TAIPEI, Taiwan – He is the lead singer of Taiwan’s most famous death-metal band, with rock-star good looks and all the onstage poses.
These days, Freddy Lim has tied his long black hair back in a ponytail, covered his tattoos and even gets his photo taken in a suit and tie.
Lim isn’t captivating the crowds as a singer anymore but as a politician, running in a general election here Saturday as a candidate for a new party that is infusing this island’s sometimes suffocating political scene with energy.
Not a single member of the New Power Party (NPP) has ever run for a legislative seat, yet they have become an important third force in Taiwan’s political landscape that is making the two big parties sit up and take notice.
They have done it by harnessing the energy and idealism of the young and giving voice to their growing sense of identity as citizens of a progressive, democratic and free Taiwan, entirely distinct from Communist-ruled China.
Lim may well embody Beijing’s worst nightmare, a charismatic politician not scared to say the unsayable: that Taiwan should not be afraid to cut its umbilical cord with the giant dictatorship next door.
“From my point of view, Taiwan should become a ‘normal country’ step by step,” he told reporters after a campaign rally Thursday. “Taiwan will only be able to safeguard its freedom and democracy after becoming a normal country.”
The NPP, which Lim helped found, is a group of civil society activists that grew out of Taiwan’s 2014 Sunflower Student Movement and the feeling that Taiwan was becoming too economically and politically dependent on China.
Lim’s activist roots go deeper. He spent several years as the youngest chair of Amnesty International in Taiwan and has campaigned for years for human rights in China. He supports self-determination for the people of Tibet and has waved the Tibetan flag onstage at concerts. More recently, he has looked on aghast as Beijing has launched an assault on freedom of speech in Hong Kong by apparently abducting five leading book publishers.
“During the last half-century, all the facts show that any region that becomes part of China will lose its freedom of speech and other fundamental values,” he said. “It is a warning to the whole world that we shouldn’t indulge such a powerful dictatorship, especially as the dictatorship is powerful economically.”
Lim’s band, Chthonic, has been called the Black Sabbath of Asia, somehow managing to blend death metal with traditional Taiwanese music and the sound of a classical Chinese two-stringed instrument, the erhu. Its lyrics often expressed their lead singer’s forthright views.
If you want to know more, watch Chthonic's "Supreme Pain for the Tyrant" video, whose plot involves band members disrupting a party between Taiwan's enormously wealthy ruling party, Kuomintang (KMT, or the Nationalists), and German Nazi officials in the 1930s. (Chthonic, pronounced "thonic," is a Greek word meaning of or related to the underworld.)
Lim says he has always done things others thought impossible, and his political career is certainly an exercise in the unlikely. In his Taipei constituency, he is taking on a powerful, experienced politician from KMT. Against all the odds, polls suggest that he has a decent chance of recording a victory that he hopes will inspire young people not just in Taiwan but “across the whole of East Asia.”
“None of our party members has participated in any elections -- we don’t have any experience at all, except our accountant, he said. “If we can beat the Kuomintang, which is one of the richest and most resourceful parties in the world, that will be the best inspiration.”
China still regards Taiwan as a renegade province and dreams of reuniting it with the motherland: It views talk of Taiwanese independence as tantamount to a declaration of war. As a result, most people here still want to maintain what is referred to as the “status quo,” a thriving business relationship that puts the thorny question of reunification or independence on the back burner.
But the pro-independence camp could get stronger as a younger generation with fewer ties to China grow up.
On the campaign stage in Taipei, Lim spoke about creating a new type of politics. He sang a couple of songs -- croony campaign numbers rather than death metal -- and was joined for the finale by party workers and his demure wife, Doris.
He throws some rock-star poses, one foot perched on a speaker at the front of the stage, the microphone pointed at the crowd to record them singing, the hand outstretched to grasp those of his supporters. But he also has a boyish smile and a surprisingly unassuming manner.
In the crowd, some are Chthonic fans, but most are not.
“I don’t much like his music, but I like the way he stands up for Tibetans,” said Yu Ting-huang, a 30-year-old engineer. “How the Communist Party treats Tibetans is one day how they will treat us,” she explained.
Helen Taun, a 52-year-old woman who worked in sales, said she also liked Lim's integrity more than his music. “He is not like other celebrities who refuse to talk about Taiwanese political issues because they are scared they will lose the Chinese market,” she said. “Lim deeply loves Taiwan and has never hidden his political views.”
There was also a familiar figure in the crowd: Joshua Wong, the Hong Kong student who helped lead the so-called Umbrella Movement there, had come to Taiwan to experience the democracy his fellow citizens are denied. He said the way the NPP had brought the voice of civil society into the legislature and carried out a successful campaign gave him “inspiration” as he tries to follow a similar path in Hong Kong.
The NPP is not fielding a presidential candidate, instead throwing its weight behind Democratic Progressive Party leader and overwhelming favorite Tsai Ing-wen, and contesting just a few parliamentary seats.
But, however it performs in Saturday’s vote, it has shaken up politics here, and forced the DPP to launch its own effort to co-opt civil society activists and attract the young. “Its very presence has at least forced the DPP to shift in that direction and modernize itself,” said J. Michael Cole, a Taipei-based fellow at the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute.
The KMT, though, has reacted the other way, attacking Lim, among other things, for his long hair.
Lim says he will have to give up touring with Chthonic if he enters parliament, although he promises to keep writing songs.
And the ponytail? Will he cut that off if he becomes a lawmaker?
“I had been thinking about cutting off my hair in the summer because it has been too hot in the campaign,” he said. “Then I found out the KMT was always using my hair as a target. So now, no matter how hot the weather is, I am just trying to keep my long hair. I think it’s a symbol. I won’t cut it off.”
Xu Jing contributed to this report.