campaign trail: KMT rally in Kaohsiung

This year there is only one candidate who everyone is talking about, Han Kuo-yu. Like Donald Trump, who Han echoes in many way, part of the buzz around Han involves his huge and passionate campaign rallies. So on Saturday, I drove down to Kaohsiung to see firsthand whether the gushing media reports were onto something or whether it was just a lot of hype. This was the Golden Weekend, the final weekend before the election, so this event promised to be the biggest and more enthusiastic rally that Han would put on in the entire campaign. The top line summary is that this was a fantastic event, though it wasn’t off the charts or unprecedented. It was very big, but not the biggest I’ve ever been to. It was very passionate, but not the most passionate I’ve seen. I’ve been to somewhere between 150 to 200 rallies of all shapes and sizes since 1993. This was in the top 10%. It was a fantastic event, but it was firmly within the universe of existing Taiwanese rally events. Or maybe I should reverse that emphasis: saying that this event was not groundbreaking does not in any way imply that it wasn’t a hell of a spectacular rally.

 

The physical space could be divided roughly into three areas. There was a relatively small area in front of the stage with stools set out. To the right of this area, there was a section where all the vendors had set up and were selling food. Behind the area in front of the stage, there was a huge grassy area, which was divided from the area in front by a small road. The first area was jam packed. In my younger days, I would have pushed in just to be right at the center of things and experience the maximum amount of excitement. However, over the years, I have found that the people sitting down in the front are not necessarily the most enthusiastic, and I no longer have the stomach for mosh pits. I spent the evening roaming around the other two areas.

The vending area was probably the most comprehensive I have ever seen at a rally. Imagine one of those night markets that sets up once a week in a parking lot.* Take away all the vendors with games, clothes, and assorted gadgets but keep all the food. That’s about what we had here. In addition, there were lots of people selling assorted campaign flags, shirts, air horns, and such. You see these vendors at lots of rallies, but there were more here.

(*Explanation for Taipei residents: In the rest of Taiwan, many night markets are not permanent fixtures and do not have storefronts. You have to go by scooter since the MRT doesn’t go there. Also, TVBS doesn’t profile these vendors very often, so lines for famous food are rare. But they are “markets” that are open at “night,” and, believe it or not, they are more enjoyable than the World Famous Shihlin International Tourist Night Market. Wow! Who knew!)

Most of the crowd was in the grassy area in the back. As you might imagine, the crowd was denser at the front of the space and sparser at the back. The campaign did not set up any stools in the back, so most people stood the entire time while a few sat down on the grass. It wasn’t exactly a thick, American-style lawn. I was tired and thought about sitting down, but the grass was not at all appealing. The organizers didn’t exactly go out of their way to make things easy for the crowd.

Estimating crowd sizes is not exactly an exact science (at least for another few years until Chinese surveillance figures out how to track each individual on the globe all the time). It’s extremely hard to produce an estimate; everything is a more or less a guess. Moreover, event organizers have a strong incentive to inflate the numbers, and the media generally goes along to avoid making enemies and since they don’t have any better estimates. My counts/estimates tend to be much lower than everyone else’s, and I usually expect that the number I come up with will be about half as much as the organizers claim. Yesterday in Taipei, for example, Yao Wen-chih claimed 50,000, Ko Wen-je claimed 40,000, and the marriage equality rally claimed 100,000. My default assumption is that if I had gone to those events, my estimates would have been slightly less than half those estimates. I’m a party pooper.

The people on the stage repeatedly claimed that there were over 100,000 people at Han’s rally. I think the actual number was closer to about 60,000. In other words, I don’t think they inflated the real figure as much as most organizers would. And make no mistake, 60,000 is a hell of a lot of people. That’s a whole town packed into a single city block.

The scale was impressive, but the character of the crowd was stunning. There was almost no mobilization from the campaign. Han claimed that the campaign hadn’t organized a single bus. I did see a couple of busses around the periphery, but the extremely small number of busses supports Han’s assertion. If the campaign gets involved, they are probably going to organize more than five busses. Most people seemed to come via MRT. The crowd was extremely happy and energetic. Again, I have seen more revved up crowds, but not many. Even way in the back, half the people were joining in the cheers. This was a happy crowd, not an angry crowd. KMT supporters in southern Taiwan haven’t had anything to cheer for in six full years. Ever since Ma Ying-jeou’s re-election, they have absorbed beatdown after beatdown. This year, it seems like they aren’t doomed to lose, so they have six years of pent up energy to release. They might win!!!! Hooray!!!

