Robert Tsao loves a good fight. In his 50-year-long career, the Taiwanese tech tycoon has duelled with industry rivals, challenged the Taipei government, struggled with prosecutors and clashed with politicians.
Now, Tsao is wading into the greatest battle of his life: taking on China. After Beijing intensified its intimidation of Taiwan with unprecedented military exercises last month, the 75-year-old Tsao pledged a $100mn donation to strengthen the country’s defences, switched his citizenship back to Taiwan from Singapore and vowed to fight for his land until his death.
“What I want to do is ensure quickly, within two or three years, that nobody is afraid, and that we are all ready to resist,” Tsao said in an interview with the Financial Times.
He argued Taiwan could survive even extended bombing and missile strikes as long as it kept Chinese soldiers off its territory. “You have to train everyone to be mentally very strong. Look at the German bombing raids on British cities in the second world war — morale remained high.”
Tsao has earmarked the first $30mn of his pledge for training hundreds of thousands of civilian fighters. The tycoon also wants to finance the development of military-use drones.
He said he was in talks with Taiwanese drone makers to form an industry alliance for quickly producing 1mn attack drones at low cost. “If the Chinese Communists want to bring their troops ashore and a fleet of ships comes over the Strait, we can assault them,” he said.
But he rejects the argument that such efforts might be too little, too late. “Although it is very urgent, we still have a little time,” Tsao said. “It is like global warming. You have to remain optimistic.”
The founder of United Microelectronics Corporation, Taiwan’s first privately owned chipmaker, seems an unlikely candidate for rallying the country to arms against China. After all, he oversaw UMC’s circumvention of Taiwan government restrictions on investment in China.
Born in Beijing in 1947, Tsao moved to Taiwan aged one and a half. His father had come to teach Mandarin — part of efforts by the Kuomintang, the Chinese Nationalists, to sinicise Taiwan when it took control of the island after half a century as a Japanese colony.
“We were brainwashed then,” Tsao said about his childhood under martial law and an ideology that presented the KMT regime as the true China and the Communist party as bandits.
“But although I slowly realised that, later I also realised the KMT was right about the Communist party and how brutal and barbarous it is.”
Growing up in poverty, Tsao was the first of the family’s six children to study at the prestigious National Taiwan University. With electrical engineering and management degrees, he joined the government’s Industrial Technology Research Institute, which spawned the country’s now mighty semiconductor industry, and in 1980 founded UMC.
The young entrepreneur’s views of China were first challenged when he visited Beijing in 1988. Chen Sheng-tien, chair of appliances maker Sampo, a UMC shareholder at the time, “dragged me to see [then top Shanghai official and later Chinese president] Jiang Zemin,” Tsao recalled. “I thought those people’s hands were full of blood, shaking hands with them felt so dirty.”
As China began to open up, Tsao recalled, “many people had a lot of hope for the future”. But “that was naive. Only a year later, Tiananmen happened.”
That did not deter Tsao from betting on China in business though. Little more than a decade after Beijing’s bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protesters, he backed UMC engineers setting up a chipmaker in China. “China started offering good incentives. I hoped that we could co-operate and not have head-on competition. So I helped them,” Tsao said.
That move cost him dearly. In 2006, Taiwan prosecutors indicted Tsao and his deputy John Hsuan on charges of breach of trust and violations of accounting laws, and they had to resign their UMC posts.
When prosecutors sought to have the case retried after initial not-guilty verdicts, Tsao abandoned his Taiwanese citizenship and became a Singaporean. “I offended a lot of people, and I thought someone might look for a pretext to come after me,” he said.
Although he was cleared of all charges in 2010, the case meant he was viewed as being pro-China.
The label stuck, especially after Tsao advocated for Taiwan to hold a referendum on unification — a scheme he said was intended to preclude unification by proving the public’s opposition to it.
“But people misunderstood. Unification is the dirty word that you just cannot utter,” Tsao said.
More than a decade later, Beijing’s 2019 crackdown on Hong Kong pushed him to get involved in politics again.
“Such peaceful demonstrations, such rational demands, but such cruel suppression — it infuriated me. So I decided to never go to the mainland, Hong Kong or Macau again and to start fighting the Communists,” he said.
“I want to tell the Taiwanese loudly: pay attention! Once you get to the point where Hong Kong is now, there will be no way out.”
Tsao argues Taiwan’s stand-off with China is not about unification or independence. “These are fake issues,” he said.
“China’s nationalism is anti-civilisational. Taiwan, on the other hand, stands on the side of civilisation, which values reason, science, progress, peace, human rights, rule of law and democracy. That is why we cannot be together with them.”