A self-made, septuagenarian billionaire with limited political experience has thrown his hat into one of the most consequential presidential elections of 2024, shaking up a race that could have huge ramifications far beyond its borders.
Terry Gou, the founder of the world’s largest iPhone maker Foxconn, announced Monday his second presidential campaign in Taiwan, joining an already crowded China-friendly camp to challenge the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).
Under incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen, who cannot run due to term limits, the DPP has already held power for eight years. If the party wins a third term, it would be unprecedented in the island’s 27-year democratic history.
The election, due in January, comes at a particularly fraught moment between the island of 24 million people and its superpower neighbor, China, which claims Taiwan as its own territory to be taken by force if necessary.
Tensions have risen to their highest level in decades, as China’s assertive leader Xi Jinping ramps up military pressure on the island, sending warships and fighter jets across the strait with increasing frequency and scale.
Fears of a Chinese attack have only intensified since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which Beijing has persistently refused to condemn, whilst deepening its close relationship with Moscow.
The specter of conflict has not loomed as large over a Taiwan election since 1996 when Beijing fired missiles toward the island to intimidate voters not to support a candidate championing Taiwan’s separate identity from China. (That move backfired spectacularly and the candidate won.)
Amid rising threats of invasion, Taiwan’s foreign policy – especially its relations with China – has become a central issue in the presidential race, alongside more bread-and-butter subjects like the economy and the rising cost of living.
Opposition candidates, including Gou, blame the DPP for provoking Beijing and stoking tensions, labeling the vote as a choice between war and peace.
Meanwhile, the DPP’s candidate, Vice President Lai Ching-te, has framed the election as a choice between democracy and authoritarianism.
“Don’t be afraid and turn back because of the increased threat from authoritarianism. We must be brave and strong to continue to grow Taiwan on the road of democracy,” he said during a transit through the United States last month, defying Beijing’s condemnation of the trip.
Lai, a Harvard-educated doctor-turned-politician, hails from the so-called “deep green” faction of the DPP – known for its more openly pro-independence leanings.
That has made him a thorn in the side of Beijing, which regularly decried him as a “separatist” and “troublemaker.” In 2017, Lai enraged Chinese officials by calling himself a “pragmatic worker for Taiwanese independence.”
Since winning the DPP nomination, Lai has moderated his stance, saying he supports keeping the cross-strait “status quo” – a choice that has consistently won the majority of public backing in opinion polls, though the island’s younger generation has shown increasing support for formal independence.