Archive for August, 2019

The current (missing) energy crisis

August 30, 2019

A few days ago, Han Kuo-yu came out with his energy policy. The headlines focused on his plan to restart the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant project, which has been mothballed since the Ma government capitulated in the face of enormous public pressure in 2014. The referendums in 2018 seemed to indicate a new level of popularity for nuclear power, so Han probably thought it would be politically adept to bring the 4Nuke back. It didn’t go well, with New Taipei mayor (and most popular KMT politician in the country) Hou You-yi throwing cold water on the idea and calling it a non-issue.

All this got me to thinking about how much electricity hasn’t been in the news this year. In the past few years, we have had lots of stories about how dangerously low the electricity supply is. This year, I can’t remember reading any of those stories. That is, there doesn’t seem to be an electricity crisis in the political atmosphere that demands a bold/risky solution such as dusting off the rotting 4Nuke plant.

Subjective impressions are a dangerous thing to rely on, so I thought I’d try to find some data. I went to the United Daily News online data base and searched for stories using the term 備轉容量 and 電 (operating reserve and electricity). This search term typically yields stories that say something like:

Yesterday the temperature soared to 38.9C in downtown Taipei, and electricity consumption spiked. At the peak demand, Taipower reported the operating reserve fell to a mere 3.2%. This is horrible and dangerous. The country’s economy is at great risk, and it’s all Tsai Ying-wen’s fault.

Ok, maybe only the first two sentences are typical. Sorry. Please accept my apology, Fan Ling-jia.

Ideally, I wanted to search for the entire summer, but since we still have a month of summer to go, I limited my search to July and August for each year. Then, to see if maybe the fashionable terminology for reporting on this type of story had changed, I tried the same thing using a different term: 供電 and 警 (power supply and alert). This table shows how many stories I found in July and August each year for those search terms:

  備轉容量 and 電

(number of UDN stories)

供電 and 警

(number of UDN stories)

2012 0 24
2013 3 26
2014 14 35
2015 28 46
2016 24 30
2017 119 156
2018 34 11
2019 18 11

These electricity crisis stories peaked in 2017. 2017 was the worst year for power supply, and it also saw a massive blackout in August when one power plant had a mechanical failure and plunged most of the island into a blackout for several hours on a sweltering August day. Lots of the stories in 2017 are about that blackout. Politically, the blackout was a disaster, and it probably caused as much anger and dissatisfaction with the Tsai government as any other cause. (Frozen Garlic’s first rule of governing: Don’t ever, ever let the power go out.)

You will notice that there were still 18 stories this year in UDN with the term “operating reserve.” This is a clear decline from previous years, but it isn’t zero. However, a quick glance through the headlines reveals something interesting about these stories. None of them follow that typical script. Most of them said something to the effect of the “situation is much better this year” or “yesterday was hot, but there was no problem with the power supply.” A few stories even involved Taichung mayor Lu Hsiu-yan arguing that, since power supply was now sufficient, the big Taichung power plant could be closed. None of them screamed, “CRISIS!!!”

You might wonder, is the situation really getting better? Or is the United Daily News getting lazy? It isn’t the latter. Fan Ling-jia, in addition to being a handsome guy and a lousy baseball player, is a demanding boss. If there were a power supply crisis, he’d assuredly tell his editors to cover it in a fair and neutral manner. Or at least some sort of manner.

I found some statistics from the Ministry of Economics, Bureau of Energy. They count the number of days each year that the operating reserve fell below 6%, which is generally considered dangerously low. (They like to have at least 10% and ideally 15%.)

  Days with operating reserve below 6%
2015 33
2016 80
2017 104
2018 29
2019 0

In fact, I found day by day reports from Taipower from June and July, and the operating reserve has only dipped below 10% twice in those two months. The electricity supply situation isn’t anywhere near as tight as it was in 2016 and 2017.

I’m not an expert on energy policy by any stretch of the imagination. I don’t quite understand how much the blend of power sources has changed, how much pollution is produced, or the finances involved. (Hell, even Fan Ling-jia probably understands energy policy better than I do.) However, this little exercise does indicate that Tsai’s promised transformation of the energy sector is bearing the fruit that she promised. She told us the first few years would be difficult, and they were. She also told us that things would get better by the end of her first term, and that seems to be the case.

Attitudes toward Hong Kong protests

August 24, 2019

A TVBS poll conducted a couple weeks ago (Aug 5-7) contains an interesting question. Respondents were asked, “Hong Kong has experienced protest activity opposing the extradition bill. Overall, do you support the protest activities by Hong Kong residents?” 香港發生「反送中」的抗議活動,整體而言,請問您支不支持香港民眾的抗議活動?  Overall, 57% of respondents said they supported the protests, 19% did not support the protests, and 24% did not have a clear opinion or did not know about the protests.

