Han Kuo-yu’s Kaohsiung city government has come under fire as he vies to be Taiwan’s next president, after it appeared to endorse a new shipping route to mainland China that has no licence to operate. In the latest controversy since Han became mayor of Kaohsiung in December, a member of his city government attended the launch of a shipping route between the southern port and Wenzhou in mainland China. But the Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) – the Taiwanese agency responsible for cross-Taiwan Strait policies – said that neither Cijin, in Kaohsiung, nor Dongtou on the mainland side had approval for such a route. It was then discovered by a Kaohsiung city councillor that Shang He Marine Transport, the company claiming to operate the route, had closed down in January and had its operating licence revoked. This was verified by Taiwan Premier Su Tseng-chang after checks by the relevant agencies. Pan Heng-hsu, appointed by Han as the tourism department director in his government, was among VIPs invited by Shang He to a ceremony on Tuesday marking the launch of the supposed route. Photographs of the ceremony show Pan posing with a dozen people, including some fellow opposition Kuomintang (KMT) politicians and the claimed shipping operator behind a ribbon and a red banner that read: “In celebration of the maiden voyage between Kaohsiung’s Cijin and Wenzhou’s Dongtou.” The photos went viral on various social media networks as the so-called maiden voyage was exposed to scrutiny in the hours afterwards. The transport ministry has said that Shang He would be breaking shipping law if it were found operating again. “It was a big fraud with the purpose of creating the false impression that ‘goods can be shipped out, more visitors can come in and citizens can get rich’,” the MAC said in a statement on Wednesday. It referenced the slogan used by Han – “Sell goods! Welcome people! Prosperous Kaohsiung!” – to promote his ability to run Kaohsiung during his mayoral campaign last autumn. That slogan had helped to convince voters in Kaohsiung to deliver Han, once a KMT outcast, a landslide victory in a city that had been a pro-independence stronghold for years. Han’s popularity even spilled over to other KMT candidates, with his appearances at their rallies helping most of them to win support as the KMT took control of 15 of Taiwan’s 22 cities and counties. Pan apologised on Wednesday for failing to check the details before attending the “launch”, saying it had nothing to do with Han. Asked about the ceremony by reporters in Kaohsiung on Tuesday, Han said Pan would explain it to the public, and repeated his aim to bring more tourism revenue to Kaohsiung. Shang He vice-president Tsai Kun-lung defended the launch, telling broadcaster SET his company was trying to restructure and intended to reapply for a shipping licence to operate between Cijin and Dongtou. “I hope the government can approve it as it will reduce our operation costs if we can operate such a route,” he said. But the incident presents a threat to Han’s credibility at a time when he has slipped back in the race to be elected the self-ruled island’s president in the election in January. The incumbent, Tsai Ing-wen, suggested Han should pay more attention to his city’s affairs. “Something hard to understand has happened in Kaohsiung, and this may be because the mayor is busy doing something else,” she said, referring to Han’s desire to run for president. Will Kuomintang draft its star mayor into race for president? Han is competing with four other KMT candidates, including billionaire Foxconn founder Terry Gou Tai-ming and former New Taipei mayor Eric Chu Li-luan, to win the party’s ticket in its primaries – a series of public opinion polls to be held between July 8 and 14. In the past month, Han has held four mass rallies around Taiwan, with thousands of supporters turning out to back him to run for president. But various opinion polls have shown his popularity declining sharply, from leading Tsai and other presidential aspirants by a wide margin to trailing Tsai recently. On Monday, the Taiwan Public Opinion Foundation released a survey in which Han had 29 per cent support – far below his high of 66 per cent – while Tsai was backed by 37 per cent. “Respondents in Kaohsiung were among those who strongly opposed Han to run for president,” the foundation’s head, Michael You, said. He said it was understandable that the people of Kaohsiung were unhappy, because Han had promised during his mayoral campaign to stay in office and devote himself to improving the lives of the local population. The shipping route launch is not the only recent source of embarrassment for Han. In the past week, in a series of ceremonies to honour outstanding junior high school graduates in Kaohsiung, at least five students called the mayor a liar or directly asked him not to run for president. Han has also been criticised for failures in running his city, including over control of the spread of dengue fever, the mosquito-borne viral infection. His response to the Hong Kong extradition bill controversy sparked anger in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Han said he did not know anything about the “parade” in Hong Kong on June 9, when a million people marched to protest about the bill.