Archive for December, 2013

support for independence, unification, and the status quo

December 31, 2013

The front page headline of the Taipei Times has an incendiary headline today.  In bold type, it screams, “Independence beats ‘status quo’ in poll.”  This headline is a lie.  Independence did not beat status quo in any meaningful sense.  I assume the headline reflects incompetence by the reporter and headline writer and not willful manipulation.  However, this sort of irresponsible journalism serves only to discredit the Taipei Times’ reputation.

Putting aside the misleading reporting, there actually is an interesting story to tell.  In fact, a more honest accounting of public opinion leads us to nearly the same conclusion that the Taipei Times’ fabrication wants us to reach.

The Taipei Times story is based on an unpublished DPP survey that another media outlet obtained and published.  Without asking anything about the methodology, the Taipei Times gleefully informed us that the poll showed 60.2% in favor of independence, 23.4% in favor of unification, and only 8.7% in favor of the status quo.  (They then furthered the impression of incompetence by asking a professor of medicine to give an expert opinion on the results.  One wonders which part of his medical school training covered public opinion survey methodology.)  Years and years of data from a variety of different survey organizations have consistently shown that status quo beats both independence and unification by large margins.  Suddenly, we are supposed to believe that society has violently shifted and half the population has suddenly changed its mind on the single most important political question facing Taiwan?  Perhaps I might believe that if the People’s Liberation Army had launched an attack and was trying to land soldiers on the Chiayi coastline, but nothing quite so monumental has happened in recent months.  So where do the survey results come from?

In every survey, the status quo always wins, and many people want to further probe what these people think.  One suspicion is that they are simply avoiding conflict by giving a neutral answer and that they must really support some concrete option.  Another suspicion is that they aren’t really neutral; they must lean at least a little to one side or the other.  A third group of (more manipulative) people simply wants to look for evidence that allows them to redefine these respondents as favoring their side in the debate.  At any rate, there have been several attempts over the years to get status quo supporters to clarify whether they “really” support unification or independence.

The most straightforward method is to simply take away the neutral category.  Instead of asking whether respondents favor independence, unification, or the status quo, they are asked whether they favor independence or unification.  Even when only given these two choices, a small number of people will insist that they favor maintaining the status quo.  This is how the DPP survey’s results were obtained.  There is nothing wrong with asking the question this way, but it is not fair to claim that independence beat the status quo based on these results.  You could claim almost anything that way.  (Q: Do you prefer totalitarianism or prison?  A: Totalitarianism 40%, prison 35%, democracy 3%.  Headline: “People prefer totalitarianism to democracy!!!)  The fact that independence beat unification 60-23 in a two-category question is interesting, but it does not imply any fundamental shift in the three-category question that we are used to seeing.

So has there actually been a decrease in support for the status quo?  We need more information.  Consider the following TVBS poll conducted about a month ago.  If you read Chinese, the original report is here.  All translations are mine.


TVBS poll, Oct 24-28, 2013.  Sample size: n=1075.  Sorry for the strange numbering.