I think this question is interesting because how to deal with China is one of the fundamental questions facing Taiwan. Should Taiwan take an assertive, even confrontational approach, or should it take a deferential and conciliatory approach? In Taiwan, most people – supporting both the blue and green camps – worry a lot about the threat from China. Only a very few people on the extreme unification fringe want to become part of the PRC.  However, there is a clear divide in how supporters of the two camps think Taiwan should act in the face of Chinese ambitions. (To put it very crudely, green camp sympathizers tend to believe that Taiwan needs to stand up and voice its determination to resist Chinese aggressions. Taiwan needs to tell the world that it does not accept the premise that Taiwan is part of China, and Taiwan is determined to maintain its sovereignty. Blue camp supporters tend to think that the best way to maintain Taiwan’s status is to avoid giving China any excuse or reason for aggression. They believe that Taiwan should do its best to keep out of the limelight and let Chinese leaders worry about all the other problems that China faces. If Taiwan is never China’s top problem, China will never get around to attacking Taiwan. However, if Taiwan loudly asserts its interests, Chinese leaders will feel threatened and feel a greater need to react.

The Hong Kong protests are just the sort of thing that evokes contrasting reactions among these two different mindsets. TVBS helpfully provided a breakdown of responses by party ID and age. The differences among people who identify with different parties are striking:


% of
Full sample 100 57 19 11 13
DPP 22 82 6 4 8
NPP 4 84 6 5 5
KPP* 8 80 14 5 1
KMT 28 33 39 13 15
Other parties 11 40 13 16 31
None 26 58 16 15 12

DPP sympathizers support the protests by an 82-6% margin. The figures for the NPP and KPP* are similar. There is almost unanimity among these groups in favor of a confrontational stance. There is a problem, and you don’t solve that problem by pretending it isn’t there. You have to deal with it, and that may involve some civic actions.

*Yes, I know the party’s formal name is the “TPP.” I prefer to call them the KPP (Ko-P Party) because it is more accurate and I’m petty.

KMT sympathizers look very different. About a third support the protests, a third oppose, and a third don’t know what is right (or, following Han and Ko’s lead, simply refuse to take much of a position). Among Taiwanese respondents, KMT sympathizers are alone in taking such a skeptical view of the protests. However, a hesitance to directly confront the PRC is consistent with the KMT’s longstanding practice in dealing with China. (One additionally suspects that KMT sympathizers might also resent the negative effect the protests are having on the KMT’s electoral prospects, and that might contribute to their generally unsupportive attitudes.)

Let’s look quickly at the age breakdown on this question:

% of
Full sample 100 57 19 11 13
20-29 16 75 8 9 9
30-39 19 70 12 9 9
40-49 19 61 24 10 5
50-59 19 56 25 9 10
60&up 28 38 23 14 25

There is a clear age difference. Young people are the most likely to support the protests, and the level of support declines with each older age cohort. However, among everyone 59 and under, the percentage of supporters is an absolute majority and at least twice as large as the percentage of non-supporters. Only the oldest cohort is anywhere near split, and even there, support is still clearly the most common response.

These age and party breakdowns point to clear problems for Ko Wen-je. Ko has tried to duck the Hong Kong question as much as possible, but sometimes that has been impossible. When he has to give an answer, it has been the most tepid response possible. As I mentioned a week ago, one of these answers was that he didn’t know about the protests and they had nothing to do with Taiwan. Ko has clearly decided that he needs to not antagonize China for his China policy to make any sense. He wants to give the impression that China will deal with him, so he is strategically not challenging them on the Hong Kong question. However, Ko’s position is diametrically opposed to the preferences of his target demographic. Both people who support his KPP and people under 40 overwhelmingly express support for the protests. They have to be a bit disappointed when he is afraid to voice their thoughts. After all, one of the reasons they like Ko-P is precisely because, unlike professional politicians, he speaks his mind directly and bluntly without worrying about whether it is going to rub anyone the wrong way.

It’s looking more and more like Ko will not run for president. I think this might be emblematic of his root problem. Ko has a lot of supporters who don’t actually like the things he stands for. There are still a lot of people who traditionally support the DPP and think of him as part of the broader green camp. However, in a presidential election, Ko cannot avoid the China question, and his strategy for dealing with China is much closer to a traditional KMT approach. Likewise, Ko gets a lot of support from young people, but his policies aren’t particularly well-aligned with the things that young people want. The Hong Kong protests are one example of this.

People often complain about long and grueling political campaigns, but I’m concerned that this one won’t be long enough. I want Tsai, Han, Ko, and Gou to have to answer questions about the important questions facing Taiwan every day for several months. I want them subjected to intense scrutiny so that these sorts of contradictions are exposed. Campaigns are crucial to helping voters understand what politicians want to do. Without lengthy, intense campaigns, it is harder for voters to make good decisions.

