Archive for December, 2019

Presidential polls on the eve of the polling blackout

December 31, 2019

Today, Dec 31, is the last day that polls can be published before the ten-day blackout period starts. A couple last polls straggled in this morning, so I can now present the final weighted poll chart for this year’s election. (For methodology, please refer to the original post.)

This is an astonishing chart. All year long, Tsai Ing-wen’s fortunes have steadily improved while Han’s continually eroded. There was no single event that suddenly transformed the election; it happened bit by bit. While there was no single day that felt completely different from the day before, the race at the end of the year is completely different from at the beginning of the year. My chart only goes back to May, when we started to get a steady enough flow of polls that I could put together a daily average. However, if you look at individual pollsters with longer data series, you can see that the race had already started to change by May. In February, Tsai was much further behind. Here are the data series for the two most reputable pollsters this year, TVBS and Formosa. TVBS has a consistent blue bias, while Formosa tilts a bit toward the green side. Both show the same basic picture: Han starts out with a big lead, which slowly turns into a big deficit.  The “golden cross,” the point at which Tsai overtakes Han, is much earlier in the Formosa chart, but that is to be expected given the partisan skew of the two polls.

Do different types of people have different preferences? One problem with looking at demographic groups in normal polls is that the sample sizes are too small, so the numbers that pundits love to talk about (Han’s support in Hualien among women aged 30-39 has skyrocketed!!) are actually just random noise. In order to say anything reasonable, we need bigger sample sizes. Formosa conducted seven polls from mid-October through late December. Instead of looking at individual poll results, I have taken the average of these seven polls for various subgroups. This should yield a far more reliable look at the differences across categories.

Let’s start with sex. There has been a gender gap in Taiwan for decades. Men are more likely to support the DPP, while women are more likely to support the KMT. This gender gap surprises many outsiders, especially Americans, who assume that women should support the progressive side in Taiwan as they do in the USA. It doesn’t work that way, even with a woman leading the ticket. Tsai did better among men than among women both in 2012 and 2016, and the same thing will happen again in 2020.

We don’t know exactly why this gender gap exists. Most people think it reflects women’s desire for stability and safety, leading them to support the party promising it can avoid war with China. Now that questions concerning sexuality and personal autonomy, such as same-sex marriage and limiting abortions, as slowly entering Taiwanese politics, I’m curious to see if the gender gap will be affected, especially among younger or unmarried people.

Age has emerged as a very important variable in the last decade. As recently as 2012, there was not much of an age difference. Now, the gap is dramatic. Among people over 40, Tsai leads Han by 15 to 20 points. Among the 30-39 group, her lead is nearly 30 points. Among the 20 somethings, it is 45 points.

Younger people have strong Taiwanese identities and overwhelmingly dislike the KMT, but that does not imply that they love the DPP. In fact, they have decidedly mixed feeling toward the DPP. They will vote for it if the individual candidate is palatable (as with Tsai), but many would prefer to vote for another party. In non-plurality elections, younger people often look elsewhere.

Tsai leads all education levels by roughly similar amounts. A glance at 2016 pre-election surveys shows similar patterns. Nothing to see here, folks. Move along.

Region is interesting. Tsai is strongest in the Tainan and Kaohsiung areas, while Han is stronger in Taipei, New Taipei, and Taoyuan. We all know that Taiwan is blue north, green south, so this makes perfect sense.

Uh, wait a second. Did you notice that Tsai is a lot more popular in New Taipei than in Taichung, which are traditionally pretty similar for the DPP. In fact, Tsai is nearly as strong in Taipei and Taoyuan as in Taichung, which is not historically the case.

Let’s directly compare those polling averages to Tsai’s actual votes in 2016. The gap shows that she is doing a bit better in New Taipei and a bit worse in the Taichung area. People like to say that central Taiwan is the traditional bellwether zone; if you win it you will win all of Taiwan. That is correct, but it’s more accurate to expand the bellwether zone to central Taiwan and New Taipei, which historically fall at just about the same point on the partisan divide. However, this year, New Taipei is considerably greener than the Taichung area.

The differences between this year’s polls and the 2016 results are intriguing on the green side, but they are downright stark on the blue side. Compared to Eric Chu, Han is reasonably close to Chu in central, southern, and eastern Taiwan. The Tainan area may be his weakest region in absolute terms, but he is actually polling quite well there compared to the KMT’s past performance. However, northern Taiwan, with nearly half the population, is a disaster. The problem for the KMT is that, unless Han outperforms his polls by a stupendous amount, the swing legislative districts are not likely to be in the south. The DPP should have enough of an advantage there that it can absorb a bit more Han popularity with no effect on the legislative races. However, the north is full of close races, most of which tipped in the DPP’s direction last time. These numbers suggest that it will be very hard for the KMT to win many of those back. Many races in central Taiwan were close four years ago, and this is the only region in which these geographical shifts might help the KMT. Unfortunately for the KMT, there are 30 seats between Hsinchu City and Keelung City in the north, compared to only 14 in central Taiwan.

One key to Tsai’s resurgence is that her approval rating has improved immensely since last year. For the first three years of her presidency, her approval rating experience a long, sad, steady slide. By last year’s local elections, according to many polls, her approval rating was near a paltry 20%. That is not a good way to go to the voters to ask for renewed support, and her party was flogged severely. However, over the course of 2019, Tsai’s approval rating has recovered dramatically. From being over 40% underwater, Tsai now has a net positive approval rating in most polls. This chart is Formosa’s tracking poll, which they have compiled over her entire presidency. I don’t know exactly what the numbers in Nov 2018 — not only the election but also her worst month in this chart — were, but the numbers for Dec 2018 — which was nearly as bad — were 21.5% approve and 67.3% disapprove. Ouch.

Tsai’s political resurgence was not merely a personal triumph. She, her party, and the entire green side of the political spectrum have risen together. Look at trends in party identification. Party ID is measured by a question asking respondents which party they generally support. Party ID has a very close relationship with vote choice, and it is considered one of the most important variables in voting research. The Formosa polls break down Party ID by individual party and also aggregate those results into blue and green camps. In practice, very few people identify with small parties, so blue party ID is almost all KMT party ID and green party ID is almost all DPP party ID. (Voters may support smaller parties, but they are less likely to have a strong, enduring psychological attachment to a particular small party, many of which are relatively new and unknown.) This chart shows blue and green party ID over the past year. There is a gradual increase in the green camp’s popularity from February to November, when it suddenly shoots up considerably. The blue camp’s popularity showed a gradual decline over the entire year. As a result, the green camp went from facing a 7.7% deficit in party ID to enjoying a 17.4% advantage.

Another way to look at this is by breaking the electorate down into different types of groups, based on how they think about the two big parties. The Formosa polls put people into nine different categories, three who prefer the KMT to the DPP, three who prefer the DPP to the KMT, and three who are neutral. You can arrange the KMT and DPP categories spatially, from left to right. However, the three neutral categories don’t have a specific spatial ordering. Some people have positive feelings toward both parties, some people have negative feelings toward both parties, and some people are uninformed and can’t make judgments about either party. These three groups behave in quite different ways. (I described these nine groups in more detail in an earlier post.)

If you look at the distribution of these nine groups over the past year, you can see that the three pro-DPP categories make up a bigger and bigger part of the electorate while the three blue categories have shrunk. If you take the average of the first three surveys (Feb-Apr), 36.3% of the electorate was blue while only 26.4% was green. In the last three surveys, only 27.3% was blue, while a whopping 42.1% were classified as green. A 9.9% disadvantage for the green side early in the year had transformed into a 14.8% advantage late in the year.

We naturally expect the DPP candidate to do well in the pro-DPP groups and poorly in the pro-KMT groups. That is exactly what happened. Tsai only did markedly better in one group, the neutral voters who like both parties equally. With all the other groups, she won roughly the same percentages both early and late in the year. Her gains came almost entirely from expanding the pro-DPP groups rather than by becoming more personally popular.

Han is a different story. He lost some support because his party declined in popularity. However, his slide can’t simply be blamed on the KMT’s collective brand. Compared to his early 2019 polls, Han became significantly less popular within each group. That is, he won less support among die-hard KMT supporters, KMT leaners, people who liked both parties equally, people who dislike both parties equally, and all stripes of pro-DPP voters. He bears a heavy personal responsibility for his failure in the polls.

Since I know you are curious, Soong gets a little bit of support from all nine groups. His best group, not surprisingly, is voters who don’t like either big party. They might like Soong and the PFP, or they might just be casting protest votes against the two big parties. It is worth noting that Soong doesn’t do nearly as well in this category as Ko Wen-je did. Back in the spring and summer, when many people thought Ko was running, he would usually get 50% or more in this category.


Well, that’s it folks. No more polling until Jan 12. Enjoy all the groundless speculation about underground gambling odds.

Populism and Han Kuo-yu

December 27, 2019

How are we to understand Han Kuo-yu? How did he rise from nowhere last year to become one of the central figures of Taiwan’s politics? And how has his popularity fallen so dramatically over the course of this year?

I have been asked versions of this question repeatedly over the past 16 months, and I have never been able to give a comprehensive answer. I could explain pieces of the puzzle, but there were always important parts that didn’t make sense to me. I think I finally have a fuller explanation to offer.

Han Kuo-yu is a populist. His rise to prominence was based on the success of this populist appeal, and his decline from that peak is a result of events and opponents eroding the power of that populist message. Populism is the frame through which to understand almost everything about the Han Kuo-yu phenomenon of the past year and a half.


What is populism?


Saying Han is a populist isn’t very helpful if we don’t know what populism is. Unfortunately, the word populism is used both in public discussion and in the academic literature to refer to a frightening variety of phenomena. At a recent workshop I attended on populism, the papers cited literature that used the term to mean:

  • Anti-establishment (referring to party leaders)
  • Anti-establishment (referring to social and economic elites)
  • Charismatic mobilization
  • Direct communication with followers
  • Anti-pluralism
  • Pushes unrealistic but popular economic redistribution
  • Anti-immigrant
  • Anti-minority
  • Claims to represent the general will
  • A style of relationship between a leader and followers characterized by sincerity
  • A focus on unification or independence (in Taiwan)
  • an “all-people’s” cabinet (referring to President Chen’s first cabinet)

A term that means so many things is nearly useless. What we need is a better theoretical definition. Good definitions cut away all the extraneous ideas. Effectively, they tell you, “Don’t pay any attention to all that other stuff. Focus on this. This is the crucial feature, and everything else either flows from this part or it wasn’t important in the first place.” Fortunately, dear reader, someone has given us a better definition. At that recent workshop, Jans-Werner Mueller, a political theorist at Princeton, gave the keynote speech, and his talk was enormously clarifying for me. The definition of populism that I provide in this post is taken almost directly from Mueller’s talk and his 2016 book. Unfortunately, I can’t provide a link to online versions of either of these, but here is an article he published in 2015 presenting the same conception of populism.

Populism is a way of framing political competition as a moral question. Populists champion the real people, who they see as morally pure and homogenous. Not all the legal citizens are part of the real people, and the populist insists that he alone defines who constitutes the real people. Since the real people are homogenous, there is a clear will of the people. The populist insists that he alone can identify and represent the will of the people. The morally pure will of the people is impeded by a corrupt elite, who are not part of the real people, and the corrupt elite is sometimes allied with a parasitic underclass, who are also not part of the real people. Anyone who challenges the legitimacy of the populist’s definition of the real people or of the popular will is making a moral challenge. This moral challenge is almost always answered in moral terms, by labeling the challenger as corrupt.

Within all those critical ideas, the single most important concept is that of the real people. Not everyone who is a legal citizen is part of the real people. Only some people are part of the real people, and they are the only ones who matter. Who are not part of the real people? As I understand it, populists always point to a corrupt elite that betrays the real people. The leftist version of populism most commonly found in Latin America thus sees the corrupt elite as conspiring with the USA to steal the people’s wealth. The rightist version of populism currently running through the USA and Europe sees the corrupt elite as allied with a parasitic underclass. Trump, Farage, Haider, and Grillo do not see (most) minorities and immigrants as part of the real people. Ultimately, the real people are defined exclusively by the populist himself. Since the populist can say who is part of the real people, he can also define what the real people want. This rests on the assumption that the real people are homogenous. They may not currently be unified, because the corrupt elite is constantly trying to divide them. The populist’s task is thus to unify the real people. As a homogenous bloc, the real people all want the same thing, if only someone will come along and identify that vision for them.

Conceived this way, populism is anti-pluralistic. In a pluralist view, society is composed of many different individuals and groups with different values, different interests, and different goals. There is no such thing as a concrete, identifiable will of the people, since the people do not exist as a singular entity. Policies are not inherently morally legitimate, so citizens are free to oppose them without fear of being accused of betraying the society. Competing policies have to be judged by their empirical results, so pluralism encourages policy debates in which different sides present evidence to demonstrate that a given policy has had or will have a particular desired effect. Populists view these decisions in moral terms. It is not necessary to argue about specific policies, since it is obvious that the government should just do the things that will help the (real) people. All other policy proposals must be motivated by corrupt intentions.