  1. President Ma stated that people on both sides of the straits belong to the Chinese nation.* Do you agree with this statement? [兩岸人民同屬中華民族, could also be translated as “people on both sides of the strait are ethnically Chinese”]
    1. Agree:                44
    2. Disagree:            42
    3. Non response:    14
  1. 2. President Ma stated that the cross-strait relationship is not an international relationship.  Do you agree?
    1. Agree:            20
    2. Disagree:        66
    3. NR                   14
  2. 3. If there is an opportunity, do you favor President Ma meeting with mainland President Xi?
    1. Favor:              54
    2. Oppose:           32
    3. NR                   15
  1. 4. Do you understand the contents of the cross-straits trade services agreement that Taiwan and the mainland signed?
    1. Understand:            16
    2. Don’t understand:   85
  1. 5. Generally speaking, do you support or oppose the cross-straits trade services agreement that Taiwan and the mainland signed?
    1. Support:           32
    2. Oppose:           43
    3. NR:                  26
  1. 6. Generally speaking, are you satisfied with the policies and methods the government is using to handle cross-straits relations?
3.27.2012 10.17.2012 6.5.2013 10.28.2013
Satisfied 29 26 25 24
Dissatisfied 55 54 48 64
NR 16 21 26 12
  1. 7. Looking at the situation now, do you think the relationship between the mainland and us is friendly or antagonistic?
    1. Friendly:          40
    2. Antagonistic:   37
    3. NR                   14
  1. 8. When the two sides negotiate and sign cross-strait agreements, do you have confidence that the government will protect Taiwan’s interests?
1.28.2011 3.27.2012 10.17.2012 8.30.2013 10.28.2013
Confident 39 34 27 25 21
Not confident 53 57 62 64 71
NR 8 9 12 11 7
  1. 9. Some people say that the Ma government’s cross-straits policies lean too strongly toward mainland China.  Do you agree?
8.26.2008 5.21.2009 12.17.2009 3.27.2012 10.28.2013
Agree 42 43 52 59 62
Disagree 44 40 33 31 27
NR 14 18 15 9 11
  1. 10. Concerning the relationship between Taiwan and mainland China, do you favor independence, unification, or maintaining the status quo?
    1. Independence         24
    2. Unification              7
    3. Status quo               64
    4. NR                           5
  1.  11. If you can only choose one, would you prefer for Taiwan to become an independent country or for Taiwan to unify with the mainland?
    1. Independence         71
    2. Unification              18
    3. NR                           11
  1.  12. In our society, some people say they are Chinese, and some people say they are Taiwanese.  Do you think that you are Taiwanese or Chinese?
    1. Taiwanese               78
    2. Chinese                   13
    3. NR                           9
  1.  13. In our society, some people say they are Chinese, some people say they are Taiwanese, and some people think they are both Taiwanese and Chinese.  Do you think that you are Taiwanese, Chinese, or both?
    1. Taiwanese               55
    2. Chinese                   3
    3. Both                         38
    4. NR                           4


Questions 10 and 11 ask the independence/unification question in two ways, allowing and disallowing status quo.  When status quo is provided as one of the three answers, it easily beats the other two categories with 64%.  Independence beats unification 24-7%, but both percentages are fairly low.  This is the result we are all familiar with.  When only two answer categories are allowed, the results look much different, with independence beating unification 71-18%.  This result is roughly similar to that of the DPP poll.  (The TVBS methodology is more radical than the DPP’s.  TVBS won’t allow respondents to insist that they support the status quo.  Interviewers will keep pushing them until they pick one side or the other.  If a respondent absolutely refuses to pick a side, he or she is coded as a non-response.)  Maybe the Taipei Times should have run a story on this survey, claiming that independence beat the status quo by 71-0%!

TVBS did a similar thing for the familiar ethnic identity question (Q12, 13).  When they forced the people who thought of themselves as both Taiwanese and Chinese to pick only one, suddenly Taiwanese identity beats Chinese identity by 78-13%.

Philosophically, are the two-category results better than the three-category results?  This is a subjective question.  I tend to believe that it is intellectually more honest to simply categorize them as neutral.  You can force me to have an opinion on whether people should take multivitamins or not, but I really don’t care.  If you eventually force an answer out of me, you probably shouldn’t use that as evidence that public opinion is against taking multivitamins.  If people are conflicted, confused, or genuinely want to put the decision of unification or independence off until further developments, we observers probably should respect that stance.  If you only report one result, I think it should be the three-category result.

That said, there is value in probing what lies under neutrality.  Consider a person who favors the status quo in Q10 but independence in Q11.  This person is not really an independence supporter, but he or she is closer to the independence side than to the unification side.  A slight to moderate change might be enough to push this person out of the status quo category and into the independence category.  However, it would probably require a major shift to push this person into the unification category.  What Q11 implies is that there are a lot more status quo supporters who might eventually shift to the independence camp than who might shift into the unification camp.

The TVBS/DPP two-category question is one way of seeing this.  I prefer a different set of questions developed by Yu Ching-hsin 游清鑫 and Hsiao Yi-ching 蕭怡靖.  In a paper published in the Taiwanese Political Science Review in 2011, Yu and Hsiao asked the normal six category question (immediate unification, eventual unification, immediate independence, eventual independence, decide later, status quo forever).  As usual, most people chose one of the two neutral categories.  (11.7% for the two unification categories, 27.5% for the two independence categories, and 56.9% for the two neutral categories.)  They then asked, “If that option is not possible, what would you prefer?”  This question teased out a few more answers.  Finally they asked, “Which option is least acceptable to you?”  This gave very interesting results.  59.9% were most strongly against unification, and 21.4% were most strongly against independence.  Using these answers, they put together a 7 category classification:

Conception of U or I

Yu & Hsiao




Immediate unification





Status quo, eventual unification



Status quo, oppose independence






Status quo, oppose unification



Status quo, eventual independence



Immediate independence





(This poll was conducted from April 30 to May 3, 2011, by the Election Study Center at NCCU.  Sample size: 1130.)