The TSU: We’re back, baby!

August 19, 2019

So apparently, the Taiwan Solidarity Union still exists. Who knew! I learned of their continuing existence because they published a half page ad in the Liberty Times yesterday. This has to be my favorite ad in several years. I’m not quite sure why it tickles me so much. Do they understand how crazy it is to publish a voting guide for strategic voting five months before the election? We don’t even know who the contestants will be yet. And look at how they have helpfully defined all the other political parties in various far-fetched ways! And their totally unrealistic policy proposals! Did anyone tell them that there is a range of enormous mountains on the island or a big body of water next to it? Even though this ad is half bonkers, the other half is somehow extremely informative.

Here’s the ad:

The top line reads, “unity in the green camp, but differences on the party vote.” On the left side, the red font reads, “if you support these policies, vote for these parties.” The logos are for the DPP, NPP, Taiwan State Building Party, and Social Democrats. Their respective policies are abolishing the death penalty, raising the minimum wage and applying labor laws to foreign workers, huge increases in tobacco taxes, protecting Taiwan’s sovereignty, and not amending the constitution to formally change the name of the country. On the bottom left, they have the logos for the two new radical independence parties, the Formosa Alliance and the Taiwan Action Party Alliance. People who oppose Tsai Ing-wen are encouraged to vote for those two parties. On the right side it lists the TSU’s positions:

  • Protecting Taiwan’s sovereignty by amending the constitution to change the name
  • opposing recent revisions to the labor standards law (concerning consecutive working days or mandatory two-day weekends; also, they think it should only set a maximum number of working hours everything else should be left to negotiations between labor and capital)
  • opposing abolishing the death penalty
  • applying different standard to Taiwanese and foreign labor (NT30,000 minimum wage for Taiwanese labor, NT8,000 minimum wage for foreign labor, you must hire one Taiwanese worker for every four foreign workers, this cuts the price of labor in half!)
  • oppose huge increases in the tobacco tax
  • allow and encourage automobile racing, light aircraft, and coastal and canal yachts
  • development projects for the west coast
    • bridge between Taiwan and Penghu (next to the bridge, there will be large-scale enclosed aquaculture, under the bridge will be tidal power generation, next to the bridge wind power generation
    • east-west rail line from the east coast to Yunlin and Chiayi to Penghu
    • 80km artificial island off the west coast (Changhua to Tainan), upper layer for wind power, forested lower layer to help reduce air pollution
    • Canal on the Changhua to Tainan coast for yachting and waterside residences

To top it all off, the orange box at the bottom sneers, “You don’t care about policies? Your vote is a worthless fart! Cast your party for the TSU; the communist bandits will shit their pants.”


I wonder who has an investment interest in auto racing and/or yachts. Those are flat-out weird. Also, they are entirely focused on southern Taiwan. There is no mention of the north, and the only mention of the east is the bananas idea to run a railroad straight through the Central Mountain range to Hualien. I also love the idea of building wind turbines in a forested area. Have they never noticed that all the vegetation around the base of a wind turbine is always removed? I dunno, maybe these guys aren’t exactly world-class civil engineers.

Yet, this ad does say something substantive. First, the TSU is clearly defining themselves as a conservative, Taiwan nationalist party. Never mind all the progressive stuff that the NPP and Social Democrats are pushing, they think the DPP’s economic policies are basically socialist! Second, they are differentiating themselves from the two new radical independence parties by supporting Tsai Ing-wen. They think everyone in the green camp should vote for her (including supporters of those two parties, but they aren’t asking for party votes from people who oppose her.

But let’s not let actual information distract us too much from the main message: The TSU is batshit zany. They are throwing down a marker to all the other small green camp parties: we dare you to try to match our superficially reasonable but utterly delusional ideas. We are the craziest motherfuckers in this polity, so stay off our turf. (Especially the turf on the magical artificial island next to the impossible bridge!)

Replace Han? Probably not.

August 18, 2019

There is lots of speculation flying around the political sphere that the KMT might replace Han Kuo-yu as its presidential nominee. After all, they did it four years ago, so they could do it again. Also, recent polls haven’t been great for Han, so there is a motive. Let me explain why I think there isn’t much chance of this happening.


Four years ago, Hung Hsiu-chu was named the KMT nominee after not winning a competitive primary. None of the main contenders (Chu, Hau, Wu, Wang) formally registered for the nomination, as they preferred to wait for the party to engage in backroom negotiations and offer them the nomination. Hung registered, and to everyone’s surprise, she passed the 30% threshold of approval in the polling primary. Since she had fulfilled the minimum requirements, the flummoxed party leaders went ahead and nominated her. Her polling numbers were always bad, and after she received the nomination, they got worse. She routinely lost to Tsai Ing-wen by 30% or more. Then James Soong jumped in the race, and his support threatened to overtake hers and push the KMT into third place. Finally, there were rumors that the native Taiwanese faction of the KMT was so upset that it was considering quitting the party. In short, the KMT was in crisis. Everyone could see it, and it was so obvious that it was impossible to ignore.

