Taiwanese politics has been rocked by a huge scandal this week.
It is not the scurrilous attempts by the former KMT candidate for Mayor of Taipei, Ting Shou-chung (丁守中), to undermine the election of Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je to a second term in office.
Instead, the whole country is debating 'baker-gate.' This term may not have actually been used yet to describe the political scandal that has engulfed popular Taiwanese baker Wu Pao-chun (吳寶春), but all big political scandals need a ‘-gate’ suffix and ‘baker-gate’ seems the most appropriate one here.
The first thing to say about Wu Pao-chun is that he bakes really good bread. Anyone who has queued up outside his bakery on Sihwei Road in Kaohsiung, or its branches in Taipei or Taichung will attest to the fact that, in a country with no shortage of bakeries at the moment, his products are a cut above the rest.
Until earlier this week, the closest Wu had got to being involved in politics was an off-the-cuff comment back in 2016 that he had no plans to invest in China because, while there are 1.3 billion people in the Chinese market, the rest of the world’s market is more than 5.7 billion.
However, over the past two years, his stance on this has changed and he is now opening a branch of his bakery in Shanghai. The situation that has subsequently arisen illustrates in microcosm the petty issues that any Taiwanese businessman can face in China.
Wu’s cross-straits media crisis
Firstly, he was hit by a barrage of negative online criticism by the Chinese Communist Party’s 50 cent army, their million-strong state-funded online troll army who receive payments for online and social media posts that support the Communist party’s policy positions.
They claimed his comments about China were derogatory and an indication that Wu supported Taiwanese independence. There was no evidential basis for this supposition, but, nevertheless, Wu felt the need to put out a statement in response. This is where his trouble began.
In the statement, Wu described himself as being born in ‘Taiwan, China’ and called himself Chinese. He also stated his support for the so-called ‘1992 Consensus’, a fictional agreement between Taiwan and China, created by a KMT legislator in 2000, which is supposed to state that both countries believe in the principal of ‘One China’.
It is difficult to understand quite why Wu would put out such a statement. Perhaps he thought that this statement would only be read by people in China. If he did, it was naïve of him in the extreme. Inevitably, it was quickly picked up on by Taiwanese citizens, many of whom were furious at his pandering to the Chinese Communist Party and their troll army.
Their backlash was inevitable and left Wu in the tricky position of having alienated his customer-base in both Taiwan and China. A shrewder businessman would have hired a good PR firm to help mitigate the damage and manage the escalating media story. Wu didn’t do this.
For some reason, he instead decided that the best way to smooth things over with critics in Taiwan was to hold a press conference alongside the Mayor-elect of Kaohsiung, Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜). Han is a known supporter of Taiwan’s unification with China and is also an outspoken advocate of the fictional 1992 Consensus. He is therefore hardly someone likely to appease those angered by Wu’s statement.
At the press conference, Wu tried to brush off the issue by saying he was ‘a simple baker’ and not a politician. But this brings us to the nub of the problem.
We can no longer look the other way on China
If you are a businessman who wants to invest in China, there is a trade-off that has to be made. You can access the huge market in China and make big profits. However, if you want to do this you have to play the CCP game.
That basically means that if the CCP, or one of its many brainwashed supporters, says “jump”, you have to say, “how high” and jump pretty damn fast. You do not criticize the CCP in any way; you do not make any statements that contradict the CCP’s political line on any issue, and you do not, under any circumstances, advocate Taiwanese independence. In effect, you agree to become complicit in what the CCP does.
That means that you are willing to overlook China’s shocking human rights records, the million-plus people they have locked away in concentration camps in Xinjiang province, the oppression of Christians, Muslims, Falun Gong, and any other religious minorities, the use of dollar-diplomacy to enslave developing countries around, the complete erosion of freedom for the Chinese people, and the implementation of a single-party authoritarian regime which clings to power through a mixture of fear and oppression.
But it also means that you are willing to accept the CCP’s position on the sovereignty of Taiwan. If they feel that you have done anything to imply that Taiwan is not a part of China, you can expect to have to grovel if you don’t want to face the economic consequences.
This is where Wu Pao-chun finds himself now and it would be easy to sympathize with him. After all, as he said himself at his press conference, he is just a ‘simple baker’ not a politician.
CCP complicity should have consequences
But in this day and age, this is no longer an acceptable line of defense. The scale of CCP atrocities and human rights abuses is common knowledge around the world. Their flawed stance on Taiwanese sovereignty and utter intransigence over the issue is also well known.
If you invest in China, you are signing up to support these acts and these policy positions. You become complicit in them. You are indicating that you are happy to invest in a regime that does these things because profit is more important to you than principle.
For Taiwanese businesspeople, it is the Taiwan issue that is always likely to rear its head first. It is their Achilles heel in Communist China. Even if they are staunchly pro-unification, they are still from Taiwan and therefore attacking them over Taiwanese independence is fair game.
Wu’s personal views on Taiwanese independence are actually not that clear and, of course, he is entitled to his views whatever they may be. But by choosing to invest in Communist China, he must accept the risks that he is taking there and also back home. All actions have consequences and Wu is feeling his right now.
Greed has got the better of him. He wanted to have his cake and eat it. But things haven’t gone to plan and it looks likely that the bread from Wu Pao-chun's bakeries is going to taste pretty stale to customers in both countries from now on.