What this does it to look at different levels of intensity for unification and independence.  If you think of pro-independence or pro-unification as being something you want right now, then 88% of the population is for the status quo and almost no one is for unification.  If you think of them as something that people want to obtain eventually, then only 40% favor the status quo, and independence beats unification by about 2-1.  If you take the broadest definition, by defining the two sides as including people who don’t want the other side, then only 10% are for the status quo, and independence still beats unification by about 2-1.

To me, this is much more interesting and honest than simply screaming that people support independence in the most sensational manner possible.  The real story is that, at every level of intensity that we have measured, more people prefer independence to unification by quite a large margin.  At the current juncture, it is probably somewhere close to 2-1 for independence, for all measures except the narrowest conception of independence and unification.

There is another interesting lesson from the TVBS data.  On all the abstract questions, President Ma is losing badly.  On Taiwanese/Chinese identity and on unification/independence, Ma’s side is clearly outnumbered.  Moreover, these numbers are trending against him.  Similarly, on all the vague questions about cross-straits negotiations, Ma is also losing badly.  66% disagree with Ma that the cross-strait relationship is not an international one.  64% are dissatisfied with the policies and methods the government is using to handle cross-straits relations.  62% agree that the Ma government’s cross-straits policies lean too strongly toward mainland China.  71% is not confident that the government will protect Taiwan’s interests.  Moreover, Ma is doing worse and worse over time on these questions.  In the very general and abstract, the Taiwanese public seems to have completely rejected Ma and his China policy.

However, when we look at the more concrete questions, the picture looks a bit different.  54% favor a meeting between Ma and Xi.  The cross-straits services trade agreement has 32% in favor.  While this is less than the 43% opposed, the gap is much smaller than those for the more abstract questions.  Ma is doing much, much better on these more specific questions.

What this suggests to me is that while Ma’s China policy may be built on an ideological foundation, it is tenable because it appeals to pragmatism.  Ma is clearly and decisively losing the ideological battle about identity.  However, he has found some space to operate in the more practical questions of how exactly Taiwan and China should interact.  All sides in Taiwan agree that Taiwan needs a prosperous economy and that, in an interconnected world, Taiwan and China have to have some sorts of economic interactions.  Even those people who don’t want to be part of China and don’t trust the Ma administration at all will concede that Taiwan’s government has to have some relations with China.  Doing nothing is not a very good choice.  There are a lot of people who are willing to look past their ideological differences with the Ma government and will consider individual policies for their economic impact.  To put it another way, the unification side is losing (badly) the battle for Taiwanese hearts and minds.  The revised strategy for unification rests on Taiwanese wallets.

Eric Chu’s impossible calendar

December 27, 2013

There is a lot going on with nominations for next year’s mayoral races, and only some of it has to do with the actual elections at hand.  Today I’ll discuss the maneuverings for the New Taipei City race.


If we knew nothing about the candidates, New Taipei City would probably be considered a tossup.  In the past, it has usually produced a small majority for the KMT, but the national unpopularity of the Ma administration would probably eliminate most or all of that edge.  It might even flip the race and give the DPP an edge.

Of course, there are concrete candidates involved.  Eric Chu 朱立倫 is the incumbent mayor, and the big question is whether he will run for re-election.  Unlike the president, Mayor Chu has fairly good approval ratings, and polls show that he is far, far ahead of any potential challengers.  Things can always change (remember Jason Hu’s 胡志強 unexpectedly hard re-election in 2010), but at this point it looks like Chu would cruise to an easy re-election if he were to run.  In contrast, any other KMT nominee will face a much stiffer challenge.  It might seem that the pressure on Chu to run would be overwhelming.

The problem, as we all know, is that Chu has to also think about the presidency.  Depending on who you talk to, Chu is either the overwhelming favorite for the KMT’s 2016 presidential nomination or at least one of three credible candidates (along with VP Wu 吳敦義 and Taipei Mayor Hau 郝龍斌).  Chu has to consider the presidency when he makes his decision of whether to run for re-election as mayor.  This is a large constraint because the calendar is tighter than one might think.