None of that describes the current situation. Han won a competitive primary, and he won it convincingly. Moreover, he beat the very people (Gou, Chu, Wang, Wu) who might replace him on the ticket. They all had a shot, and he crushed them all. Han won the primary because of his Han Fans. Hung didn’t have anything like the huge numbers of KMT sympathizers who have fallen head over heels in love with Han. If the KMT tried to remove him, these Han Fans would go into open revolt.

Han’s polling numbers in the last couple weeks aren’t great, but this is nothing like four years ago. Even in the worst polls, he isn’t losing by 30%. Most polls show the race as close, and there are still polls coming out every now and then that show him winning one or more matchups. The news hasn’t been great recently, but that could easily change. If the news shifts, it could be his turn for a series of good polls. In short, there simply isn’t the same obvious and overwhelming message coming from polls that the KMT is heading for a disaster. Many KMT supporters are still quite confident and expect to win.

Finally, it looks to me like most of the KMT is reluctantly getting on board. His recently announced roster of policy advisors is a who’s who of technocratic elites from the Ma administration. The suggestion that the “intellectual blues” will hold out en masse simply doesn’t seem to be backed up by actions.

I think the chance that Han will be replaced is miniscule. There would have to be some major new development that shattered his popularity both with the general public but, more importantly, with his loyal Han Fans. Right now, trying to replace him would be the best way to ensure an all-out civil war within the KMT. For better or worse, I’m pretty confident that he will be representing the KMT on January 11.


I think these rumors are stoked mostly by the green talkosphere in order to give the impression that Han is weak. The rumors also have the benefit of egging on Terry Gou’s campaign. Gou and people around him keep hearing how weak Han is and how the party might need a white knight to save them. This keeps Gou actively involved in politics, but it paradoxically prevents him from jumping headlong into his independent big. He can’t announce his independent challenge or start the petition drive to get on the ballot because he wants to hang back in case the KMT nomination becomes viable. The longer he hangs back, the further behind he gets in putting together a robust campaign organization. It’s strange, but I am starting to wonder if we will end up with neither Ko nor Gou running. Is it possible that, after all these machinations, we will end up with a simple Tsai v Han head-to-head matchup?

In which Ko Wen-je irritates the wrong people

August 18, 2019

A couple days ago, I stated that I thought that if Terry Gou ran for president, it would be in alliance with Ko Wen-je. Almost immediately, Ko made me regret saying this in public.

Three days ago, Ko gave an interview in which he stated that Gou had offered to give him the VP slot and concurrently appoint him as premier. Ko reported that he had refused this offer, explaining that he dislikes this kind of “dividing the spoils” politics. Ko was doing what has come to be known sarcastically as “virtue signaling,” suggesting that he is more pure and moral than everyone else. Of course, in doing this, he was suggesting that Gou was actively practicing just this sort of unsavory politics, something that inevitably brought about a backlash from Gou. Ko, Gou, and Wang Jin-pyng were supposed to have a meeting today (Sunday) in which they would work out how they would cooperate. Gou first denied ever having offered the VP and premier positions to Ko and also decided that he was too busy to meet with Ko. Ko also alienated Wang by suggesting that he was a lion, Gou was a tiger, and Wang was a fox. When the media asked Wang about this metaphor, Wang pointedly said, “I’m a person.” Wang then found a reason to be absent from the summit. In short, Ko managed to offend both Gou and Wang, apparently just so he could stroke his own ego.

All sides say that cooperation is still possible, but this clearly makes an alliance trickier. For one thing, this episode diminishes mutual trust. For another, they are running out of time. They need to figure things out by early September in order to start the petitioning process to meet the deadline to get on the ballot. This snafu has cost them at least a week, and they still have quite a bit of negotiating left to do.

The recent signs seem to be pointing away from Ko jumping into the presidential race. A week ago, Ko gave a TV interview in which he said that things hadn’t ended well for any of the mayors who left their jobs early, including Chen Chu, Lai Ching-te, and Eric Chu Li-lun. He was talking about Han Kuo-yu, but he has to be self-aware enough to understand that he might as well have been talking about himself. All three of those left office (or ran for president) during their second term, which is exactly where Ko is now. This is not the type of thing someone would say if they thought they were about to launch a presidential bid.