The organizers chose not to hand out little flags. At KMT rallies, they usually hand everyone two flags, an ROC flag and a flag with the candidate’s name. I’m tempted to think they didn’t hand out ROC flags because they are hoping to win votes from independents and light green voters who might be turned off by ostentatious displays of ROC patriotism. The stage decorations were simple black and white with no ROC or KMT party markings. However, if the campaign were really trying to make this into a personal contest, they should have handed out flags with Han’s name. Anyway, the crowd wasn’t about to cooperate with any attempt to de-ROC this event. About 3/4 of the crowd had some sort of ROC paraphernalia, such as a hand-held flag, a tee shirt, a sticker, face paint, and so on. The vendors did a brisk business selling all this stuff, and I’m tempted to think that Han didn’t hand out stuff for free precisely because he wanted to create a bustling vending scene. Anyway, the crowd was a roiling ocean of red and blue. There was no question which party was holding this rally.

I kept looking for groups of young men. On the one hand, some have charged that Han is being supported by organized crime gangs. I wondered if there would be blatant evidence of this. On the other hand, Han’s rhetoric is aimed at lower income, lower education, and lower skilled men who might feel that society has left them behind. I thought that if he were making some connections with them, a la Trump, I might see lots of rougher looking young men in the crowd. I did not see any groups of young men hanging out together. I didn’t see a lot of rougher looking people in the crowd at all. Of course, there were some, as in any crowd, but this wasn’t even like a DPP crowd from the early 1990s, where there were lots of young men looking for excitement. This crowd simply wasn’t defined by young, rough men. Instead, this was a thoroughly middle class, family-oriented crowd. There were lots of couples, families, senior citizens, and children, and they mostly looked like people who drive cars or take the MRT rather than people who ride scooters. In many ways, this was a classic New Party crowd: financially stable, educated, patriotic, with a high sense of personal political efficacy.

My guess is that the crowd also had a high proportion of mainlanders. I had expected that, because the event was in Kaohsiung, most of the speakers would speak in Taiwanese. My Taiwanese level is about three levels below “rudimentary.” Mrs. Garlic was not able to take Saturday off and join me, so I was afraid that I was going to miss out on most of the nuances. In fact, most of the rally was in Mandarin. While Mandarin is the preferred language of many younger and more highly educated people, many Taiwanese, especially in central and southern Taiwan, prefer to discuss politics in Taiwanese. I suspect that the choice of language at this venue had something to do with the fact that Fengshan District, where we were, has a large population of mainlanders that grew up in (now demolished and rebuilt) military villages. The MRT line also provided easy access to people from the other big center of mainlander population in Kaohsiung, (Zuoying District).

 

The lineup included several singers. I know nothing about pop culture, so I have no idea who these people were. The crowd sang along with several of the songs, so they must have been at least a little famous.

The featured speakers included Tainan city councilor Hsieh Lung-chieh, former Minister of Transportation Yeh Kuang-shih, legislator Chen Yi-min, former Premier Chang Shan-cheng, and, of course, Han Kuo-yu. I’m going to gloss over the first four pretty quickly. Hsieh and Chen spoke in Taiwanese, so I missed most of their content. However, there didn’t seem to be a whole lot of content in any of the speeches. It was mostly rah-rah pep rally stuff. We’re gonna win!!

The main themes throughout the night were that the KMT didn’t have to lose this time, that Kaohsiung wasn’t the DPP’s private property, and that, after 20 years of DPP government, Han Kuo-yu would revitalize Kaohsiung with much needed change. Han’s plan was not unlike Trump’s: Things are terrible now, and it’s all the DPP’s fault. Elect me, and things will be better immediately. Don’t worry about the details. Trust me, I’ll change things, and it’ll be better.

No one fleshed out the details of Han’s grand economic strategy, but there were a couple of hints. One speaker talked about how Han’s campaign was exciting Chinese people on social media around the world, including in places like Malaysia and Indonesia. He promised that if Han were elected, all these Chinese would definitely want to come to Kaohsiung. In other words, Han will bring in Chinese tourism. If you want to read between the lines, ignore the diversionary words “Malaysia” and “Indonesia.” What the speaker meant is that the PRC will divert lots of package tours to Kaohsiung, so Kaohsiung will get rich. Later on, Han hinted at the other prong. He is calling himself a “vegetable seller” (since he ran the vegetable market distribution system), and the slogan on the big pillars at his rally was “stuff can be sold (outward), people can move in.” He proudly announced that the vendors in the night market area were all sold out, implying that his vision was already working on a small scale. (Note: They were not all sold out.) This is hardly envisioning the economy of the future. Hotel room cleaners and street peddlers are not exactly glamorous jobs. Rather, Han’s economic vision is simply that there will be more of the low paying jobs and that they will provide slightly more income. It’s not unlike Trump’s call to preserve threatened jobs in the dying coal industry, though at least Trump’s vision is based on revising the global trading system before declaring general prosperity. Han’s plan seems to be to rejigger a tiny corner of Kaohsiung’s economy and then declare that regional economic imbalance has been solved.

