turnout and China

Every now and then, someone will see a chart like this one and wonder what is wrong with Taiwan’s democracy.


This chart clearly shows that turnout has declined during the quarter century of democracy here in Taiwan. You can see one important reason the Central Election Commission chose to hold legislative and presidential elections concurrently: the turnout for legislative elections is about 20% in concurrent elections (like in 2012) than when legislative elections are held by themselves.

There are a few reasons that we could talk about for the turnout rates in individual elections. The 2000 and 2004 presidential elections were particularly intense, so turnout was probably particularly high. The 1998 legislative election was held concurrently with mayoral elections in Taipei and Kaohsiung, so higher turnout in those two cities pulled up the national average. The 2008 legislative and 2012 elections (and the upcoming 2016 elections) were held close to the Lunar New Year holiday, so many voters living elsewhere might have been hesitant to make two trips back to their official residence within a short time. However, even considering about all this, I think it is fair to say that there has been a decline in turnout over time.

There is one more factor that people rarely talk about. There have always been a significant number of Taiwanese who live outside the island. For example, my guess is that the number of Taiwanese living in the USA is probably similar to that number in the mid-1990s. However, the number of Taiwanese living in China has skyrocketed over this period. No one has a good number for this. People commonly throw around round numbers like one or two million Taiwanese in China. One of my mentors thinks it might be as high as four million, based on staring at years of survey results. Again, no one knows what this number is (though lots of people will tell you they know), and the government does not seem to publish this number. Let’s just assume that the number is two million Taiwanese living in China. That means that nearly 10% of Taiwanese live in China. Presumably, they include a higher proportion of adults than the population at large, so they could easily comprise over 10% of the electorate. Look at those slides in turnout again and think about the 10% missing voters. The China population could account for the entire decline.

But wait, you say! Those people can still vote. Sure, they have to return to Taiwan, but there are lots of extra flights (at cheaper prices) every election. There is a massive mobilization effort each time by the KMT, the Taiwanese business communities, and the PRC to get those people back to Taiwan and into voting booths. After all, the KMT and PRC both assume that Taiwanese living in China will overwhelmingly favor the KMT, so they have a strong incentive to turn out that vote.

Well, we can actually look at some numbers. Spoiler alert: most people don’t come back to vote.

I started this inquiry stupidly, by counting the number of flights landing in Taiwan from China every day. Today, Friday, December 18, 107 flights landed at Taoyuan, Songshan, and Kaohsiung airports. Tomorrow, 82 flights will land. I’m going to assume yesterday represents all weekdays and tomorrow represents all Saturdays and Sundays. Let’s assume that no one will return to vote more than a week before the election. So in the average week before an election, about 700 flights from China will land in Taiwan. If each flight has 200 seats, that makes 140,000 arrivals. Assume all of those are voters (no Chinese tourists, no one makes two flights, no children, no one goes back before Saturday…). There were 18,086,455 eligible voters in 2012 (it will be higher this year), so those 140,000 would constitute just under 1% of the electorate.

But wait a minute. Taiwan is the best in the world when it comes to open data. Can’t I get some better number than that? You betcha! The Civil Aeronautics Administration publishes data on arrivals. Scroll down this massive 2014 annual report to page 177 (Table 49, 3rd panel), and you find that in 2013 33,538 flights with 7,215,056 seats, and 5,566,967 actual passengers arrived from China. Divide those numbers by 52 to get the average week, and you have 645 flights with a capacity of 138,751 seats, and an average of 107,057 actual passengers per week. So it appears my back of the envelope numbers were too large.

Note that in December 2014, when there was an election, the number of arrivals wasn’t much different from August-November. In fact, a news story I found floating around on the internet said that airlines added 46 extra flights coming from the USA, Japan, and other countries for the 2014 election period, but there were already enough seats on the China flights to meet demand. That seems to be the case, since only 76.0% of the seats were filled.

Perhaps you think that a presidential race is different from a local mayoral race. Well, here is the 2012 report. Again, the data you want are on Table 49. There were fewer overall flights, seats, and arrivals in January 2012, but January 2012 does not look that much different from March or later months. (February is lower because of the holiday.)

We can do better than that, though. The National Immigration Agency keeps statistics on how many Chinese enter the country. The overwhelming majority of Chinese in Taiwan are tourists, and these enter almost entirely by airplane. There might be some who come through third countries, but, for simplicity, let’s just assume that every Chinese tourist displaces a potential voter. In 2014, 3,328,224 tourists arrived, a weekly average of 64,004. Since there were 107,057 passengers a week, that only leaves 43,053 spots a week for Taiwanese voters. Everyone assumes that there will be fewer Chinese tourists as we get closer to the election. This story in Liberty Times estimated that the daily number of Chinese tourists might decline by as much as 40%. (Surprisingly, I don’t see any evidence of this sort of drop in the 2014 arrivals data.) This would imply about 38,000 Chinese tourists in the week before the election, leaving about 69,000 seats for Taiwanese voters. 69,000 votes would constitute about 0.4% of the 2012 electorate.

