The top brass of Taiwan’s Kuomintang party has high hopes that Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu can erase the ignominy of the presidential election defeat in 2016, when Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party seized leadership of the self-ruled island state.

This time, the bigwigs of the Beijing-friendly KMT believe that, by riding on the coattails of the party’s victories in Taiwan’s regional elections late last year, the populist Han has a decent chance to grab the presidency in January and end Tsai’s time in power.

Beijing’s cadres certainly concur with these views, as they reportedly devised plans to help Han clinch the position of mayor in Kaohsiung, a traditional DPP stronghold.

Yet Han’s strongest asset – his close contacts with China – may also be his greatest weak spot. His nomination by the KMT this week has been greeted with revelations about how he colluded with Beijing in the mayoral ballot and could do exactly the same in the presidential ballot.

‘Foreign Policy’ magazine noted in a commentary earlier this week that “a campaign of social media manipulation orchestrated by a mysterious, seemingly professional cybergroup from China” helped Han sway sentiments and poach voters from the DPP candidate for Kaohsiung’s top job.

The article, titled “Chinese cyber-operatives boosted Taiwan’s insurgent candidate” by a Kaohsiung native and current affairs commentator, said Han could be a “godsend” for Beijing – as a populist, pro-China candidate to bring the KMT back to power and Beijing’s string-pulling back on track, although he is barely six months into his tenure in Kaohsiung.

The writer, Paul Huang, commented that despite strong suspicion of Chinese meddling and a decline in Tsai’s popularity at that time, “few expected the DPP would lose Kaohsiung, as Han’s pro-China rhetoric was seen as out of place with the city’s pro-independence ethos.”

Han, left, meets with Liu Jieyi, director of the Chinese State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office, in Shenzhen in March. Photo: Handout
Han’s official page on Facebook now has more than 840,000 followers.

The KMT lauds Han’s landslide victory as stemming from his charisma and grasp of local affairs. But his campaign was buoyed by an impressive cult-following on social media: Han’s official Facebook page had 500,000 followers before the poll started last November.

But Huang found that three of the six administrators of Han’s fans’ account on Facebook had ties with the Shenzhen-based tech giant Tencent Holdings, plus Peking University and various PR firms, according to details on their Facebook and LinkedIn accounts.

Huang’s conclusion was that even though evidence about Han colluding with Beijing may be hard to verify at this stage, he must be aware of all sorts of covert help from the mainland, especially its all-out stumping for him in cyberspace.

Still, a psychological operations analyst with Taiwan’s Defense Ministry told the Taipei Times that these Facebook groups could be voluntary teams contracted through a Chinese PR company “rather than being a dedicated military or intelligence unit in itself.”

But he stressed that Beijing would aim to tap a whole plethora of channels and platforms beyond Facebook to boost Han’s popularity among netizens and youngsters in the run-up to the January election.

“China could replicate the same strategy [that worked well in the Kaohsiung mayoral election] to help Han become Taiwan’s new leader,” the analyst said.

Ruling from Kaohsiung

Meanwhile, Han told reporters on Tuesday he would remain committed to the running of Kaohsiung, Taiwan’s second-largest city, pledging to improve the city’s economy as president, if elected.

“I promise that my platform about making Kaohsiung the richest city in Taiwan will continue,” he said, adding that he would develop major infrastructure in the city, such as a new airport and a free-trade zone, and personally see these projects through as president.

In a hint of how he would try to lead the island if elected, Han said his campaign office would be based in Kaohsiung, not in Taipei.

Earlier, Han proposed a de facto relocation of Taiwan’s capital city out of Taipei, suggesting that whoever wins the election should run the administration from Kaohsiung and relocate part of the central government to the city.

He expounded further on his plan to accelerate the development of Kaohsiung and, more broadly, southern Taiwan, which has become an economic backwater compared with the more industrialized Taipei and its sprawling conurbation in the north.

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