Aside: In the same interview, Ko made a fairly important statement about how he sees cross-straits relations. Tsai’s China policy started out stable and moderate, but as her popularity fell, she gave into the temptation to “drink from the poisoned well” [by playing up nationalism]. This is bad for Taiwan’s long-term development. Talking about Taiwan independence doesn’t excuse corruption, and advocating unification doesn’t excuse rot. Taiwan values don’t include unification or independence.

With this statement, Ko is trying to do two things. First, he is suggesting that Tsai is following Chen Shui-bian’s path of using provocative nationalism to whip up support to mask his other failures. That is, Ko is trying to say that Tsai is just like Chen. Second, he is making a claim that clear positions on identity, nationalism, and Taiwan’s future status – what he would label as ideology – causes corruption. It doesn’t matter which side you take; the point is that supporters will forgive your corruption because they support your nationalist stance. I think this echoes the feelings of his supporters, who are mostly alienated from establishment politics and are sick of the incessant (and inescapable) China Cleavage. I’ll note that political scientists usually assume the opposite: politicians who are not clearly identified with any ideology are much more prone to corruption. They don’t need to worry about causing long-term damage to some cause they care deeply about, so they are more likely to throw their lot in with the highest bidder. Nonetheless, I think this is a revealing statement of how Ko wants to present cross-straits issues to the public.


Second Aside: Ko’s new party is called the Taiwan People’s Party, or the TPP. There was quite a kerfuffle about this name, since the descendants of Chiang Wei-shui, who founded the original Taiwan People’s Party about a century ago, objected to Ko’s appropriation of the name while ignoring the ideals of the original party. My objection is a bit different. The acronym TPP is lousy. For one thing, it is already taken, since TPP is widely understood to refer to the Trans-Pacific Partnership. For another, when spoken, TPP sounds too much like DPP, so confusion is inevitable. I propose that we unilaterally rename his party the KPP, the Ko-P Party. In addition to being a better acronym, it is also a more accurate label for his party, which is, after all, a personal vehicle with (so far) no other discernable sources of social support or other prominent politicians. OK? KPP it is.


Let’s go back to Ko’s TV interview. There was a third thing that he said which seemed like an afterthought but might end up being the most important of all. As with the comment about dividing spoils, Ko likes to signal that he is incorruptible. He did this again with regards to the Want Wang media group. Ko said that Wang Want originally supported him, but then they stopped supporting him because he was not sufficiently obedient. The One Family discourse is his bottom line on cross straits policy, and it is already demonstrating his goodwill toward mainland China. He hasn’t tried to desinicize or de-Chiang politics, “but you also cannot tell me to say this or say that, because being a Taiwanese I have a bottom line, I won’t say anything you tell me to.” He added, “Later, I discovered that a lot of things that Han Kuo-yu said, it’s strange that they were…” He did not finish or clarify that statement, but the implication is clear: Ko was not willing to be Want Want’s puppet but Han was. And since Want Want boss Robert Tsai Eng-meng has close relations with China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, Ko was indirectly accusing Han of being a Chinese puppet.

Apparently, this statement got under Tsai Eng-meng’s skin. Today, Tsai issued a statement in response saying that he and Ko had met over ten times and that Ko definitely understood and was misrepresenting Tsai’s positions. I hope someone eventually translates the entire statement, but the critical line is this: “Concerning whether Want Want is a mouthpiece for the Taiwan Affairs Office, please don’t be shy, go ahead and tell everyone. What is the relationship between you, me, and the TAO? We have nothing to hide, what do you not dare tell the world? Don’t dodge the question, explain this clearly.”

There are two ways to read this statement. One is that Tsai is asserting his innocence and encouraging Ko to explain to the world that there is nothing to see here. The other, put forward by prominent publisher Yan Tse-ya, is that Tsai is blackmailing Ko. They have met several times, and, through Tsai, Ko has interacted in some way with the TAO. At the very least, Tsai was trying to cozy up to the Want Want (ie: red) media. If Ko doesn’t watch out, Tsai will let the world know exactly what Ko has been up to. Many of Ko’s supporters still think of him as essentially being in the green camp, and it might damage his reputation severely if they knew he was playing footsie with the CCP.

This story may or may not blow up. If Tsai and Ko get into a prolonged war, the repercussions could be profound. Beyond damaging Ko, this story is also potentially dangerous to Han Kuo-yu. After all, Han and Tsai have a very close relationship, and if Tsai lets too much slip and admits to being a conduit for the TAO, it could rebound onto Han. This whole story could end up being a tremendous boon to Tsai Ing-wen, a wedge to attack the Want Want’s media empire, and a spur to tougher national security laws. Or it could fizzle out entirely… (This is why I like to wait a few days before commenting on news. I hate hot takes.)


