Taipei Mayor Says Taiwan Is ‘Just a Product on a Shelf’ for Trump

(Bloomberg) -- Taiwan must focus on making itself more valuable to President Donald Trump and accept its status as a pawn in the great power game between the U.S. and China, Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je said.

The outspoken former surgeon and potential presidential contender told Bloomberg News that Taiwan shouldn’t overestimate the U.S.’s willingness to defend the island from an attack by its much bigger neighbor. Ko, 59, said Taiwan needed to boost its worth to America by strengthening shared values, such as democracy and economic transparency.

Taipei Mayor Says Taiwan Is ‘Just a Product on a Shelf’ for Trump

“Taiwan is just a product on a shelf,” Ko said Wednesday at Taipei City Hall. “We have to have a very clear understanding of ourselves.”

Such blunt assessments have helped make Ko one of Taiwan’s most popular politicians since winning election as the capital city’s mayor as an independent in 2014. Should he secure a second term in local elections Nov. 24, he’s considered a strong contender for president, something he repeatedly declined to rule out.

“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” said Ko, who calls Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara “a hero” and other Taiwanese politicians “liars and fraudsters.”

More from Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je: 
  • “Taiwan isn’t ruled by rule of law. Taiwan is a country of liars and fraudsters. Our politicians are full of lies. They change their position from one day to the next.”
  • “Nobody knows this, but my hero is Che Guevara. Why? Because he was magic. He was a hero. Che resisted. He fought against the system.”
  • “The best thing about me is that I don’t care. And that’s also the worst thing about me.”
  • “My election win in 2014 was already a miracle. So no matter what else I accomplish, it won’t match up to that miracle.”
  • “The tensions between the U.S. and China will be with us for the next 15 years at least. In that situation, cross-strait relations don’t matter. The Taiwan issue is merely a subordinate issue in these tensions.”

Ko attributed his political success to offering an alternative to the two factions who have long dominated local politics: the Kuomintang, which sees itself as the rightful ruler of a unified China, and the Democratic Progressive Party, which sees Taiwan as an independent nation awaiting international recognition. He’s also shaken up city policies, suspending work on a 40,000-seat arena intended for last year’s University Games.

“They support me because I am their only hope,” he said. “I am not perfect, but they put their hope in me because they are desperate.”

Ko faces challenges from both sides during the Nov. 24 election: former lawmakers Ting Shou-chung, of the KMT, and Pasuya Yao, of the DPP. A survey by broadcaster TVBS last month found him leading Ting by 5 percentage points and Yao by 26 percentage points.

Taipei Mayor Says Taiwan Is ‘Just a Product on a Shelf’ for Trump

Ko -- a former ally of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen -- has attempted to bridge the divide. He outraged independence supporters when he told a Shanghai crowd during his first year in office that both sides of the Taiwan Strait belonged to one family -- symbolism often evoked by unification advocates.

“The Taiwan issue is just a part of the tensions between the U.S. and China,” Ko told Bloomberg.

Taiwan, which has been caught between the U.S. and China since the Kuomintang-led government fled to Taipei almost 70 years ago, has reemerged as a geopolitical flash point amid Trump’s trade war. The U.S. has taken steps to improve political and military ties with Tsai’s administration in recent months, leading to protests from China.

Before becoming mayor, Ko spent 17 years as the head of surgery at one of Taiwan’s top hospitals. His criticism of mainstream parities and sometimes profane outbursts in interviews have helped him amass a strong social media following, with 1.9 million Facebook followers, compared with Tsai’s 2.2 million.

Next month’s vote will show whether Ko can translate his popularity among Taiwanese under 40 years old into votes. He’s touting openness and freedom as a source of strength for Taiwan, citing an annual gay pride march last year in Taipei that drew more than 100,000 people.

“These events represent an atmosphere of freedom,” he said. “You have to go to other countries to realize Taipei is a place where there is diversity of thought.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.