X Close

Is Ko Wen-je China’s man in Taiwan? The presidential candidate is the ultimate shapeshifter

'The smartest person in the room.' Alberto Buzzola/LightRocket/ Getty Images

'The smartest person in the room.' Alberto Buzzola/LightRocket/ Getty Images


January 3, 2024   6 mins

Theatre and politics have a long history in Taiwan. During the Japanese colonial era (1895-1945), lookouts were posted outside Taiwanese opera performances to warn of approaching police patrols. These raids were part of a Japanisation policy known as kominka, designed to transform the Formosans, as they were then known, into loyal imperial subjects. Alert to the impending swoop, actors switched language and costume from Taiwanese to Japanese. Thus reassured of the show’s cultural propriety, the inspectors moved on.

Later, after the Second World War, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) dictatorship used theatre as a political tool, while politics itself became a ritualised performance to a captive audience. Throughout Taiwan’s martial law era (1949-1987), moviegoers stood before each cinematic presentation to sing the Republic of China’s national anthem, set to footage of President Chiang Kai-shek performing stately duties.

Yet, politics as performance truly came into its own with Taiwan’s democratisation during the Nineties. Since then, its theatrics have been most evident in parliamentary brawls, which have featured lawmakers bashing each other with mobile phones, spraying tear gas, and hurling pig offal.

Although parliamentary handbags are now less frequent, the theatrical element of Taiwanese politics remains, as shown by the ongoing campaigns for the 13 January presidential election. Under the spotlight is Ko Wen-je — perhaps the most remarkable player to have trodden the boards on Taiwan’s political stage. Like the archetypal Shakespearean lunatic, this former Taipei mayor and current presidential candidate has onlookers struggling to discern the method in the madness.

Since the former surgeon burst onto the political scene with victory in the 2014 Taipei mayoral election, he has become infamous for his gaffes, including sexist and sizeist remarks about female politicians, references to immigrant spouses as “import brides”, and suggestions that Tibetan monks who self-immolate in protest at Chinese Communist Party (CCP) persecution do so to be “trendy”. When challenged, Ko ascribes his blurting to (self-diagnosed) Asperger’s syndrome or the naivete of a political dilettante. This image has been leveraged by his Taiwan People’s Party (TPP), which has adopted white as its colour, representing both purity and transparency, as well as Ko’s background as the white-smocked medical professional “Ko P” — Professor Ko — as he is known to his admirers. For others, however, white symbolises an absence of colour and, with it, core principles.

Concerns about Ko’s political leanings emerged early on in his career. As a medic, he had been involved with the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), and his support for the Sunflower Student Movement, which occupied Taiwan’s legislature shortly after he had announced his candidacy for the Taipei mayorship, reinforced the perception of Ko as green — the colour of the DPP. When the party agreed not to field a candidate in the mayoral election, it was a tacit endorsement of Ko’s bid. The Sunflowers were protesting the then-ruling KMT’s sleight-of-hand passage of the China-friendly Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA). Although the Sunflower Movement was a grassroots movement, the DPP was broadly supportive of and associated with the students’ aims.

Despite these “pro-Taiwan” credentials, months into his first term as mayor in 2015, Ko was hobnobbing with CCP bigwigs at the Twin City Forum, which aimed to foster closer ties between Shanghai and Taipei. During subsequent trips to China, Ko visited Yan’an, the heartland of the Communist revolution, where he expressed his admiration for Mao Zedong. A former TPP associate said Ko “idolised” the Communist leader and other strongmen from Chinese history.

“During his time as mayor, his entire approach changed to yi jia qing — two sides of the strait, one family,” explains Lev Nachmann, a political scientist and assistant professor in the College of Social Science at National Chengchi University in Taipei. “Over the next few years, we saw much more desire from Ko for closer ties with China.”

With Ko’s suggestion in June that he would revive the CSSTA as president, an astonishing volte face was complete, leaving public and press bemused. Then, in November, after weeks of speculation, Ko announced a joint presidential ticket with the KMT candidate Hou Yu-ih. Opinion polls had made DPP candidate and current Vice President William Lai the runaway leader and a coalition was seen as the only way of scuppering a third successive presidential term for the DPP.

Offering no explanation as to why someone who still identifies as “deep-green at heart” — a position associated with democracy, Taiwanese nationalism, and respect for human rights — would join forces with a party that has historically stood for the opposite values, Ko admitted that the KMT was a “lousy” party. But the KMT had a century of history, he argued, and even if it had fallen on hard times, “a starved camel is better than a horse”.

Then, almost as quickly as it had been launched, the planned cooperation collapsed due to disagreements over who would lead the ticket (though the parties will still cooperate on the concurrent legislative election). During an online meeting with TPP supporters, Ko sobbed as he suggested he had been duped by shrewder political operators into accepting a polling method that favoured Hou.

“As far as I can tell, Ko simply got rolled,” Nathan F. Batto, a research fellow at the Institute of Political Science, Academia Sinica, wrote on Frozen Garlic, his blog on Taiwan’s elections. “Apparently, they asked all the staff members to leave the room at the beginning of the meeting. That means that Ko was completely outsmarted by [KMT Chairman] Chu and/or Hou (two people who most observers think he looks down on as not his intellectual equals).” When Ko’s staff re-entered and saw what was on the table, they were horrified, with one aide reportedly bursting into tears. Ignoring their pleas, Ko signed the agreement.

