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Q&A: Mayor of Kaohsiung, a Taiwanese politician on a meteoric rise, talks cross-strait relations

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Han Kuo-yu has been the recipient of non-stop media attention and online support ever since his successful campaign for mayor of the politically-important city of Kaohsiung in southern Taiwan. He is currently touring, meeting leaders in government and giving speeches across the United States in what many in Taiwan hope to be a sign that he is gearing up for a run in the upcoming presidential elections.

Han spoke on Monday, Apr. 15 in Encina Hall about reshaping party politics and public service in Taiwan’s democracy. The event, titled “My Vision for Kaohsiung,” was co-sponsored by The Hoover Institution and the Taiwan Democracy and Security Project, as part of the U.S.-Asia Security Initiative. Han’s visit was closed to outside media and his interactions were limited to members of the Stanford community, but he sat down with The Daily to discuss Taiwan-United States collaboration, cross-strait relations and Taiwanese democracy.

Han was elected mayor in Nov. 2018, becoming the first member of the Kuomintang to hold the position since 1998. Prior to becoming mayor, he served as the member of the Legislative Yuan from Taipei County from 1993 to 2002 and later became the general manager of the Taipei Agricultural Products Marketing Corporation.

The Stanford Daily (TSD): Why is the United States important to Taiwan?

Han Kuo-yu (HKY): For the past 70 years, Taiwan’s national security has been completely dependent on the United States’ support. I’ve always put Taiwan’s national security first –– if there is no safety, then we lose everything. Especially after the Korean War, the United States has always been Taiwan’s strongest force of support.

Second, the majority of Taiwan’s next generation is emigrating to the United States.

Third, during Chiang Ching-kuo’s term, a large group of talented Americans with backgrounds in science and technology made investments in the development of Taiwanese technology, which was the driving force behind all of Taiwan’s high-technology advancements. Without support from this group’s knowledge, experience and global vision, we would not have found technological success. So from the standpoint of national security, exchange of talent, technological development and trading, the United States is extremely important to Taiwan.

TSD: How would you define Taiwan’s relationship with China?

HKY: Taiwan and China’s location, history, blood ties, culture and sentiments are intertwined. Taiwan has one choice –– to engage with China, because we can’t hide.

However, there are Taiwanese people who think China is completely unimportant to Taiwan. The government is encouraging companies from Taiwan to invest abroad rather than invest in China. But the diplomatic strategy of establishing commercial relationships in countries other than China have all failed, for example, in Latin America. So the answer is clear: we 100 percent must engage with China.

Several members of the Taiwanese elite say we can ignore China; they think that if China sends over a military aircraft, it’s not Taiwan’s problem. But … [this] is a blind spot in their thinking. The people who think that way are like ostriches, burying their heads in the sand. They don’t want to face the reality that there is a military threat from our neighbor. We must find ways to protect Taiwan’s 23 million citizens, for our safety and for our economy.

A lot of people don’t agree with me. Everyone has their own opinions about the mainland. But my belief is that we must engage with China. We need to have wisdom. We must ensure our own safety. And we must make sure Taiwanese people can be economically self-sufficient. This is Taiwan’s challenge.

TSD: Why do you reject China’s “One Country, Two Systems” for Taiwan?

HKY: Out of the past 120 or so years, Taiwan has only been under direct control of Beijing for four [of them]. Around 120 years ago, the Qing Dynasty government ceded Taiwan to Japan in perpetuity in the 1895 Treaty of Shimonoseki. From 1895 to 1945, Taiwan was under control of the Japanese.

In 1945, Japan lost World War II and ceded Taiwan back to China. So from 1945 to 1949, Taiwan was under direct control of the Kuomintang, the party that ruled China at the time. In 1949, the Kuomintang lost the Chinese civil war to the Communist party, which is when the Communist party took control of Beijing while the Kuomintang took over Taiwan.

How can Taiwan be “one country” with China if it only spent four years under Beijing’s direct influence?

“One Country, Two Systems” may work for Hong Kong or Macau, but not Taiwan. China made treaties with England and Portugal regarding the legal return of the Hong Kong and Macau territories back to China. It’s not the same for Taiwan because there was no treaty to govern the ongoing relationship between China and Taiwan.

In addition, Taiwan’s population consists of five groups of people who don’t share the same experience: the aborigines, those who already settled in Taiwan before 1949, those who immigrated to Taiwan after 1949, the new wave of immigrants from mainland China and southeast Asia, and the children of those new immigrants. If Taiwan subjected itself to “One Country, Two Systems” under China’s rule, the groups would not be able to accept it –– the groups don’t all think alike, and it’s hard for them to imagine being governed by a single administration in Beijing.

Moreover, Taiwan is already accustomed to democracy. Taiwan has grown up in an atmosphere of democracy in the past few decades, so there is absolutely no way we can accept the theory of “One Country, Two Systems.”

TSD: What is your opinion on the current Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)?

HKY: The DPP’s ruling party has absolutely no power. Corruption is severe. There are three kinds of people who vote for the DPP. The first type of people are those who hate the Kuomintang. The second type of people are those who want Taiwanese independence. The third type of people are those who have suffered in the past and think that voting for the DPP will help them lead a better life. So the reason why DPP candidates aren’t high in the polls is because all three groups of people who vote for them are [now] disillusioned.  

TSD: What impact does the trade war between the United States and China have on Taiwan?

HKY: Washington D.C. wants Taiwan to love America. Beijing wants Taiwan to love China. But Taiwan is wondering, who’s going to love us? No one asked Taiwan what we want. This isn’t fair.

We have a population of 23 million people, and no one asked what we want. Think of Taiwan as a small cog between two large gears. We can’t let one of the gears completely control our movement. As long as we have wisdom and self-sustaining strength, the small cog can rotate the two larger gears.

Taiwan doesn’t want to be caught in a war between two elephants. We want to have the wisdom to navigate our own path and benefit from both countries.

This transcript was translated to English from Mandarin and has been lightly edited and condensed.

Contact Alex Tsai at aotsai ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Alex Tsai ’21 is a desk editor for The Daily’s University beat. She was born and raised in Hong Kong and moved to La Jolla, CA for high school. Alex is a member of the varsity lacrosse team and is interested in computer science. She is also developing the Daily mobile app. Contact her at aotsai 'at' stanford.edu.