[Note: Not all leftists who want more redistribution or rightists who want less immigration are populists. The critical point is the existence of a homogenous real people in the politician’s rhetoric. For example, Bernie Sanders talks about the 99%, but this is statistically defined rather than notionally defined. He is quite aware that many people in that 99% do not and never will share his values and goals. He is trying to build a coalition from a diverse society that will agree on a (yet to be negotiated) common set of policies rather than to activate an already existing homogenous block of real people who already want those things. Bernie Sanders may want redistribution, he may be charismatic, he may have devoted followers, and he may be anti-establishment, but none of those (superficial) things make him a populist.]


Han Kuo-yu’s populist rhetoric


“Our country is sick. Our Taiwan is wounded. What happened? Why did the leading country of the four little Asian dragons, after President CCK passed away and left us the Hsinchu Science Park and the Ten Major Construction Projects – how did our country become this way? Our industriousness, our kindheartedness, our diligence, our simple goodness? The rest of the world looks at Taiwan and sees fraudsters and drugs. How do we explain this? … There are now three living ex-presidents, President Lee, President Chen, and President Ma. You were president for over twenty years. What industry did you leave behind for Taiwan? The only industry Taiwan has is in the Hsinchu Science Park!”

–Han, Apr 28, 2017, KMT party chair election policy forum


Han Kuo-yu entered the national political fray in 2017 by running for KMT party chair. He was a relative unknown, a former relatively undistinguished legislator who had been out of national politics for fifteen years. At the first policy forum, Han presented himself in clear populist terms. After talking about how prosperous and hopeful the ROC had been when he was young in the 1980s, he talked about how it had stagnated over the past thirty years. The quote above lays down the gauntlet in distinctly moral terms. The people are morally pure, but the country has been corrupted. Presidents Lee, Chen, and Ma have not worked to help the people. That is, the people have been betrayed by the elite. Han implies that moral leaders standing on the people’s side would have created several additional vibrant economic sectors, since that was obviously what Taiwan’s people need.

Han pointedly did not exclude Ma from his list of corrupt elites. The KMT also had a cabal of corrupt elites who have betrayed the people. The people’s interests are not, in Han’s discourse, equal to the KMT’s interests. In fact, Han later states that, as chair, if any DPP mayor did a good job, he would not nominate a KMT candidate to contest the seat and would instead let the good mayor have another term. Here, Han is establishing that he, not the KMT as a collective, will decide who is part of the real people.


When he entered the Kaohsiung mayoral race, Han usually told a similar story. Once upon a time, Kaohsiung had been prosperous and vibrant. Kaohsiung had the highest proportion of Mercedes in all of Taiwan, and a bowl of particularly extravagant eel-larvae soup sold for tens of thousands of NT. Kaohsiung had abundant resources hard-working, honest people. Kaohsiung should rightfully be the most prosperous place in Taiwan. However, now many people had to move north for economic reasons, and the city was choking under heavy public debt. The honest people of Kaohsiung, out of gratitude for their contributions to democratization, had given the DPP power for 20 years in Kaohsiung City and 32 years in Kaohsiung County, and the DPP had done nothing for them in return.

Han did not usually directly accuse the DPP government of corruption. On the stump, he sometimes referred to Kaohsiung as a sleeping giant, implying that the DPP governments had simply neglected the people’s needs rather than actively undercutting them. However, corruption was a constant undercurrent in the wider political discourse. By the end of the campaign, there was a constant stream of people murmuring about all the corruption cases that must have piled up during the twenty years of DPP government in Kaohsiung.

According to Han, the good people of Kaohsiung just wanted better daily lives 過好日子. He often stated that Taipei could have all the politics; Kaohsiung just wanted to focus on economics. The prescription was fairly simple: the government should help the people sell their goods to the rest of the world, and Kaohsiung would naturally become a magnet for people everywhere else. Goods go out, people come in 貨出去,人進來. Han even turned his unfamiliarity with Kaohsiung into an advantage. As an outsider, Han did not have intricate local knowledge. No matter. Han packaged himself as a CEO mayor, who would put good people in place and allow them to do what needed to be done. The specific policies were not important; what was important was having leadership dedicated to helping the people (instead of themselves).

How did the DPP react to Han’s message of working for the people? With dirty tricks and mudslinging! In Han’s rhetoric, the DPP campaign was not based on ideas at all. Rather, in order to continue to enjoy their power, they used underhanded and crooked methods to try to delegitimize him. He wanted a clean campaign, but his opponents only knew how to use dirty tricks.



In this year’s presidential election, Han’s populist rhetoric has been even clearer. He tells the same basic story. Everything was once good, but now it is bad. However, this year his attack on the DPP government is much sharper. Instead of merely insinuating corruption or neglect, he explicitly accuses the Tsai government of corruptly betraying the people.

Here is Han at a rally in Hsinchu County on Dec 7. “The DPP government doesn’t care about the people at all. It’s true. A small cabal of people – among 23 million people, there is a small cabal of people leading the DPP – is full of corruption and rot. They feast and feast. The factions divide the spoils among themselves. When the factions finish dividing the spoils, their underlings divide up their share, and then their underlings take a cut. As long as you are a DPP elite, it doesn’t matter what birth status or background you have, as long as you are one of their people. It doesn’t matter if you have murdered someone, committed arson, or embezzled money, it doesn’t matter. They’ll give you a powerful position all the same. They set these people free on us to engage in corruption, to eat the flesh and drink the blood of Taiwanese people. Now, after three and a half years, all of Taiwan is sick.

The Han campaign’s focus on the Yang Hui-ju楊蕙如  case fills an important hole in this narrative. The corrupt DPP elite systematically divert government resources toward perpetuating their power. In this case, the KMT charges that the DPP used government resources to fund internet soldiers to attack their political enemies online. Here is a concrete case of how the corrupt DPP elite are stealing the people’s money and using it for their own purposes. No wonder Taiwan is stagnating!

This year, Han has also expanded on his notion of the real people. He has given them a label, shumin (庶民, commoners). In his mayoral campaign, Han often expressed his belonging to this group by talking about how he only needed a bottle of water and a bowl of braised pork on rice (一瓶礦泉水,一碗滷肉飯). Perhaps more importantly, he defined them with another memorable phrase, “Never forget that the world is full of people living bitter lives” (莫忘世上苦人多). The shumin are the people who live, or worry about living, bitter lives. In 2018 and 2019, lots of people can identify with the notion of bitterness, including people angry at the new labor laws, civil servants who have seen their pensions cut, people relying on Chinese tourists, people who think their electricity bill is too high, people who want to drink bubble tea with a disposable straw, people who don’t want to replace their old (polluting) scooter, people who have to breathe dirty air, and people who just think that things should be better. It is worth emphasizing that a lot of people who worry about bitterness, such as retired civil servants, are not poor or marginalized. Even more pointedly, some people worry about the bitterness of being cut off from government patronage flows. The DPP reforms (and rumored future reforms) of the irrigation associations and farmers associations, along with the huge Forward-Looking Infrastructure Package threatened to reroute government patronage projects from one set of people to an entirely different set of people. Being thrown off the gravy train would indeed be bitter. This definition of shumin as people who suffer or fear bitterness feeds back into his notion that that what the shumin want is simply to have better daily lives.

Han has talked about his love for the ROC quite a lot in this year’s presidential campaign than during last year’s mayoral campaign. However, even last year, Han’s most passionate supporters were decked out from head to toe in ROC flag imagery; ROC nationalism has always been a core element of his appeal. How did he communicate this without explicitly talking about it? I think the most powerful message comes from his nostalgia of the CCK era, which he interprets as an era of peace, harmony, stability, and prosperity (as opposed to the contentious era of authoritarian suppression and a frothy bubble economy that others might see). In that era, the virtuous leader implemented good policies for the people that he loved, and the people enjoyed good daily lives. There was only one permissible will of the people – the one prescribed by the regime in which everyone loved the ROC – so nostalgic people like Han could remember that era as having a homogenous, singular general will. This golden era is especially seductive to mainlanders, who enjoyed a privileged status, which was even better since they did not have to acknowledge their privilege. During the CCK era, people were able to concentrate on getting rich, and they did not have to worry about politics. Everything started to go downhill once the Lee Teng-hui presidency started. The population began questioning the ROC, respect for the former privileged classes diminished, the economy slowed down, the newspapers started reporting stories about corruption, and the formerly unified society became divided into perpetually fighting political parties. No wonder people who love the old ROC, the one that existed prior to democratization, flock to Han.

Han has, of course, embraced KMT positions on how to manage relations with China. He is a strong supporter of the 1992 Consensus. However, he comes at it from a slightly different angle than President Ma. Han’s imperative is to do what is best for the shumin so that they can have better daily lives. If what the country needs is to open more markets so that people can sell their goods to the world, he will do whatever it takes to make that happen. China is an important market, so naturally he will take whatever steps are necessary to ensure that Taiwanese businesses have access to that market. In every election, Taiwan always has a few candidates promising to put ideology aside and focus exclusively on economics. What they almost always mean is that they will accept One China, but they don’t want to talk about that with the public. Han is close to this. He will tell you that he wants the 1992 Consensus, but he doesn’t want to talk about the political implications of this decision. In his rhetoric, it is simply a tool to maintain peace and open markets.


Unsuccessful and successful attacks on Han’s populism


During last year’s mayoral election, Chen Chi-mai, the DPP candidate, chose to largely eschew negative personal attacks on Han. Since Chen was an overwhelming favorite to win the election in deep green Kaohsiung, he might have assumed that he could rely on a positive message to consolidate the green side and not worry at all about what Han was doing.

Chen’s main attack on Han was policy-based. Chen charged that Han didn’t know enough about the details of Kaohsiung politics to be an effective mayor. This attack played right into Han’s populist rhetoric.

In the first mayoral debate, Chen tried to expose Han’s unfamiliarity by asking him how he would renovate two fishing harbors. Han replied that he didn’t need to know those details, just as he didn’t need to know how many fire hydrants there were in the city. As the mayor, he could simply direct a bureaucrat to devise an appropriate plan to renovate the fishing harbors.

Populists don’t feel any need to struggle with the details of plans. Let me use an anecdote from Hungary, where Viktor Orban refused to participate in a policy debate, explaining,

“No policy-specific debates are needed now, the alternatives in front of us are obvious […] I am sure you have seen what happens when a tree falls over a road and many people gather around it. Here you always have two kinds of people. Those who have great ideas how to remove the tree, and share with others their wonderful theories, and give advice. Others simply realize that the best is to start pulling the tree from the road…. [W]e need to understand that for rebuilding the economy it is not theories that are needed but rather thirty robust lads who start working to implement what we all know needs to be done.” (quoted in Mueller 2016, 26).

Han likewise wasn’t interested in policy debates. He would simply order bureaucrats to start doing the obvious things necessary for revitalizing the fishing harbors.

Near the end of the election, KMT chair Wu Den-yi insulted former Kaohsiung mayor Chen Chu, likening her to a “fat sow.” The DPP collectively recoiled in indignation and spent several days defending her honor against this insult. Han even admitted that Wu had stepped over a line. However, bringing Chen Chu into the center of the election was probably advantageous for Han. After all, he was effectively running against her. Far from being a popular incumbent and an asset to Chen Chi-mai’s campaign, Han had recast Chen Chu as a corrupt, ambitious politician who had first neglected the people and then abandoned them as soon as possible in order to take a better position in the central government. She was the personification of the corrupt elite holding back the morally pure people. Unless the Chen Chi-mai team could first undo that reimagination of Chen Chu, it probably didn’t help them to have her squarely in the public eye in the days right before voting.

Chen Chi-mai tried to introduce sovereignty questions into the campaign. Since the Kaohsiung electorate is historically more green than blue, it made sense to try to pull the campaign back to traditional battle lines. Chen thus complained that all of Han’s schemes to strengthen the economy were based on tapping into the China market. This line of attack doesn’t seem to have had much effect, probably because Han was running for a position in local government. As mayor, he simply did not pose much of a threat to national sovereignty since the (DPP) national government would still set the limits for what was and was not permissible. While he openly supported the 1992 Consensus, ECFA, and Free Trade Zones, he wouldn’t be able to unilaterally implement any of those. His promise was merely to go as far as possible within those limits, something that other local governments around Taiwan were already doing. Sovereignty might have altered the outcome, but Chen never found an effective way to introduce it into the election.


After seeming so bulletproof last year, why has Han seemed so vulnerable this year? I see three big answers.

First, sovereignty has been effectively introduced into the equation. This was probably inevitable, since how Taiwan relates to China is almost always the biggest and most important question facing Taiwan. If anything, we should marvel at how Han was so effective at keeping this question on the sideline last year. Xi Jinping’s bluster and the protests in Hong Kong have thrust China to the center of political discourse, and this has pulled the lines of partisan battle back toward established patterns (which now favor the DPP). If it hadn’t been Hong Kong, it almost certainly would have been something else. Regardless, Han’s populist wave has crashed against the solid rocks of Taiwan’s robust party politics.