One other specific point stuck in my head. Former premier Chang Shan-cheng is apparently eying a presidential or vice-presidential run, and he is stumping for a variety of KMT candidates this year. (Aside: Chang seems to think he has popular support since he had much higher satisfaction ratings than any of Ma’s other premiers. Of course, unlike the others, Chang didn’t try to do anything since he was the caretaker premier in the four months between Tsai’s victory and her inauguration.) The KMT is asking for a change after 20 years of DPP government in Kaohsiung, so it has to argue that those 20 years did not produce good results. Chang took on a specific claim, that the DPP gave Kaohsiung an excellent MRT system. The MRT system was not the DPP’s contribution, Chang insisted. As a bureaucrat who had served in the Transportation Ministry, Chang asserted that all the money came from the central government under Ma Ying-jeou. The Kaoshiung city government had provided nothing! Now, rallies are noisy, and I almost never hear reactions from people around me. However, when Chang made this claim, the person behind me exclaimed excitedly, “Yes, and on top of that, we have a huge public debt!” A DPP spokesperson couldn’t have refuted Chang’s claim much more effectively. Beyond the point that most of the construction took place under the Chen administration, not the Ma administration, the reason that the Kaohsiung city government has run up such an enormous pile of debt is precisely because the central government did not fund the entire MRT project. The MRT (and the associated debt) is exactly what the DPP city government has contributed to Kaohsiung. If you are going to criticize the DPP’s performance in office, at least make a plausible argument, such as that the MRT system is flawed, too expensive, or that the city government should have done something else with the money. Let’s just say that my early impressions of the Chang-for-president movement are somewhat less than glowing and gushing.

Han made three major points in his speech. First, he talked about being an outsider in Kaohsiung, and he did it in a very effective and surprisingly deft way: All nine legislators from Kaohsiung are DPP members. Except for Lin Tai-hua, not a single one of them is from Kaohsiung. Further, none of the four people who contested the DPP’s mayoral nomination were born in Kaohsiung. And Chen Chi-mai’s wife was born in Malaysia. What does this prove? It means that anyone can love Kaohsiung, and Kaohsiung will love everyone!

This argument charmed me. He didn’t complain about being attacked. Instead, he turned the attack back on the DPP. Moreover, he did it in a generous way. He didn’t call the DPP hypocrites; he simply celebrated Kaohsiung as a magnetic place that outsiders can’t resist. Sure, his rhetoric glossed over the fact that those DPP politicians have lived in Kaohsiung for decades, not months, but all good rhetoric takes your attention away from disadvantageous points and focuses it elsewhere. This was a happy and uplifting message. I keep comparing Han to Trump, and this is one area where Han is clearly different. He is not screaming to lock up Hillary, and he is not taking cheap shots at Marco. Trump revels in pettiness; (at least in this instance) Han eschews it.

Han’s second point was about the tenor of the campaign. I did not fully appreciate why he was talking about this because I was not aware of outside events. Earlier in the day, former vice president and current KMT party chair Wu Den-yi had called former Kaohsiung mayor Chen Chu a “fatty” and said she looks like a “mother pig.” When this got out, the backlash was immediate and strong. Wu Den-yi’s political career was already in trouble, and I suspect this might be the last nail in the coffin. This sort of insult is exactly what the DPP needs to drive indignant wavering voters back into the fold and to the polls. On Sunday night, Chen Chu stood before a huge crowd and declared: “I am not a mother pig. I am a daughter of Taiwan.” See how she took a personal affront and transformed it into a general demand for dignity for all Taiwanese people? Chen Chu is a damn good politician. Anyway, that was on Sunday night. On Saturday night just a few hours after the news broke, Han tried to diffuse the crisis in his own speech, though he never mentioned Wu or Wu’s comments specifically. Han said that the election had been conducted in a fairly high tone. While both candidates had been insulted, the insults had come from people around the candidates, not from the candidates themselves. Han then demanded that everyone respect his wishes for a high-minded and positive campaign and refrain from hurtling insults at the other side. At the time, I thought he was talking about online conduct; at one point he asked his followers not to forward negative stories on social media. The cynic in me grinned: sure, assert your innocence at the end of the campaign after you’ve already gotten all the benefit! In hindsight, Han was talking about Wu, not about fake news, and, he was making his argument with an old KMT discourse about how democratic politics are dirty and messy (and inherently corrupt). Wouldn’t it be better if we could just rise above this all and have a happy and positive campaign? He indirectly disavowed Wu’s remarks by trying to rise above the (democratic) fray. This discourse is right in the New Party wheelhouse (remember how much simpler, less corrupt, and more civilized it was back when wise and benevolent CCK made all the decisions?), and the crowd ate it up.