All these things combine to make a Ko presidential run less likely than it was a week ago. Most of Ko’s wounds are self-inflicted, and driven by his ego. He just isn’t very good at knowing when to keep his mouth shut or when to be a team player.



Aggregated Presidential Polls

August 12, 2019

final 1231.png


The NPP’s internal divisions, Ko’s new party, and the China Cleavage

August 7, 2019

Every now and then, an international media outlet will publish a story on Taiwan elections that interprets everything through the lens of relations with China. For example, someone might write a story saying that, after the recent events in Hong Kong, the DPP’s presidential prospects are surging. Every time this happens, a gaggle of Taiwan-based analysts responds by pointing out that it isn’t that simple. Taiwanese politics are complex, and Taiwan’s international relationship with China isn’t the only thing that affects voting. All kinds of things unrelated to China policy – nuclear power, labor policy, air quality, food safety, overdevelopment, corruption, marriage equality, pensions, health care, industrial policy, tax rates, whether to ban drinking straws, and on and on – also affect electoral outcomes. Of course, they are right. But…

In the broader argument about the fundamental nature of Taiwanese politics, I come down firmly on the side that argues that Taiwan has one and only one dominant political cleavage. Taiwan’s relationship with China, broadly conceived, is more important than all of those other issues put together. This China Cleavage fundamentally shapes every aspect of Taiwan’s politics, most notably the party system. To put it bluntly, you can understand most – somewhere between 70% and 90% – of Taiwan’s politics if you understand the China Cleavage. (Of course, no one – including me – fully understands the China Cleavage.) Moreover, you can’t understand anything else unless you understand how it is embedded within the China Cleavage. The conflicts over all those other issues I listed above don’t make any sense unless you understand how they are filtered through the China Cleavage. They aren’t completely absorbed by it; otherwise they wouldn’t matter at all. However, they are deeply influenced by it. The opposite is not true. You don’t need to have a solid background in food safety issues to understand the China Cleavage.

Lots of people have written about this messy cleavage that defines Taiwanese politics, so I’ll be brief. I think of it as having four related but somewhat different dimensions. The first is ethnic background – the conflict between native Taiwanese (those who were already here during the Japanese colonial era) and mainlanders (who came after WWII). This dimension was most important during the authoritarian era but has faded in importance over the past few decades. The second is national identity, whether a person self-identifies as Chinese or Taiwanese. My personal opinion is that this is currently the single most important aspect of the China Cleavage. If I were cut off from all information about Taiwan for five years and you offered to give me just one number, I would want to know the percentage of respondents identifying as Taiwanese only in the NCCU Election Study Center tracking polls. The third dimension involves Taiwan’s future status. Should Taiwan unify with China, become a formally independent state, or something else. This dimension seems to have faded in importance in recent years. The fourth dimension is how to manage day-to-day relations with China. On what basis should Taiwan have economic interactions with China? How should Taiwan regulate Taiwanese citizens in China and Chinese citizens in Taiwan? Is it important to have government-to-government communications? What is the best way to prevent war? What is the best way to protect Taiwan’s sovereignty? This dimension is rapidly increasing in importance and may even be approaching national identity in significance. It will probably continue to increase in importance because China is increasingly making demands on Taiwan and more and more aggressively challenging Taiwan’s place in international society. National identity and day-to-day relations focus attention in different places. National identity is idealistic, looking at how citizens feel about themselves and who they want to be. Day-to-day relations is much more pragmatic, searching for a workable plan of action that may not completely reflect the choices they would make in an ideal world.

Lots of people would prefer for Taiwanese elections not to be about the China Cleavage. These people are like climate change deniers. It doesn’t matter if you want to ignore this set of issues, the world will force you to pay attention to them. You might want to think about air quality, but whether or not Taiwan continues to exist simply matters more. You might want to think about labor relations as a purely domestic issue, but Taiwan’s economy is highly intertwined with China’s, and China periodically does things that send shockwaves through Taiwan’s political and economic environment. Until Taiwan’s status is thoroughly resolved – something that is hopefully not on the immediate horizon – the China Cleavage will inevitably dwarf everything else in importance.


Why am I talking about the China Cleavage? The last couple weeks in Taiwanese politics have been eventful, to say the least. I’m going to focus on two big stories, the civil war threatening to rip the New Power Party apart and the recent moves by Ko Wen-je and Terry Gou. Both of these are much more easily understood through the lens of the China Cleavage.


The New Power Party was founded on the assumption that Taiwan does NOT have a single dominant political cleavage. The NPP positioned itself as a pro-Taiwan party occupying roughly the same space as the DPP on the China Cleavage spectrum. Unlike the Taiwan Solidarity Union or some of the new political parties that have been announced in the past few weeks, the NPP did not differentiate itself from the DPP by staking out a markedly more extreme position on this spectrum. Rather, it differentiated itself by staking out a markedly different position on a second dimension, the progressive-conservative dimension. The NPP argued that the DPP was fundamentally a conservative pro-Taiwan party, and it would be a progressive pro-Taiwan party. Thus, the NPP took different positions on things like labor unions, the welfare state, student issues, and, above all, marriage equality.