Han aided this process with a couple of own-goals. First, in a trip to Hong Kong in March, he unexpectedly visited the Hong Kong Liaison Office, the unit in charge of overseeing One Country, Two Systems for Beijing in Hong Kong. Second, when the anti-extradition protests in Hong Kong began, he refused to criticize the government, first saying he hadn’t paid any attention and then saying that he hoped stability could be restored. Both of these actions were highly controversial, and they probably cost him quite a bit of support. From a populist perspective, both actions were defensible. Han had defined the real people as only caring about their daily lives. That is, in his conception, shumin don’t care much about political questions such as sovereignty, human rights, or democracy. He was, as promised, doing whatever was necessary to keep the China market open. However, shumin are not actually a monolithic, homogenous block with a single general will. Different people have different values and want different things. Some of his erstwhile supporters cared quite a bit about sovereignty, human rights, and democracy. When those values came into conflict with supporting Han, many of his erstwhile supporters decided that they no longer wanted to be part of Han’s shumin.

Second, Han has not performed well as mayor; he has not taken good care of the shumin. Han came into office with the populist promise that he would do the things necessary to help the people. It hasn’t gone well. Han has been accused of laziness and ineptitude. He is said to sleep until noon and enjoy drinking a bit too much. He has also had a few high-profile failures, particularly in dealing with the Dengue fever outbreak. The accusation wasn’t merely that Dengue fever had hit Kaohsiung, but, more importantly, that Han had failed to act energetically to control it. The city asked for extra budget from the central government to do things like spraying and draining standing water, and the premier responded that the city had not yet even finished using the normal budget for these things. In contrast to Han’s poor record, President Tsai has had a year full of policy triumphs. She has secured a purchase of F-16 fighter jets, the economy is growing faster, swine flu has been kept out of Taiwan, spending on social welfare programs is up, taxes are down, the budget is balanced, infrastructure is being built, and new energy sources are coming on line. At the recent presidential policy forum, after talking about all her achievements, Tsai could tell Han that she was the one who was actually doing things to help shumin, while Han was merely “consuming” them (ie: paying lip service to them and cynically using them for his own purposes).

Third, the DPP has successfully attacked Han as being a fake shumin. Populists don’t always have to be like normal people. Donald Trump’s supporters do not mind that he is a billionaire and they are not. As long as he speaks and works for them, it does not matter that he is decidedly not like them. However, Han has always presented himself as actually being a shumin. His “bottle of mineral water” embodies his normality. At a recent rally, I heard the slogan 庶民選總統,總統選庶民 (shumin choose a president; for president, choose a shumin). He is not merely like them; he is actually one of them.

The DPP has attacked Han’s shumin credentials in two ways. First, they relentlessly attacked Han for breaking his promise to serve a full term as mayor in Kaohsiung. Remember, Han pointed to Chen Chu’s departure from Kaohsiung as evidence of her corruption. She cared more about power than people, so she cynically abandoned the people to pursue more power. She was obviously part of the corrupt cabal and not part of the shumin. This helps to explain why so many former Han supporters felt so betrayed when he agreed to seek the KMT’s nomination for president. He was doing the very thing that he had identified as proof of corruption.

In early November, Han came under an even more direct attack. Reporters uncovered his history of real estate transactions and found that he had bought and sold luxury housing in Taipei. There was an insinuation that he had used political influence to secure financing for the deal. His opponents questioned whether a property speculator who depended on political connections was really a shumin or whether he was actually merely an ordinary corrupt politician.




Han Kuo-yu’s meteoric career over the past year and a half makes much more sense if we view it through the framework of populism. Han frames politics as a moral choice between himself, the representative of the shumin, and a corrupt elite who control the DPP and sap the country of its vitality. This framework focuses our attention on crucial points, such as his rhetoric around corruption and his seemingly cavalier attitude toward public policy, while instructing us to ignore other aspects that may seem central but are actually secondary, such as his attacks on Filipina workers. It also helps explain why some attack against him have been effective while others have failed miserably.

There are still lots of questions to be answered. Perhaps most pertinently, since populist rhetoric is always present, why did it suddenly start to work in 2018? Why didn’t it work in 1994 or 2009? If you know the answer, the entire world wants to know. By clearly defining what populism is, at least we have a more tractable question.

If Han loses the presidential election, we probably should not take that as proof that populism is unsustainable in Taiwan. Taiwan’s robust party system, constructed on top of a single, dominant, enduring political cleavage, has worked against populism in this case. However, we should not be overconfident that a populist couldn’t take over the DPP and ride its structural advantages to electoral victory. It isn’t hard to imagine a DPP populist constructing “the real people” as everyone who believes in Taiwan nationalism and moving to systematically marginalize everyone else. The best defense against populism is not to merely defeat one populist one time. Rather, fighting populism requires a renewed commitment to pluralism, insisting that it is perfectly normal and legitimate that different people have different values and different goals, that people who disagree with you are not necessarily corrupt or immoral.

Campaign Trail: KMT event in Xizhi

December 25, 2019

On Sunday evening, Mrs. Garlic and I went to a KMT rally in downtown Xizhi, which is part of New Taipei 12th District. Technically, my residence is in the next city over, so New Taipei 12 is not my home district. But actually, it is. We do most of our shopping in Xizhi, and we live close enough to this event that we could have walked there. For once, I was on home turf.

New Taipei 12 is really two separate territories. There is Xizhi, and there is everything else. Xizhi, which has about 70% of the voters, is an extension of Taipei City. Xizhi has grown rapidly over the past thirty years, and it has transformed from a discreet small town into the easternmost edge of the Taipei metropolis. The boundary between the two jurisdictions is almost invisible, so many people who technically live in Xizhi actually do most of their noodle-eating in the Nangang or Neihu districts of Taipei City. Almost all of Xizhi’s voters live in dense urban neighborhoods, and, while people are more likely to know their neighbors here than in Taipei, the social networks are not as thick as in more rural areas. The other 30% of New Taipei 12 is, by Taiwan standards, quite rural. There are six townships with fairly small core areas of only a few thousand people each. Politically, relationships matter a lot. Voters in these small towns will split their tickets if they know you personally, so establishing good relations with organizations such as the farmers associations is crucial.

Prior to 2016, New Taipei 12 was blue territory. The incumbent was KMT princeling Lee Ching-hua 李慶華, whose father, Lee Huan 李煥, was one of CCK’s closest proteges and a former premier. The younger Lee was elected in 1992, so by 2016 he was trying to win his ninth term in the legislature. Lee had started out as a KMT member, but he joined the New Party when it was founded in 1993 and was re-elected twice under that label. He had originally been elected in the southern half of Taipei City, but to make room for new people he agreed to relocate to Taipei County, where he concentrated on the military communities of Zhonghe. After the 2000 presidential election, he shifted his allegiance to the PFP and continued to mine the Zhonghe mainlander vote bank through the 2001 and 2004 elections. After electoral reform, he searched his heart and discovered that his true ideals were consistent with the KMT’s, so he returned back to his original party. He wanted to run for the Zhonghe seat, but he lost the KMT nomination for Taipei County 8 to the KMT local faction candidate Chang Ching-chung. As a compromise, the KMT arranged for Lee to take over the Taipei County 12 seat, centered on Xizhi. Under the old system, the areas that became New Taipei 12 had been in Lee’s old district, which covered a third of Taipei County. However, he had always spent most of his energy on Zhonghe. Suddenly, this staunch unification supporter and champion of mainlander interests found himself in an overwhelmingly Taiwanese district with a large rural population. It wasn’t an easy fit. In 2008, Ma Ying-jeou racked up 62.5% of the vote in the district, but Lee Ching-hua could only manage 52.0%. Likewise, in 2012 Ma collected 55.0%, but Lee squeaked by in a three-way race with a meagre 42.1%. There were plenty of blue votes, but Lee was consistently unable to soak them all up.

In 2016, the DPP designated New Taipei 12 as a “difficult” district. The 2012 candidate, city councilor Shen Fa-hui 沈發惠, wanted the DPP nomination, but Tsai Ing-wen eventually prevailed upon him to withdraw so that they could yield the district to Huang Kuo-chang 黃國昌 and thus cement their alliance with the newly established New Power Party. Huang defeated Lee (51.5-43.7%) in the general election, with both sides soaking up almost all of their camp’s presidential votes (53.1-46.9%). With historical perspective, Huang’s victory isn’t as impressive as many contemporary observers thought. Huang basically fought a very weak KMT candidate to a draw but was able to ride Tsai’s coattails to victory.

In that 2016 election, one of the minor candidates was from the Faith and Hope League, whose main demand was to stop the legalization of same-sex marriage. He didn’t get that many votes, just under 5,000, but his presence might have signaled the coming troubles for Huang. As the leader of the NPP, Huang did not bother doing a lot of constituency service. Sensing vulnerability and seeking to make a statement against the leader of the marriage equality movement, local anti-marriage activists put together a successful recall petition drive and forced Huang to face a recall vote. The turnout was not high enough to remove Huang from office, but significantly more people voted against him than for him.

It was never clear whether the 2016 alliance between the DPP and NPP would extend to the 2020 election. In the legislature, the NPP continually struggled with the question of how closely it wanted to work with the DPP and whether it should try to establish a separate identity or even announce a willingness to work with other parties. Huang Kuo-chang favored maximizing the NPP’s bargaining power by positioning the NPP as an unaligned party that could negotiate with any party willing to give it a better deal. Back in New Taipei 12, this position understandably caused a rift with the DPP. If the NPP wasn’t going to be a reliable partner, there was no need for the DPP to return the favor. Even though Huang was still publicly running for re-election, Shen Fa-hui announced that he would seek the DPP nomination. Shen even gave up his city council seat in order to concentrate on the legislative race. For the first half of 2019, both Shen and Huang were angling to represent the green side on the ballot, with no guarantee that one would yield. In late June, however, Shen announced he was abandoning his bid. The dominant media explanation was that forces inside the DPP – probably a reference to President Tsai – wanted to yield the seat to Huang again. However, even though the DPP decided it would cooperate with Huang, Huang wasn’t sure he wanted to cooperate with the DPP. In late August, Huang announce he would not seek re-election, and instead the NPP would be represented by Lai Chia-lun 賴嘉倫, who ran his Xizhi constituency service office. Some people speculate that Huang had decided he wanted to run for Taipei mayor, perhaps in alliance with Ko Wen-je. Perhaps he simply decided that he wasn’t going to win re-election. Either way, Huang’s announcement threw the green side of the race wide open. The DPP did not consider Lai Chia-lun to be a viable candidate, so it announced it would nominate its own person.

It was not until mid-September that the DPP drafted Lai Pin-yu 賴品妤, a 27 year-old former Sunflower leader. Lai’s father, Lai Chin-lin 賴勁麟, was a DPP legislator from 1998 to 2004. A member of the New Tide faction, he claimed to represent labor interests. Like Lee Ching-hua, he technically represented Xizhi. However, even more than Lee, the elder Lai ignored Xizhi votes. His support was almost entirely in the urban Zhonghe, Yonghe, and Xindian areas. If the DPP thought that Lai Pin-yu could simply reactivate her father’s dormant network in Xizhi, they were making a big mistake. Her father never had a network in Xizhi, so Lai Pin-yu would have to start from scratch.

Over on the blue side, the process was more orderly. After the 2018 triumph, New Taipei 12 was seen as an almost certain pickup. The only question was which KMT figure would win the seat. Three people registered for the KMT primary, a local lawyer and two candidates from Taipei. Of the three, Lee Yung-ping 李永萍 had by far the most impressive resume, having served as legislator and Taipei City deputy mayor. The local lawyer was supported by the local factions, and usually local candidates beat famous outsiders in polling primaries. You might think that, after putting up with the outsider Lee Ching-hua for over a decade, the local politicians might be desperate to grab control of this seat. However, for some reason, the local forces did not prevail. Lee Yung-ping won the May polling primary. The early resolution and the chaos over on the green side did give Lee one big advantage. While she may be an outsider, she has had a six-month head start over Lai Pin-yu in making local connections. Lee has been talking to local people since March or April, while Lai didn’t start until September. That head start might prove decisive, especially in appealing to the rural areas of the district.

One big question has nagged at me for the past several months. Why are the candidates so terrible? There are four perfectly competent former and current city councilors who have deep roots and high popularity in this district. Any one of those two KMT and two DPP politicians could have easily won their party’s nomination, and any one of them would have been favored to win this general election against the current field of candidates. Why did they all refuse to run? It’s almost as if the KMT, DPP, and NPP are actively trying to lose this district. Every time one of them shoots itself in the foot, the other compete to choose an even less appealing candidate.

