Taiwan: Foxconn's CEO running for president, which way forward for the workers?

On 17 April 2019, Taiwanese working people received a memo, signed by folklore sea goddess Mazu herself, that Foxconn’s CEO Terry Guo Tai-ming (郭台銘) should be their president. As any self-respecting bourgeois understands, an anointment should not go without a fancy feast. Thus, Mr. Guo officiated his heaven-endorsed bid for presidency at a KMT award ceremony where he was the recipient of an “award of honour.”

Little did he know that speaking in tongues with such a haughty attitude would only invite vengeance from the most powerful of earthly forces. Thanks to him, the working class is a step further in realising that it is time to storm the heavens.

An international enemy of the working class

Guo’s bid for the highest office in Taiwan will draw concerns from well beyond the island country. His Foxconn empire (also known as Hon Hai Precision Industry 鴻海精密工業), oversees the suffering and exploitation of tens of thousands of workers wherever it reaches.

The multinational conglomerate currently ranks 24th on the Fortune Global 500 list, hauling in over $154 billion USD in revenue in 2018. It remains the largest contract electronics manufacturer in the world, pumping out products on behalf of Apple, Sony, Amazon, Xiaomi, Dell, Nokia, Blackberry, and more, to the point that over 40 percent of all of the world's consumer electronic products were produced by Foxconn. Its operations span across Asia, Europe and the Americas, placing over a million workers under the regime of Terry Guo.

Marx once stated that capitalism at once creates enormous sums of wealth while simultaneously deepening the misery of the working class to an unprecedented degree. The Foxconn empire itself embodies this reality.

Innolux (群創光電), a subsidiary of Foxconn and a major electronics manufacturer in Taiwan where Guo began his empire, is notorious for its low wages and bullying management style against the workers. In 2014 an Innoux worker anonymously debunked Guo’s claim that he pays his workers a “high” monthly wage of $36,000 NTD (around $1,100 USD) when in reality her wage was merely $16,000 NTD ($510 USD). This worker’s exposè soon inspired many other Innolux workers to come out with their own stories, to the point that management investigated the real identity of the testifying worker and forced her to write a letter to apologise to Terry Guo, among other punishments.

In 2010, workers in Foxconn’s plant in Chennai, India went on strike over the meagre wage of $106 per month they were receiving. 319 workers were arrested due to this strike. Later, in 2014, claiming a lack of orders from Nokia, Foxconn suddenly closed their Chennai plant overnight causing 1,300 permanent workers to lose their jobs. At the same time a suspicious new manufacturer “Rising Star” took over the operations of the closed plants and hired contract workers with significantly less pay. This new manufacturer, operating in exactly the same way as the previous Foxconn plant did, refused to honour an agreement that Foxconn had made with the unions that they would rehire the sacked permanent workers if their operation reopened, claiming that they have no connection to Foxconn, despite their official Facebook page indicating the contrary.

In 2017, looking to take advantage of the poor state of labour protection in Wisconsin, USA, Foxconn announced that they planned to open LCD manufacturing plants there, with then-governor Scott Walker promising that this move would create 13,000 jobs and thus justified a state investment of $3 billion taxpayer dollars in the operation. In reality Foxconn only planned to create 3,000 jobs with a public promise that they would simultaneously enforce rapid automation. To-date, only 200 locals have been hired, while 75 homes and acres of farmland in Mount Pleasant, Wisconsin have been bulldozed in favour of Foxconn’s facilities, but Foxconn is now renegotiating the contract with the state.

The suffering of Foxconn workers in China is known to the world Image Flickr iphonedigitalThe suffering of Foxconn workers in China is known to the world / Image: Flickr, iphonedigital

But the most miserable section of Foxconn’s employees are those in China, where the majority of their workers are to be found. Aside from the infamous episodes of workers driven to suicide now widely known to the world, Foxconn continues its regime of attacking the workers’ interests to maximise profit by placing their workers in a labyrinth of company stores, wage-slashing disciplinary procedures, abhorrent dormitory conditions and cutbacks on benefits. It also openly refuses to hire Uyghur and Tibetan workers. All of the above behaviour has been under the watch of the Chinese “Communist” Party dictatorship. According to the Labour law of China as amended in 2014, plants cannot have more than 10 percent dispatch workers within its workforce, but in 2018 it was discovered that more than 40 percent of Foxconn’s Kindle manufacturing plant in Hunan are dispatch workers who suffer from overwork and constant wage theft.

