Alex Tsai’s Game Plan: Anything But the CampaignIf the Sean Lien campaign cannot sway opinion on the Internet, then it will send its best man to assassinate the character of anybody who’s ever posted something ever
Following a series of gaffes and campaign ads (Songshan, Zhongshan and Huashan are now three mountains in Taipei), the Sean Lien (連勝文) camp recently hired Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Legislator Alex Cheng-Yuan “Hitman 37” Tsai (蔡正元) as campaign manager for the candidate in Taipei City, a move that will inevitably change the tone of the entire campaign. (“Hitman” is a reference to a popular video game featuring a bald assassin; more on “37” below.)
A change of staff was probably what the campaign needed, especially after campaign spokesperson Chien Chen-yu’s (錢震宇) claims in July that their office computers had been “hacked.” Except they weren’t hacked: As it turns out, it was simply a group e-mail from google. It’s hard enough to influence political opinion over the Internet if a candidate’s staff members cannot manage their own storage cloud. The lesson in this? Adopt a new strategy.
Enter “Hitman 37” Tsai.
The Hitman’s résumé certainly suggests that he is qualified to bolster Lien’s sputtering campaign, who in the latest polls continues to trail his opponent Ko Wen-je (柯文哲), who is running as an independent. Tsai has been with the KMT since 1996. During Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) mayoral campaigns and Lien Chan’s (連戰, Sean Lien’s father) failed presidential runs, Tsai played key public relations roles. He is also a four-term legislator for Neihu District.
Tsai has extensive experience in local and national politics, and massive media exposure — all assets for his new functions. However, anybody with a TV knows that besides reorganizing and restructuring Lien’s current staff, Tsai is here to do one thing: Snipe at the opposition.
Tsai’s most famous hit job came in the 2012 presidential campaign, where he famously referred to HIV researcher Dr. David Ho (何大一) as a “37仔” (a Taiwanese term for a male broker of female sexual services) for his alleged role in the Yu Chang scandal involving Democratic Progressive Party candidate Tsai Ying-wen (蔡英文) during her tenure as vice premier.
Yu Chang Scandal for Dummies: The Hitman calls out one of the world’s top scientists (Ho). The Special Investigations Bureau starts subpoenaing people in the run-up to a national election. The targeted candidate loses the election. After the election, the Bureau determines that there was no wrongdoing in the case. No charges are made. Taiwan’s biopharmaceutical industry nevertheless takes a massive reputation hit. Professor Ho recently wrote a public letter discussing his role in the Yu-Chang incident. One highlight:
(The biotech industry is critical to Taiwan, and Yu Chang was founded with government investment. Yu Chang is supposed to be the child of the government. But when elections approach, the government will not hesitate to kill its own children.)
In addition to masterminding political hits, Tsai also has a history of escaping every situation imaginable, including the following:
- Corruption charges involving his role as head of China Movie: He is found not guilty on appeal;
- Seven bullets fired at his campaign office in 2007;
- Copyright infringement charges – American photographer Camille Seaman in May 2014 accused Tsai of infringing on her copyright after he allegedly used one of her photographs on his Facebook page without authorization;
- Nearly running over a young activist with his vehicle. Police later described the incident as Tsai “escaping a life-threatening situation.” (As we can all see from the video, the people surrounding Tsai’s vehicles were all brandishing AK-47s and wearing bandanas to cover their faces, cartel style.)
Back to the present: The Hitman becomes Lien’s campaign manager. And his first job is to target people who post things on the Internet.
During a press conference on Aug. 6, Tsai described the PTT Gossiping Board, one of the busiest news forums in Taiwan, as “dominated by the pan-green army” and ruining the “democratic and free nature of the Internet.” The attack was prompted by one of Tsai’s many Facebook posts (with their trademark overuse of the return key) regarding a visit by Ko to the Ketagalan Institute.
In his post, Tsai accused Ko of making an “insensitive” and “callous” campaign stop at the Institute on Aug. 1, shortly after the deadly gas explosions in Kaohsiung. Tsai wrote that while Lien had stopped all his campaigning, Ko decided to continue and yelled dong suan (“elected!”) despite the tragedy. However, a PTT user going by the handle “fantazy00077” then claimed that Tsai had used a photo from 2013 for his Facebook post regarding Ko’s alleged visit.
