On a hot sweaty day in Taipei in July, in front of the Presidential Office on Ketagalan Boulevard, I found myself surrounded by a crowd of angry men—almost just exclusively men. After a few hours out in the sun, I was parched. I felt like I was melting.
The rally was ostensibly about housing justice. But, in reality, the main event turned out to be a gathering of the supporters of two political figures, bodybuilder and political streamer Holger Chen, and former New Power Party chair Huang Kuo-chang.
Both figures are known for their machismo. Chen, a gym owner by trade, has been called Taiwan’s answer to Joe Rogan. And during Huang’s stint in the Legislature, many political observers enjoyed watching him dress down opponents with his sharp questioning, which earned him the nickname “War God” (戰神).
A decade ago, Huang was one of the leaders of the Sunflower Movement, a youth movement I took part in, which occupied the Taiwanese legislature and changed the country’s politics forever. This rally, however, was quite a different kind of gathering, with all of Taiwan’s major conservative candidates—the pan-Blue camp—making their appearances. It was very strange to see Huang on the same stage as Foxconn chair Terry Gou, who’s best known for his sweatshops in China; former cop Hou You-yi, who oversaw the events that led to the death of dissident Nylon Deng during the authoritarian period; and former Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je, whose party recently got in trouble when it unveiled its new slogan, “Vote White, Vote Right.” Ko may be the most harmless of this bunch, but he is well known for making misogynistic statements, such as referring to former democracy activist Chen Chu as a “fat sow,” or mocking gynecologists for “making a living between women’s legs.”
What can one of the Sunflower Movement’s former leaders have in common with these people? What, for that matter, do they have in common with each other? For one thing, they’re all loud men.
Some people seem to want to just surrender political power—and the responsibility for making decisions—to whoever is loudest in the room, and often enough, that turns out to be a big, loud, strong man who simply drowns out more rational, measured voices. Maybe it makes certain people feel safer to have a big beast guarding their door, and that’s why we live in an age of chest-thumping political strongmen like Trump, Putin, Modi, and Xi.
Despite that Taiwan, a democracy, is quite different from its neighbor across the strait, sometimes things aren’t so different here. And so, though we just had Taiwan’s first female president, Tsai Ing-wen, all of next year’s presidential contenders are men, all of whom are rather uninspiring.
The rally in July drew tens of thousands, which at the time caused some alarm about the possibility of a resurgence of conservative social forces in Taiwan. The probable winner next year, however, is likely to be William Lai, who is Tsai’s successor as candidate of the Democratic Progressive Party. But though “progressive” is in the name of the party, Lai has historically aligned with its more socially conservative wing, a group including misogynists who openly hated Tsai for being a female politician, even embracing conspiracies alleging that the president had faked having a Ph.D.—Taiwan’s equivalent of birtherism. Still, Lai has indicated that he intends to stick to the political course previously set by Tsai.
The pan-Blue camp, filled with clashing male egos, appears meanwhile to be running not one but three or more candidates, making Lai the likely victor. Unable to unify behind a single candidate, the pan-Blue camp appears unable to get its act together. Each contender seems to be convinced that he alone can lead.
Taiwan recently saw a wave of #MeToo cases, originally spurred by the Netflix series, Wave Makers, which depicted sexual harassment in politics and provoked public discussion. It later emerged that the show had been based on real events, drawing from the experiences of the scriptwriters, who had been in the DPP. Women who had been sexually harassed in the DPP, KMT, and other political parties began coming forward online with their own stories, and the wave eventually spread to academic, cultural, and entertainment circles as well. Before that, Taiwan had not yet experienced a significant wave of #MeToo cases.
The lasting influence of this #MeToo wave is doubtful in a patriarchal political culture as entrenched as that of Taiwan. For example, when social commentary emerged online noting that the July rally had consisted almost entirely of men, some of the participants attempted to defend themselves by claiming that women were probably just all busy shopping or taking care of the kids to care about more weighty matters, such as the untenably high cost of housing for most in Taiwan.
Not long after Wave Makers, another online hit, the Wojack-inspired YouTube animation, Life of a Mountain Road Monkey, exploded online. The animation, produced by YouTuber Eric Duan, concerns the male sense of disenfranchisement caused by economic hardship, and features an incel-ish convenience store worker protagonist rejected by a series of women whom he tries and fails to impress.
The animation drew praise for the “realism” of its depiction of young people who race motorcycles on mountain roads, finding escape from their dead-end jobs by posting photos on Instagram for clout. Though the animation was highly critical of its protagonist, who seemed constitutionally unable to put himself in the shoes of his potential girlfriends, I couldn’t help but suspect that Life of a Mountain Road Monkey resonated with internet audiences in part because of its appeal to men who feel emasculated by unattainable women.
Some of the individuals who faced #MeToo allegations have already returned to public life. The memory of the public can be quite short—it shows how much or little they cared to begin with. Nor did the recent #MeToo cases lead to any substantive changes in the highly sexualized way that Taiwanese media covers female subjects.
Surrounded by a crowd of angry young men at the July rally and listening in on their chatter, it was immediately clear to me that some of them had participated in the Sunflower Movement—a protest movement fueled very specifically by the urgent changes in Taiwan’s relation to China, and the political freedoms that Taiwan stood to lose from becoming too close to China. Yet here they were, these young men, cheering on these loud, angry candidates who had, in fact, proposed reviving the CSSTA, the very legislation that the movement had been founded to fight (the CSSTA being a trade agreement that pro-China forces in Taiwan had hoped to pass). Dozens of activists had later faced legal charges for their participation in the Sunflower Movement. And just as strangely, the Sunflower Movement was directly referenced in a positive light during the rally.
Well, we do live in “post-truth” times. But I suspect that most of the rally’s attendees were not familiar with the political views of Terry Gou, Ko Wen-je, or Hou You-yi, they just vibe on some level with their masculine political style. Certainly populist leaders are very often all over the place with their messaging, relying on political charisma to draw supporters.
Ko, for example, recently characterized the 1992 Consensus, the political formula with which China has historically sought to appeal to Taiwan, as “excrement”, while simultaneously proposing to build a bridge between Taiwan’s outlying island of Kinmen and China, and to revive the CSSTA. Politically, those positions seem quite contradictory. But the contradiction may be precisely the point. And it may be the appeal. That’s male populist rage for you.