Han’s meteoric rise over the past several months will seem familiar to those who observed Trump’s transition from long-shot candidate to disrupter of his party’s political establishment. Han is currently touring the United States, stopping in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Boston—highlights of his itinerary include speeches at Harvard and Stanford, a meeting with a Los Angeles deputy mayor, and talks scheduled with Representatives Ted Lieu and Judy Chu. Han has played coy about a presidential run, but candidates in Taiwan typically visit the U.S. to meet with politicians and officials in what amounts to an unofficial job interview.
On the surface, the parallels with Trump are striking, and here in Taiwan, Han’s off-the-cuff remarks have similarly earned him criticism. Speaking to a women’s association last year about attracting foreign investment, Han said, “If you create 1,000 job opportunities, I’ll give you a kiss. If you create 10,000, I’ll sleep with you for one night.” He recently had to apologize after referring to Filipinos by a derogatory name; hundreds of thousands of Southeast Asian laborers live here, and often suffer discrimination. While campaigning to be mayor of Kaohsiung, he promised to bring Disneyland, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and casino gambling to the city, and to transform it into Taiwan’s richest metropolis—all of which are, at best, unlikely. Some supporters who attended his December inauguration even wore hats emblazoned with Make Kaohsiung Great Again.
For many Taiwanese, though, the most unsettling thing about Han is his views toward China. Despite having never ruled Taiwan, China’s Communist government regards the subtropical island, which lies 100 miles off its southeast coast, as part of its territory and seeks to annex it, potentially by force. Recently, China has been striking a threatening military posture toward Taiwan. In a January speech, Chinese leader Xi Jinping renewed calls for Taiwan’s unification with China under a “one country, two systems” framework akin to that granted to Hong Kong, which he said would preserve Taiwan’s democratic way of life. But under Xi, China’s most powerful ruler since Mao Zedong, political freedom in Hong Kong has eroded quickly and, looking at developments there, many Taiwanese, the overwhelming majority of whom oppose unification, are skeptical.
In Han, Beijing appears to have found its preferred candidate for Taiwan’s presidency. He has pushed for greater economic ties between Kaohsiung and China three years into Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s attempt to diversify the island’s economy away from an overreliance on its threatening northern neighbor. Vowing to bring more trade with, and tourists from, China, Han appealed to voters in Kaohsiung, which in the 1980s was the world’s third-busiest port, “If goods flow out and people flow in, Kaohsiung will become wealthy.”