In a rare moment, a prominent Taiwanese spent a short time on the world stage Tuesday, addressing a news conference from the White House, no less.
In an appearance inviting comparisons to celebrated director Ang Lee (李安) receiving an Oscar, Foxconn Chairman Terry Gou (郭台銘) joined President Donald Trump to announce he would spend US$10 billion on a factory of LCD panels for computers and TV sets which will employ 3,000 workers and might eventually end up with jobs for 13,000.
Due to Taiwan’s international status, it hardly ever happens that a Taiwanese citizen can meet with some of the world’s most powerful people, and even a simple phone call from President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) to Trump shortly after his election last year was enough to cause outrage in Beijing.
Of course, it would have been even more of a triumph if, instead of China or the United States, Gou had chosen his home country Taiwan for a new plant.
Nevertheless, the sharing of a platform with Trump is certain to provide new fuel to rumors of a presidential bid for Gou in the 2020 election.
Even if the tycoon is not directly involved in Taiwanese politics yet, he has shown himself adept at playing U.S. politics.
Picking the state of Wisconsin to build a factory and create jobs is a choice with political implications. The state is the home of several high-profile Republicans, including former party chairman, now White House chief-of-staff Reince Priebus, who has been named as the force which turned the Badger State from blue to red, allowing Scott Walker to become its high-profile governor. The Foxconn investment plan is said to almost assure the Republican re-election. Another top politician present at Gou’s speech was House Speaker Paul Ryan, in whose Kenosha election district the factory will be pulled up.
The spotlight on the Foxconn founder, whose sympathies for the opposition Kuomintang (KMT, 國民黨) are a public secret, comes at a time when Tsai battles low opinion polls. Commentators have even been hinting that she should not try for a second term, but be replaced at the 2020 election by William Lai (賴清德), whose final term as mayor of Tainan City ends in December 2018. Lai could also first try his hand at the premiership, replacing Lin Chuan (林全) later this year, the same pundits suggest.
Yet, opinion polls are fickle, and as the Tsai Administration is trying to push through major reforms in widely varying fields, popularity problems were unavoidable, as change will always meet with resistance by those affected.
One of the most recent opinion polls puts Lai ahead of all contenders inside or outside the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (民進黨), and especially ahead of KMT candidates, with only Gou performing slightly better, if still not well enough to win.
The tycoon’s presence at the White House smiling in the company of President Trump has given him a presidential aura, but moving into Taiwan’s almost century-old Presidential Office Building on Ketagalan Boulevard will be quite another task.
Even though Foxconn’s international reach might make Gou world-famous, it might work against him on the domestic political scene. His company’s huge presence in China is more likely to be a burden than a plus, as it will open him to pressure or even blackmail. The voting public in Taiwan will suspect that he will be unlikely to resist Chinese ambitions as Beijing might retaliate against his business interests if he veers too far from their ideas.
Instead of looking for economic salvation in China or in the U.S., Taiwan seems to have more to hope from the government’s New Southbound Policy (新南向政策) than from the Foxconn founder’s global wanderings, as shown by the unexpected visit of Economics Minister Lee Chih-kung (李世光) to Thailand.
The trip follows mixed signals from the Southeast Asian country. Bangkok first decided to deport 25 Taiwanese fraud suspects to China, but then it sent another 18 home to Taiwan. Earlier, it apparently refused to allow such diverse political figures as former Vice President Annette Lu (呂秀蓮) and former KMT Chairwoman Hung Hsiu-chu (洪秀柱) to visit the country.
Lee’s trip and his attendance at a bilateral business forum is a promising sign that when the issues are purely economical, the countries targeted by Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy are still brave enough to shove Chinese pressure aside and put their own interests first.
While interference from China is certain to continue, economic issues, trade and investment will win Taiwan more friends.
If the island wants to regain its status as the leader of the Asian tiger or dragon economies, pushing through necessary domestic economic reforms and forging close ties with friendly neighbors are more likely to “make Taiwan great again” than relying on distant high-profile investment plans.