Another price-gouging scandal made its way into Taiwan’s English-language press this week after a tourist was duped into handing over a stack of cash for a meagre meal at Shilin Night Market. The victim of this skulduggery was quick to share her outrage online, alongside a photo of the two portions of grilled beef cubes which she purchased for NT$600. A price which is roughly equivalent to HK$150. More shockingly still, that’s four pints of táipí (臺啤), Taiwan’s most favoured tipple, and a (couple of) very early morning shāobǐng yóutiáos (燒餅油條). Basically, she got ripped off.

Shilin Night Market. Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.
Shilin Night Market. File Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

She will not be the last person to be taken advantage of at a tourist hotspot. This is life! People will try deceiving you wherever you go. You expect a cheap meal – and are left with a crippling bill. The builder tells you the job will take two days – and it takes two weeks. You elect a man to run your city – and he buggers off to run for president.

Ok, the last one isn’t quite universal but residents of Taiwan’s second city, Kaohsiung, will know what I am talking about. Their mayor, Han Kuo-yu, won the Kuomintang (KMT) presidential primary back in the summer and has recently announced that he will take three months off his official duties between now and polling day, 11 January 2020. Such a move is not unheard of nor should it be particularly controversial. After all, candidates need the time to campaign. What makes this move especially grating for the people of Kaohsiung is the fact that Han has barely been in office a year. After promising a lot – namely to “Make Kaohsiung Great Again” – and delivering so little, it is no wonder 300,000 residents have signed a recall petition against him.

Han Kuo-yu
KMT’s Han Kuo-yu. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

None of this bodes well for the KMT hopeful. Han will need all the support he can muster after his popularity slumped over the summer; with recent polls now put his opponent, the incumbent Tsai Ing-wen, comfortably ahead. Yet the last few weeks will have done little to win over a sceptical public. News broke of KMT party members being purged for disloyalty while it also emerged that Han was being sued by a journalist after telling crowds at a rally: “the majority of pundits have accepted dirty money”.

Even when the mayor of Kaohsiung tries to look do good, by toning down the populism, and getting out into the community it never quite works. His recent beach cleaning plans in southern Taiwan were scuppered after a group of people cleared away all the trash the previous day. Meanwhile, campaign tours have been marred by the distribution of “missing posters” bearing the face of the Mayor of Kaohsiung, and last week attentions were momentarily diverted by an egg throwing incident – after all it wouldn’t be an election without one.

Also common to all elections are outlandish spending promises. Han has promised a new airport for the south, and new rail lines to accompany it. He’s pledged to beef up the tourism bureau into a ministry, and double its budget, in a effort to meet his promise to bring twenty million tourists to the island. “For Taiwan to get rich, goods need to be sold and people need to come in” he told an audience in Tainan. Sounds simple, right? Yet voters would be wise to look to Kaohsiung to see what actually come of Han campaign promises.

One promise which was ditched as quickly as it was adopted was Han’s support for erecting flag-raising platforms on all of the nation’s mountains with peaks over 3,000 meters. This patriotic pledge was made last week at the suggestion of a resident from Jhongpu town, in Chiayi County. Han replied it “must be done” but quickly rowed back no doubt because of the project’s impracticality, potential ecological impact, and sheer ridiculousness.

Tsai Ing-wen
Tsai Ing-wen. Photo: Taiwan Gov’t.

The only people who won’t be laughing will be Han’s campaign staff. Who, gaffes aside, insist internal KMT polls show the margin between Han and Tsai narrowing. Right now it does not appear this way. Han’s campaign is flagging but, don’t write him off, with just over ten weeks to go Kaohsiung’s maverick mayor could well turn things around.

Gray is a writer based in Taipei who regularly comments on Taiwanese, Chinese and Hong Kong politics. Previously he worked in human rights advocacy, and for many years was an activist for the UK Labour Party. Follow him on Twitter.