TAIPEI (BLOOMBERG) - Foxconn founder Terry Gou announced on Wednesday (April 17) that he is running for Taiwan’s presidency, shaking up a race that will determine whether the island moves closer to China.
The Taiwanese billionaire said he would seek the nomination of the China-friendly opposition Kuomintang (KMT) party in next year’s election, a process expected to play out in the coming weeks. He is looking to unseat President Tsai Ing-wen, whose Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) advocates a more decisive break from the mainland.
“I will participate in the KMT primary,” Mr Gou told reporters in Taipei. “If I win I will run in 2020 on behalf of the KMT.”
He said his core values were “peace, stability, economy and future".
Earlier in the day, Mr Gou claimed a divine endorsement: support of the Chinese sea goddess Mazu, whom he said had encouraged him to “come forward” to support peace across the Taiwan Strait.
“Today, Mazu told me I should be inspired by her to do good things for people who are suffering, to give young people hope, to support cross-strait peace,” Mr Gou said, adding that the goddess had recently spoken to him in a dream. “I came to ask Mazu and she told me to come forward.”
Mr Gou visited another temple housing Chinese deity Guan Yu.
Mr Gou’s entry in the race further clouds the future of President Tsai, who already faces an uphill climb to win re-election. She faces her own nomination fight in the DPP, where her pro-independence base is pushing for a cleaner break from the mainland.
To shore up support, Ms Tsai has recently cracked down on mainland investments, as well as visitors and other potential sources of political influence.
She has also held a series of events with China hawks in the United States, in which she has sounded the alarm about Communist Party “coercion” and urged greater military support from Washington.
The race comes against the backdrop of increased pressure from Beijing, with President Xi Jinping suggesting earlier this year that mainland China and Taiwan should enter into “in-depth democratic consultations” on unification.
Taiwan and China have been governed separately since Chiang Kai-shek moved his Nationalist government to Taipei during the Chinese civil war. The KMT has controlled the island’s government for all but 11 years since the conflict, including decades under martial law.
China cut off official communication with Taiwan after Ms Tsai’s DPP ousted the KMT from the presidency and parliamentary majority in 2016, citing her refusal to accept that both sides belong to “one China".
Mr Gou, 68, is Taiwan’s third-richest person and the 442nd in the world, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. His resources could help him stand out among a field of potential KMT challengers that includes former New Taipei City Mayor Eric Chu and former legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng.
Mr Han Kuo-yu and Dr Ko Wen-je, the outspoken mayors of Kaohsiung and Taipei, respectively, have not ruled out a run.
Mr Gou has amassed a personal fortune of about US$4.4 billion (S$5.9 billion) building consumer electronics on which other companies can slap their brand, including Apple and Sony. Foxconn Technology Group – the main assembler of iPhones – was among the first Taiwanese companies to build factories in China to tap lower wages and land costs.
Mr Gou has no clear successor, and the announcement raises questions about how the company will be run. Reuters reported on Monday that he plans to step down as chairman of Foxconn “in the coming months".
Mr Louis Woo, his special assistant, later told Bloomberg that while Mr Gou would be stepping back from operations and focusing on strategy, he did not plan to relinquish his chairmanship.
Wednesday’s Mazu temple visit, in which Mr Gou spoke the Taiwanese language, also demonstrated his retail political skill. The emphasis on local cultural and spiritual traditions may help counter criticism that he is too sympathetic to Beijing, where the officially atheistic Communist Party plays down religion and promotes Mandarin.
Mr Gou is known to be religious, and Foxconn factories all over the world have totems of Tu Di Gong, the Chinese god of local land. At the Guan Yu temple on Wednesday, he said he was waiting for the gods to conduct polls on whether he should run.
The sea goddess Mazu is believed to protect fishermen and sailors and is worshiped by Taoists and Buddhists. Temples to the deity can be found throughout East Asia, including China, Taiwan, Singapore and Vietnam.
“Mazu said the economy would improve following peace and prosperity,” Mr Gou said, adding that he believed the goddess had long supported his business success.
Mr Gou’s wealth and fame could bring attention to his campaign, but they could also present liabilities.
He has faced criticism in Taiwan as one of the first outside executives to exploit cheaper wages and land costs on the mainland. And the success of Foxconn’s Zhengzhou facility in central China, which pushes out more than 100 million iPhones each year year, has been marred by controversy, as employee suicides led to scrutiny of working conditions.
Mr Gou was also at the centre of a plant project that could be a potential source of Democratic attacks against US President Donald Trump as he faces re-election. Mr Trump and Mr Gou once touted Foxconn’s investment in a US$10 billion factory in the swing state of Wisconsin as proof that manufacturing jobs were returning to America. But Foxconn has shifted the facility’s focus to research, slashing the number of blue-collar positions available.