The mayoral election is tentatively set for Dec 6, 2014.  The presidential election will either be in early to mid January or late March 2016.  (In 2012, the presidential election was in January, but prior to this last election, it was always in March.  The KMT decided to move it to January to combine it with the legislative election because they thought that might work to their benefit.  However, they might decide against repeating this since there are four long months between the election and the inauguration.  They didn’t worry about this in 2012 since they expected Ma to win another term.  However, we are guaranteed to get a new president in 2016 and the two big parties might agree that four months is too long.  Ma might also not be thrilled about four months of everyone paying more attention to the president-elect than to the sitting president.)  Whether the presidential election is in January or March does not fundamentally change Chu’s calculations.  For simplicity, we’ll assume that it will be held in January 2016.

Suppose Chu runs for re-election.  In the USA, governors and senators who want to run for president almost always run for re-election two years prior.  There is plenty of time to win a new term and serve an appropriate amount of time in that new term before formally launching a presidential campaign.  However, Chu will have 13 months, not 24 months, between elections.  Taiwanese parties generally try to finalize nominations many months before the election.  For example, the DPP and KMT have already finalized some uncontroversial mayoral nominations a full 12 months before next year’s election.  The DPP has even started resolving some of the contested races.  The KMT generally waits a little longer than the DPP to make its nominations, but they will almost certainly want to be finished by May (6 or 7 months before the election).  People who want to win nominations for mayor have already publicly declared their candidacy or are at least maneuvering somewhat publicly.  Since the presidency is so much more important than, say, the Taichung Mayor, the media will start focusing on that contest even earlier in the election cycle.  In the last cycle, Su and Tsai had basically launched their all-out efforts for the DPP nomination by Chinese New Year 2011.  Tsai formally announced her candidacy on March 11, and Su followed suit on March 22.  In short, the presidential election will start in earnest very, very soon after the mayoral election.  Almost the day after Chu celebrates winning re-election, he will be under intense pressure to announce his candidacy for president.

In 2011, both Su and Tsai were free to run for the presidency because they both lost their races.  Likewise, in 1999 Chen Shui-bian was free to run for the presidency, having just lost the epic 1998 Taipei mayoral race to Ma Ying-jeou.  For all three, questions about their intentions to run for the presidency were a major (unwelcome and uncomfortable) theme in the mayoral campaign.    We will never know whether they would have honored their promises (some explicit, some implicit) to serve out their respective terms, though all three have at least hinted that they would not have run for president had they won.  If Chu runs for re-election, he is likely to win.  This would set up a decision unlike any that any previous presidential aspirant has faced.  Would he dare to start seeking another job just two or three months into his new four year term?  He certainly wouldn’t have had enough time to fulfill any campaign promises.  After an entire mayoral campaign of people questioning his sincerity, he would face a new campaign in which opponents would constantly remind voters of his broken covenant with New Taipei City voters.  If he knew he would run for president, they would ask, why had he run for mayor in the first place?  Moreover, Chu’s opponents within the KMT could use his new term to trap him.  If Chu sought and won the presidency, he would have to resign as mayor no later than May 20, 2016.  Since that is less than halfway through the mayoral term, there would be a by-election.  New Taipei City is a swing district, and there is no guarantee that the KMT would win.  Wu, Hau, and any other KMT presidential aspirants might argue that there is no need to risk losing the very important New Taipei City government and that Chu could better serve the party by staying there and working to mobilize votes for the KMT.


If there are strong reasons for Chu not to run for re-election, there are also strong pressures in the other direction.  President Ma is desperate for some good news right now, and he will be trying to put together the strongest field of candidates possible for 2014.  Ma is far more interested in seeing a good election result next year than whether Chu, Wu, or Hau is the presidential candidate in 2016.  Moreover, if Chu decides not to run, how will the KMT react?  We’ve rarely seen a politician refuse to fight a political battle on behalf of his or her party.  A couple of years ago when both Kao Su-po 高思博 and Wang Yu-ting 王昱婷 refused to represent the KMT in a difficult legislative race, the backlash from within the party was harsh.  Would the backlash against Chu be similar?  Would he be attacked as selfish, thinking only of his personal interest and not caring about the broader fortunes of the whole KMT?  Would people say he was arrogant, assuming that he could simply jump in front of Wu and Hau to the front of the presidential line?  In Taiwanese, and especially in KMT, political culture, it just isn’t considered correct to announce your naked ambition to the world.  You are supposed to appear unwilling and only bow reluctantly to the demands of the people.  We just don’t know how people would react if Chu ignored the normal conventions and went off the script.

