No country is safe from populist takeover. Modi, Erdogan, Maduro, our very own Trump — just last month, Boris Johnson secured his position in the lineup.
Since coming to Taiwan, I’ve been unable to avoid the phenomenon that is 韓國瑜 (Han Guo Yu). It’s a name that stokes fear in some, and unbridled national fervor in others.
Popularly referred to as “Korea Fish” by my students (a rough translation of his Chinese name), Han has drawn the nation’s attention throughout his chaotic campaign for the 2020 presidential election.
As the mayor of 高雄 (Kaohsiung), Han has made some truly spectacular promises to his constituents, including the construction of an entire Disneyland theme park to pay off the city’s debt.
What draws people in to these populist characters seems to be a cocktail of lofty promises, charisma, and national identity crises.
By capitalizing on Taiwan’s most critical identity crisis — its tumultuous relationship with China — Han gained a lot of traction within his political party.
The 國民黨 (KMT) is one of Taiwan’s two major parties, along with the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). The current president, 菜英文 (Tsai Ying Wen) is a member of the DPP, and holds a strong stance on Taiwanese independence from China. She rejects the idea of “one country, two systems” which led to the deterioration of democracy in Hong Kong.
The KMT, on the other hand, has a nuanced and centuries-long history with China. As one of the major leading parties in Taiwan today, the KMT is significantly more sympathetic to Beijing than the DPP. If Taiwan were to elect Han, the nation’s democratic strength would likely falter.
As far as Americans go, I’m a pretty regretful one; in a country built on genocide and slavery, “patriotism” gets tangled up with “white nationalism” all too quickly. It’s only when the fundamental principals of democracy, political freedom, and free press, that my stereotypical American-ness starts to reveal itself.
I feel so terrified on behalf of Taiwan.
When I was in Hong Kong in 2017, I spoke with a journalist named Ben Bland. He compared the deterioration of Hong Kong’s democracy to a slowly deflating balloon. Just two years after that conversation, the balloon that was Hong Kong’s liminal democracy seems to have finally caved in on itself.
Just when it seems impossible that Taiwan could meet this same fate, I’m reminded of Hong Kong, and of Han.
Thankfully, Han’s poll numbers have taken a tumble in the past few weeks, leaving incumbent president Tsai in the lead. However, having witnessed the American political tragedy of 2016, I have long since abandoned my faith in polling data. That said, I’ve talked to many Americans in Taipei who seem more nervous over Taiwan’s fate than many Taiwanese people seem to be.
I suppose we just have our own baggage.
Update: Tsai Yingwen won by a landslide 🙂