The brutality of chairman Guo’s reign, clearly, is applied consistently across the world in the name of profit.

A new level of the crisis

One can ask the question as to why Terry Guo, this personification of the world bourgeoisie with direct access to both Xi Jinping and Donald Trump, chooses at this moment to venture into Taiwanese politics? The answer is to be found in the crisis of capitalism that is expressed through the political crisis in Taiwan and throughout the world. Lenin observed that during such capitalist crises “the ruling class can no longer rule as they had before.”

Taiwan is a pivotal advanced capitalist economy in East Asia. Its politics has long been dominated by the manoeuvring and conflicts between the interests of US and Chinese imperialism. For both the Chinese ruling class and the working class, the separation of Taiwan from China remains an important political question. The CCP continues to justify its political dictatorship over the Chinese working class via nationalist, chauvinist language, which includes the promise that it would one day reclaim Taiwan under its fold. Whereas for many Chinese workers, the separation of Taiwan from China reminds them of the painful legacy of China under the domination of many imperialist forces in the past.

On the other hand, the experience of the Taiwanese working class, now far more diverse culturally, detracts from the narratives of Chinese chauvinism. For a long time a marginal Island at the intersection of various great powers in East Asia, the Taiwanese masses have endured a history of being dominated by outside forces in their own homes. The Japanese colonial period that began in 1895 also pushed Taiwan down the road of capitalist development that diverged from how it took place in China.

When at the end of World War II Taiwan was returned to China under the KMT, the latter used the language of Chinese chauvinism to justify their subjugation of the Taiwanese masses under the rule of the rotten Chiang Kai-shek regime. This policy intensified after the KMT was expelled by the Chinese Revolution of 1949 to Taiwan, where they continued the domination over the Taiwanese working class with a US-sponsored military dictatorship that lasted until the 1980s. In this process both the workers’ movement and the yearning for national self-determination began to grow rapidly among both the Taiwanese masses, the latter primarily led by petit-bourgeois who had fought the KMT dictatorship in favour of Taiwanese Independence.

The content of the self-determination sentiment would see a qualitative transformation as Chinese capitalism was restored by the CCP. The Taiwanese workers and youth saw across the Taiwan Strait not a government that appealed for class solidarity against capitalism, but one that uses the very same chauvinist language that opts to annex Taiwan into a larger, oppressive capitalist economy. At the same time the KMT sharply adapted itself to becoming the champion of the bourgeois who wish to become compradores of the CCP regime in Taiwan, while the supposedly pro-independent but no less bourgeois Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) exposed its true reactionary nature to the Taiwanese working class.

After more than a decade of changing between DPP and KMT governments, the Sunflower Movement of 2014 marked a qualitative transformation in the class struggle. This magnificent movement, first led by students trying to stop the KMT Ma Ying-jeou government from illegally fast-tracking a wide-ranging neoliberal trade agreement with China, inspired the participation from the masses all over the country that led to a collapse of support for the KMT and a new DPP government led by Tsai Ing-wen out of a lack of alternative in 2016. The Sunflower Movement channelled the anger of the Taiwanese masses against the KMT and the CCP, while realising that the DPP itself is unable to effectively resist the encroachment of Chinese Imperialism.

The KMT remains in complete disarray after the fallout of the Sunflower Movement, with none of its leading politicians being able to regain enough support from the masses. On the other hand, the DPP government’s reactionary nature is rapidly revealing itself to the Taiwanese working class with its determined attack on workers’ rights and reneging on all the progressive democratic promises that it made during the 2016 election campaign. This then created a second political tremor in the municipal elections of November 2018, where the DPP lost control over the vast majority of cities around Taiwan, while the KMT was only able to gain victory on the back of a crackpot candidate Han Kuo-yu who wielded Trumpian “anti-establishment” demagogy against both the DPP and the KMT establishment and inspired a following across Taiwan. Han was able to get elected as mayor of Kaohsiung, a longstanding stronghold of the DPP, by a landslide with his methods.

