Will the media play ‘Pied Piper’?

By Ben Goren  / 

Wed, Apr 10, 2019 - Page 8

In a recent conversation with a local businessman, this proprietor of a medium-sized enterprise and a long-time Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) voter confided that he could understand the appeal of Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜) for “putting the economy first,” a welcome break from politicians fighting from entrenched positions while Taiwanese incomes stagnate.

He predicted that Hon Hai Precision Industry chairman Terry Gou (郭台銘) might run for president on a “white” ticket, giving long-suffering voters an option other than just “blue” and “green.”

When I suggested that it was implausible for Gou to rebrand himself as “independent” having been seen at so many Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) campaign events, the response was one of genuine surprise. This businessman was apparently entirely unaware of Gou’s long-standing association with the KMT.

Furthermore, when I suggested that Han would soon be the recipient of huge economic favors from China, the idea was greeted with skepticism.

“China would not make such a strategic mistake,” he said.

These beliefs, if held by sufficient numbers of voters as Han’s election and the media’s apparent obsession with him suggest, indicate that many Taiwanese voters could be highly politically aware, yet not very politically literate.

If true, one reason for this might be that partisan cable news stations, print media and their Internet platforms, intra and internationally, are increasingly seeking to overtly influence electoral outcomes by manufacturing consensus, polarizing debate, normalizing extremism, dressing factless smears and supposition as “news” and “astroturfing” candidates into office.

Whether a group of supporters waiting at the airport to welcome Han home after his trip to China were screaming “I support you CtiTV” was staged or not, serves to remind us that media and politics are not separate, that every decision in media is in some sense political or politicized.

CtiTV is owned by Want Want China Times Group whose chairman and chief executive is Tsai Eng-meng (蔡衍明). Want Want also owns China Television.

Tsai’s support for the KMT and its rapprochement with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the People’s Republic of China is well-known, and his media properties’ editorial lines demonstrate this on an almost daily basis.

The question of Chinese influence operations through Taiwanese media is an ongoing concern for the government and those who see how vulnerable the integrity of Taiwanese democratic processes and decisionmaking is to being “gamed.”

The ahistorical idea of a politically independent media with a raison d’etre of holding power to account, regardless of party or faction, has a mirror in wistful thinking that economics and politics are, or should, be separate.

The idea of a mythical separation between the two was promoted by former president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) as a strategy to downplay and distract from the very real political implications of his dealings with the CCP.

The Sunflower movement that occupied the Legislative Yuan in 2014 was a direct result of Ma and the KMT trying to rubber-stamp the cross-strait Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement through the legislature regardless of the concerns many had about the unspoken political dimensions of the agreement.

Last year, Han won in Kaohsiung by promising to focus solely on improving the economy, but the only explicit move he has made toward that goal thus far has been to reportedly sign deals to sell NT$5.2 billion (US$168.6 million) of Taiwanese agricultural products to cities in southern China.

Han got high praise from China’s Taiwan Affairs Office spokesman An Fengshan (安峰山), who politically framed the “achievements” as “the embodiment of the concept that ‘both sides of the Taiwan Strait belong to one family.’”

If Han thinks he can use this “success” to convince Taiwanese that his economics-first approach reaps rewards without political strings, he is sorely mistaken.

With the Sing Pao Daily News reporting that “the deals Han Kuo-yu reaped on his trip to China were gifts from the Chinese Communist Party,” it is far more likely that both Taiwanese and Chinese are well aware, and rightly suspicious, of the true purpose of this sudden CCP largess.

It appears that, once again — but this time with Han and vegetables instead of Ma and tourists — the KMT and the CCP are indeed making the same strategic mistake of trying to buy off Taiwanese votes with gifts and transparently veiled statements that only serve to reinforce the sense of crude political gears grinding just below the surface.

The separation here is not between politics and economics, but between a “united front” ideologically snared by its own ethno-nationalism and the reality that Taiwanese do not want a “one country, two systems” policy or unification in any form, dressed as economic sense or otherwise.

Han has tried to appropriate the success of Pingtung’s Lantern Festival, made deeply offensive comments about Philippine migrant workers, “paid tribute” in China and does not seem particularly interested in doing the actual work of the mayor of Taiwan’s second-largest city.

His entire career as a politician and as the head of Taipei Agricultural Products Marketing Co has been thoroughly unremarkable and lacking any personal achievement or conviction of note.

A big reason Han is mayor is because KMT Chairman Wu Den-yih (吳敦義) tapped him to lead the party in Kaohsiung, and he won mostly because he was in the right place at the right time and was savvy enough to know how to exploit that. His DPP rival was competent, but uninspiring, and the DPP had ruled the city for 20 years.

Somehow Taiwanese media have still managed to fashion “an unstoppable popular force that transcends politics” from this gaffe-prone conventional KMT political journeyman.

Looking back, it is now clear how the rise of political chameleon Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) psychologically and electorally paved the path for Han in Kaohsiung.

I would argue that Han is no longer a person, but a concerted and focused media campaign, a brand marketed for the purpose of catching votes from a tide of whipped-up discontent.

An unpleasant truth is that a nationalist plutocracy can hide in plain sight masquerading as a pluralistic democracy. When the media do not hold this plutocracy to account, but serves as a tool to promote prejudicial populism, narrow the scope of debate, misdirect public anger and grossly misinform the public, the results can be explosive and deadly.

In a popular Western TV show a particularly Machiavellian character says “chaos is a ladder.”

Sometimes there is no actual chaos, but voters are still drawn to a leader who “speaks like they do.”

So it is with Han in Kaohsiung, a rudderless hot-air balloon ascending rapidly into the political stratosphere, fueled by little more than media hype.

The businessman I spoke with liked the idea of Han’s economics-first fallacy, but when I asked him for his definition of a “good economy” his answer was “one where I can make money easily.”

Han’s campaign was tailor-made for people just like him.

It is only now that some are realizing the danger inherent if he enters the KMT’s presidential primary. The KMT appears to be concerned that if it does not find a way to shoehorn Han into the process he would not be the candidate and it might lose again, knowing full well the paucity of their other options.

Only former “eternal” legislative speaker Wang Jyn-ping (王金平) has the capacity to appeal to a wider voter demographic than the KMT’s slowly evaporating deep blue base, but the flip side of being able to make a deal with anyone is that no one trusts you.

That the KMT is entertaining Han as a possible primary candidate speaks of a desperate party that wants to win at any cost, having learned little from its 2016 defeat.

Maybe Gou, if he chooses to run, could win the primary, but the economic success of entrepreneurs like him does not automatically mean he will be a competent or honest politician.

My businessman friend agreed, worrying that Gou’s lack of principle or passion for anything other than making money, and investments in China that could be leveraged against him, made him a dangerously unpredictable and unsettling candidate for president.

For Taiwan, the elections on Jan. 11 next year could a “Brexit” moment in which Taiwanese might be given a choice of voting for a US President Donald Trump-esque “hero” who offers a snake-oil panacea for all their ills. They would be wise to exercise healthy skepticism and thoroughly interrogate the implications of handing the nation’s highest political office to the “straight-talking” charmer or the “respectable” oligarch.

It would be a decision they will have to live with for the next four years or much, much longer.

Ben Goren is an essayist, businessman and long-term resident of Taiwan.