At any rate, there are four candidates in the race. The KMT and DPP candidates will compete to win the race, while the number of votes siphoned away by the NPP and Stabilizing Force Party might swing the balance between the top two. Lee Yung-ping is stressing her experience and qualifications, while Lai Pin-yu stresses her youth and idealism. Lee says that Lai is too inexperience, while Lai retorts that Lee has extensive experience at doing the wrong things. Realistically, Lai’s only hope is to be dragged along to victory by Tsai Ing-wen. Lee, unlike some other KMT candidates, is not trying to distance herself from Han, which might be an unwise choice, given her advantage in candidate quality and in building relationships in the district. It should be a close race. If I had to bet, I might give Lee a small advantage.


This brings us to Sunday night’s rally. The rally was held in a big athletic field, surrounded by a running track. This was a fantastic event with a big crowd.

Because it was in such an open area it was fairly easy to see the entire crowd all at once. This makes gauging the size of the crowd quite a bit simpler. Moreover, the stools were laid out in a simple block, so you could cut the crowd in half or into quarters and estimate how many people were in smaller areas, an even easier task. The organizers had laid down mats to protect the grass and then put stools in that area. The stools were almost totally occupied, and I estimate they had seats for about 8,000 people. However, there were also people standing on the grassy periphery of the seating area, and there were people in the grandstand as well. By the end of the event, Mrs. Garlic and I agreed that 10,000 was a pretty good estimate, give or take a thousand people. Once again, let me say: 10,000 people is a LOT of people! This was a huge crowd. And if one gages by the number of stools they prepared, it was larger than they expected.

The crowd was somewhat different from other Han crowds I’ve seen this year. It wasn’t quite as raucous, there weren’t as many vendors selling ROC and Han paraphernalia, and the people weren’t wearing quite so many ROC flag shirts, hats, and other clothing. This should be seen as good news for Han. At some other events, I got the impression that a significant proportion of the crowd were serial rally attendees (like me). I know I’ve seen a few people more than once. However, I think the dedicated Han fans were probably all in Kaohsiung this weekend. The crowd at the Xizhi rally seemed much more local and much less cultish. In other words, this crowd had far more normal people and far fewer of the Church of Han choir. Again, that is a good sign for Han; he is once again showing an ability to reach out beyond his core supporters to a slightly wider audience.


It has been several days since the rally, and things are running together in my mind. Rather than discuss each speaker individually, I’m just going to make a couple of points about the event as a whole.

The speakers mentioned the crowd size several times. One early speaker proclaimed there were 30,000 people. The emcee must not have been paying attention, because soon after he congratulated the crowd on exceeding 10,000. Toward the end of the event, they decided on 20,000 as the number and repeated that several times. They also told us several times that this was now the largest political rally in Xizhi’s history. At the end of the event, just after Han finished speaking, someone repeated the 20,000 number, and then, within 30 seconds, someone else proclaimed that the crowd had reached 30,000. The speakers also talked quite a bit about the crowd sizes at the Kaohsiung marches, assuring the audience that the 350,000 people claimed by the Han side was an accurate number while the 500,000 claimed by the other side was a complete falsehood.

Now that the Han camp has proclaimed polls are meaningless, crowd sizes are particularly important to them. This is now the main way they publicly measure their popularity. As long as the crowds are large, they can reassure their supporters that Han is still competitive. If the crowds become too small, they risk seeing morale drop and turnout suffer.

However, there is a deeper meaning to the Han obsession with crowd size. These crowds are the concrete representation of what Han calls “ordinary people” (庶民, shumin). Han’s entire appeal is framed around these ordinary people, so it is vital that they continue to manifest their support for him. Without that support, he is delegitimized. For exactly the same reason that Donald Trump repeatedly insists his crowds are overflowing, Han needs us to believe that his crowds are massive. Fortunately for Han, his crowds are still very large, even if they aren’t quite as massive as he claims.


After the rally, I asked Mrs. Garlic what the KMT’s main points were. She succinctly and brilliantly summed up their entire discourse in a few bullet points:

  • Everything used to be good, but now it is bad. People now lead bitter lives.
  • The government is working for the DPP, not the people.
    • The DPP spends its energy doling out the spoils of office
    • The DPP corruptly abuses its power to further its own interests
  • Governing is simple. Just do the right things to help the people.


Everything the speakers at the rally fit neatly into that framework. They talked about how terrible the economy is, and how the DPP government makes up fake numbers to make it look better. They talked about how the ROC used to be widely respected around southeast Asia (everyone loved Teresa Teng’s music!) but now is looked down upon (new Thai tourist visa requirements). They continually hammered the idea that the DPP relies on distributing the spoils of office (酬庸政治), such as “bribing” Lin Fei-fan to join the party by making him deputy secretary general. They talked at length about the Yang Hui-ju case, which they see as an example of using government money to hire internet bullies to suppress their opponents. To them, this is clear-cut corruption. And finally, Han personally delivers the final point, explicitly saying that government is not complicated, you just do things for the people. Sometimes he likens government officials to Chinese gods, since all of them, from the Jade Emperor to the humblest local earth god, benevolently look after the humans in their realm.


In my next post, I hope to unpack Han’s discourse and entire appeal at length. Spoiler: It’s populism. Populism is the prism that brings the entire last year and a half into focus. It took me a year and a half to understand this, including three weeks staring blankly after being told exactly where to look and what to look for. It has been populism all along. So let me stop here and start working on that post, which I hope will be much more enlightening than this one.


Campaign Trail: Freddy Lim rally on Ketagalan Blvd.

December 24, 2019

On Saturday evening, I went to Freddy Lim’s rally on Ketagalan Boulevard, right in front of the presidential building. This was one of the most unique political rallies I have ever attended. I had just come from a very ordinary DPP rally, and the transition from that utterly conventional event to this very unconventional one was jarring, to say the least.

As I’m sure you all know, Freddy Lim, who became famous as a rock star and a human rights activist, was elected to the legislature four years ago in the Taipei City fifth district. In that race, he defeated longtime KMT legislator Lin Yu-fang. Think of an old-time, conservative, stern, orthodox, intellectual KMT politician, and the picture you have in your mind is pretty much Lin Yu-fang. He has a PhD in political science from University of Virginia and taught at Tamkang University and some military schools. In 1995, he ran for and won a seat to the legislature representing the New Party. The New Party self-destructed with a nasty civil war, and he lost his re-election bid in 1998. After the 2000 presidential election, Lin joined James Soong’s brand new People First Party, and he won legislative races in 2001 and 2004 under the PFP banner. After the electoral reform passed in 2005, Lin saw the writing on the wall and, along with most PFP legislators, defected to the KMT. He won two more terms for the KMT, pretty easily defeating the DPP nominees in Taipei 5.

Taipei 5 covers Wanhua and most of Zhongzheng Districts. These two are very different places. Wanhua is the oldest part of Taipei City. When the KMT came to Taiwan after the war, it brought large numbers of people from China. These mainlanders were settled disproportionately in whatever “empty” space they could find in the cities. In Taipei, that meant there were lots of communities of mainlanders everywhere except for the already densely populated areas along the Danshui River, modern Wanhua and Datong Districts. Later, these older areas of the city became the crucible of the Tangwai movement and, when Henry Kao Yu-shu ran for mayor against the KMT in the 1960s, they were his strongest areas. During the 1980s and 1990s, Wanhua and Datong were the only places that the DPP could expect to win half the seats in city council races; the KMT dominated everywhere else. However, Wanhua drifted noticeably blue during the Chen and Ma years. As real estate boomed, new people moved in, and Wanhua become more like the rest of Taipei. The DPP could still hope to break even in Wanhua, but it was no longer able to run up big surpluses. Since the DPP faced huge vote deficits in Zhongzheng, Taipei 5 became a reliably blue district. Zhongzheng is a very different place from Wanhua. The northern half has been the center of government for Taiwan since the Qing era. Lots of elite bureaucrats – ie: staunch KMT supporters – settled in this area after the war. Most of the southern part of Zhongzheng is also in Taipei 5, and this area also had plenty of mainlander communities, though they were not quite as elite. Over the past 70 years, as real estate prices went up, most parts of Zhongzheng became quite expensive, so the people who moved in tended to be on the wealthy and highly educated side.

In 2016, the fledgling New Power Party announced that Freddy Lim would represent it in Taipei 5. The DPP designated Taipei 5 as a “difficult district,” and eventually decided to support Lim rather than nominating its own candidate. The race pitted the very square Lin against the long-hair death metal rocker Lim. The incumbent seemed bewildered by the challenger, never seeming able to believe that the voters would actually take such a person seriously. Lim’s supporters on social media delighted in making fun of the KMT’s inability to comprehend the changing world around them. Lin must have felt humiliated on election night, when the rock star beat him by about 6,000 votes.

Many NPP supporters took this result and the two other NPP wins as evidence of NPP popularity. After all, they had won in “difficult districts” where the DPP had previously been unable to even come close. In fact, “difficult district” label was misguided. The label was based on whether the DPP legislative candidate had been able to get 42.5% in the 2012 election, so many districts were labeled as “difficult” because the previous DPP candidate had been weak rather than because the underlying partisan balance was unfavorable to the DPP. (For example, Taichung 3, which was eventually won by the NPP’s Hung Tzu-yung, was actually one of the DPP’s strongest areas in Taichung, if one looked at the presidential results.) 42.5% was also far too low a threshold. Since Tsai won 45.6% in the 2012 presidential election, a district less than 5% below the DPP’s national average could be labeled as “difficult.” If they were going to win the legislature, they would need to contest most of these districts and win some of them. In fact, Tsai won 56.1% in the 2016 election, and she ended up winning a majority in several of the “difficult” districts. That is, there were enough green votes in these districts; all the legislative candidate had to do was soak up all the DPP presidential voters. They did not have to reach over to the other side of the political divide. Taipei 5 was one of these. Tsai won 53.4%, or about 8,000 more votes than Chu and Soong combined. Far from being an electoral standout, Freddy actually underperformed a tiny bit.

I have recounted this electoral history in detail because the 2020 race is a rematch of the 2016 race. Lin Yu-fang is trying to retake his old seat. The only difference is that Freddy Lim has dropped out of the NPP and is running as an independent this time. This difference is superficial. Like last time, Freddy is effectively the DPP candidate, and his task is to soak up Tsai presidential voters. Freddy is the incumbent this time, but incumbency (probably) matters less in Taipei than in the rest of Taiwan. Taipei voters don’t expect the same level of intensive constituency service, and the more fluid nature of Taipei’s population (with people constantly moving in and out and fewer people knowing their neighbors) makes it harder for incumbents to build up networks based on favors. The biggest effect of incumbency might be that voters will not automatically dismiss Freddy as unqualified this time. He has proven to be a quite serious and respectable legislator. Still, just as with the 2016 race, this race will turn on the presidential outcome. If Tsai doesn’t break 50% in this district, Freddy will probably not win re-election. At this point, I’d probably bet on Freddy, but neither side should be very confident.


So much for the district and the race; let’s get to the event. The crowd was huge, though of course not nearly as cartoonishly large as the organizers claimed (and the media obediently parroted). A quick google search shows that the most common number thrown about was 50,000. Let me assure you, there were nowhere near 50,000 people there. I had just come from an event in which I could count heads, and I had a pretty good picture fresh in my mind of what 10,000 people look like. The venue for Freddy’s event was not all that large. By the standard of political events, Ketagalan Boulevard is fairly narrow. Unlike past events, the sidewalks were blocked off so people could only be in the street. Both sides were lined with tents and temporary toilets, making it even narrower. There was also a huge structure dividing the smaller front area from the larger back area. (People in the front half had to go through a security screen because President Tsai was coming.) Most people were standing rather than sitting on stools, and standing crowds are denser than sitting crowds. This crowd was pretty dense. I wormed my way halfway through the back part before I gave up and watched the event from there. I estimate there were about 12,000 people, though I’d believe any number between 10,000 and 15,000. It seems silly to have to say this, but since I know some readers will dispute my number I will. 12,000 people is a fantastic crowd. They completely filled the space that they set out to fill, and it was jammed to the gills. There were a LOT of people there.

I had just come from a traditional event, and I was one of the youngest people in that crowd. At Freddy’s event, I was one of the oldest. I spent a lot of the rally thinking about this age gap. The Sunflower generation confuses me and people my age. It’s not that they are apolitical; they are more politicized than any generation of youth since at least the Wild Lily era – and probably even more than that generation. However, they do not engage politics in the same ways as older citizens. They don’t do traditional rallies (They don’t seem to enjoy the Frozen Garlic cheer, but they do seem to think that sitting quietly on the ground is very powerful.), they aren’t closely attached to political parties, they don’t get their information from traditional media or political talk shows, and they care about different things (same-sex marriage!). They share a nearly universal identity of being Taiwanese and not Chinese, so, unlike older voters, very few of them consider the KMT a palatable option. However, also unlike older voters, they don’t think that requires them to vote for the DPP. The KMT has been totally unable to connect with them; the DPP has only done a bit better. Packed tightly in a thick crowd of people younger than me, I wondered what motivated these people to come out to this particular event? What was Freddy doing to unlock this grand puzzle of Taiwan politics? Progressive political ideals are certainly part of the answer, but I also wonder if this generation consciously wants to practice politics in different ways than their parents and grandparents. The current society isn’t providing the same economic opportunities that their parents enjoyed, so maybe they feel the need to do things differently. At any rate, this event was theirs in the same way the rally I had just come from was for their parents and grandparents.

