In a matter of months, the KMT politician who emerged from near obscurity has upended Taiwan’s body politics with a style that makes a mockery of professionalism. But it’s working, and there’s no telling when his appeal will dwindle.
The man, his staff, his online supporters and complicit media organizations, all are compulsive liars, spinning tall tales that are sure to be caught by anyone with a modicum of critical thought in his brain. We can only conclude that they know they will be caught, that they expect to be caught in a lie. It doesn’t matter that many, if not most, of his preposterous projects — hippodrome, Disneyland — were unrealizable from day one, or that he and his people have lied about just about everything under the sun — the infamous earpiece-in-his-opponent’s-ear incident at a televised debate last year, Han’s claim that the rock band Maroon 5 performed in Kaohsiung because he was elected, that the Tsai Ing-wen government pressured Malaysian authorities into cancelling meetings with him during a recent visit, claims about his economic performance, about a recent MOU in Singapore, that the huge success of the lantern festival in neighboring Pingtung was due to Han’s shifting the balance from northern to southern Taiwan, claims about Taiwan’s representative in Singapore spying on Han, and on and on and on — the litany of lies since Han Kuo-yu’s election in November is all part of a narrative meant to turn a showman, a charlatan, into a wildly popular figure, an anti-establishment, anti-political politician, a man of the people who, Midas-like, will turn everything he touches into gold; wherever he goes, fortunes will spring and food vendors will be sold out on sausages and stinky tofu, all thanks to the Great Han, as if the presence of other politicians would not also attract crowds of ever-hungry Taiwanese (I can tell you for a fact that on election night in January 2016, food vendors parked outside DPP headquarters in Taipei were making a killing). There’s even a cartoon animation at the bottom of one of the “blue” TV stations that has turned into his 24/7 propagandist arms (TVBS, CtiTV, Dongsen) depicting him as a Mario Bros (or is it Luigi?) computer-game character, his head not-too-subtly hitting a golden coin whence a dozen more coins spurt out (the coins are ours, surely!).
Since anyone who doesn’t buy into this narrative — even those who point out his lies and inconsistencies using facts and statistics — is also lying, then the battle for political advantage has shifted from the objective truth and is now simply a contest for attention, for popularity, one in which ludicrous claims and wild antics are seen as positive. Facts are proof of ill-intent, political machinations of one’s opponent. He may be a clown, they say, but he’s our clown; I don’t completely trust what he says, but since I cannot trust anyone, they add, at least this one is entertaining (that virus catches: soon after his defeat, Han’s main and somewhat bookish opponent in the November elections, Chen Chi-mai, began making various appearances on social media and in the flesh in which he tried a little too hard, in my view, to emulate the I-too-am-a-man-of-the-people style of politician). It’s a battle of clans, one that is meant to deepen divisions in society, as any criticism of Han the Clown is an affront, an attack on his followers, on ordinary people whose only wish is to see their economic conditions improve. How dare you criticize our Clown, they say; how dare you, you damned elite, bring down a man — the only man — who is performing economic miracles where all others have failed. That the said miracles will not come about doesn’t matter; it’s about hope, belief, Han the Clown as Han the Savior. Seventy days into his election victory, and already there is talk, supported by opinion polls of rather dubious reliability, of Han running for president in the January 2020 elections; talk, even, of Han/Midas displacing Xi Jinping as head for life, a bald one at that, of the whole of China (which he will soon visit, along with Macau and Hong Kong).
All politics contain an element of illusion. But Han’s strategy has taken illusion to an extreme. And in politics, extremes rarely take us to a nice destination.
And it’s worked. As someone who still hangs on to the belief that there are honest politicians out there, and that honesty is a prerequisite for being a good public servant, the fervor surrounding Han has been nothing short of astounding. Whether it will simply be a passing phenomenon, that his fortunes will collapse as more and more people realize that his plans are erected on illusory foundations, remains to be seen. In the current political climate, I’m not entirely positive that this will happen soon enough that more damage will not be caused to the political environment and to society. I can think of at least one president, in a foreign country, who has uncorked that dark art of populism with great success, and his presence on the field of politics I expect to be a lasting one. In many ways, Han and his people have lifted their strategy from that playbook. Like that noxious example, the Han clan has seized upon a real malaise, fattened it with confabulation and a barrage of “fake news,” and it now holds millions of people in its thrall (not counting the online bots, whose IP addresses have been located around the world, that appear to be tinkering with various Internet algorithms to further boost the Han brand) with an illusion that makes them feel good, an illusion they will fight to defend even if the facts are staring them in the eye (for an example of this, read the vitriolic reactions in the comments section of this article). All politics contain an element of illusion. But Han’s strategy has taken illusion to an extreme. And in politics, extremes rarely take us to a nice destination.
All this is dispiriting and dangerous, dispiriting because it makes a mockery of a profession in a time when professionals are needed; dangerous because the whole of body politics, the media, social media and civil society are being splintered, the divisions deepened into mere hostile clans at a time when unity is direly needed.
No doubt this op-ed will attract accusations that I am being partisan, and indeed, unreservedly, I am. I am troubled not by the party with which Han is affiliated, but rather by what he stands for, for the kind of politics-as-show he represents. If he indeed epitomizes, as some are claiming, the future of politics, then heaven save us all.