Campaign Trail: Han events in Hsinchu

I’ve gone to a few hundred election rallies over the years, and one of the most important lessons I have learned is not to take crowd size or enthusiasm too seriously. Sure, you’d always rather have a bigger and more enthusiastic crowd than a smaller and quitter one, but it doesn’t really matter as much as you might think. After all, each person only gets one vote, and the number of people at even the biggest events is far, far smaller than the number of people necessary to win an election. In the 1990s, I saw time and time again the DPP have big, hot rallies only to see the KMT mobilize enormous numbers of disinterested voters on election day.

The question is, does the reverse logic also work? Do smaller and less passionate crowds mean anything?

Over the past 16 months, Han Kuo-yu has taken Taiwan’s political world by storm. One of the principal features of Han’s wave has been his ability to hold massive, intense political rallies. Every time Han has held an event, throngs of enthusiastic Han fans have shown up. Of course, the rallies in and of themselves have not been the key to Han’s rise (see above), but they have played a critical role in communicating his strength to the wider political world and energizing lots of KMT-leaning but less engaged voters. Over a year into the Han phenomenon, I’ve started to take for granted that Han’s events will be bigger and hotter than everyone else’s.

However, three weeks ago I went to two Han events in New Taipei, and I was surprised to find that, while large and peppy, they seemed to be smaller than the organizers had expected. I haven’t had time to go to many rallies over the past two weeks, so I was eager to get back out to see what Han’s events looked like in the wake of the spy case, accusations about illegal gravel mining, and Han’s call to ignore/manipulate the polls. Would Han fans still come out in force?

On Saturday, I went to a Han rally in Hsinchu County. It was a cold (about 15C) day, but it wasn’t rainy. Everyone was bundled up, but I’m not sure if the weather was bad enough to affect turnout. I estimate there were just under 10,000 people at the event. 9,000 is a nice crowd, but it isn’t up to the standards I have come to expect from Han. It also wasn’t as many as the organizers expected. There were stacks and stacks of extra stools that hadn’t been put out. I was able to walk easily through the entire space, since the center aisle was wide (and empty) and there was lots of open space around the edges. I watched most of the event from the front right corner. There were several empty seats in the front few rows, and workers invited a few of us standing at the edges to sit down. Again, this is only telling when compared to earlier Han rallies. To get a seat in the front in an earlier rally you had to get there two hours before the event started, and if you needed to leave and come back, you had to squeeze uncomfortably through a mass of humanity.

The other notable feature of the crowd was that it was almost entirely mobilized. Han crowds are typically almost entirely self-mobilized. Even when they take buses, it isn’t necessarily the campaign organizing things. This time, every section of the crowd had a sign indicating which bus they were on. Groups sat together with different hats, vests, and signs, which usually means they passed out different paraphernalia on different buses. Now, I’m not criticizing mobilized crowds. This event was to open the campaign headquarters in Hsinchu County, and you can hardly expect people from the various far-flung places in the county to come on their own scooters. Still, it was surprising that it seemed that almost everyone had come on a bus; usually you can see pockets of people who don’t look like they are part of a group. It seemed like almost nobody who wasn’t committed in advance showed up to the rally. Again, maybe the weather discouraged people.

The crowd might have been small and bussed in, but that didn’t affect enthusiasm one bit. This was one of the happiest crowds I have ever seen. At one point early on they were dancing to a performer, and it was one of the most joyous election rally moments I have ever felt. The crowd kept it up throughout the event, cheering and jeering for several hours. They seemed utterly oblivious to any concerns I might have had.

 

Han had two events scheduled for Saturday evening, the one in Hsinchu County and a later one in Hsinchu City. I had originally planned to skip the Hsinchu City event. However, after seeing the crowd in Hsinchu County, I decided to head over to the event in Hsinchu City to see if the crowd there was similarly smaller than expected. After all, while you need to mobilize people from around Hsinchu County, the people in Hsinchu City could simply hop on a bus or scooter and get to the rally. Also, there is traditionally a pretty big difference between an urban crowd and a rural crowd, though Hsinchu County is rapidly urbanizing.

In fact, the crowd in Hsinchu City was very different from the crowd in Hsinchu County. The event was in a night market, and the crowd was ringed by rows of vendors. Most were selling food, but a staggeringly high percentage were selling Han paraphernalia. The food vendors were doing good business; almost no one was buying flags, hats, or t-shirts. There were lots of flags, hats, and t-shirts in the audience, so maybe everyone had already bought their swag.