I guess I have skipped one obvious attraction. The rally was actually a hybrid political rally / rock concert. I arrived after Fire EX finished performing. After them, four legislative candidates – Freddy’s squad, if you will – spoke. After them, Freddy’s band, Chthonic, performed for about an hour. After quickly changing costumes from death metal singer to serious politician, Freddy gave a speech. Finally, President Tsai spoke. I don’t think the young audience showed up just because there was a rock concert. While Chthonic played, I was curious to see how the crowd responded to the music. Maybe the hard-core fans all went up front, but back where I was, only about 5% of the audience seemed to be visibly getting into it. Some other people seemed satisfied to be there, though most were, like myself, politely waiting for it to be over. Some of the songs had political themes, and the crowd enthusiastically responded to that part. I think the overwhelming majority of the crowd was there for the politics, not the music.


Let me interrupt this post for a tangent on Chthonic’s music. This was the first time I had heard them, and they were fascinating. I wouldn’t call them good, musical, enjoyable, or even listenable, but they were definitely interesting. Chthonic plays death metal. I don’t mean heavy metal; compared to Chthonic, Metallica and Iron Maiden are for sissies. The drums, bass, and guitar are all laying down intense and heavy tracks, but none of them fit together in any conventional sense. It’s very discordant. You know how the lead singer for ACDC basically screams all his lyrics? Compared to Freddy, he sounds like an opera singer. How does Freddy “sing?” Imagine a lion roaring, but then scale that down to a smaller cat. Freddy sings like a lynx scowls. I honestly don’t know how he can do that for hours at a time; after a few minutes of listening, I wanted a throat lozenge.

Who cares whether I like them? Even I don’t care. After all, I’m not a music critic. What I found interesting was more the existence of this music rather than the music itself. To explain that, let me back up thirty years.

I first came to Taiwan in the summer of 1989, and one of the things I learned from listening to the radio, sitting in taxis, and from going with friends to KTVs was that Taiwanese listened to either sappy saxophone, accordion, and keyboard instrumental music or saccharine pop music. They loved Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, Richard Marx, Air Supply, and a whole host of Taiwanese and Hong Kong pop stars who sang what Americans call Adult Contemporary. As an American teenager, something about this seemed wrong. There was something missing. It took me a while, but it finally dawned on me: there was no angry music! How could a society not have any angry music? Didn’t young people need to express their anger? Then again, all the young people seemed busy studying for university entrance exams and generally being very 乖 (guai: well behaved). There were blue collar workers and there were young thugs in the crime gangs, but even they seemed more interested in saving money than letting out some primal scream of rage against the world.

Granted, I am not the person to talk to for a comprehensive or even a cursory history of Taiwanese pop music. As a foreigner, you can’t learn everything about Taiwan, and years ago I decided that I wasn’t even going to try to keep up with pop culture. However, there were two points when I felt I could see Taiwan changing. The first was in 1994, when some friends dragged me away for a weekend in Kenting. I didn’t really know what I was getting into, so it was really an accident that I was present at the first Spring Scream festival. In later years, Spring Scream evolved into a polished event with famous stars and large crowds. In 1994, no one showered for three days, and the musicians were a bunch of nobodies, many of whom weren’t very good. They also weren’t playing the type of music we heard on the radio or in the KTVs. It was the first time I had ever heard Taiwanese people playing and enjoying real rock. Who knew that Taiwanese could tolerate something edgier than Wham! Years later, I read that first Spring Scream was a seminal moment in Taiwan’s music scene, as it was the first time many Taiwanese had met other Taiwanese with long hair and who liked loud music. The second thing happened a few years later, when I first heard Wu Bai and China Blue. Their music was the first time I had ever heard a mainstream musical act expressing, maybe not outright anger, but at least antisocial or counterculture themes. Instead of an air-brushed starlet singing about unrequited love (complete with a KTV video of a gorgeous person walking along a beach or staring forlornly into a brandy snifter), Wu Bai had a bad haircut, grimy jeans, and sang gritty songs about blue collar themes. [Unfortunately, Wu Bai later sold his soul and made a ton of money singing sappy love songs. Sigh.]

Even considering those changes, nothing prepared me for the existence of Chthonic. Chthonic is above and beyond anything I would have ever expected from Taiwan. Hell, it would startle me in America, too. This band simply could not exist if Taiwanese youth had not become far angrier and far more creative. They wear full makeup, and one of them wears a Silence of the Lambs-style mask. You can copy some of that from hair bands. However, the guy in the pig mask is something new. Freddy’s singing voice is something new. The extreme discordance of the music is new. The combination of it all with Taiwanese lyrics and themes is uniquely their own. Most surprising of all was the 5% of the audience that was absolutely jamming to their music; twenty or thirty years ago, there were no young people in Taiwan who could have understood, accepted, or embraced this type of music.

Oh, one more thing. One of their songs commemorated the great, recently deceased Taiwan historian, Su Beng. Everyone should hear a completely sincere death metal tribute to a Marxist historian and failed terrorist at least once in their lives.


Back to the political part of the rally.

I got there while Hung Tzu-yung was speaking. I can’t really remember anything specific that she said. My only impression was that she didn’t seem to make any emotional connection with the crowd, and that surprised me a little. I had expected that, after nearly four years as Freddy’s closest political ally, this young audience would know and like her. Instead, they seemed pretty indifferent to her. I’m not sure what to make of this. It probably doesn’t matter much for her re-election prospects; she will succeed or fail based on the normal considerations (the partisan balance in her district, constituency service, performance in the legislature, etc.) rather than on her street-cred with young, ultra-progressive voters. She’s probably in better shape than the three other legislative candidates on the stage that night. Still, she was the least popular of Freddy’s squad on Saturday.

The second person in Freddy’s squad was Lai Pin-yu, the Sunflower activist who is running in New Taipei 12. I went to a KMT rally in New Taipei 12 on Sunday night, so I’ll do a full write-up of that race in my next post. For now, let’s just talk about Lai Pin-yu’s outfit. She went full cosplay, decked out in a red leather Japanese cartoon cute girl and/or superhero costume. (Is Kawaii Manga Girl an appropriate look for a death metal concert??) Everyone laughed with surprise when she first appeared, but I could tell right away that people were questioning her judgment. In her speech, she railed against her opponent. Her opponent is telling voters that Lai is too young and unqualified, while Lai retorted that her opponent has lots of experience making bad choices and doing harmful things. However, Lai was basically presenting herself as a cute, immature girl, thus playing right into her opponent’s attacks. When she finished speaking, the emcee said something to the effect of, “Lai is very brave! You have to have a good figure to dare to wear something like that in public.” It struck me as the emcee trying to say something nice while thinking, “What the hell are you doing?” [Note: You should know that Lee Yan-jung, the emcee, is a young woman, so that comment didn’t sound creepy the way it would have if you are imagining the emcee as an old man.] Later, when President Tsai showed up, Lai came on stage still wearing her full costume. Tsai gave her one of those weary looks out of the side of her eyes that professors give students when they are making terrible personal choices that we can’t say anything about. Lai’s choice was cute, fun, energetic, and totally inappropriate for a person in her position. If her opponent fully exploits it, this outfit might end up costing Lai the New Taipei 12 seat.

Next up was Chen Po-wei, who is representing the Statebuilding Party in Taichung 2. This is a tough race. Taichung 2 is a bit less green than the other districts in the old Taichung County, but the partisan balance is not the primary obstacle. The problem is that the Yen family owns this seat. The current incumbent is the son, but the key figure is the father, Yen Ching-piao. Before the elder Yen entered politics in the 1990s, he had (allegedly) already established himself as the most important organized crime boss in central Taiwan. Taichung 2 is his personal turf, and other politicians are wary of challenging him. President Tsai made a joke about taking out a life insurance policy for Chen Po-wei, except it wasn’t really a joke. You need to be young, fearless, idealistic, and a little stupid to challenge the Yen family.

Chen Po-wei might just be that person. I’m more and more impressed with him every time I hear him speak. On Saturday night, got a rousing ovation from the crowd when he was introduced, far beyond anything that Hung or Lai received. Once he started, it got even better. Charisma is impossible to define, but Chen Po-wei has it. He had an instinctive feel for the audience. He was sarcastic, he sang a little, he hit a few talking points, and the crowd ate it all up. This guy oozes political talent, and I’ll be watching his career over the next few years.

Enoch Wu Yi-nung was the fourth and final member of Freddy’s squad. Wu is running against Wayne Chiang in Taipei 3, in what is unquestionably the most glamorous and most consequential legislative race this year.

If you went into the laboratory and tried to create the perfect candidate, you might create something like Wu. He’s smart (Yale degree), successful in business (lucrative job at Goldman Sachs), patriotic (quit Goldman to return to Taiwan), idealistic (took a low paying job), handsome (see picture), and has become an expert in a critical policy area (national security). And yet, Wu is somehow less than the sum of those parts. Onstage, he is painfully raw. He could barely get through two sentences without awkwardly stopping and repeating himself. He tried to do call and response with the audience, but his delivery was so confusing that the audience didn’t know what response they were supposed to give. I don’t like the way he has let the media frame his race either. Instead of framing it as a contest between someone who inherited everything and sacrificed nothing and someone who sacrificed everything to dedicate his life to Taiwan, Wu has watched passively as the media presents this race as a superficial contest between two handsome guys. During Wu’s halting and uncomfortable speech, I started to wonder if, even with his superstar resume, his future is really in electoral politics. Maybe this just isn’t what he is cut out for. If he does stay in electoral politics, he is going to need to get a lot smoother with a microphone in his hand.

I should note that back in Taipei 3, Wu might be making progress. Most pundits think that Chiang is a clear favorite to win re-election, but a new poll shows the race tied. That isn’t good news for Chiang. Chiang is the established brand who has spent the past four years doing constituency work and amassing favors. He is unlikely to win any new support at this late date. On the other hand, Wu is the new guy still introducing himself to voters. There are still lots of voters who don’t know about Wu’s fantastic resume, so Wu might still have room to expand his support. It’s just one poll, but if I were in Chiang’s camp, I’d be sweating nervously for the next couple weeks.

After Wu finished speaking, Chthonic performed for about an hour. During their last song, they were joined onstage by Yu Tien, who is chair of the DPP New Taipei branch, candidate in New Taipei 3, and also a pop star. Yu Tien’s music is about as far from Chthonic’s as you can get. He is an old-fashioned crooner, Taiwan’s version of Tony Bennett or Dean Martin. He’s always a big hit with the grandparents at traditional political rallies. Yu did not perform on this night. His job was to waste time while Freddy changed from his rock star costume to his serious politician costume. Yu didn’t really give a full speech either. Instead, he went into variety show host mode, making a series of bad jokes. Thankfully, it didn’t last too long before Freddy was ready to return.

Freddy’s speech was excellent, and the crowd was extremely involved. [This crowd halfheartedly recited the ritualistic Frozen Garlic cheers, but when Freddy and some of the other speakers engaged them in more spontaneous ways, they were as loud and energetic as any Han rally of the past two years.] Freddy was simultaneously charismatic and substantive. One thing that surprised me was the balance between progressive and sovereignty issues. He did the progressive agenda first, but he went through it fairly quickly, ticking off items that he had worked on in the legislature. It was a good list, and it painted him as a serious and effective legislator. However, he seemed to be trying to get through this list as quickly as possible, because he really wanted to talk about sovereignty. When he finally got to Hong Kong, he slowed down and started really hammering home points with the audience. Perhaps his emphasis on sovereignty reflected a need to justify his decision to leave the NPP. At any rate, my mental evaluation of Freddy ticked up another notch after Saturday night. His future political career is entirely fuzzy right now. It could be over three weeks from now, or he might still have a long and influential career ahead of him. However, I don’t think he has maxed out his potential in his current role as an ordinary backbencher in the legislature.

President Tsai showed up at the end of the event. Her speech was frivolous, reminding the crowd to vote and quizzing them on candidate numbers. I have seen her speak dozens of times, and this might be the first time that she was the least substantive person to hold a microphone. I mean that literally. Every single person who said anything, including Chthonic’s bassist, Doris, who only uttered about three sentences, said something more substantive than Tsai did. On a night that set my disoriented mind wandering in a thousand different directions, it somehow seemed appropriate that Tsai – the most serious, scholarly, wonky, thoughtful, visionary politician of this generation – would also do something totally unprecedented and speak entirely in fluff.


Lai Pin-yu torpedoes her own campaign.

Chen Po-wei dazzles the crowd.
These pictures aren’t very good. Since I couldn’t get to the front section, I had to take pictures of the video screen in the middle of the street rather than of the people on the stage.

My best picture of Enoch Wu Yi-nung is a bit out of focus, which seems fitting.

Freddy soars.

