TAIPEI, Taiwan — A cacophonous sea of tens of thousands of people, dressed in red and waving flags, chanted and blasted air horns here in Taiwan’s capital.
After waiting for hours through rain and seemingly endless speeches, the crowd began cheering ecstatically when Han Kuo-yu, the new star of the opposition Kuomintang, finally arrived. It took him 10 minutes to reach the stage, shaking his clasped hands in appreciation as his admirers crowded him, hoping to get photos.
The rally last weekend was a prelude to Mr. Han’s announcement on Wednesday that he was running for president of Taiwan, jolting the race with a populist candidate who wants friendlier ties with China — a sharp contrast to the incumbent, Tsai Ing-wen, who rejects China’s claim that Taiwan is part of its territory.
“Why are we all here today?” Mr. Han asked the huge crowd, composed largely of retirees bused in from southern and central Taiwan. “Because the Democratic Progressive Party hasn’t improved people’s lives,” he said, referring to Ms. Tsai’s party.
To his supporters, Mr. Han, who was elected mayor of the city of Kaohsiung just last year, is a straight-shooting maverick unafraid to challenge Taiwan’s political elites. To others, he is a source of concern, as many fear his relative inexperience and eagerness to further open the economy to Chinese investment could compromise Taiwan’s sovereignty.
Austin Wang, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who studies Taiwan, said many of Mr. Han’s supporters were retired civil servants, teachers or soldiers, who once had special pensions that provided them with comfortable lifestyles.
研究台湾问题的内华达大学拉斯维加斯分校(University of Nevada, Las Vegas)政治学助理教授王宏恩(Austin Wang)说，许多支持韩国瑜的人都是退休的公务员、教师或军人，这些人曾享有为他们提供了舒适生活方式的特别养老金。
Such retirees — typically from so-called mainland families, who came to Taiwan when the Kuomintang army fled there after Mao Zedong’s Communist forces won China’s civil war — were angered when they lost their special privileges under Ms. Tsai’s pension reforms last year, Mr. Wang said. But in general, they still have higher incomes than most of the young voters who support Ms. Tsai, he said.
“Han has promised to restore the old welfare system, so these groups actively organize for Han’s campaign and promote his popularity,” Mr. Wang said. “At the same time, most retired civil servants are also mainlanders, so they have connections with pro-unification activist groups.”
Wearing a yellow poncho and sitting on a plastic stool at the recent rally, Shirley Tang, a Taipei resident, joined the crowd in chants of “Safety for Taiwan, money for the people!” and “Get elected, Han Kuo-yu!”
To get nominated, let alone elected in January’s voting, Mr. Han will have to defeat the billionaire Terry Gou, whose company is best known for manufacturing iPhones, and Eric Chu, the former mayor of New Taipei City, in the Kuomintang primary next month. Both candidates have support from different party factions — and Han supporters like Ms. Tang have no use for either of them.
“The people in charge today all have vested interests; we don’t want them,” she said. “Han Kuo-yu represents the common people.”
Since 1987, when the Kuomintang ended decades of martial law, a Taiwanese identity distinct from that of China has developed, and the party has found itself drawing closer to China. Mr. Han’s entry into the presidential race means the contest will likely be galvanized by the question of whether Taiwan should resume warmer ties with Beijing, which has made accepting the idea that Taiwan is part of China a prerequisite for any talks.
The Kuomintang has always considered Taiwan a part of the Republic of China, the government it relocated across the strait, and Taiwan’s official name today, and all three of its candidates have said so. But some of Mr. Han’s remarks and actions have convinced his critics that he is far too close to the mainland. It is widely believed here that Mr. Han is China’s preferred presidential candidate.
At the Saturday rally in Taipei, held three days before the 30th anniversary of the bloody crackdown on the Tiananmen Square democracy movement in Beijing, Mr. Han praised Deng Xiaoping, China’s top leader at the time of the killings, for his economic reforms.
In February, weeks after taking office as mayor, Mr. Han made a trip to China that he said was aimed at selling produce from Kaohsiung. Millions of dollars in nonbinding deals were signed with Chinese companies, winning him adulation from the mostly pro-Kuomintang and pro-China media in Taiwan.
During that trip, he met with Liu Jieyi, the director of China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, who flew from Beijing to the city of Shenzhen to meet him. He also met behind closed doors with the top Communist officials in Hong Kong and Macau, which are administered by China under “one country, two systems” arrangements that, at least in theory, give the territories a high degree of autonomy. In recent years, political freedoms in Hong Kong have been eroding under pressure from Beijing.
China’s leader, Xi Jinping, who in January vowed that the country would eventually take control of Taiwan, has offered similar semiautonomy to the Taiwanese people, hoping to entice them into peaceful unification. But poll after poll has shown that an overwhelming majority of Taiwanese reject a Hong Kong-style arrangement.
Huang Jie, a Kaohsiung city councilor, said it was troubling that Mr. Han had not voiced opposition to a “one country, two systems” model for Taiwan during his trip to China.
Ms. Huang is a member of the New Power Party, which grew out of a protest movement in 2014 that halted the Kuomintang’s plans to open Taiwan’s service sector to Chinese investment. In May, she questioned Mr. Han about his plan to establish a free economic zone in Kaohsiung, which critics say will give China greater influence in the city. Ms. Huang gained a measure of fame when a clip of her giving an eyeroll to Mr. Han, who appeared unable to explain details of his plan, went viral.
Since becoming Taiwan’s most famous city councilor, Ms. Huang said, she has received both an outpouring of support and a barrage of online criticism, much of it written in the simplified Chinese characters used in mainland China but not Taiwan. “You can tell it’s coming from China’s online army,” she said in an interview.
Ms. Huang said she was more concerned about Mr. Han becoming president than about the vitriol. “I don’t think he understands national security,” she said of Mr. Han. “If he becomes president, it will be a threat to our country.”
Kathy Hong, a marketing consultant and Kaohsiung native, said she believed Mr. Han’s biggest priority as mayor had been to promote his presidential aspirations. Ms. Hong said she and many of her friends feared the prospect of Mr. Han becoming president and signing an agreement with China that would give up Taiwan’s sovereignty.
“It’s scary, the thought of him winning feels like handing Taiwan to China,” she said. “If it happens, I’ll seriously think about emigrating.”
Some voters who backed Mr. Han’s successful campaign for mayor have since soured on him. Guan Chang, a well-known video blogger, changed his mind about Mr. Han in recent weeks as his presidential ambitions became clear, and has apologized to his followers for previously supporting him.
But his fervent supporters see Mr. Han as Taiwan’s best hope. Thunder Lei, a Kaohsiung retiree, said he had made the city’s residents “happy and feeling like the future is bright.”
“Han Kuo-yu is respectable, responsible and reliable,” Mr. Lei said, “The others aren’t.”