Asia Pacific / Politics | ANALYSIS

Foxconn's Terry Gou says he will follow order of sea goddess to run for Taiwan presidency

Bloomberg, Staff Report

Foxconn founder Terry Gou has claimed divine endorsement for his bid to become Taiwan’s president: support of the Chinese sea goddess Mazu.

The billionaire told reporters after visiting a New Taipei City temple Wednesday that the goddess had encouraged him to “come forward” to support peace across the Taiwan Strait.

He made the remarks a day after saying that he was considering a run with the opposition Kuomintang to challenge President Tsai Ing-wen, whose Democratic Progressive Party advocates a more decisive break from the mainland, in next year’s general election.

Tsai is also facing a challenge for the DPP nomination by her former Prime Minister William Lai Ching-te, a vocal advocate of asserting the island’s formal independence.

The 68-year-old Gou has amassed a personal fortune of about $4.4 billion building consumer electronics on which other companies can slap their brand, including Apple and Sony. The Foxconn Technology Group — the main assembler of iPhones — was among the first Taiwanese companies to build factories in China to tap lower wages and land costs.

Foxconn also acquired control of Japan’s Sharp Corp. in 2016 to try to boost its advanced screen technology.

Gou is Taiwan’s third-richest person and the 442nd in the world, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. His resources could help him stand out among a field of potential challengers who include former New Taipei City Mayor Eric Chu and former legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng.

Han Kuo-yu and Ko Wen-je, the outspoken mayors of Kaohsiung and Taipei, also haven’t ruled out a run.

The Kuomintang controlled Taiwan for all but 11 years since World War II and is expected to choose a candidate in the coming weeks. China cut off official communication with Taiwan after Tsai’s DPP ousted the Kuomintang from the presidency and parliamentary majority in 2016, citing her refusal to accept that both sides belong to “one China.”

The two have been governed separately since Chiang Kai-shek moved his Kuomintang government to Taipei during the Chinese civil war.

Gou’s entry into Taiwan’s presidential race illustrates the dilemma facing Tsai as she prepares for an uphill re-election bid.

On one side, Tsai must contend with a resurgent Kuomintang advocating closer ties with China and eager to regain power after three years in the opposition. On the other, she is battling the nomination fight within the DPP, where her pro-independence base is pushing for a cleaner break from the mainland.

A challenge by Gou represents a broader problem for Tsai. A series of tough policy fights and an isolation campaign by China have pushed public support for her re-election into the teens in some public opinion surveys and have encouraged several would-be contenders from among the more China-friendly “pan-blue” camp.

Gou’s resources could pose a formidable challenge to Tsai.

But first, she must survive a primary challenge from Lai, a self-described “independence worker” who has pledged a firmer push-back against China. That has forced Tsai to shore up her base, cracking down on mainland investments, visitors and other potential sources of political influence.

“Tsai is caught in between,” said Chang Ling-chen, an emeritus political science professor at the National Taiwan University. “She is not only having to fight for party support in the primary, but will also face a contest from the pan-blue group.”

One possible solution for Tsai would be to convince Lai to join as her vice presidential running mate. But polls show him running more competitively against possible Kuomintang candidates than Tsai. The DPP has delayed its primary until at least late May to allow more time for negotiations.

In the meantime, Tsai’s government has raised the top fine for illegal mainland investments to 25 million new Taiwan dollars ($800,000) from NT$600,000 previously and removed a communications regulator accused of failing to clamp down on false reports benefiting China. Earlier this month, Taiwan deported a mainland academic, Li Yi, after he tried to deliver a speech on unification while on a visit to the island.

She has also held a series of events with China hawks in the U.S. in which she sounded the alarm about Communist Party “coercion” and urged greater military support from Washington.

The race comes against the backdrop of increased pressure from Beijing, with President Xi Jinping suggesting earlier this year that mainland China and Taiwan should enter into “in-depth democratic consultations” on unification.

“The scrutiny has always been there, as the DPP is wary of China’s influence on Taiwan society and politics,” said Yuan-kang Wang, a professor of political science at Western Michigan University. “The upcoming elections might have created some sense of urgency in curbing Chinese influence.”

Although China and Taiwan have been ruled separately since the late 1940s, Beijing has said any moves by Taiwan to formalize its status as a sovereign state would be grounds for invasion. Tsai has so far avoided actions that might provoke the Communist Party, frustrating some within her party.

The risk for Tsai is moving so far toward her base that she cedes the middle to a Kuomintang challenger.

Improving China ties has been a unifying theme among the pan-blue contenders. Han, the former mayor of Kaohsiung, has described China and the island as two partners in an “arranged marriage” who had fallen “madly in love” and said that peace talks were “inevitable” between the democratically run Taiwan and the Communist Party-ruled mainland.

Gou’s personal story as the child of mainland emigres who made a fortune in China echoes Taiwan’s own economic dependence on the much larger economy next door. That might appeal to Taiwanese voters. Public opinion polls show they favor continuing the island’s ambiguous status without immediate independence or unification.

“Like other Kuomintang candidates, Gou also supports Taiwan’s economic links with China,” said Austin Wang, a political scientist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “Where he differs from other party rivals is that he has business experience.”