In between songs, Freddy suddenly shapeshifted and made cogent remarks about politics, melting my poor brain.

In purely technical terms, I think the drummer might be the best musician in the band.

This fellow haunts my dreams.

Taiwanese nationalism and progressive values proudly displayed at a rock concert / political rally. Freddy Lim, in a nutshell.

The whole crowd, taken by a drone and projected on the videoboard. The crowd did not extend out into the traffic circle, so it ends right at the bottom of this photo.

I like the symbolism of this picture, with the presidential building in the background. I think CKS, CCK, and all of the Japanese governor-generals would have puked at the thought of such an event in such a location. Today’s Taiwan, however, celebrates pluralism and diversity.

One more picture of Freddy in full glory.

Yu Tien gets into the spirit. He joked that he wasn’t wearing any makeup — he just has dark bags under his eyes from campaigning so hard.

The Tibetan flag. One of Freddy’s biggest cheers came when he talked about abolishing the Mongolian and Tibetan Affairs Council, which surprised me since I don’t usually think of that as one of anyone’s top priorities. This generation has different ideas about how to engage with peripheral PRC areas. Older Taiwan nationalists are afraid to get too involved, since asserting the right to have an opinion about Tibet or Hong Kong could be seen as an admission that Taiwan is like them and part of China’s domestic politics. These kids, in contrast, don’t hesitate to express solidarity with democratic forces in those areas.

Wait, weren’t you just?? Actually, Freddy admits, it’s hard to clean up so quickly, and he is still wearing the same pants and shoes.

President Tsai looks bewildered by Lai Pin-yu. Like Freddy, Lai has also changed into a more appropriate costume for the president’s endorsement. She was originally cosplay manga kawaii girl, and now she is cosplay manga kawaii candidate girl. Yeah, that’s much better.

In a nearby alley, a banner for Freddy’s opponent, Lin Yu-fang. It reads, “protect the children: keep a distance from cigarettes, drugs, and bullying.” Two nearby banners with similar layouts read, “foreign affairs and national defense: let an expert do it” 外交國防: 讓專業的來 and “for the ROC: win this fight” 為中華民國: 打贏這一仗

Campaign Trail: DPP rally in Taoyuan 4

December 22, 2019

On Saturday, three weekends before the election, I went to two political rallies. This is the conventional one.

The DPP held a rally in Taoyuan City district 4, which covers most of Taoyuan District, which used to be called Taoyuan City back when Taoyuan City was called Taoyuan County. [Note: That’s too many things called Taoyuan. It almost makes me wish they would just call it one of those standard ROC names, like Minsheng District or Ziyou District.] Taoyuan District is one of the faster growing areas of Taoyuan City, which is itself the fastest growing area in Taiwan. Ten years ago in the 2009 county magistrate election, Taoyuan District had 287,699 eligible voters. In last year’s mayoral election, it had 345,100. That’s 20% growth in less than a decade for an area that was already quite densely populated. Our event was held in a vacant lot near a freeway exit which will soon become a gleaming high-rise. In fact, the whole area is in the midst of transforming from empty fields to dense urban housing. The KMT candidate’s campaign headquarters was a short walk away in a similar vacant lot.

The DPP candidate in Taoyuan 4 is Cheng Pao-ching, an old DPP war horse. Cheng has been prominent in local DPP politics since the early 1990s. He was elected to the legislature back in 1995 and lost the 2005 race for county magistrate (to Eric Chu). Four years ago, he made a dramatic comeback by challenging and defeating a very strong KMT incumbent, Yang Li-huan. Tsai Ing-wen won over 53% in this district in the presidential vote, but Yang had built up quite a strong personal vote over the years. Cheng won by 160 votes, less than 0.1%. This time Cheng is the incumbent and will have the advantage of four years of working the district. His opponent is a relatively young and unknown city councilor, Wan Mei-ling. If Tsai gets 53% in this district again this year, Cheng should win re-election comfortably.

This was a big event. The vacant lot was large, and the DPP filled most of it. I’d guess there were around 10,000 people. Almost all of them had been mobilized and were sitting in groups with a leader holding a sign indicating the group’s number. Before you scoff at mobilization, please understand that it was a misty day. The DPP got several thousand senior citizens to sit out in the rain wearing plastic raincoats to listen to political speeches for two and a half hours, which is no small feat. They weren’t particularly loud or energetic, but they were there. I saw a few signs indicating groups from outside Taoyuan 4, but the overwhelming majority were from Cheng’s district. Four years ago, he won 86,413 votes, and a good chunk of his voters were sitting in this crowd on a misty day for him.

The speakers were fairly typical and forgettable. Or maybe it was that, except for the last two, they spoke almost exclusively in Taiwanese and I failed to understand their brilliance. However, the none of them seemed to really connect with the crowd. It was all pretty standard boilerplate political rhetoric. I’d heard it all before, and so had the crowd.

The only speaker who stood out was Mayor Cheng Wen-tsan. Normally, speakers who aren’t running talk about the issues of the day or say nice things about candidates who are running. Cheng spent his time talking about what a great job he is doing as mayor. He told us how hard he works every day, and then he talked about all the local development projects he is pushing through. When he finally got around to selling Cheng Pao-ching, he did so through the lens of his own efforts. Mayor Cheng told the crowd that legislator Cheng had been an invaluable partner, pushing national bureaucrats to process all of the city government’s projects and requests quickly so that things didn’t languish in the central government. “I call him most mornings to tell him what the city government needs, and he usually has a response from the relevant ministry before lunch and always by the afternoon.” Mayor Cheng is currently one of the most popular politicians in Taiwan, and DPP legislative candidates are quite happy to be able to ride his coattails. Even the KMT doesn’t dispute his effectiveness. I saw a TVBS (read: blue media) report a few days ago interviewing local KMT politicians who repeatedly said things like, “Mayor Cheng is unique, but his popularity doesn’t automatically transfer to other DPP candidates.” They are right; not all of that support will transfer. However, local DPP candidates are sailing with the wind at their back this year, and the mayor’s popularity certainly can’t hurt them.

Oh, yeah. There was one tiny but perhaps revealing comment that Mayor Cheng made. Cheng recalled that Han Kuo-yu had attacked some DPP politicians, such as President Tsai, as “white and fat” in contrast to his own “dark and thin.” Cheng, who is somewhat portly, proclaimed that it doesn’t matter whether you are thin or fat, what matters is whether you get things done. Then he added, if you want to run for president, you have to prepare; you can’t just start making speeches. I wonder if he was talking about Han or himself.


One of the mobilization captains marshals her troops while VP candidate Lai Ching-te speaks in the background.

Legislative Yuan speaker Su Chia-chuan. I think he said, “You will not remember anything I am saying today.”

I miss having Taiwan being completely draped in these flags. In the USA, people put up Christmas lights. Taiwan used to put up Democracy Holiday decorations. Sigh.

Fan Yun, who is now Associate Professor of Sociology at National Taiwan University, spoke about how Cheng Pao-ching had helped her back when she was writing her MA thesis on local DPP organization. Um, was she trying to remind the crowd how old Cheng is?

I saw two musical performances on Saturday, this one and Freddy’s. They were, to put it mildly, a bit different. This one might be described as people who played saxophone back in high school and thought it might be fun to get the horns out again forty years later performing the music that plays between medicine ads on AM radio.

Grand old man of Tangwai/DPP Taoyuan politics Hsu Hsin-liang recommends this nice, young boy. I have a soft spot in my heart for Hsu. Some day I’ll have to write an opus about him.

I was bored, so I wandered over to the playground. Cheng’s people have set up a huge slide for children to play on when their parents or grandparents drink tea at the campaign office.

Cheng Pao-ching is one of those politicians who is completely sincere and serious. He doesn’t seem to have a sense of humor; he never even cracks a smile. Not my kind of cat.

A section for retired soldiers at a DPP rally??? I’m so disoriented.

Interior Minister Hsu Kuo-yung thinks he is too handsome and stylish to dress like an ordinary member of the team. Also, he gestures like a backup dancer. I think he went over time, because near the end of his speech it seemed like Cheng Pao-ching was trying to tell his staff to get Hsu off the stage. Maybe I was imagining it, but it sure seemed like the exit music started playing a little too soon and the emcee forcefully grabbed the microphone from Hsu’s hand.

New Taiwan Residents for Tsai and Cheng. I’m a New Resident (and a foreign bride) too, so I sat with them for a few minutes.

Mayor Cheng tells us how great he is.

President Tsai hands Cheng the campaign flag. He is now authorized to fight a military election campaign.

Tsai’s speech was pretty empty. She mostly did cheerleading, quizzing the crowd on candidate registration numbers and urging them to mobilize other voters. It’s about two weeks too early for this speech, and it’s really off-brand for Tsai to be so vacuous. Not her best day.

The KMT candidate’s headquarters are just a few blocks away; it looks like she is operating on a more modest budget. She is running as a social conservative. Her billboard reads, “education must not be chaotic, development can’t be slow.” In fine print, it says, “your vote determines children’s future. Chaotic (luan) education could refer to “improper” ideas of national identity, but I think most people will interpret as being about sex education and, by extension, same-sex marriage. It’s interesting that the first thing she wants you to know about her is her social conservatism, and economic development is merely the second theme.

reporting polls in the UDN

December 20, 2019

What if you are a partisan media outlet, and you have to report news that looks bad for your preferred party? What if you have a lot of flexibility in how you report the story? If you want to maintain a basic level of media ethics, you have to accurately report the basic facts. However, you have a lot of leeway in how you frame those facts, emphasizing some and downplaying others.

In this post, I’m going to look at how the United Daily News has reported its own recent survey results. The UDN has a strong partisan preference for the KMT. (I don’t think even my good friends working for the UDN would dispute the newspaper’s institutional political bias.) However, their own surveys show Han Kuo-yu trailing far, far behind. This isn’t the kind of news that will boost the morale of KMT sympathizers or inspire consumers to purchase lots of UDN copies at 7-11. So how should the UDN report those results?


[Aside: This post feels extremely old-fashioned. It’s about print layouts of newspapers. Printed on actual paper. Is this 1993? Yes, yes. Humor me. I know I’m old and out of date. The thing is, even if very few people still read hard copies of newspapers, those few remaining readers are very influential. Newspapers still drive the rest of the media discourse. Newspapers may not break the news any more, but they still provide an irreplaceable blend of depth, authority, and speed. Newspapers are the foundation that everything else is built on top of (including this blog).]


How do newspapers ordinarily report their own survey results? Let’s look at a few recent results. Here is a recent survey from the Liberty Times. The survey is in the middle of the first page, and the headline simply reports the horse race numbers. The Liberty Times is a green-leaning newspaper, so they and their readers are probably happy to see those numbers.

Apple Daily is politically more neutral. Their first priority is to sell papers, not to promote either KMT or DPP interests. This is from Dec 3, and their entire front page is dedicated to their poll.

As with the Liberty Times, the main headline is the horse race result. Apple also has consistently fantastic graphics that illustrate something about the race. Here, they are making the point that Han’s attempt to disrupt polling isn’t making it any easier for him to get to the top. [Apple is making a push to encourage readers to purchase digital subscriptions instead of hard copies. Unfortunately, the digital readers don’t get the fun graphics. Sometimes print is better!]

Here’s Apple’s poll from earlier this week (Dec 17). Again, the headline is all about the horse race (in which Han is losing by 29 points).

So that is what normal newspaper stories about the newspaper’s own polls usually look like. What about recent UDN reporting?

Here is the Dec 10 issue of UDN. The headline is not about the horse race. In fact, that is not even mentioned on the front page. The front page story and graphics are all about electoral culture. The headline screams, 45% think green camp online soldiers are ruining electoral culture.

If you read the fine print, that headline seems a bit exaggerated. In this section, they asked four questions. [Note that UDN doesn’t provide their exact question wording, so I – along with all their other readers – am relying on their graphics and reporting.] First, how serious is the problem of purchasing online soldiers? 35% said very serious, 18% said somewhat serious, and 15% said not serious at all. Second, how serious is the problem of untrue mudslinging? 33% said very serious, 20% said somewhat serious, and 23% said not serious at all. Note that these question are set up to produce an impression of a bad electoral culture. The normal, more neutral way to ask would be, “Some people say that purchasing social media influencers or other online influence is a serious problem. Do you think that it is very serious, somewhat serious, not too serious, or not serious at all?” Instead of leading the respondent to assume the problem is serious, the idea is presented as someone’s opinion (which may be totally wrong). There are also two positive answers and two negative answers. The third question asks whether purchasing online soldiers or untrue mudslinging is a more serious problem. They don’t report results from this question, but they use those answers to ask the fourth question, which party is most responsible for this problem? For respondents who thought that buying online soldiers was more serious, 45% blamed the DPP, 19% blamed the KMT, and 1% blamed other parties. This question was the inspiration for the headline. Note that these questions fit neatly into KMT campaign themes. The KMT has been screaming for months that DPP attacks on Han about his real estate dealings, entering the PRC Liason Office in Hong Kong, drinking, etc. are just baseless mudslinging, and they have been complaining that everyone online supports the green camp since at least the Sunflower Movement. Blue supporters know exactly how to answer these questions; green camp sympathizers don’t think about these events in quite the same terminology. If you wanted to give green camp sympathizers an equivalent prompt, you should probably include the PRC as a response category.