Han remains the only KMT politician that could garner support on the shaky ground of the anger of a layer of the masses against the DPP but which finds no working class alternative available to them. This situation led to short-sighted calls within the ranks of the KMT for Han Kuo-yu to run for president in 2020, less than one year after he took office as mayor. The mainstream of the Taiwanese bourgeoisie - and the CCP - generally prefer the KMT as their primary representative due to their increasing dependence on Chinese capitalism. With the KMT unable to produce a viable candidate and with the strategy of running Han for president risking an even greater discrediting of bourgeois politics in Taiwan, a new feigned “anti-establishment” candidate, one that can claim to be from outside of politics but ultimately serves to preserve the existing order with a new guise, has become necessary. The pre-eminent bourgeois, Terry Guo, who holds enormous spiritual authority over all of the Taiwanese ruling class and supporters of capitalism, therefore has stepped into the KMT primary election as a mere “party member”. This technique is not unlike the path taken by Emmanuel Macron in France who founded a new party when both of the establishment parties of France had collapsed while elements that the mainstream bourgeois would not be comfortable working with began to rise from both the Right and the Left. Only this time no dissolution of the KMT is required.

Han Kuo yu remains the only popular politician within the KMT with his right wing anti establishment facade coupled with promises of making everyone rich Image Han Kuo yu officialHan Kuo yu remains the only popular politician within the KMT with his right-wing, 'anti establishment' facade coupled with promises of making everyone rich / Image: Han Kuo yu official

Guo’s bid, nonetheless, introduces a number of major contradictions in the situation, the greatest of which will fall upon the CCP. Terry Guo is at once the most preferred yet most dangerous from the point of view of the Xi Jinping regime. On the one hand, a Guo government in Taiwan would guarantees attempts at collaborating with the CCP as well as the agenda of Chinese imperialism. On the other, the CCP would have to justify its support for a robber baron that is reviled by millions of Chinese workers, not to mention a class enemy that the Taiwanese and the Chinese workers can rally against. With the rising level of class struggle inside China and a world economic slump looming on the horizon, endorsing Guo openly would further expose before the Chinese working class the bourgeois nature of the CCP, putting themselves on political thin ice.

Guo himself would also have to forego running his massive empire which currently has no leadership succession plan. With many of Foxconn’s biggest clients descending into crisis, Guo’s sudden move into politics introduces many uncertainties for his investors. Bloomberg’s Tim Culpan summed up these concerns:

“If he were to step away, there’s every chance that the underlying businesses would falter for lack of direction. And with his key client, Apple Inc., facing its own troubles, now is hardly the time for Guo to be distracted. Guo-linked stocks fell on Friday. Whatever his latest deal is, it’s not clear it’ll be good for either investors or Beijing.”

Within Taiwan, rising class conflict and deepening capitalist crisis also continues to create problems for the KMT and the bourgeoisie. According to a poll conducted by Shih Hsin University, Guo’s run has yet to be a lightning rod within the KMT. In fact, at 28 percent support he slightly trails behind Han Kuo-yu, who would get 28.8 percent of support if he actually runs. This is not as neat a transfer of support as Guo and his camp might have hoped for. In a recent trip to the US, Han also raised the slogan of “Lean on the US for (Taiwan’s) Defence! Lean on China for the Market!” This is an overture to US Imperialism that sharply detracts from the mainstream of the KMT and Guo.

Realising his firm base of support, Han Kuo-yu released a statement clarifying his intentions with regards to running for president. He said that he is “unable to participate in the primary election process as it stands” while lamenting “the political elites have been making backdoor deals for too long and they have strayed away from the people.” He then ended his statement by saying: “I love the Republic of China. I am willing to take up the mantle to defend and enrich it.” Han’s statement implies an ultimatum to the KMT leadership. He wants them to directly co-opt (or “draft”) him as their presidential nominee. Two days later, the KMT leadership announced that Han would be included in the primaries. As of now, Han still leads in the polls against Guo.