(There are precedents: During the occupation of the Legislative Yuan earlier this year, Tsai posted photos of students acting “inappropriately” on his Facebook page. However, one of the photos was of Vietnamese women engaging in sexual acts, not taken inside the legislature, and but most likely in a studio in Vietnam.)
In a statement, the Ketagalan Institute confirmed that Ko was present on Aug. 1 and that the speech had been scheduled prior to the Kaohsiung blasts. However, it denied that there was any campaigning during the event.
This did not end the matter.
Tsai then claimed that a user known as “CXXXX” was banned from the forum for spreading false information, adding that the PTT board had become “intolerant,” “violated free speech,” and was “politically motivated.”
In response, PTT moderator Leoniath issued a statement defending the decision to ban user CXXXX, adding that this could be appealed on the platform (disclosure: this author has ample experience dealing with PTT) and would take legal action against Tsai.
Tsai then called out former National Taiwan University surgeon and commentator Dr. Hung Hao-yun (洪浩雲) on his Facebook page for repeating claims of the possible photo misplacement (second disclosure: Dr. Hung is a personal friend).
In his post, Tsai accused Hung of being “a member of Ko’s Internet militia,” adding that Hung left surgery for cosmetic medicine “for money.” In response, Hung stated that he had never liked Ko (stories have long circulated that the two had various disagreements at National Taiwan University Hospital), and that he very publically left surgery for cosmetic medicine “to demonstrate the failures of the current medical system to the Taiwanese public.” (Hung returned to general surgery this year, where he is currently underpaid and overworked.) Hung then spoke to the media. In his always-clear communication style, he stated, “local Cheng-Yuan needs a brain.”
Confused yet? That’s the whole point.
The media and Internet chat rooms have been abuzz with talk of Tsai’s latest Internet spat with Random Anonymous Posters and Hung (a semi-public figure, yes, but by no means a household name). Consequently, there’s been little, if anything at all, about Lien’s campaign, which earlier was hit by various parody sites such as “連勝井” (a fictional Japanese restaurant meant to parody Lien’s campaign), and “祭止兀” (a parody site of Tsai’s personal Facebook posts, complete with the hyperactive return key).
Tsai’s strategy to counter the almost one-sided opinion of Lien on the Internet should he clear by now:
(a) Distract attention from the current campaign failings and give the Lien camp time to regroup. (Case in point: I just spent 1,300 words talking about Tsai and not Lien’s new campaign ad, which is about a young woman who spends NT$110 for breakfast at Starbucks and puts NT$1,000 on her MRT.) (Note: The Lien camp has since distanced itself from the ad, saying that it was released without their authorization.)
(b) Instead of trying to reverse opinion about Lien on the Internet (nobody can, not Tsai, with all his political experience, or Lien’s father, with all his money), Tsai is seeking to quickly discredit all negative commentary on the Internet by portraying it as part of some “green Internet militia,” even though as anybody under 45 with an Internet connection knows, the internet doesn’t work that way.
(c) Pick fights with anonymous individuals (who either parody Lien/Tsai or post negative opinions/facts regarding Lien/Tsai), who do not have Tsai’s resources and exposure, to achieve the above. The posters may be provoked and attack Lien/Tsai (which Tsai can then either pursue through legal action or paint as “irrational” and part of the Ko/green cabal).
(d) To the general public, Lien and Tsai will be seen as victims of a smear campaign.
(e) Legal action against individuals will discourage people from expressing negative opinions regarding Lien/Tsai in the future.
Tsai’s appointment as Lien’s campaign manager is not only a game-changer in the Taipei mayoral race: It is a massive threat to the Ko campaign. For the latter, I have but one piece of advice: When dealing with the Hitman, look both ways before crossing the street.
The good residents of Taipei should also stay alert, because this is what happened the last time someone in the Lien family lost an election.
Further reading: “Tsai’s Four Challenges as Campaign Manager,” by Chou Wei-hang.
(Note to readers: Since I expect this article to be discredited by Tsai as having been written by someone who is “taking Tsai Ying-wen’s money,” let me pre-empt by stating that I have yet to receive any payment from the Thinking Taiwan Foundation, and had to pay out of pocket to buy the latest book by its editor in chief.)
Tony Chiu is a geriatric psychiatry fellow in northern Taiwan. A graduate of the National Taiwan University of Medicine, he advocates for the independence of Sanchong District in New Taipei City and the paving of the Taiwan Strait. You can reach him at email@example.com. He comments on the PTT board under the handle “IronChef.”