Enough of the first page. UDN also dedicated most of page 2 to this survey.

Page 2 covers the horse race, though the horse race (Tsai 48, Han 20, Soong 9) is shown in a somewhat complicated chart that you have to stare at for a while to understand. However, the horse race is not the main theme of page 2. The main theme is that you should not believe those results. The headline reads, “Only 29% believe the gap between Tsai and Han is large.”

[Begin rant. The inset story reinforces this headline by quoting people who feel that the gap shouldn’t be that big. Who cares what the numbers actually say? I feel that Han is doing better. Well, if you are just going to substitute your feelings for data, why bother collecting data? Even more, one scholar explains that people feel the race should be closer because they think Tsai is doing such a bad job. However, as we will see below, voters are currently relatively satisfied with Tsai’s performance. Never mind, someone feels she’s doing a bad job and she isn’t leading. End rant.]

Again, the headline is stretching the truth. The question was (apparently), “Concerning surveys showing the Han-Chang ticket trailing by a large margin, what is your opinion?” 29% thought that he was really losing by a large margin, 24% thought that he was trailing but not by as much as media reports said, 22% thought that surveys are inaccurate and he was not trailing, and 25% did not know. What exactly does that 24% mean? If they have just seen a survey that says Tsai is leading by 35% and they think Han’s attempt to undermine polling has had a small but real effect so that maybe Tsai is “only” leading by 28%, they could be in that middle category. That is, they could easily believe that Tsai is leading Han by a lot. The percentage who think that the gap between Tsai and Han is “large” could be anywhere between 29% and 53%. Again, this question was set up to produce a headline palatable to their editors and readers rather than to faithfully report public opinion.


UDN produced another poll this week. Here are the first two pages from Dec 16.

By now, UDN has wholeheartedly swallowed the assumption that polls of the presidential race are meaningless. They don’t even bother to write a story or produce a graphic dedicated to the horse race. The result (Tsai 48, Han 22, Soong 9) is buried in the middle of the story halfway down page 2. It’s there, but you have to look really hard to find it. In essence, they have simply adopted the Han camp position that polls are no longer informative.

A good friend and frequent blue-leaning media pundit recently complained on his Facebook page that it was irresponsible to interpret a poll without taking Han’s ploy to undermine surveys. He is correct. However, it is just as irresponsible to go too far in the opposite direction and dismiss polls altogether. Han has muddied the waters, but polls still convey useful information. Other pollsters are trying to figure out how much Han’s ploy matters. Look back at the Dec 17 issue of Apple Daily. On the bottom right corner, they produce an adjustment for latent Han supporters. You might argue that their adjustment is wrong, but at least they are trying.


Public intellectuals complain all the time that the media focuses too much on the horse race and not enough on substantive questions. So what substantive concerns are the UDN emphasizing? The headline screams that fewer than 30% of people think that Taiwan is better off under DPP government. Wow, Tsai must be doing a terrible job.

Or maybe not. Let’s look at their evidence. They asked something like, “The DPP has had complete control of government for over three years. During that period, have ordinary people’s lives gotten better, gotten worse, or stayed about the same?” “In the same period, has Taiwan’s overall development gotten better, gotten worse, or stayed about the same?” For the first, 13% said better, 29% worse, and 49% same; for the second question, 23% said better, 30% worse, and 38% said the same.

These are good, neutral questions. The modal result is that things are about the same, but more people think things are worse than better. The headline is not unfactual, but it misleads readers by giving the impression of a binary question. If fewer than 30% think that things are getting better, does that mean that more than 70% think that things are getting worse? No, it does not.

Things getting better or worse is a meaningful question, but it is not the same as asking whether the DPP government is doing a good job. In the 2012 election, the DPP tried to argue that President Ma had failed miserably to fulfill his 633 promise (6% growth, 3% unemployment, USD30,000 per capita income), so he must have done a bad job as president. Of course, Ma had an easy answer: he had done a good job, but the external circumstances – the Global Financial Crisis – had made it impossible to meet the 633 promise. By re-electing Ma, voters effectively agreed with the proposition that, even though things had gotten worse, Ma had done a reasonably good job.

Voters seem to be making a similar judgment about Tsai’s performance. Even if most people either think things are about the same or worse, many of those people think she has done a good job. The line chart on page 1 shows changes in Tsai’s approval rating over her term, and she is now at 48% satisfied. Holy Crap!! UDN has (intentionally) buried the lede!! She was 43 points underwater just after last year’s election, but she is 10 points above water now. Maybe she’s not doing such a terrible job after all.

The text tries to minimize Tsai’s positive approval rating by saying that of the people who approve of Tsai’s performance, 43% couldn’t name a specific policy that they are satisfied with. Of people who did give an answer, 15% said pension reform, 10% said maintaining Taiwan’s sovereignty, and 7% cited the legalization of same-sex marriage. (These response categories were unprompted, which is one reason many people did not name anything.) I’m not surprised by sovereignty, but I am a bit surprised that pensions and marriage equality were so high on the list.


On page 2, UDN continues to try to paint a cynical picture of Taiwan’s democracy. The headline reads, “Most voters don’t believe Tsai and Han will fulfill their campaign promises.” That headline is a bit problematic, but we’ll get to that later.

Before that, we have to talk about the graphic. This is what finally broke me. The top part of the graphic says that it is about using policies to buy votes and recklessly making campaign promises. The first line reads, “the government’s increases of stipends and subsidies,” while the second line reads, “making reckless campaign promises.” For the former, 25% say it is very serious, 21% say somewhat serious, and 29% say not serious. For the latter, 42% say very serious, 31% say somewhat serious, and 11% say not serious. There are several problems. First, the response categories are unbalanced. If you have three categories, you need one positive, one negative, and one neutral. If you provide two negative response categories, you need to balance them with two positive response categories. This is basic survey methodology, and everyone at UDN from the person in charge of the survey unit all the way up to the editor-in-chief knows this. Second, the use of the word “serious” presumes that something is wrong. What if you think that subsidies have been increased a lot and that this is fantastic? Third, the question asks about increases in subsidies and stipends, but the headlines and text have transformed this into “policy vote buying.” Survey respondents were never asked about “policy vote buying.”  Fourth, the way the graphic is put together, the first question is about something the government is doing, which makes it look like the second question is also about something the government is doing. However, the text clarifies that respondents were asked whether candidates had made reckless campaign promises. That is, it refers to ANY candidates, not necessarily the candidate representing the government or even most candidates. A response of “serious” is not necessarily an indictment of the government. In fact, if you keep reading the fine print, it isn’t at all. For people who responded that the problem was serious, they then asked which candidate was the worst offender. 51% named Han, 26% said Soong, and 1% replied Tsai. (Only 1%!!!) The UDN produced these questions and this graphic to give the impression that Tsai is spending and promising recklessly in order to get re-elected. In fact, a closer look at the data suggests that voters mostly think she is acting responsibly. Han is the one making crazy promises.

The main headline is taken from the bottom half of the graphic. They asked, if Tsai is re-elected, do you believe she will fulfill her campaign promises. They then asked the same question for Han. For Tsai, 43% said they believed she would, 40% said the did not believe she would, and 17% didn’t know. For Han, 23% believed, 59% did not believe, and 18% didn’t know. Recall that the headline proclaimed that most people do not believe the candidates will fulfill their promises. For Han, this is accurate. For Tsai, however, this requires manipulating the words a bit. To get to “most,” you have to lump together all the categories other than “believe” and call them “not believe.” However, there was already a category explicitly labeled “not believe,” and this category was far below 50%. Given the pattern of reporting, I’m not willing to give them the benefit of the doubt; I have to assume this was an intentional slight of hand to make Tsai look just as bad as Han. In fact, more people believed than disbelieved Tsai would fulfill her promises, while over twice as many disbelieved Han as believed him. They are not equally bad; Han is the one with a credibility problem.


I understand that UDN has a partisan line and its readers want things presented in a partisan way. However, UDN has a fundamental responsibility to uphold basic media ethics. The construction of these survey questions and the reporting of the results goes right up to the edge of that ethical line and then slips over it a few times. The headlines, in particular, are consistently designed to mislead. I’m also quite offended by UDN’s failure to use balanced response categories. UDN likes to say that it is the paper of record in Taiwan, with a stature equivalent to the New York Times in the USA. If it aspires to such a lofty standard, it must do a better job prioritizing its duty to report facts neutrally over its partisan preferences.

The first “debate” is over

December 19, 2019

Yesterday, the three presidential candidates spent an hour on TV talking about why they should be president and why the others should not. This forum was organized by the Central Election Commission, and it wasn’t a true debate. No one asked questions, and they did not have any quick-fire back and forth or interruptions. Instead, they each spoke for thirty minutes each, with three rounds of ten-minute speeches. The CEC holds these forums for all elections, and they are supposed to be for candidates to present their platforms. People rarely pay attention to them since they are always pretty boring. However, since this one was the first time all three presidential candidates have been on the same stage, it got a bit more notice.

I had intended to produce a full writeup of the forum, but, honestly, I can’t bring myself to do it. The candidates all made their speeches and hit their high notes. They attacked each other, and defended themselves. I thought that maybe Tsai did a bit better than Han, but, generally, I think that almost all partisans will feel that it was either even or their candidate came out on top.

The most important result of this forum is that it is over, and it didn’t produce any big headlines. As any presidential race winds to its conclusion, the media starts to look at the debates as the last major scheduled event that has the potential to change voters’ minds. When one candidate is clearly trailing, as Han currently is, the debates are seen as their last best chance to reset the race.

In fact, presidential debates rarely have much effect. In American presidential debate history, there are a few famous moments that we remember. In fact, those moments rarely matter as much as we think. One reason debates aren’t so important is that we quickly lose interest. The first debate gets a lot of hype, but then the second and third debates get far lower levels of attention. By the time a VP debate is held, only political junkies are still watching. The first debate is usually the only one that really matters. However, if one candidate has a terrible first debate, they (almost always) get a second chance. In 1984 and 2012, Presidents Reagan and Obama had terrible first debates. Luckily for them, they did much better in the second debates, and voters mostly drifted back to their original positions. So even if the first debate produces a potential game-changer, it rarely ends up as an actual game-changer. The same candidate has to trounce their opponent again and again, meeting a higher and higher threshold of expectations each time.

This year, we are scheduled to have three of these CEC policy forums and then (I think) one more traditional debate. Arranging the schedule in this way is very advantageous to Tsai. Han needs a knockout, and this schedule minimizes the possibility that he will get one. Since the policy forums don’t provide much opportunity for a candidate to back their opponent into a corner, a dramatic win is unlikely. Now that we have finished the first forum, fewer and fewer people will pay attention to the next two forums. The first one was pretty boring, so why would you want to sit through two more of those? By the time the traditional debate rolls around, people will have had three opportunities to watch the candidates on stage. I somehow don’t expect there to be a whole lot of people watching. And even if Tsai does commit a gaffe, it will just be one mistake over several hours of TV presentations.

One of the traditional perils of debates for incumbents is that they are overconfident. Presidents think they know the relevant policy details, and they don’t need to spend a day or two cramming for the exam. President Obama is the classic example of this, but it also happened to President Carter and probably a few others. Tsai was likewise overconfident and ill-prepared for the ECFA debate she had with President Ma in 2010. However, the current schedule lets her ease into the debates. Han had one or two opportunities to press her, and some of her defense statements seemed a bit choppy. It should be a good reminder to her that she needs to take debate prep seriously.

So while there were a few interesting points made in this debate, those were relatively minor tactical details. The most important result is that today the media is already talking about other topics.

“Pass the Anti-Infiltration Bill!”

December 18, 2019

In a separate post, I wrote about the DPP rally in Zhonghe on Saturday evening. In this post, I want to write about a specific – and very strange – thing that happened during that event.

President Tsai was finishing the section of her speech detailing all her domestic policy achievements, and she was just about to pause and say something innocuous like, “Isn’t that great!” In the little bit of dead time while she was inhaling, someone yelled out from the audience. I didn’t hear him clearly, but the Liberty Times story says he yelled, “Pass the Anti-Infiltration Bill! Stop the communist spies!” Tsai responded, “We will. We’re going to pass the Anti-Infiltration Bill. We’re planning on passing by December 31. Is that good enough for you?” And the crowd applauded.

I didn’t think much of it at the time. However, when I went home and turned on the TV news, I realized that the stories about the Anti-Infiltration Bill were all showing pictures of the rally. Apparently, her statement at the rally was the public announcement of her plan.

This is really strange. Tsai Ing-wen is a careful and prudent politician. She doesn’t make major policy statements in off the cuff remarks. Other politicians do that, but Tsai is extremely careful with her words. It is inconceivable that someone blurted something out and, with no advance planning, Tsai committed her party to a controversial course of action. That goes against everything we know about her.