The conventional path and the easy choice would be for Chu to bow to immediate party pressures and run for re-election.  I think the more strategic and wiser choice would be for him to forgo re-election and instead announce that he will seek the presidency.  I’ve always thought of Chu more as steady and conventional rather than bold and imaginative, so I’ll be a bit surprised and impressed if he has the guts to just go for it.  Either way, this is probably the toughest and most important strategic choice of his political career (so far).


shedding light on business dealings in China

December 20, 2013

I’m very glad to see the recent spate of news about Sean Lien’s 連勝文 financial dealings.  It’s not so much that I care about Lien personally (though that is interesting), it’s more that I want to know much more about how Taiwanese politicians are personally investing in China.  I would like to see a lot more stories like this one, and I’d like to see stories about political figures who are involved in policymaking even if they aren’t planning on running for mayor.

One of the things I am concerned about is whether China is systematically corrupting Taiwanese politicians, especially from the blue camp.  It bothers me tremendously that the very people who are involved in negotiating on Taiwan’s behalf with China are often the recipients of sweetheart business deals within China.  This goes all the way to the top, with former SEF Chair P.K. Chiang 江丙坤 having extensive business dealings in China.  The KMT’s official position is that there is nothing improper about these business interests.  I tend to think that Ma Ying-jeou might do well to heed his own admonition to Tsai Ing-wen over her involvement in the Yu-Chang Biologics case.  In one debate, Ma scolded Tsai that she should have known that there are some things that politicians just shouldn’t get involved in, even if only to avoid the appearance of impropriety.  It was good advice.

However, I fear that the problem is the fact of impropriety, not merely its appearance.  Corruption is very hard to define; my quick and dirty definition is that turning public power into private money is corruption.  Why are the KMT elite getting all these lucrative business opportunities?  It probably isn’t because they are brilliant business leaders.  More likely, Chinese interests are paying them because of their political positions.  How, we might ask, does someone like P.K. Chiang or Sean Lien repay all this good fortune?  They would probably answer that they don’t, because they have not actually gotten any special treatment.  I am skeptical.  Either way, I’d love for the media to throw more light on the subject.


legislative deference

December 17, 2013

Everyone else on the net tries to be the first to break the news.  I prefer to think about stories for a while before I comment.  Here is another post about something that is quite out of date.


In a commentary published in last Tuesday’s United Daily News, Su Chi 蘇起 discussed Taiwan’s decline in international competitiveness.  One of the reasons he cites is that Taiwan has acquired a reputation as being an unreliable country in international negotiations.  Several times, the government has negotiated an agreement, and the legislature has delayed ratification, demanded significant modifications, or simply refused to pass it altogether.  Now the legislature is demanding to review the Service Trade Agreement clause by clause, and Su Chi argues that this type of action is eroding Taiwan’s international credibility, which in turn erodes Taiwan’s competitiveness.

I respect Su Chi quite a lot.  He is not a kneejerk ideologue but rather a thoughtful person who quite commonly transcends the neat pro-China / anti-China boxes.  However, on this question, he is simply wrong in placing the blame on the legislature.  More generally, Su’s attack reflects broader shortcomings of the Ma administration, including a strong preference for technocrats, a lack of respect for elected representatives, and a disregard for politics.


The legislature’s insistence on an active role in ratifying international agreements is not eroding Taiwan’s credibility or competitiveness.  If Taiwan’s credibility actually suffers, the blame should fall squarely on the executive branch.  The executive branch knows that anything that they sign needs to pass the legislature.  It is their responsibility to be sure that they don’t sign anything that the legislature won’t ratify.  The executive branch should be in constant contact with legislative leaders while negotiating deals.  They should constantly be asking whether each clause will cause a popular backlash and whether legislators might insist on changing; they should constantly be counting votes; and they should never sign anything that doesn’t have enough votes to pass.  If they insist on signing something that the legislature does not support, they have no right to be surprised, indignant, or petulant when the legislature demands modifications.  If the executive branch signs an agreement without first ensuring that the legislature is on board, then it is the executive that is responsible for any delays or modifications to the agreement.  If Taiwan’s credibility is damaged, that is because the executive branch irresponsibly signed an unrealistic pact.