You can make objections that this number is too low. Some people will travel through Hong Kong, Macau, Tokyo, Seoul, or other points to get from China to Taiwan. However, you can also argue that the number is too high. Some of those seats will be filled by children, people who return to China before the election, Americans, and other people who won’t vote in the election.


In short, a large number of voters – maybe 10% of the electorate – live in China, and only a very small number – maybe 0.5% of the electorate – will come home to vote. In effect, these people have voluntarily taken themselves out of the electorate. If these are predominantly blue camp sympathizers, as nearly everyone assumes, this is a tremendous boost to the DPP push for the presidency and a legislative majority. Wouldn’t it be ironic if one of the primary effects of the KMT and PRC’s push to integrate Taiwan’s economy into China’s were to effectively remove an enormous block of pro-integration voters from the electorate, thus making political integration less likely?

11 Responses to “turnout and China”

  1. Daiwanlang Says:

    Love this post, and love the awesome conclusion as well. I suspect one can potentially apply the same logic to Taiwanese Americans as well.

    As my 90 year old KMT veteran dad puts it, most anyone with connections back in the days all emigrated during the immigration waves in the 70-80’s. And who had connections back then? Mostly waisheng aka KMTers. It is therefore no wonder that a lot of Taiwanese Americans I come across are waisheng or at least half.

    So if emigration selectively removed more waisheng (natural KMT supporters), and then opening up to China removed business oriented population (another group of natural KMT supporters), and then you have gradual removal of 1st gen waisheng via natural passage of time, one can potentially see the KMT support simply draining away over time. The natural conclusion is over time pan-Blues will simply become extinct, and the ROC hallowed out as a mere skin deep disguise for a Taiwanese nation.

  2. Jack Chien Says:

    more than 270,000 Chinese are married to Taiwanese and living in Taiwan, a great boost to KMT presidential and legislative election, too.
    also some KMT/PRC sponsored airline tickets sort out people in China who in favor of KMT come back to Taiwan and have a high turn out rate.
    sponsored airline tickets x high turn out rate could create in fact double or triple effective votes.

  3. pdt090 Says:

    Has there been any substantive research done on the political leanings of the Taishang community? I’m sure it’s significantly more pro-KMT than Taiwanese society as a whole, but I’d be interested to see surveys that specifically break down party identification among Taishang to get a clearer picture of their political leanings.

    • Irwin Says:

      The conventional wisdom says Taishang are pro-KMT but that’s mostly because no one really would say they are DPP voters if they live in China. My opinion is that the Taishang that are most motivated to vote – the ones that buy airline tickets out of his or her own pockets are probably more green than the conventional wisdom would lead one to believe. These are the group that plans to return to Taiwan to live one day… their long term interest is to ensure Taiwan stays Taiwan – so I wouldn’t assume that they would automatically vote for candidates or party that promotes more integration.

      • Daiwanlang Says:

        Good point. After all, pan-Blues’ national loyalty will tilt to China, although they will swear to the world that is the ROC. As the propaganda of yesteryear went, “Mainland’s hope is in Taiwan, Taiwan’s future is in the Mainland.” Pan-Blues that depart for China are much more likely to simply put down roots.

    • frozengarlic Says:

      You can probably imagine why this is a nearly impossible topic. People living in China, especially those doing business, have strong pressure to vote the “right” way. If you, I, or a random interviewer ask them, they will almost certainly tell you they voted for the KMT. To get a more accurate answer would require building up a level of trust, and that is not possible on a large scale. It is possible on a small scale. However, if you are trusted by 10 people and three of them tell you privately that they will vote for the DPP, so what. The sample is much too small to infer anything about the larger population.

      • Greg (@greghao) Says:

        Do you think this is why the pollsters all got it so wrong in the last UK general elections?

      • frozengarlic Says:

        No, this isn’t a problem for most democratic countries. This is a problem for authoritarian or semi-authoritarian states. The same thing happened in Taiwan in the late 1980s and early 1990s when very few people would admit to supporting the DPP because they feared the authorities would track their answers.

        My impression is that the UK relies heavily on internet pollsters (like YouGov). The best internet polls go through a rigorous matching protocol, but they are still not random samples. Even a really good quota sample is theoretically far inferior to a random sample. However, the UK has been addicted to quota samples since at least 1992, when they were utterly wrong about that year’s election.

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