New Taipei City Mayor Hou You-yi delivers a speech during...

New Taipei City Mayor Hou You-yi delivers a speech during a press conference in Taipei, Taiwan, Wednesday, May 17, 2023. Taiwan's Nationalist Party has selected the current New Taipei City mayor Hou, as their candidate in the upcoming presidential elections next year. Credit: AP/Chiang Ying-ying

TAIPEI, Taiwan — Taiwan's opposition Nationalist Party picked the popular mayor of New Taipei City, Hou Yu-ih, on Wednesday as its candidate in next year's presidential election, seen as a referendum on the island's future relations with China.

Hou, the former head of the National Police Agency, will face current Vice President William Lai of the governing Democratic Progressive Party in the January polls. The Nationalists seek warmer ties with mainland China, while the governing party is seen as pro-independence. Current President Tsai Ing-wen has served two terms and is unable to run again.

Hou was chosen by the Nationalists over Terry Gou, a billionaire Taiwanese businessman who founded Foxconn, the world's largest contract electronics maker. One of his first tasks will be to try to unite the party behind his candidacy.

Hou has said little publicly about his approach to China, focusing instead on local politics. Beijing claims Taiwan as its territory and has repeatedly threatened to take the island by force. Near-daily flights by Chinese fighter jets near Taiwan have raised tensions.

Hou enjoys popular support as mayor of New Taipei, the administrative region that surrounds Taipei, the capital. Liu Cheng-shan, a professor of political science at National Sun Yat-Sen University, said Hou has developed a reputation for getting things done as mayor. “He gives everyone an image of someone who quietly does the work and is diligent,” Liu said.

“I'm Taiwanese. I'm humble, diligent and honest," Hou said Wednesday, speaking in Taiwanese at the Nationalist Party headquarters in Taipei. “I will work hard to strive for a good future for this piece of land. We know that the Republic of China is our country and Taiwan is our home.” The Republic of China is the island's official name.

Foxconn founder Gou had announced in April that he was seeking the party's nomination and accused the Democratic Progressive Party of increasing tensions with Beijing. He conceded to Hou on Wednesday and offered his congratulations.

New Taipei City Mayor Hou You-yi shakes hands with party...

New Taipei City Mayor Hou You-yi shakes hands with party members during a press conference in Taipei, Taiwan, Wednesday, May 17, 2023. Taiwan's Nationalist Party has selected the current New Taipei City mayor Hou, as their candidate in the upcoming presidential elections next year. Credit: AP/Chiang Ying-ying

Experts say Hou is likely to follow his party’s general direction in international relations.

The Nationalists, also known as KMT, support an agreement with Beijing called the 1992 Consensus under which both sides consider Taiwan and the mainland to be one country. In Taiwan, that is seen as the Republic of China. The mainland says the one country is the People’s Republic of China which includes Taiwan as a province.

President Tsai declined to explicitly agree to the consensus when she came into power in 2016, prompting Beijing to cut off communications with her government.

Hou said last week in response to a question from a lawmaker that he believes in the sovereignty and rights of a nation called the Republic of China, but stopped short of saying that Taiwan is independent.

New Taipei City Mayor Hou You-yi delivers a speech during...

New Taipei City Mayor Hou You-yi delivers a speech during a press conference in Taipei, Taiwan, Wednesday, May 17, 2023. Taiwan's Nationalist Party has selected the current New Taipei City mayor Hou, as their candidate in the upcoming presidential elections next year. Credit: AP/Chiang Ying-ying

However, he said he opposes the “one country, two systems” framework proposed by Beijing for unification under which Taiwan would be allowed its own form of governance as part of China. That framework was also used for Hong Kong's return to Chinese rule in 1997. The rights promised under it have steadily deteriorated as Beijing has taken more control over the territory.

Civic groups have called for Hou to clarify his role in the death of a pro-democracy activist and publisher, Deng Nan-jung, in 1989. Hou, then a police captain, led a group of officers who were attempting to arrest Deng, who had barricaded himself in his office for 71 days, when the activist set himself on fire.

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