Decoding 'Han fans': an anti-political elite movement

2019/07/28 12:45:32 fontsize-small fontsize-default fontsize-big
CNA file photo

CNA file photo

By Stacy Hsu, CNA staff reporter

Over the years, Tina Chang (張小玲), 62, has developed a distaste for Taiwan's political elite, who she believes think only of themselves, rely on a small circle of close aides and are more talk than action. This time, she is backing "a man of the common people" for the 2020 presidential election.

With a bachelor's degree and running her own company, Chang of Taipei does not fit the stereotypical profile of Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu's (韓國瑜) supporters as working class and less well educated (though her age confirms most analysts' observations that Han's supporters tend to be middle-aged or elderly).

According to a survey released July 17 by the green-leaning Cross-Strait Policy Association, Han enjoys the strongest support among people with a junior college degree (53.3 percent) and those aged 60-69 (44.6 percent).

His support is weakest among Taiwanese with a graduate or a higher degree (28.6 percent) and young people in the 20-29 age group (28.3 percent).

However, Chang does list many of the reasons so-called "Han fans" often cite for their seemingly unwavering support for the mayor, who is representing the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) in the January presidential race against President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), who is seeking reelection.

Humility, use of plain language, displays of affection toward the people are things Chang says she likes about Han.

"He has also exhibited genuine care for the socially disadvantaged and people at the grassroots level, unlike those political elites who only pay lip service," she said, pointing to politicians from both major parties.

Man of the common people

Since Han became the first KMT candidate to win the Kaohsiung mayoral race in 20 years last November, defeating his DPP opponent by 9.07 percentage points, political analysts have been scratching their heads and trying to understand "Han fans" -- a force believed to have played a critical role in the mayor's meteoric rise from a political nobody to a formidable presidential candidate in less than a year.

The term "Han fans" today carries a rather negative connotation, owing much to their perceived fanatical loyalty to Han and the lengths to which some of them are willing to go to seek revenge on the mayor's critics.

Many, including KMT politicians, have fallen victim to cyber harassment from self-proclaimed "Han fans" and seen their Facebook pages bombarded with hateful or offensive comments.

However, scratch the surface of "Han fans'" fanatical behavior, and there seems to lie a shared sense of disappointment, or even resentment, against Taiwan's political elite.

Moreover, that could explain why Han's success in branding himself as a "man of the common people" has worked magic for a politician with relatively little prior public service experience.

Han calls himself the opposite of a model student growing up. He talks about the part-time jobs he had had in order to support himself through college.

He also often mentions the time he was unemployed for 17 years after reaching the peak of his political career in his early 30s -- having become one of the youngest lawmakers in 1993.

Riding a wave of populism and anti-elitism, the mayor has successfully set himself apart from the nation's current and former governing "elite," who have faced criticism for their unpopular policies and being out of touch.

"We should stop electing presidents with a National Taiwan University (NTU) degree. We have been governed by people like that for three decades and see where it has gotten us," said Lo Chen-chung (羅振中), the proprietor of a small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) that mostly operates in southern Taiwan and has business interests in Vietnam, Myanmar and China.

Lo, 56, said Taiwan's average salary has been noticeably lower than that of the other three Asian tigers -- Singapore, South Korea and Hong Kong.

The situation, he believes, has a lot to do with the fact that Taiwan's sitting and former presidents mostly come from wealthy backgrounds and "only know how to be a good student and get good grades."

The four presidents Taiwan has had since 1988 all held a bachelor's degree from NTU, the top-ranked university in the country. With the only exception being the DPP's Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), the other three also obtained advanced degrees overseas.

By comparison, a political anomaly like Han radiates hope in the eyes of Lo, who only possesses a high school diploma and started his business from scratch in the 1990s.

"The mayor behaves like a commoner and does not reek of condescension...He also has this 'doer' attitude and seems to know more (about the lower-middle class)," he said.

Spokesman for marginalized groups

Eric Yu (俞振華), an associate research fellow at National Chengchi University's Election Study Center, agrees that Han's "commoners versus elites" campaign strategy has been a success, especially in helping him secure public support in the presidential primary of a party traditionally seen as being "full of elites."

Contrary to common belief, Yu notes that the makeup of "Han fans" does not just include people who are objectively less well-off, but also those who feel relatively deprived and marginalized, either economically or politically.

"An example is the support shown for Han by retired military officers, civil servants and public-school teachers, who have come to feel relatively deprived because of the (Tsai administration's) pension reforms, but they certainly do not belong to the socially-disadvantaged groups," Yu said.

Another major source of support for the mayor, Yu continued, stems from traditional Republic of China (ROC) loyalists, who have been feeling politically marginalized due to the growing "Taiwan identity" that has forced even some members of the pan-blue camp to tone down their ROC-centered patriotic rhetoric.

Because of Han's less well off upbringing, history of unemployment, difficulties in fitting into the elite-dominated KMT, and display of strong ROC nationalism, "these people are all able to see some part of themselves in Han," Yu said. "That is how their support for him gradually transformed into an identity."

(Han climbs up a tree to examine rain-filled cavities in trees)

Dwindling support from swing voters

While Han's "commoner image" has drawn a group of staunch fans that helped make him Kaohsiung mayor and on the KMT presidential ticket, people remain doubtful whether that alone will be enough to win Han the hearts of Taiwan's swing voters and thrust him into the presidency.

Kuo Chien-tu (郭遷圖), independent warden of Kaohsiung's Sinwu Borough, said that although Han is an expert at campaigning and knows how to excite crowds at rallies, many swing voters in the city have been disappointed by his performance and abandoned him.

"(Han) barely got anything done and put his mind to nothing," said Kuo, whose borough is in Fongshan District, where Han beat Chen Chi-mai (陳其邁) of the DPP by the largest margin among Kaohsiung's 38 districts in the Nov. 24 mayoral election.

Kuo also loathes the use of the term "common people," saying there is no "emperor" in Taiwan and that it is merely a slogan designed by Han to appear closer to voters.

In fact, Han has reduced his use of the "commoners versus elites" tactic since the KMT primary, mainly because doubts have risen over whether he can actually call himself a common person, said NTU Department of Political Science Chair Chang Yu-tzung (張佑宗).

Chang Yu-tzung may be referring to the Control Yuan's publication of assets of several high-ranking officials and public office holders in mid-June, which showed that Han and his wife have about NT$45.59 million (US$1.45 million) in savings, NT$14 million worth of marketable securities, two automobiles, and a 1,662 m2 plot of farmland in Yunlin County.

However, the couple also has debts of NT$12.87 million, according to the Control Yuan data.

Han's wife, Lee Chia-fen (李佳芬), has also been embroiled in a scandal with part of a building she owns that stands on the farmland in Yunlin determined to be an illegal structure. It also fails to conform to laws governing the use of agricultural land.

Focus on economy and jobs

"Looking ahead, Han will likely focus on the 'commoners' economy' and pay more attention to employment rates, economic development and issues that concern Taiwan's SMEs and people at the grassroots level," Chang Yu-tzung said.

It will not help Han's presidential bid if he keeps playing the "commoner" card at a time when this self-assigned identity no longer holds, he added.

Despite uncertainty over the main theme of the mayor's 2020 presidential campaign, one thing certain is that "Han fans" will continue to be a force to be reckoned with, said Glen Lai (賴苡任), a 25-year-old Taipei resident who set up a Facebook fan page for Han's supporters in April just to observe them.

"They are quick at spreading information and their messages are infectious," Lai said. Criticism and doubts do not discourage them or tear them apart; they "will only make them stronger and more united," he said.


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