Given the limitations of both of these figures, it is very likely that the KMT leadership will opt for a compromise, and engineer a collaboration between Guo and Han in one way or another. However, at this point of general crisis, the manoeuvring between different sections of the ruling class against one another might create an even-deeper crisis for the KMT.

An absence of options

The shaky ground that the KMT stands on, even with Guo’s intervention, is mirrored in the DPP. Since the spectacular loss of last year’s midterm election, President Tsai Ing-wen stepped down as the party chairperson and is now facing a challenge from her previous head of government William Lai in the DPP primaries. Lai is a DPP grandee who now has adopted the positions of the bourgeoisie who support the DPP, i.e. building closer relations with China while attacking the working class.

It should be noted that Tsai’s politics does not differ from that of Lai’s. However, due to Tsai’s superficially militant rebuttal of Xi Jinping’s new year address regarding the ultimate fate of Taiwan, she has won over support of a section of the youth while placing her at greater odds with the CCP. From the standpoint of the Taiwanese bourgeoisie who bankroll the DPP, this disqualifies her from effectively serving their interests and thus an internal challenge was launched. Regardless of who the DPP nominee is in the end, the entire party will remain a political organisation that firmly stands against the interests of Taiwanese workers and youth. Given that the preference of DPP bourgeoisie to Lai, there is strong pressure for some sort of conciliation between Tsai and Lai, with Lai being Tsai’s running mate being a popular option. It can be foreseen, however, if Tsai wins a second term on this basis, a ministerial coup against her from within the DPP will be on the cards.

William Lai right who worked as the Premier under the Tsai government is launching a challenge to Tsai for the DPPs presidential nominee Image William Lai official FacebookWilliam Lai (right) who worked as the Premier under the Tsai government is launching a challenge to Tsai for the DPP's presidential nominee / Image: William Lai official Facebook

Outside of the DPP there is yet another force, the “White Force” led by non-partisan Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je. A political opportunist par excellence, Ko rose to prominence as an “outsider” physician who demagogically won over a section of the Sunflower Movement supporters who were tired of both the KMT and the DPP. After defeating the KMT (with the endorsement of the DPP) in 2015 and being narrowly re-elected with challengers from both the KMT and the DPP, Ko had firmly integrated himself into Taipei’s establishment politics, gathering a gang of politicians from across the political spectrum into his fold. He has sharply distanced himself from his previous image of being militantly pro-Taiwanese independence with progressive values to someone who is openly friendly to the CCP and refrains from supporting gay marriage.

No matter what superficial or organisational differences that Terry Guo, Tsai Ing-wen, Ko Wen-je and others may have, from the standpoint of the working class they are all people opposed to workers’ interests.

A fight for a worker’s alternative

A popular perspective that exists among many Taiwanese workers and youths is the idea that a KMT president would set Taiwan down an irreversible path towards being annexed by China, which would also mean the certain destruction of democratic rights won through past struggles in Taiwan. The presidential bid of Terry Guo reaffirms this supposition, given his close ties with the CCP leadership. Thus, we are told, we must support Tsai Ing-wen despite our misgivings of her and the DPP, since they present the best chance for Taiwan to remain an independent democratic republic.

This is a reasonable concern among many workers and young people in Taiwan. Refusal to unify with China on the present basis remains the dominant sentiment, the latest poll indicating that support for maintaining the status quo stands at 57.4 percent while support for de jure independence is at 20.1 percent. Those leaning towards support for unification is at 15.9 percent. Let us be clear that Marxists agree that an imperialist annexation of Taiwan by China would be a reactionary development that would hugely suppress the democratic rights of Taiwan while increasing the level of exploitation. Nevertheless we should also have a measured perspective on the present situation and more importantly, provide a program for the Taiwanese working class for a concrete way out of this political blind alley.

