(Bloomberg) -- Taiwanese billionaire Terry Gou is acting like a model presidential candidate: He’s held political rallies, penned an editorial in a US newspaper and released a book trumpeting his work ethic.
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There’s just one problem: he’s not in the race, or not yet. The Foxconn founder kept Taiwan guessing again this week, when he skipped launching a much-teased bid to lead in one of the world’s biggest military flashpoints at a political rally swarmed by the island’s media.
“I will spend the rest of my life seeking to secure sustainable peace across the Strait,” Gou said at an event on the front-line island of Kinmen on Tuesday, without addressing swirling election rumors. The business mogul has held similar events across Taiwan in recent weeks, at which local politicians declare their support for his presidency, despite him not being a candidate.
In a Washington Post editorial last month — further stoking expectations he’d run — Gou made his pitch to voters clear, calling for stronger trade ties with China and the resumption of talks with Beijing.
Taiwan’s election in January will set the course for US-China relations for years to come, as the democratic island’s fate becomes a core issue in the two nations’ growing rivalry. If Gou became the fourth name on the ballot he’d most likely tip the balance further in favor of the frontrunner, Vice President Lai Ching-te, by splitting votes not cast for the ruling Democratic Progressive Party.
With only five months until election day, he’s trailing all three declared candidates in the polls, the DPP’s Lai, former policeman-turned-mayor Hou Yu-ih for the KMT and a former surgeon, Ko Wen-je of the Taiwan People’s Party.
“If Gou runs, the rest of us are done for,” Ko said in an interview with Chung T’ien Television earlier this month. “Lai Ching-te would 100% win. We wouldn’t even need to hold the election. Lai could pop the champagne right away.”
There is, however, a universe in which Gou could disrupt the election and still emerge victorious. If he unites with one of the other contenders ready to accept the notion Taiwan is part of China, their ticket could challenge Lai and hand President Xi Jinping a willing negotiating partner on the island, after nearly a decade of little to no communication. It’s a move Gou has hinted at, and the other candidates have sworn against, for now.
“A Taiwanese president conciliatory towards China would likely lessen overt political tensions,” said Russell Hsiao, executive director of the Global Taiwan Institute. “But a president not focused on the nation’s defense could complicate necessary preparations for a potential military conflict.”
As Taiwan awaits his decision, its future could hang on an act of divine inspiration: Gou made his last presidential bid after the Chinese sea goddess Matsu came to him in a dream. Superstition still informs his thinking. Gou this month said China should consult the same goddess before attacking Taiwan.
Having amassed a personal fortune of around $7 billion building factories in China that make most of the world’s iPhones, Gou first bid to become Taiwan’s president four years ago. That pitch to be the democratically ruled island’s answer to Donald Trump failed to earn him the opposition Kuomintang’s nomination. He quit the party soon after, with his camp calling it “conservative and hidebound”.
The 72-year-old’s political pitch hasn’t changed much since: he still supports the 1992 consensus, a tacit agreement between the KMT and the Chinese Communist Party that both sides of the Taiwan Strait are part of China — a framework President Tsai Ing-wen has refused to endorse. She says Taiwan doesn’t need to declare independence because it’s already achieved that status.
The economy and cross-strait relations are core election issues. Taiwan’s growth has slowed with a slump in exports of its chips this year, while Beijing’s increased military aggression has upped the specter of war — a threat made more visceral by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“He is rich already, he won’t be corrupted,” Li Yen, 71, said at Gou’s rally in Kinmen on Tuesday. “I believe he can maintain peace,” said Wendy Li, 31. “He won’t allow your life to be impacted by political problems.”
Gou’s background in international business has given him a unique line to world leaders: The self-made businessman met with Trump at the White House in 2019, while Xi called him an “old friend” when they crossed paths in China in 2013.
Gou touts his top-level access to China and the US as a major advantage, said Wen-Ti Sung, a political scientist for the Australia National University’s Taiwan studies program. “The other candidates would have to work for it,” he added.
Still, he has struggled to win over Taiwan’s electorate. His campaign has leaned into an old-school nationalism reminiscent of Taiwan’s authoritarian era, for example by urging attendees at his events to stand and sing the national anthem. While this may appeal to older voters, it hasn’t won him many supporters among the young.
Also, given Foxconn’s large manufacturing footprint in China, there is little he can say or do to convince skeptical voters he would be able to resist Beijing’s efforts to influence or pressure him.
If he decides to run, Gou would need to gather some 300,000 valid signatures before mid-September. But if there’s one thing he’s known for, it’s persistence. In the early 1980s, he visited 32 US states in 11 months, working as a door-to-door salesman to drum up more customers for Foxconn.
In his book, Father Gou’s 30 Letters For Young People, released this month, Gou remembers working everyday from 6.30 a.m. to 11 p.m., and sometimes as late as 2 a.m., as he grew his business empire.
If he’s got any shot at winning Taiwan’s most consequential election in decades, he’ll need to muster that energy.
--With assistance from Debby Wu and Chien-Hua Wan.
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