Ko’s colour-shifting has resulted in another nickname: Betelnut Ko, in reference to Taiwan’s favourite stimulant, a green-skinned nut with a white interior, that produces red juice when chewed. The implication is that Ko started out green before creating a white facade to mask his (pro-China) red core. “It’s hard to know where he stands on anything, because he never tells us,” says Batto. “His philosophy can be summed up in one sentence: ‘If you’re sincere and willing to work hard, then it’s not difficult to govern well.’” Pressed on concrete policy, Ko argues in a circle, insisting he will do what’s right by Taiwan, that there is no need to explain what that is because it’s obvious, and that he can be trusted to do it, says Batto.

The flip side of this is that President Tsai Ing-wen’s DPP administration has not been doing the right thing during its eight years in power, though here too Ko is vague. “That’s the implied discourse,” says Batto. “They’re either lazy or corrupt. It’s non-falsifiable because he says, ‘Obviously these things are bad’, but then doesn’t say what these things are.”

A populist of sorts, Ko presents himself as operating outside the established ruling class, though with his penchant for touting his (alleged) 157 IQ and always presenting himself as “the smartest person in the room”, he is a very specific type of anti-elite. “He’s not anti-expert or anti-science like Trump, and he’s not vilifying any minority group,” says Batto.

While many see Ko as little more than a political opportunist, there are fears that he may have always been a closet blue (KMT sympathiser). “The TPP recruited heavily from already established politicians — largely blues and KMT defectors,” says Nachman. He notes that Huang Shan-shan, who served as Ko’s deputy mayor, was recruited from the New Party, which supports unification with China. “That’s about as a blue as you can get,” says Nachman.

Some analysts go further, suggesting that Ko’s bumbling, flip-flopping persona has been carefully cultivated to hide sinister motives. “Ko’s manoeuvring on the surface is for public show,” says Chang Cheng-shuh, a former DPP political strategist. “He is very good at manipulating the media, but we’re concerned that he’s strategising in secret.”

Discerning China’s hand behind the attempt to build a coalition against the DPP, Chang believes that Ko may be “Beijing’s new favourite” now that the KMT appear electorally unviable. He draws attention to Ko’s two fundraising trips to the United States last year, where, Chang says, “political donations from China may have indirectly changed hands through the Chinese-American community and old KMT families”.

However, Nachman suggests there is nothing particularly unusual in such activities and that they do not necessarily indicate a pro-China agenda. “Even the DPP has taken advantage of good relations with Chinese partners in the past,” says Nachman. “That, in itself, is not damning, but it points to who Ko is prioritising.”

For Batto, the danger from Ko comes from a dangerous combination of misplaced faith in his abilities and a lack of core principles. “He thinks he can say enough magic words to keep China at bay and not commit Taiwan to any sacrifices,” says Batto. When pushed on what those words are, Ko says he will figure that out when the times comes. “He seems to think China won’t be smart enough to know he’s duping them,” says Batto. “If I were Beijing, I’d love to deal with that person, because they’re going to make a mistake sooner or later.”

Additional reporting by Jason Pan.


James Baron is a Taipei-based journalist focusing on Taiwan’s history, culture and foreign relations.

jamesbaron

Join the discussion


Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber


To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Subscribe
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

7 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
N T
N T
6 months ago

i love the smell of pig offal in the morning

J Bryant
J Bryant
6 months ago

Fascinating article about a person I’d never heard of. It certainly makes sense for Beijing to patiently engineer the political capture of Taiwan rather than rely on a risky military invasion.

Mrs R
Mrs R
6 months ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Alas, the same approach of very slowly boiling frogs has been going in many countries.

alan bennett
alan bennett
6 months ago

“He’s not anti-expert or anti-science like Trump, 

OFFS, Trump was taken in by scientists over Covid, he accepted their lies and was to enamoured of “science”

Mrs R
Mrs R
6 months ago
Reply to  alan bennett

Quite, an infantile belief, shared with all western leaders, in warp speed effective jabs that could be administered to entire populations at the height of a pandemic illustrates your point.

alan bennett
alan bennett
5 months ago
Reply to  Mrs R

Unfortunately many are still pushing their corrosive narrative.

Tom K
Tom K
6 months ago

The DPP are relying on anti-China sentiment to cover a faltering economy, repeated missteps on covid, and a constant stream of scandal and corruption in the party particularly with regard to the home-made covid vaccine, massive overpayment on military procurement, and an outbreak of mass plagiarism worthy of Harvard (though in this case, the culprit seems to be the London School of Economics, alma mater of many senior Greens including current President Tsai).
The KMT on the other hand have stepped back from much of the old pro-China rhetoric, though at the same time promising closer economic ties. They are tapping into a genuine fear among the populace that they can’t rely on America’s promises with Ukraine being watched very carefully. This may or may not be enough to convince Taiwanese they can be trusted on China – two-term former KMT president Ma Ying Jeou has become far closer to China since leaving office, something many have been concerned about – he was also the guy behind the proposed aliance with Ko, which fits the author’s interpretation here of Ko possibly being in China’s pocket. On the other hand the KMT presidential and vice-presidental candidates are the most pro-local Taiwanese KMT leaders in history, both speaking fluently the local dialect spoken at home by over 80% of the population – the remaining 20% largely descended from post 1945 incomers mostly speak Mandarin.
But Taiwanese vote on other issues than the country’s relations with China, and on that, thanks to the Green Party’s poor economic performance, as well as a feeling that democracy requires a switch of Government now and again, does give the KMT a fighting chance.
The polls are close and it would be naive to think that should the KMT win (polls vs results suggest KMT voters are shy to pollsters about their intentions) that it’s necessarily a signal that Taiwan will roll over to China, rather than a purely local question disgruntlement over the performance of the ruling Green party over the last eight years,
My two cents based on 20 years of visiting taiwan, often for a month or two at a stretch. I was last there in April.