the democratic free world, in return for the dubious promise of milk and honey.