Foxconn tycoon Terry Gou: Taiwan’s wealthiest man - and future presidential candidate

Lawrence Chung
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Foxconn tycoon Terry Gou: Taiwan’s wealthiest man - and future presidential candidate

Less than a year ago, Foxconn’s billionaire chairman Terry Gou said he didn’t “even have the one millionth of intent to run” for the presidency of Taiwan.

Fast-forward to Wednesday and his announcement that he will vie to be the opposition Kuomintang’s candidate for the presidential election next year has shaken the island’s political landscape.

Vowing to do something for the younger generation, Gou went back on his word, saying the 2020 race will be “extremely critical in determining Taiwan’s future in the next 20 years in terms of politics, defence and the economy”.

Gou, 68, has a reputation as one of the island’s most successful businesspeople and may well have a better chance at challenging the incumbent, President Tsai Ing-wen, than other KMT aspirants, including former legislature speaker Wang Jin-pyng and former New Taipei City mayor Eric Chu.

But analysts say he still has to pass a series of tests to show that he can do better than Tsai, from the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party.

Gou’s rise to the mantle of the richest man on the island with an estimated net worth of US$7.4 billion began in a rented shed on the outskirts of Taipei in 1974. That’s when Gou started Hon Hai Precision Industry, better known as Foxconn, with US$7,500 and just 10 staff making plastic parts for television sets.

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A turning point came in 1980 when he received an order from game company Atari to make a console joystick, starting a decade of expansion that involved an 11-month trip to the United States to doorknock for business.

In 1988, soon after Beijing promised not to nationalise investments from the self-ruled island, Taiwan-born Gou opened his first factory on the mainland in Shenzhen, becoming one of the few Taiwanese businesspeople with private investments across the strait.

Eight years later, Foxconn started building chassis for Compaq desktop computers, which also won him lucrative contracts from other big-name companies like IBM, HP and Apple. Since then, Foxconn has gradually become the world’s biggest electronics contract manufacturer, with clients including Apple, Nintendo, Dell and Sony. With a staff of more than 1.2 million worldwide, his electronics empire spread to Finland when he bought Nokia’s mobile phone brand and Japanese displaymaker Sharp in 2016.

Today, Gou is known in Beijing as a “mainland-friendly business leader”and even President Xi Jinping has called him his “old friend”.

The Foxconn chief has also gained the approval of US President Donald Trump. As trade tensions between Washington and Beijing escalated last year, Gou agreed to invest US$10 billion in a factory in Wisconsin to assemble liquid crystal display screens, winning praise from Trump trying to revive the area’s manufacturing industry.

With his wealth and business expertise, Gou is seen by many as a strong contender for the KMT’s nomination.

“As a world-class entrepreneur whose business spans the two sides of the Taiwan Strait as well as Europe and America, he has made great contributions to Taiwan’s economic development,” former president Ma Ying-jeou said on Wednesday,

But Foxconn has also been dogged by criticism about its labour and business practices, with some workers on the mainland calling his operations “blood and sweat” factories. A dozen Foxconn workers committed suicide in 2010 in what reports later said was due to the company’s constant demand of maximum efficiency at the lowest cost.

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Analysts said Gou would have to overcome some of his liabilities to get the top job and deliver on his promise of a better future for young people.

“His strong business links and his close relations with China will make him a strong target for the DPP,” said Hu Yu-wei, head of the journalism department at Chinese Culture University in Taipei.

Apart from cutting ties with his business empire, Gou would also have to convince voters that he would not use his power to benefit Foxconn if he became president, Hu said.

Political analyst Ku Erh-te said Gou would need to show that he could perform at the top political level.

“He will need to convince voters that he could do better than Tsai in striking a balance in terms of maintaining US-Taiwan-China relations if he no longer holds the [Foxconn] chairman post and very possibly no longer able to meet US or Chinese leaders directly as Taiwan’s president,” Ku said.

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