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Hou Yu-ih's manifesto for future of Taiwan politics

New Taipei City mayor targets national audience, bucks party with personal and political manifesto

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Hou Yu-ih. (CNA)

Hou Yu-ih. (CNA)

In recent years, the Kuomintang (KMT) has shifted to overheated accusations like accusing the Tsai administration of being “a dictatorship” that is imposing a “green terror.”

While the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is also guilty of partisan attacks and below-the-belt accusations, the KMT has gone further by appealing to its deep base — with disastrous results in terms of its appeal to independent voters.

Even so, repeated opinion polls show that Taiwan’s most popular nationally recognized politician is New Taipei Mayor Hou Yu-ih (侯友宜) of the KMT, often by large margins. Hou is the only national politician with support across the political spectrum, including many DPP supporters and independents.

Hou is widely tipped as a presidential contender for 2024. Future columns will explore why his path to the presidency is more difficult than many observers realize due to his controversial history. However, the fact remains he is possibly the most talented politician in the country, and he can’t be ruled out.

Until recently, Hou’s strategy was to avoid national politics by saying he was focused on his job as New Taipei mayor. This allowed him to avoid getting dragged into whatever the partisan fight of the day may have been.

His rare forays into national politics in the past have been few but instructive. Two stand out.

One was when he attended President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) second inauguration, calling it an honor. Many other politicians in his party boycotted the event, but this demonstrated that part of Hou’s appeal is his willingness to work with pan-green (pro-DPP) figures.

The other was when he was pressured to attend rallies for the then-KMT candidate for president, Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜), and Hou refused even when the rallies were not far from his office. This slap in the face to Han was underscored by Hou saying he had only just started his job as mayor and was too busy.

Toxic Han

Hou saw early on that Han was playing to the deep blue (pro-KMT) base and was toxic with the broad electorate, and he distanced himself accordingly. It was a politically astute move; Han suffered a landslide loss after an angry and bitterly partisan campaign.

Until December, Hou had largely kept to doing his job as mayor and stayed out of national politics, which was popular. This meant, however, that what he actually stood for remained unclear.

On Dec. 13, Hou issued a 1,000-character statement on Facebook about the upcoming referendum votes. He had finally taken a bold move to solidify his hold on the public imagination and stake out a nationally recognized political identity.

His post reads like a personal political manifesto, and Facebook is where Taiwanese politicians post their missives because they know they will be widely shared and available in full, without the filter of media interpretation. If Hou one day does become president, this post will likely be viewed by historians and biographers as one of the key transition points in his career.

The context in which it was written is very important. Both the pan-blue and pan-green camps were in the middle of a partisan battle to get voters to side with them on all four of the referendum items.

His own party was growing increasingly angry with Hou for not showing support for the party line. He had previously rejected one of the referendum items supported by the KMT — restarting construction on the fourth nuclear power plant — and only showed support for the KMT-initiated referendum for the ban of pork containing ractopamine.

Referendum views

Here is how Hou, a KMT politician who is under intense pressure from his party to toe the line, starts a post entitled, “My viewpoint on the referendums":

“‘I think therefore I am,’ which is why everyone is unique. It's not just how we look that makes us different, it's even more so in how we think. It should be from one’s own thinking and deliberation that conclusions are reached, and no other person whatsoever should limit or box you in. This is mutual respect, and even more so the expression of free will.”

He continues by pointing out that in the last 10 years or so people have rejected traditional “force-fed” education with an emphasis on rote learning. He adds that some adults who grew up this way are now parents who are putting in a lot of effort to try and convince the young they are wrong.

“Originally it was supposed to be each (referendum) topic would be discussed individually, how did this become wrong, with friends and enemies acting like it is an election, opposing, clashing — isn’t everyone tired of this?”

“Regardless of whether you are in the opposition or the governing party, opinion leaders have a responsibility to, on behalf of the people, clearly enunciate the pros and cons. Those with governing authority have an even greater responsibility to resolve future problems and not to tell us to choose an ‘O’ or an ‘X’ (on ballots).”

He goes on to describe how he, like so many others when he was young had "drifted north" in search of a better life. "The last thing Taiwan needs is the fighting back-and-forth, we just want them to strive their best to get things done and persevere to do the right thing."

Time to pivot

He then pivots to himself: “In the decades since I joined public service, I have from the start kept a passion for serving the people and the nation, now for half my life. In the great last half of life ahead, I will persevere and hold firm to consistently valuing the concept that the benefit of the nation and people is foremost."

He closes with: “From the first day I became a police officer to when at age 61 I ran for office, my original aspiration has always been to protect the nation. I tell myself that to the end, my greatest efforts must be to protect public health, national stability, industrial development — to let everyone in this land live their lives peacefully and well and find happiness and joy in their life and work.”

This is a manifesto and an appeal for a governing philosophy shorn of petty partisanship. This was his response to not just his party’s pressure to conform but to politics in general.

This isn’t new, of course. Much of this is what propelled then-independent candidate and Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) Chair Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) to be elected mayor of Taipei in 2014.

Hou is polished, smooth, and eloquent. He's a master Taiwanese politician who knows when to keep his mouth shut, when to speak out and when to speak in circles.

He is in many ways the heir to former President Lee Tung-hui (李登輝;) in his mastery of the art form of classic political direction and misdirection. Like Lee, he is from a family that has been in Taiwan for hundreds of years and doesn’t speak with the more direct style of those descended from immigrants in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

This is a blessing with the broad electorate, but a curse with the elites in the KMT. Some of them curse him for being a traitor and warn he is “walking the Lee Tung-hui road”.

To that criticism, he replied, “I will never change.” Though he has made many enemies in his own party, Hou is no doubt aware that Taiwanese rank Lee as the best president in the nation’s history.


Courtney Donovan Smith (石東文) is a regular contributing columnist for Taiwan News, the central Taiwan correspondent for ICRT Radio News, co-publisher of Compass Magazine, co-founder of Taiwan Report (report.tw) and former chairman of the Taichung American Chamber of Commerce.