TAIPEI — Foxconn’s boss said that he is on a heavenly mission to become the president of Taiwan.

That’s right. A few days ago, Terry Gou said Mazu, a Chinese sea goddess, told him that he should run in Taiwan’s presidential elections in 2020.

Gou is a legendary person. Graduated from the run-of-the-mill Taipei Maritime College of Marine Technology, he took the equivalent of $7,500 from his mother and other investors to start Foxconn, a company that today is the world’s largest electronics contract manufacturer, assembling Apple’s iPhones and other iGear.

By August 2017, Forbes listed his net worth at US$10.6 billion. That’s three times the $3.1 billion net worth of U.S. President Donald Trump, according to Forbes as of 5 March 2019.

The chairman of Foxconn has a worldwide electronics empire, assembling equipment, mainly in China, where Gou is the nation’s largest employer with a headcount of 1.2 million people.

Gou Foxconn Mazu

A statue of Mazu. The goddess has resonance for many in Taiwan.

Gou, 68, may step down to become the president of an island that many people have difficulty finding on a world map. Some in Taiwan think he may be the only person who can solve the island’s problematic relations with China and the United States.

“Most of the people I know think he’s the right person to be president,” says an employee with Pegatron who identifies himself as Gary. “Gou’s good at getting things done. So far, no one else has had this ability.”

Pegatron competes with Foxconn in the contract manufacturing space.

About a day after Gou announced his presidential ambitions, a 6.1 magnitude earthquake rattled the island.

“Mazu has spoken,” said a Taiwanese employee of Alibaba on social media minutes after the quake. She declined to say whether it was a good or bad sign.

Taiwan is of crucial importance in the electronics supply chain. TSMC, which makes all of the application processors for Apple, is just one example. Taiwan makes nearly a third of the world’s chips used in everything from smartphones to satellites.

Isolated Island

Yet the island that China considers a renegade province is becoming increasingly isolated. Taiwan has 17 diplomatic partners that recognize it as a nation. Last year, El Salvador broke off relations with Taiwan, officially known as the Republic of China, to become the political ally of the People’s Republic of China.

“Taiwan is in a very risky position politically and economically,” Gary says. “Taiwan needs to eliminate threats from China and the United States.”

Gou has connections with Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Taiwan’s wealthiest person could become a power broker between the leaders of the world’s largest economies. A number of people in Taiwan who spoke to EE Times admire that.

In March, Foxconn renewed its earlier pledge to build a factory in Wisconsin after the company’s chairman spoke to Donald Trump, following a report that the Taiwanese company was reconsidering its plans.

Taiwan is at the center of a tug-of-war between China and the United States. Chinese President Xi is expanding artificial islands in the South China Sea in a bid to undermine U.S. dominance in Asia. China has more than 1,000 missiles aimed at Taiwan and threatens to invade the island if it declares independence.

Yet the People’s Republic may be able to win Taiwan without fighting.

“A Gou presidency would move Taiwan closer to China,” Rupert Hammond-Chambers, BowerGroupAsia’s managing director for Taiwan told EE Times. “He has been quite clear he views such a move as part of his national security strategy.”

Implications

Foxconn would face increased management team uncertainties if Gou left the company, Alex Kao, a tech fund partner in the Asia Pacific region, told EE Times.

Terry Gou

Foxconn founder Terry Gou is a candidate for president of Taiwan. Source: Foxconn

Gou runs Foxconn very much on his own. More than a decade ago, he said in a rare interview that he planned to step down from his position as chairman and hand Foxconn over to “professional management”. That never happened.

He appears to have a plan for Foxconn’s future now.

“He’s stayed in the job for a long time because he thinks no one can replace him,” says Gary at Pegatron. “He must have some kind of succession strategy.”

Foxconn has been a company with very little transparency. Even so, it has been a favorite of investors because of its consistent growth. That growth has slowed as demand wanes for iPhones and other gadgets that Foxconn assembles.

As a presidential candidate, Gou would face a lot of questions from Taiwan voters about his policy, according to Sun Yu-lien, the secretary general of the Taiwan Labour Front. Gou has a poor record on support of democracy and labor rights, according to Sun. He notes that a number of Foxconn workers have committed suicide over the years. Gou is also scornful of multi-party politics, Sun says.

“Democracy isn’t something you can eat like rice,” Gou has been quoted as saying.

Gou also may have a conflict of interest with China, where most of Foxconn’s operations are located, Sun notes.

Others say Gou has a tarnished personal image.

“His election would mean a setback in women’s rights,” says a former journalist with a global news organization who requested anonymity. “I saw him on TV making improper contact with female reporters, once even with his young pregnant wife by his side,” she says.

He may have a bad image, but Gou would be a good president, according to Gary at Pegatron.

The U.S., which has key strategic interests in Taiwan, may soon start courting Gou.

“The U.S. may need to pull Taiwan out of China’s embrace,” says Alex Gao. “Taiwan will also need to stay close to the U.S., with the existing trade war issues.”