In fact, Taiwan’s negotiators don’t routinely stay in touch with legislative leaders.  Executive branch negotiators make agreements according to their judgment of what is best for Taiwan and then send the final pact to the legislature to be rubber stamped.  Most bureaucrats would bristle at the notion that they should allow legislators to influence their dealings.  That would simply open the door to pork, favoritism, parochialism, and payoffs to special interests.  From the bureaucratic perspective, elected representatives are dirty, corrupt, and unable to see the big picture.  It is far better to keep them out of the process.

This is a fundamentally undemocratic perspective.  Bureaucrats are themselves often beholden to special interests, though they are usually far less aware of this than legislators.  At any rate, the legislature has a different, broader legitimacy than the executive branch.  The executive gets its legitimacy from the presidential election, but the president ultimately represents only a plurality of the electorate.  Society is complex and pluralistic, and many voices that are shut out of the executive branch can only be heard through the legislature.  Some of these voices may appear to some to be “parochial,” “narrow,” or “special interests.”  However, one person’s special interest is another person’s legitimate cause.  Legislators’ careers depend much more than bureaucrats’ on ensuring that voters do not feel they are being treated unfairly.  Bureaucrats routinely envision the world in idealistic, abstract, or simplistic terms, and can sometimes design policy packages that place undue burdens on particular segments of society.  Legislators are more grounded in the messiness of actual society, and they often soften the rough edges of those policy packages by demanding changes.  The easiest way to see this is to think about extreme cases.  In some authoritarian states, well-meaning bureaucrats have implemented tragically horrifying policies, demanding entire populations relocate, causing famine by ordering boneheaded agricultural policies, and wasting public funds by building grandiose planned cities that no one wants to live in.  (For a depressingly long list of examples, see James C. Scott’s wonderful book, Seeing Like a State.)  These sorts of debacles happen far less frequently in democracies because the elected legislatures step in to stop utopian visions from going through.  Democracy demands that legislatures, with their broader base, also ratify important national decisions.  Getting things through the legislature is not simply an inconvenience; it is a fundamental stage in the democratic process.

More generally, the Ma administration routinely expresses a disdain for “politics” and an admiration for “governing.”  The famous bureaucrats of the Chiang Ching-kuo era, such as Sun Yun-hsuan 孫運璿, Lee Kuo-ting 李國鼎, and CCK himself, are held up as paragons of wisdom, foresight, selflessness, moderation, vision, and fairness.  In contrast, the elected politicians of the democratic era seem small-minded, selfish, petty, and short-sighted.  Of course, the CCK-era technocrats didn’t have to ask the population for power.  In a democratic society, using power wisely is important.  Creating that power is even more important.  Democrats must organize networks, articulate positions, make compromises with other ambitious politicians, and win the support of large numbers of voters before they ever get the chance to govern.  Moreover, after they implement a policy, they must retain power in order to protect and nurture that policy.  Politics – creating power – must come before governance – using power.  Demanding that elected politicians defer to bureaucrats is simply unreasonable and undemocratic.


The current service trade agreement is a repeat of the same old story.  The KMT-led bureaucracy has negotiated a deal with little to no input from the legislature, and now it is demanding that the legislature ratify that deal without any substantive review.  If the legislature exercises its rights to demand changes, the Ma administration should not whine about how the legislature is eroding Taiwan’s international credibility.  The responsibility lies entirely with the executive branch.

Second-class citizens

December 14, 2013

I usually try to be calm and rational when I write.  This post is raw, emotional, and personal.

Every so often, someone will ask me if I am an ROC citizen or if I want to apply to become one.  I usually give some polite and evasive answer.  The question is usually meant as a complement, and they would be startled and perhaps offended by the real answer.  I am not a citizen, and I don’t have any plans to become one.  One reason is that I have no desire to stop being an American citizen.  Another reason is that, no matter how much I think I am a part of Taiwanese society, I see little indication that Taiwanese society would ever accept me as a full member.  Taiwanese often talk about embracing globalization, building a pluralistic society, and welcoming immigrants, but these are usually empty chatter.


A few days ago, the media gave a tiny bit of coverage to the case of Wu Tsui-heng (武翠姮).  Wu, who is originally from Vietnam, came to Taiwan in 2005 for work, married a Taiwanese man in 2006, got ROC citizenship in 2010, and gave up her Vietnamese citizenship.  She had an extramarital affair, and her husband divorced her in 2011.  This week the government notified her that it was cancelling her citizenship because her extramarital affair violated the requirements for morality as stated in the Nationality Law.  It also cancelled the citizenship of her two young daughters.  Since the two daughters are in Vietnam and Wu is in Taiwan and none of them have valid passports, they are forcibly separated.