In recent months, the NPP has had an internal debate over its future path. Some, led by Freddy Lim and Tzu-yung Hung, want the NPP to cooperate with the DPP in the presidential election to guard against throwing the presidency to pro-China forces. Others, led by KC Huang and Yung-ming Hsu, feel that this will condemn the NPP to an existence as the DPP’s junior partner. They want the NPP to set its own course and become an unaffiliated party that can bargain with (and extract more concessions from) either major party. These two visions effectively force members to ask themselves whether the China Cleavage or the progressive-conservative cleavage is more important to them.

If the latter is true, Huang and Hsu are probably right to want to escape the DPP’s shadow. The NPP will be able to maintain its popular support, since its voters will continue to support them. (Voters tend to vote for whatever they think is the most important thing.) Moreover, the NPP will have more bargaining power in the legislature if it can deny both major parties an outright majority.

However, the progressive-conservative cleavage simply isn’t more important than the China Cleavage. Even NPP, who might like that to be so, know deep in their guts that the China Cleavage trumps everything. Maintaining Taiwan’s sovereignty is a prerequisite for everything else. Marriage equality is impossible without liberal democracy, and liberal democracy is incompatible with any arrangement the PRC would agree to. Lim and Hung simply (and correctly) aren’t willing to throw the presidency to the KMT, even if that means that the NPP is doomed to remain a “small green” party. They can’t convince themselves that their progressive agenda makes it ok to ignore the China Cleavage. If Huang and Hsu insist on directly challenging the DPP, the NPP will inevitably be plunged into this sort of civil war.

Being a “small green” party may not be the path that the NPP wants, but, unless it wants to adjust its position on the China Cleavage spectrum, that is the only viable path to survival. They simply cannot be a pro-Taiwan party that purposely divides the pro-Taiwan vote and helps the pro-China side to win, no matter how wonderfully progressive they are. They can perhaps survive by sticking to their 2016 positioning. In 2016, they cooperated with the DPP in the presidential and district legislative races. In the party list ballot, they contented themselves with the (small) chunk of pro-Taiwan voters who were also progressive. If the NPP does choose to adjust its position on China, it has two other options. It either has to become more extreme and argue that the DPP is not actually a pro-Taiwan party or become more moderate and argue against pro-Taiwan positions. If it takes the latter path, it has an obvious ally in Ko Wen-je.


Ko Wen-je is setting up a new party today, the Taiwan People’s Party. He also may or may not be running for president. He also may or may not be cooperating with Terry Gou, who also may or may not be running for president. I’m fairly sure that at least one of them will run. At any rate, we don’t know exactly what it will look like, but there will be a challenge from the center.

Like the NPP, Ko’s most enthusiastic supporters may not want to care very much about the China Cleavage. Ko’s base is disaffected youth who think that both major parties are corrupt and do not represent them. However, there isn’t really a cluster of issues that Ko taps into to bind these voters to him for the long run. Ko, unlike the NPP, was glaringly absent during the debate over marriage equality. When he did speak, it was for the other side. To the extent that Ko has any specific issue, it is that he has paid off lots of government debt. However, I don’t think that his supporters are really motivated by lowering the city debt. I think they are more motivated by his style. They see him as speaking bluntly and plainly. He sometimes says controversial things, but that is ok because it shows that he is not an ordinary, polished (meaning corrupt) establishment politician. So far, Ko has a good record on corruption, and this is also one of his main appeals.  However, corruption is what we call a valence issue: it is unidirectional. Everyone is against corruption, and everyone wants less of it. Being against corruption is like being for a good economy and praising mothers. Enduring parties are founded on positional issues, not valence issues. Someone else has to enthusiastically take the position that you are standing against. If Ko were just a plain-speaking, honest politician, he wouldn’t be very interesting.

However, Ko has also taken a centrist position on the China Cleavage. His One Family discourse effectively stakes out a position somewhere in the muddy middle. Unlike the KMT, he does not explicitly endorse the 92 Consensus or the One China policy. Unlike the DPP, he makes nods toward the notion that China and Taiwan are somehow connected.

Terry Gou has also staked out a relatively centrist position, though his is closer to the KMT than Ko’s. While the KMT drifts to a more extreme position by endorsing a peace treaty and jettisoning ideas such as No unification, No Independence, No War, Gou has shifted toward the center. He has suggested that Ma’s 92 Consensus is too weak, and the critical part is “each side with its own interpretation.” He has also played around with a Two China’s discourse.  Gou is clearer than Ko about the fundamental nature of Taiwan as Chinese. However, both argue that they would do more than the KMT to protect Taiwan’s sovereignty.