In stark contrast to the Hsinchu County crowd, this crowd was entirely self-mobilized. I didn’t see any signs at all of busses or of groups that had come together. Also in contrast to the Hsinchu County crowd, this crowd seemed pretty bored and disinterested. There were a few eager Han fans up front, but this crowd felt more like a KMT crowd from 2015 than a KMT crowd from 2018 or 2019. Finally, like the Hsinchu County crowd, the size of this crowd was simultaneously large and disappointing. There were somewhere around 6,000-8,000 people, which is objectively a nice crowd for a cold evening. However, this was clearly fewer than expected. Again, there were plenty of extra stools available, and I was able to walk up through the crowd right to the front.

If anything, this crowd made me wonder about Han’s sliding popularity even more than the first crowd had. At least the first crowd had been happy and enthusiastic, and the local party branch had shown off its organizational muscle. This one was smaller and quieter while being located downtown in the middle of a fairly blue city.

 

On the drive home I kept asking myself whether I should take these disappointing crowds seriously. I think it does matter. Han’s rise has been based in no small part on his ability to mobilize enormous numbers of supporters through the sheer force of his personal charisma. Suddenly, the power of his charisma seems to be eroding. We know his polling numbers are awful, but we never had any doubt about his most fervent supporters. Now, I wonder if even they are losing faith.

 

In the first event, everyone was happy.

I’m guessing these people came together.

I counted 17 of these racks. 5 were still full of stools.

Drums, flags, and giant balloons. Election rallies are all about pageantry.

Lion dance and confetti.

The former county magistrate, Chiu Ching-chun, opines. Seems he isn’t a big fan of President Tsai.

KMT chair Wu Den-yi railed against Tsai for the lackluster economy and for her misunderstanding of the 1992 Consensus.

I was obsessed with this guy standing right behind Wu. He has the look of … well, when I first came to Taiwan, one of the guys on my study abroad program described this look as “Taiwan Guido.” It’s a special mixture of sleaze, gangster, and that schmaltzy saxaphone-heavy music playing in every taxi when the driver is over 50 and chewing betelnut. When Wu shifted to the side, I was able to read the guy’s name on his vest. He is Fan Cheng-lien, a Wu crony with business interests in China. He #18 on the KMT party list, even though more people in the KMT Central Committee voted against him (89) than for him (75). Does that sound interesting? I haven’t even scraped the surface.

This is an awesome flag. I want one for my office.

The current county magistrate, Yang Wen-ke, flanked by the two legislative candidates. Yang sold Lin Wei-chou, on his right, as a fighter. It was the first time I have heard a KMT figure brag about his party engaging in legislative brawling at a campaign rally. In his speech, Lin Wei-chou said that everything President Tsai does is either to (a) suppress the democratic opposition or (b) to enrich her side. The other candidate, Lin Si-ming, was touted as a legal expert. His speech was full of shouting and obsequious flattery of Han. Let’s just say that I think Yang might be mistaken about which one is the nuanced thinker and which one is the crude fighter.

Han gave a classic Han speech. It was entertaining, engaging, highly critical of Tsai, and somehow also extremely vague and content-free. His central theme involved the characters that United Daily News has chosen to represent the last four years. As you might expect from a blue media outlet, they are not flattering to President Tsai: 苦、茫、翻、亂 (bitter, foggy, overturn, chaos). Han asked, if she is re-elected, what will the characters for the next four years be? Awful, awful, awful, awful! (慘慘慘慘).

The rally in Hsinchu City.

A vendor selling Han swag with a sign saying, “I’m the cheapest.” Other vendors offered buy one, get one free. They were selling almost nothing. To be fair, competition was fierce. There must have been 25 of these stands at each event.

This dog thinks Han would be a terrific president.

One Response to “Campaign Trail: Han events in Hsinchu”

  1. Wei Says:

    Thank you for sharing your observation.

    As an enthusiastic voter, I have translated this article into Chinese to allow more readers to access this content. Please let me know if you would object to this usage.

    https://m.facebook.com/notes/weining-huang/凍蒜先生觀察競選紀錄新竹的韓國瑜造勢活動/10157877840029697/

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