You can read more about this case … in very few places.  Michael Cole has the only English report I’ve seen.  The Taipei Times hasn’t written about it at all.  Apparently, cases of cancelled citizenship are of no interest to that newspaper’s readership.  If you read Chinese, google her name.

There are so many things that infuriate me about this case.  The anti-Vietnamese racism, the callous disregard for human rights, the legally legitimized gender discrimination, the indifference of the broader society…  (I waited three days to see if my anger would fade.  It hasn’t.)

On a more personal level, this case cuts me deeply.  I first came to Taiwan in 1989 and spent nearly 15 years on this island.  I have an advanced degree from a Taiwanese university, I hold a very good job (as a pseudo civil servant) at Academia Sinica, and I am married to a Taiwanese woman.  Taiwan is my home; my personal future is deeply entangled with Taiwan’s collective future.  That’s why this story hurts so much.  It sends a loud and clear message to all foreigners: You will never be a full part of this society.  Even if you are legally admitted to the society, you will always be a second-class citizen.  Why the hell would I ever want to be a second-class citizen?

What do I mean by second-class citizen?  When a “real” citizen breaks the law, there may be consequences.  Maybe there is a fine or a jail term.  When a naturalized citizen breaks the law, apparently she gets stripped of her citizenship.  That is not equality under the law.  In this case, Wu didn’t even break any law.  It’s not illegal to have an extramarital affair.  (Let me clarify, I don’t know if it is illegal or not.  There may be some law on paper.  However, it is not enforced in practice.  As all the media reports have pointed out, the Minister of the Interior had an affair and not only did he not get charged with a crime, he was appointed to oversee the law enforcement system.  So let’s just agree that it isn’t illegal for normal people to have an affair.)  So for doing something that isn’t illegal, Wu and her daughters were sentenced to become international orphans.  So if I were to obtain ROC citizenship, would good would it be?  Would it be revoked if I got a speeding ticket, or someone sued me for libel for an offhand comment in my blog, or if I didn’t report expenses properly on a National Science Council grant?  If those seem like unlikely things to lose your citizenship over, please reread the part about Miss Wu losing her citizenship for something even less serious.

(Before someone objects that the state has a legitimate interest in preventing fraud, let’s think about that.  No one has suggested that the original marriage was a fraud.  She had an affair and the marriage fell apart, but having a failed marriage is not a crime.  In fact, the explanation from the Interior Ministry was not that she used a fake marriage to illegally obtain citizenship, but that she had demonstrated poor morals.  What are poor morals?  Well, I think that clause is intended to prevent women from coming to Taiwan and working as prostitutes.  That fact that Miss Wu did nothing of the sort is apparently unimportant.  She had an affair!  What a whore!)

This is not a blue or green issue.  Most of the (very few) media reports have seized the irony of Minister Lee’s own extramarital affair to suggest that he should step down.  Of course they are more interested in who is scoring political points at the moment, but I have no illusions that the DPP would be any better on this question.  Theoretically, they welcome people like Miss Wu to become ROC citizens so they can talk about New Taiwanese and constructing a pluralistic society with some non-Chinese roots.  In practice, the DPP has strong tendencies toward Hoklo chauvinism that prevent them from building effective bridges to aboriginal voters, much less Southeast Asian immigrants.  More importantly, the DPP is terrified of the large numbers of brides from China.  Establishing precedent to expel Chinese immigrants isn’t exactly harming the DPP’s interests.


As an ROC citizen, Miss Wu deserves fair treatment before the law.  When you become a citizen, you make a commitment to your new state.  No less importantly, the state makes a commitment to its new citizen.  That new citizen should be given the full rights that every other citizen enjoys.  Article 7 of the ROC constitution states, “All citizens of the Republic of China, irrespective of sex, religion, race, class, or party affiliation, shall be equal before the law.”  The government has clearly ignored that mandate in this case.  Some people (immigrants? Women? ethnic Vietnamese?) are clearly less equal than others.  If she can’t expect equal treatment, why should I?  The next time someone asks me if I am or want to become a citizen, I might be more forthright.  At least my status as a foreign resident is honest; Miss Wu’s citizenship was a lie.