Han’s third big point flowed easily from the second one: the DPP always uses dirty tricks at the end of a campaign, so be ready. This is a general theme for KMT candidates all over the country, but in Kaohsiung they have a specific history. In the KMT memory, the DPP razor-thin victories in 1998 and 2006 had only been possible because of unfounded last-minute accusations of vote buying and corruption against the KMT. The KMT charges that dirty tricks are in the DPP’s DNA and they will definitely try something this year, so KMT voters should not fall victims to these ruses. Han put it in a way that both a classic response and also uniquely illustrative of his populist appeal: when this happens, trust me, believe me, and have faith in me.*

*For the life of me, I can’t remember the exact Chinese phrase. Two of the three were 信任我,相信我, but I can’t remember the third part. I was struck by the wording, and I spent about ten minutes trying to figure out how to translate what was essentially three different ways to say “trust me.” When I figured out a short and effective translation, my stupid brain forgot what he originally said.

There is one last anecdote from this section of Han’s speech that I think is informative. He complained that the DPP tries to paint him black (organized crime), gold (money interests), and red (Chinese CCP). On the latter point, he said, “they say that if I am elected, I will give Kaohsiung to the CPP!” The audience’s response to this was … laughter. Dear reader, when you hear about pro-unification forces in Taiwan, remember just how narrow a slice of the population actually wants unification. This was a proudly patriotic Chinese nationalist audience that probably had a high proportion of mainlanders and New Partyish sympathizers. Their reaction to the charge that they want to open the city gates to China or have any kind of immediate political accommodation with China was a tired laughter. They have heard the charges again and again, and they believe those charges are ridiculous. Sure they may want amiable interaction with China and they are happy to promote mutually beneficial ties, but they instinctively reject the idea that they are selling out Taiwan to China. Han declared passionately, “I love Taiwan. I was born in Taiwan. I have lived my whole life in Taiwan. In the future, I will die in Taiwan.” I’m guessing that feeling resonated strongly with the overwhelming majority of that crowd.

 

This was a fantastic, passionate event, a smashing success by almost any metric. Yet, I left it feeling slightly stronger that Chen, not Han, was more likely to win the election. Rallies do not help candidates win the votes of people who are at the event. Thirty or forty years ago, when information was much scarcer, rallies had an education and persuasion component. Nowadays, no one goes to a rally to learn about a candidate. Everyone at the event is already a supporter. Modern rallies have two goals. First, you want to fire up your base so that they will go mobilize their friends and family who may be apathetic, apolitical, or on the fence. Enthusiasm drives up turnout among the unenthusiastic. Second, in case your dedicated supporters are trying to mobilize unconvinced people, you want to give them some effective talking points. Your fiery supporters don’t need to know and might not care about a flood control project, but they might need that information to persuade their friends who don’t care about identity.

Han’s rally didn’t really provide supporter with strong talking points. The main talking point is simply that, after 20 years, it is time for a change. However, they didn’t do a very good job of explaining why unequal economic development is the city government’s fault. They certainly did not convincingly convict the city government of incompetence, corruption, lack of vision, or even poor performance. I don’t think the rally gave them much ammunition to deal with a skeptical person who wants more than simply the initial assertion that the DPP city government has performed poorly.

However, it’s the first point that really concerns me. If the point of whipping up enthusiasm is to mobilize other people in personal networks, you would like to see a diverse audience with connections into all different parts of society. It isn’t a good thing that the crowd looked overwhelmingly like the stereotypical New Party middle class base or that the rally was in Mandarin. It looked to me like the KMT’s base is fully invested in Han’s campaign, but Han needs more than that. In Kaohsiung, he needs some voters who aren’t crazy about waving the ROC flag and who don’t already belong to the church. This crowd and this event defined Han and his campaign as firmly within the orthodox KMT tradition, and the KMT base in Kaohsiung is smaller than the DPP base, even in a year like this. A frenzied base simply isn’t good enough.

2 Responses to “campaign trail: KMT rally in Kaohsiung”

  1. cassambito Says:

    Could a 2018 defeat for Han translate to a 2020 presidential victory for him?

    Maybe he learns from this experience how to pull the centrists while counting on the broader support he’d get nationwide from the pan-blue base?

  2. Joseph Says:

    Early on Han got a lot of support by criticizing the KMT leadership and talking about how they held his career down. Then the whole KMT leadership came to Kaoshiung to help him, and he ran up north to help them- not exactly supporting his case that he’s a different kind of KMTer. Wu’s comments conveniently give him an opportunity to distance himself again though I assume it won’t convince anyone.
    Han’s economic proposals echo the media’s and pan-blue’s obsession with tourism and agriculture (“Pineapple cake stores suffer under Tsai!”). Needless to say the solution is always accept the 92 consensus and attract business from China. It doesn’t take much imagination to see that these have more ideological than economic consequence. The blue obsession with proposals that do more for integration with China than the economy suggest to me they’re not wholly being honest with themselves when they say they don’t want to sell out.

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