To begin with, we must admit to ourselves that prolonging the status quo is neither desirable nor feasible for a growing layer of workers in Taiwan. The 19 years of two-party system has brought a consistent downward pressure upon the working class and youth. The social crises that arose in the process were always subsumed under the superficial debate of “unification/independence” as directed jointly by the KMT and the DPP. The accumulation of frustration due to this lack of political representation of the working class in Taiwanese politics thus gave rise to the careers of the various “anti-establishment” populist politicians we are seeing today, who all ultimately embrace the agenda of the bourgeois and approach the CCP.

The Taiwanese population are already looking for a way out of the miserable status quo, and every socialist and consistent democrat should throw themselves into building a political alternative for the working class.

On the other hand, as long as the CCP remains in power in China, it will not end its efforts to place Taiwan under its sphere of influence in one way or another. In the near term, despite Xi’s bluster, the CCP is unable to impose the reactionary scheme of “One Country, Two Systems” on Taiwan should a pro-China government come to power, because this would invite only enormous mass opposition from the powerful working class in Taiwan which risks spreading the contagion of class struggle into China itself. It prefers a friendly government in Taiwan that can continue to deepen Taiwan’s dependence on China to pave a way for annexation some way down the road, just as the KMT Ma Ying-jeou government attempted.

This does not mean that a major assault on workers’ interests will not take place, for as we have seen repeatedly, because of their class interests, any bourgeois party and politician, as well as US Imperialism, would have to make concessions to the CCP at the expense of the Taiwanese working class. They are incapable of acting otherwise. Instead of choosing between lesser evils, the real task is for the leadership of the working class to build a class independent workers’ party with a fighting socialist program for the nationalisation of the biggest corporations and banks under democratic workers’ control and management and to massively raise wages and fund social programs.

Such a party should not restrict its own activities to electoral politics, but must be intimately involved in all of the workers’ struggles. They must raise the political need to fight capitalism and imperialism in every strike action and meaningfully draw the working class into participating in politics democratically. Only such a party can mobilise mass action that is the only effective weapon against the encroachment of Imperialism, just as the 2014 Sunflower Movement halted the agenda of Chinese Imperialism.

While this party will bring the working class to the forefront of the struggle for Taiwan’s right of self-determination, as the bourgeoisie are not capable of doing so, it also must actively appeal to and connect with the Chinese working class. The presidential bid of Terry Guo presents an excellent opportunity for this to take place. Even if he is not the KMT’s presidential nominee in the end, it is very likely that he will be significantly involved in Taiwanese politics in the near future, especially if a KMT government comes to power in 2020. Here we have a bourgeois whose enterprise ravages the lives of workers across China and the world. A consistent class-based fight against Guo and the bourgeoisie in Taiwan, led by a workers’ party with a socialist program, would help the workers in China to realise that they must also fight Guo, his bourgeois peers, and their facilitator, the CCP regime. The enormous productive forces controlled by Foxconn across the strait and around the world must be seized by the working class and placed under democratic workers’ control. This would also open up possibilities for the Taiwanese labour movement to connect with workers around the world, breaking out of its longstanding lack of connection with workers internationally.

Zhu Meixue in blue vest supporting struggling workers of Yung Tay Engineering Image Zhu Meixue official FacebookZhu Meixue (in blue vest) supporting struggling workers of Yung Tay Engineering / Image: Zhu Meixue official Facebook

We see some important beginnings already. In 2018 a militant union leader Zhu Meixue ran an independent, class-based campaign for mayor in Taoyuan. While not elected on this basis, he and his team of militant Labour activists used the momentum to found a “Livelihood Association (生活協會),” a union-backed organisation that can struggle for workers’ rights and progressive social demands which hopes to be the progenitor of a future Labour Party.

This is an excellent start. If it adopts bold slogans against the capitalist system and imperialism, while actively connecting with the advanced section of workers and youth, this project could rapidly take off and become a real alternative for the Taiwanese working class, as well as an inspiring example to the Chinese working class.