This centrist positioning suggests that the Ko/Gou alliance (if one takes shape) might be a viable stance. However, China will have something to say about that. Under Ma Ying-jeou, the KMT’s policy was to engage formally with the PRC to spur economic growth. However, this meant that the KMT had to entice the PRC into the meeting room, and that meant satisfying PRC demands on sovereignty. The 92 Consensus was designed as a formula that would simultaneously satisfy China (“One China”) and reassure the Taiwanese electorate that the KMT wasn’t plunging headlong into unification (“each side with its own interpretation”).  In recent years, the PRC has been increasingly dissatisfied with this formulation, constantly urging the KMT to go one step further. Since the KMT still needs the PRC to enter the meeting rooms, it has been dragged to a more extreme position.

Ko and Gou are effectively ignoring the KMT’s experience and arguing that they can get all the benefit of the 92 Consensus with even less of a concession on sovereignty than even Ma, much less Han, had to make. This is going to be a difficult position to explain to the public during the campaign. I have no idea if China will stay silent, thus helping Ko/Gou by not publicly vetoing their proposal, or feel the need to clarify that it requires more. If either is elected, I suspect they will find their position untenable and will be driven either to the DPP’s position of living without official contact or the KMT’s position of fully endorsing One China and taking concrete steps toward unification (eg: peace treaty) in order to get into the meeting room. As we say in Texas, the only things in the middle of the road are yellow lines and dead armadillos.


The hegemony of the China Cleavage isn’t entirely a bad thing. In fact, Kharis Templeman has made a powerful argument that Taiwan’s successful democracy has been achieved not in spite of the China Cleavage, but precisely because of it. The China Cleavage gives Taiwanese politics structure and stability. You may have a different opinion, but we don’t get to try it a different way. For better or worse, Taiwan’s relationship with China, broadly conceived, will continue to be the most important force in Taiwanese for the foreseeable future.


I wrote this post before watching the rollout of Ko Wen-je’s new party. Let’s just say that it isn’t going well so far.

When news leaked that Ko had registered a party named the Taiwan People’s Party, a name previously used in the 1920s by a group led by Chiang Wei-shui, criticism came quickly. Chiang’s family members publicly and vocally opposed Ko’s use of the name. They think that Ko is taking advantage of Chiang’s good reputation while not representing Chiang’s ideals. DPP surrogates have elaborated on this by contrasting Chiang’s defense of Taiwanese autonomy (“Taiwan is the Taiwanese people’s Taiwan”) with Ko’s ambivalent One Family discourse. Right off the bat, Ko is being defined as wishy washy on China and lacking in core values.

I wondered who would show up as a founding member of the new TPP. I thought maybe Ko would have some high-profile figures from society and maybe even a smattering of defectors from both the blue and green camps. Nope. Almost all of the prominent roles are being filled by officials from the Taipei city government. (Terry Gou and Wang Jin-pyng sent flowers but did not personally attend.)

Today’s other big news is that protests and government/thug crackdowns continue to intensify in Taiwan Hong Kong. Han Kuo-yu gave a pro-China response to the media, expressing hope that the chaos in Hong Kong would end quickly and pointedly refusing to express support for demonstrators or democracy and declining to assign blame to China or the Hong Kong authorities. That was predictable, as the KMT has decided to do whatever it takes to maintain an amicable relationship with the PRC. Ko’s response was more surprising. Ko said that he didn’t know anything about it, and that the protests in Hong Kong had nothing to do with Taiwan. He might as well have covered his eyes, turned his back, and then buried his head in the sand. So maybe that is how Ko intends to deal with China…

At the ceremony, Ko gave a short speech laying out his vision for his new party. He argued that Taiwan has lousy government because the two big parties run the country along ideological lines. What is he for? All the things you want! Good policies, effective governance, human rights, democracy, standing with public opinion, respect for expertise, no corruption, and (I think) economic development. Notice anything missing? That’s right. In this speech laying out the basic ideals of the new party, Ko did not mention sovereignty or China. He completely ignored the question of how he would manage the single most important question facing the country.

I guess Ko doesn’t agree with my thesis in this post. If today’s performance was any indication, he’s going to try to ignore the China Cleavage. At the very least, he’s going to argue that other things are more important. We’ll see how well this argument goes over with the general public. I don’t think he can run for president this way, though maybe his party can win a few (less than five) seats on the party list. Perhaps he is leaving the door open for an alliance with Terry Gou. If Gou is the presidential candidate, he will define the position on China. Still, I expected him to say something vague about protecting Taiwan’s sovereignty and having fruitful relations with China. He couldn’t even manage that.