"Taiwan must not become Ukraine and I will not let Taiwan become the next Ukraine."
With these dramatic words, Terry Gou, 72, founder of the Foxconn Group and one of Taiwan's richest men, announced his candidacy in Taipei on August 28 for the presidential election on January 13.
"Give me four years and I promise I will bring 50 years of peace to the Taiwan Strait and build the deepest foundation for the mutual trust across the strait," he said.
This is an aspiration everyone in Taiwan would accept, but will Gou have the chance to implement it?
As of today, the answer is No. The latest opinion poll puts his support at about 10 per cent, the lowest of the four candidates. Top is Vice President Lai Ching-te of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), with 36 per cent, followed by Ko Wen-je of the Taiwan People's Party (TPP) with 19 per cent and Hou Yu-ih, mayor of New Taipei City, of the Kuomintang (KMT) with 18 per cent.
A banner behind Gou when he made his announcement read: "Uniting the Mainstream." This means uniting the majority – about 60 per cent – who want to end the eight years of DPP rule.
The problem for Gou is how to implement this strategy. It means that two of the opposition candidates would have to drop out and leave only one on the ballot paper to beat Lai. One option would be for one of the two to become the vice-presidential candidate of the single candidate. But who is willing to drop out?
The strongest reaction to Gou's announcement came from the KMT; its supporters are the one most likely to switch to Gou. It expressed "extreme regret" and urged him to support Hou. "My attitude towards running for the presidency has never changed," Hou said. "I am pressing forward with the mission the party gave me."
The KMT is especially angry because it rejected Gou as its candidate in 2019 and also earlier this year. After he lost, Gou said he would support whomever the KMT nominated – then changed his mind.
He brings to the race strong cards – he is one of the richest men in Taiwan and is seen as the epitome of its economic miracle of the last 40 years.
Born in October 1950, he was the second son of a modest family; his father was a policeman. He served in the Air Force on Kinmen, where a PLA attack was a daily threat, before his discharge in 1973.
The next year he set up Hon Hai with US$7,500 in start-up capital and 10 elderly staff; they made plastic parts for television sets in a rented shed in a suburb of Taipei. Today Hon Hai has become the world's biggest contract maker of electronics. It employs 1.2 million people in China, making it the country's largest private employer, and is the country's largest single exporter.
In 2022, the company announced revenue of a record NT$6.6 trillion, up 11 per cent from a year earlier, and gross profit of NT$400.1 billion, up 10 per cent.
Taiwan's economy is dominated by small companies, many family-owned. So Hon Hai's achievements give Gou fame and prestige. His decades of operating in China give him an understanding of its economic and political system none of the other three candidates can match.
In addition, a majority of the public is angry with the DPP over soaring property prices and low average salaries. GDP growth this year is expected to fall below two per cent.
But Gou lacks the island-wide political organisation of the other three candidates.
His bigger problem – like the other two opposition candidates – is exactly how he would improve relations with Beijing, end the air and naval exercises around Taiwan conducted by the PLA and restore normal trade and economic ties.
President Xi Jinping has said frequently that Taiwan's reunification with the mainland cannot be indefinitely postponed. His proposal is the "one country, two systems" used in Hong Kong and Macao. In addition, as a pre-condition for negotiations, the Taiwan side must accept the "1992 consensus", under which there is one China, but different interpretations of what this means.
After seeing what has happened in Hong Kong since 2019, the Taiwan public has overwhelmingly rejected the "one country, two systems" formula. This makes it impossible for any of the four candidates to accept it. On the 1992 consensus, the DPP rejects it, while the KMT is ambiguous.
David Liang, a business consultant in Taipei, said that, while the public respected Gou's achievements in business, many were sceptical of how well he could handle the complex relations with Beijing. At his news conference, Gou said he would accept a government confiscation of Hon Hai property in China if that was the price for peace.
"President Xi is taking a very hard line," Liang said. "Is there any room for negotiations? Would the Taiwan government, of whichever party, have to accept his proposals completely? If that is your analysis, then what do the KMT, Ko and Gou have to offer?"