On Jan. 2, ex-Kaohsiung mayor and former Kuomintang (KMT) presidential candidate Daniel Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜) held a book release rally in Taipei’s Daan Park that reportedly attracted over 10,000 ardent fans and announced he is launching a new foundation devoted to charitable works. No major KMT political figures showed up, but Han said they weren’t invited — and they almost certainly weren’t.
At the rally, Han was positive, expansive, cheerful, humorous, well-rested, and energetic. And that should make the power players in the KMT extremely nervous.
After a stunning rise to political stardom, Han came crashing back to earth in June of 2020 when the voters of Kaohsiung kicked him out of the mayor's office in a stunningly successful recall. For a politician that had led the KMT to an impressive set of victories in the 2018 local elections, including the seemingly unwinnable mayorship of Kaohsiung, and then rising to become the party’s presidential candidate, it finally seemed his political career was over.
In recent memory (in the 1990s he was known for beating up and hospitalizing future President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) in the legislature), Han came to the public’s attention in a viral Taipei City Council moment as the head of the Taipei Agricultural Products Marketing Corporation (TAPMC) affiliated with the government of then-independent Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je, when he described himself as simply the rabbit that goes with the moon. He was humorously referring to his position relative to the mayor by referencing an old tale about a rabbit on the moon.
He then decided to challenge KMT party heavyweight Wu Den-yih (吳敦義) in the race for party chairmanship and lost, finishing a distant fourth. For his temerity, he was banished to the KMT equivalent of Siberia, the seemingly impregnable Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) stronghold of Kaohsiung, presumably to sink back into obscurity.
This unleashed a series of events that can only be described as epic.
The move south put Han in the hands of one of Taiwan’s most legendary political operators: former Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng (王金平), a Kaohsiung factional politician so wily and terrifying to the KMT's Taipei elites that former President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) once tried to get him expelled from the party while Wang was out of the country in order to get someone more pliable to head the party caucus. Wang outmaneuvered the sitting president of his own party and kept his speakership — and though he had been struggling against the party elites since the 1990s, this clearly infuriated him (one act of revenge was to allow Sunflower Movement protesters to continue to oppose Ma from inside the legislature).
Wu had been Ma's vice president and very much a part of those party elites Wang was arrayed against. And Wang had a plan: He had been quietly traveling the country uniting the previously fractious KMT political factions against the newly dominant DPP, which had won both the presidency and legislature in the 2016 national elections.
Though Han came from a family of Chinese exiles that arrived with the KMT and settled in the north, he was not of the elites and had married into a factional family in Yunlin County and learned how to interact with rural and southern Taiwanese. Wang spotted this potential cross-electorate appeal and threw himself into helping Han achieve the impossible and get elected mayor of his hometown.
Between the two, they ran one of the most remarkable political campaigns in Taiwan’s history, centered around the image of Han as a common man of the people. He was modest, gracious, relentlessly positive, and leaned heavily on nostalgia for the economic boom times and culture of the 1980s.
He effectively captured the sense of many, initially in Kaohsiung but later around the country, that the nation was failing to live up to its promise for the common folk. He led crowds in classic songs to evoke memories of the old economic miracle and campaigned on bringing back prosperity and everyone getting rich — and people loved it, in spite of many of his ideas being totally unrealistic or at times downright bizarre, like drilling for oil in the contested South China Sea and building a giant Ferris wheel love motel on the Love River.
Some started to grow very concerned about his nostalgia for an era of martial law, but his relentless positivity, humble demeanor, and refusal to engage in ugly political attacks against his opponent went down very well — after all, he was only running for mayor of a city, he couldn’t turn back the clock on his own. He swayed large numbers of independents to his side, initially in Kaohsiung, then the so-called “Han wave” spread across the country.
His fan base, most notably the 40-60 demographic that remembered the economic miracle and skewed heavily towards women, became fanatical in their devotion to him. As his “Han fan” base spread, he became the de facto leader of the KMT.
Outside of Taipei and some very deep-blue (pro-KMT) bastions in remote areas, KMT Chairman Wu Den-yih suddenly found himself marginalized and ignored. Han was the man in demand, and it was his image that appeared all over the country on campaign posters for local candidates.
Election day came, and the KMT won a staggering 15 out of 22 mayoral and county commissioner seats. The DPP was trounced, leading to Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) resigning as party chair and setting the stage for a primary challenge by her own premier, Lai Ching-te (賴淸德), in spite of him having promised he wouldn’t mount one.
This left Wu in the uncomfortable position of being viewed as more of a liability than an asset in the party he had nominally led to victory. Everyone knew the real brains behind the victory was Wang Jin-pyng.
Wang then declared his intention to run for president. This was a terrifying prospect for Wu and the elites.
So Wu hatched a plan as 2019 wore on: woo Han into running for president. Han initially politely resisted, pointing out he had only been elected mayor of Kaohsiung months before.
This polite decline is part of the political game in Taiwan, and Wu played his part of the game well by drumming up huge support for drafting Han, thereby “forcing” him into “reluctantly” accepting. Wu even changed the primary rules to ensure Han could not only run but would likely win.
Wu eventually succeeded in getting Han to betray Wang and run. Han won the nomination.
This prompted a backlash. Many were furious at him for abandoning Kaohsiung, while others became deeply alarmed at his apparent authoritarian sympathies and pro-China stance.
The backlash grew intense, and a significant portion of society began to despise him — including, embarrassingly, high school students who accepted their degrees from him while displaying mocking messages. He became the most polarizing figure in the country, fervently loved by his Han fans and deeply hated by others.
This clearly took a toll, and as the presidential campaign wore on, he became increasingly angry and hostile — very much unlike his mayoral run. He looked haggard and bitter.
In spite of winning around 1.7 million more votes than then-KMT presidential candidate Eric Chu (朱立倫) did in 2016, those who opposed him turned out in even greater numbers, handing Tsai Ing-wen a landslide victory. Then his own city turned against him and turfed him out in the mayoral recall.
Now he’s back, and he’s returned to being the same person who revitalized the KMT and swept the nation with his positivity and everyman charm. His new book, "Mr. Han, Knock Knock" (“韓先生來敲門”), features 12 inspirational stories of "unsung heroes," and his charity the Tien Liang Foundation (典亮慈善基金會) further emphasizes his return to positivity.
Not inviting any major KMT figures to the rally was a smart move, leaving him to own the event and paint it as non-political. On the stage were his "unsung heroes," and he wowed his over 10,000 fans at the overflowing venue with humor, singing, and inspirational anecdotes and praise for his aged mother, who was also present.
It smells very much like he’s playing the same game as before, setting himself up to be "reluctantly" drafted back into a major role — most likely this time in the party itself. Though he doesn’t remain much of a viable force among the general public, Han retains a significant measure of support in the KMT.
There are already calls for him to take over as party chair or run for president again in 2024.
Power players in the KMT are no doubt keeping a close watch on his return. The party hasn’t been inviting him to do much recently and didn’t tap him for their recent campaigns, so this return is clearly not in its wishes.
Chairman Eric Chu is facing calls to resign following a string of electoral defeats and appears to be only holding on by a thread. Even if he stays until the local elections later this year, his promises to hold on to the existing posts while picking up even more are unrealistic, and it will be tough for him to survive much beyond that.
So a power vacuum will appear at some point in the KMT in the near future. Other big players hoping to vie for the chair position now have a major force to reckon with.
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.