There simply has to be more to this story. The easiest explanation is that Tsai had already come to a consensus with DPP legislative caucus members about the schedule but they had not yet publicly announced it. When someone blurted out a question about the bill, she answered by telling them the party’s internal decision. Again, this is so off-brand for Tsai Ing-wen. She is a professional negotiator; she isn’t the type of person to be goaded into making a major policy announcement by a random crowd member. An alternate explanation might be that she was supposed to say it as part of her prepared remarks but forgot. The audience member might have been a staffer reminding her of that point. (I didn’t see the audience member, so I can’t say whether he looked like a staffer or an ordinary person.)

The really fun and conspiratorial possibility is my favorite. I wonder if Tsai wanted to pass the bill quickly but the caucus leaders were reticent. The crowd member might have been a plant to give Tsai the opportunity to publicly commit the legislative caucus to her preferred course of action. After all, when the president has told everyone in the heat of an election campaign that the party is going to do something, they pretty much have to follow through. If they fail to pass it now, there will be broad blame for the legislative caucus and she and her party will look ineffectual. Failure is simply no longer an option. This is the most fun story, but it also doesn’t sound like something Tsai Ing-wen would do. She doesn’t have a track record of this type of devious and Machiavellian strategic ploys.

Anyway, the whole episode strikes me as odd. I’ll bet there is an interesting story behind the story.


Even though the way things unfolded doesn’t make sense to me, Tsai’s desire to pass the Anti-Infiltration Bill before the election seems politically sound. Right now, we are in something of a news lull. There haven’t been any major developments in the last week, so the two parties have to fight to control the news agenda. To put it simply, the KMT wants to talk about the online bullying case while the DPP wants to talk about pressure from China.

With three and a half weeks left, we might be in the next-to-last major news cycle. That is, there is probably time for one or maybe two more topics after the current topic runs its course. The KMT has decided that its best penultimate closing argument is that the DPP employs online bullies. This is related to the suicide of a ROC diplomat in Japan in September 2018. The diplomat had been severely criticized for his response to a typhoon in which he supposedly did not do enough to evacuate ROC citizens. The KMT charges that a DPP-linked person bullied the diplomat to death.

I’m a little skeptical as to whether this is a great issue for the KMT. For one thing, it’s a complicated story, and I never feel like I completely understand what happened or why I’m supposed to be angry. The original story was mostly about fake news, but now its supposed to be about cyberbullying. It’s not clear to me that the person at the center of the KMT’s narrative, Yang Hui-ju, is even really a DPP lackey. (Sure, there is a picture of her in the same room as President Tsai from several years ago, but that seems a bit tenuous to me. She runs a for-profit marketing company and has worked for all kinds of causes. Wait, why am I trying to sift through all these details again?) Anyway, is cyberbullying really one of the two or three most important questions facing Taiwan today? Am I really supposed to care that much about the quality of life of civil servants? I think most people care (a lot) more about local traffic, unemployment, relations with the USA, housing prices, food safety, and the threat/opportunity from China than this story. However, the KMT is betting that I’m wrong. I guess they think this case encapsulates the way the DPP is terrorizing all its political opponents and abusing civil servants. Anyway, that’s what they want to talk about right now.

Meanwhile, the DPP wants to keep attention focused squarely on China and all the ways China threatens Taiwan’s continued existence. The country has talked exhaustively about Hong Kong, so the discussion needs to go in somewhat different directions. The KMT party list is one such direction, and the DPP is planning major events in the last two weeks calling on voters to reject KMT party list nominees. China inevitably aids the DPP’s agenda setting efforts. This week’s story is about how China is freezing out a Taiwanese internet startup just for calling Tsai Ing-wen “president.”

[Aside: When I first heard about this story, I was really excited. Did this mean that Taiwanese youth were finally getting into my type of music? Alas, I was quickly disabused of that notion. It turns out 波特王 in English is “Potter King” and has nothing to do with the Absolute Master of Stomp and Rollicking Rajah of Romp.]

Putting the Anti-Infiltration Bill onto the legislative docket helps the DPP keep China in the public discussion. It also fits extremely well with their efforts to talk about the KMT party list, since Wu Si-huai’s attendance at PRC political events was one of the motivations for such legislation. Essentially, the KMT and DPP have very different ideas of what constitutes acceptable behavior in China. The DPP is horrified by all the people who go to China and acquiesce to Chinese demands for shows of loyalty. To them, this behavior is simply beyond the pale. In contrast, the KMT sees nothing fundamentally wrong with these actions. Not only are they not worthy of condemnation, people like Wu Si-huai who engage in them are eligible for positions of public trust. The KMT will scream that the DPP is going too far, but that is exactly the point. The behavior of KMT members has gone well beyond the lines that the DPP deems acceptable, so it is necessary to clarify exactly where those lines are (and extract a political tax in the process). The DPP is pretty confident that public opinion is on its side in this fight. If it sounds like I’m talking more about public behavior and less about spies, you’re right. I’m talking about the political fight, not the policy effect. However, if the debate shifts toward how to deal with Chinese spies, I think the DPP would be ok with that as well.

To sum up, the Anti-Infiltration Bill is good politics for the DPP. I guess this post could have been a lot shorter, but then I wouldn’t have been able to slip in a reference to the plinkinest plunker this side of the border.

Campaign Trail: DPP event in Zhonghe

December 17, 2019

On Saturday evening, I went to Zhonghe for a DPP rally. This rally was located in Nanshijiao, which is the last stop on the orange MRT line. I briefly lived in this area, and when I saw the location, I wondered where in the world they were going to find a big empty space for a political rally. The listing said the rally would be right next to the MRT station, and I was pretty sure there were no huge, unused spaces there. It turned out that they blocked off a small street and held the rally there. It was a tiny space, with maaaybe 1000 stools. I was stunned by the lack of ambition for this event. They were holding a Saturday night event in a densely populated area with easy transportation, and they only expected 1000 people to show up? As the event went on, the space filled in completely, and then the space outside the security area filled up. Eventually there were more people (and more densely crowded) outside the security perimeter than inside it. It felt substantial because it was pretty packed (and the crowd was pretty enthusiastic); it’s always better to have a small space packed to the gills than a big space with lots of extra room. Still, the total crowd never got to be more than 2500. In one of my previous posts, I wondered whether Han Kuo-yu’s support was eroding since he was only drawing 7000-8000 people. This event was one-third the size of his events. As I said last time, crowd size isn’t necessarily a good indicator of anything, but I think it is useful to remember just how small this crowd is. I’m going to say a lot of nice things about this rally, so it’s probably a good idea to keep reminding yourself that it was a pretty small event.


Zhonghe is traditionally a blue stronghold. There was a lot of military housing and several other communities of traditional KMT voters. For example, lots of people originally from Kinmen have concentrated in Zhonghe. The Kinmen County government even built some public housing in Zhonghe for Kinmen expatriates. One of my friends from Kinmen told me that at one time, there were more Kinmen voters in Zhonghe than in Kinmen itself. That seems a bit unlikely, but I don’t doubt that Zhonghe had a large community of Kinmen residents. Zhonghe also has a fairly large community of people who originally came from the Golden Triangle area near the Thailand-Myanmar-Yunnan border. However, Zhonghe is slowly changing. As with all the other military villages, when the government embarked on a rebuilding program 20 years ago, lots of veterans and their families moved out and never moved back in. Further, the MRT has spurred lots of new urban housing. Nanshijiao has lots of high rises that didn’t exist as recently as a decade ago (when I lived there). The area out toward Banqiao has also grown quite a bit. Meanwhile, the traditional core city areas closer to Yonghe are stagnant or even losing population. The changes in total population are not as striking as in some other areas, but Zhonghe has a pretty high percentage of people moving in and out every year. Zhonghe is still bluer than average, but not quite to the extent it used to be.


Zhonghe has traditionally been dominated by KMT local factions. The past three elections have all been internal family affairs. The KMT was represented in all three by Chang Ching-chung 張慶忠. Chang married into one of the pre-eminent Zhonghe political families. One son from that family, Chao Yung-ching 趙永清, had been in the legislature since 1992, but he had recently defected from the KMT to the DPP. In 2008, Chang defeated Chao to win the seat for the KMT. In 2012, Chao’s protégé and cousin, Chiang Yung-chang 江永昌 represented the DPP and lost to Chang. In 2016, Chang and Chiang faced off once again. However, the 2016 election was different. In 2014, Chang Ching-chung played a key role in setting off the Sunflower Movement. Chang was the committee convener who controversially pushed the Services Trade Agreement through committee review by going off into a corner (during a chaotic brawl) and declaring the review complete. For this, he was given the nickname “Thirty Seconds” 半分忠 and repeatedly vilified by the demonstrators. After the Sunflower Movement, a group of students launched a recall drive against several of KMT figures, including Chang. The drive ultimately failed, but all of their targets lost in 2016. In 2016, Chiang beat Chang badly; he not only beat Chang by 25,000 votes, he ran nearly 5% ahead of Tsai Ing-wen in the district. This year, the Chang family planned to retake the seat by running Chang’s son. However, they failed to make it through the primary, losing to the son of another KMT local politician. This year, the KMT will be represented by Chiu Feng-yao 邱烽堯, a member of the city council whose father 邱垂益 was a two-term mayor of Zhonghe City. Of the ten seats the DPP currently holds in New Taipei, this one is by far the most likely to be retaken by the KMT, at least if one looks at the district’s partisan balance. However, given Chiang’s performance in office and the state of the presidential race, I’d rate this race as a toss-up.


Back to the rally. Well, almost back to the rally. There is one other tangent to take care of before we get to the rally. Early on in the rally, they announced that the theme of the night would be chiong, chiong, chiong. Back in 2001, when the current premier, Su Tseng-chang 蘇貞昌, was running for re-election as Taipei county magistrate, he used this phrase as his slogan. The last character in his name is chang in Mandarin. When you say it in Taiwanese, it is chiong, and it sounds just like another character 衝. I don’t know quite how to translate this character; it includes elements of “go for it,” “work hard,” and “do something difficult.” Maybe the best translation is the Nike slogan, Just Do It. Anyway, chiong, chiong, chiong is a perfect encapsulation of Su, who is a ball of positive energy, hard work, attention to detail, and charisma. To this day, his first line on stage is often, “I am Su Tseng-chang, chiong, chiong, chiong!” 我是蘇貞昌,衝衝衝!  So, why would the theme of the rally be chiong, chiong, chiong? Premier Su was coming to speak, and he is one chiong. The legislative candidate, Chiang Yung-chang, also has the character 昌 in his name, so he was the second chiong. The third chiong was Keelung mayor Lin You-chang 林右昌.


The two local DPP city councilors were the first speakers, but they weren’t very interesting so we’ll skip them. After them, Keelung mayor Lin You-chang took the stage. Lin’s main message was that Chiang had a reasonable chance to win, and supporters shouldn’t assume that just because Zhonghe is traditionally blue Chiang was doomed to lose. Lin pointed out that Keelung is also traditionally blue, maybe even more so than Zhonghe. However, voters could see the good record of achievements he had put together in office, and they rewarded him by re-electing him with a solid majority. He talked about his own record and how that had won him support even in mainlander-dominated neighborhoods. Then he talked a bit about Chiang’s record in office, stressing how good it was and how voters would certainly recognize this and similarly reward him. It was a solid speech, and it set the tone for the rest of the evening.

After a musical performance, Chiang Yung-chang went next. Chiang spoke mostly about his performance in office. He is very proud of the fact that Citizens’ Congress Watch has rated him an outstanding legislator all seven sessions of this term. However, he stressed that another group, Pocket Congress, has also rated him as outstanding.

[Aside: I don’t think the audience could tell the difference between these two; it just sounds as if lots of close observers think he’s doing a good job. In fact, being highly rated by two groups is more impressive. CCW is the most famous group and the most authoritative judge of legislator performance. CCW tries hard to be neutral, but most of its volunteers are green sympathizers and their results skew a little in the green direction. Pocket Congress is organized and staffed by people coming out of the blue camp. (The motivating force is former PFP legislator and Eric Chu’s brother-in-law Kao Si-po). Chiang’s positive evaluation from them can be taken as an indication that it isn’t just green sympathizers rating a green legislator highly.]

Chiang then talked in detail about all his accomplishments in office. It has been four days, and my lousy memory precludes me from providing a full recap. However, I do remember that he was quite proud of moving or burying several (16??) high-voltage electricity transmission towers from near residential neighborhoods. He also talked about the normal things for urban legislators: parks, parking garages, traffic, urban renewal, and so on. However, at the end of his speech, he shifted into more national topics, talking about cross-strait relations, economic development strategies, and things like that. I assume the audience was more concerned with the local topics, but I was impressed with his broader grasp of politics. Every time I watch a politician, I ask myself whether they are already at their personal ceiling or they have the potential to move up to a higher office. Chiang flashed some potential.

After another musical performance, the third chiong, Premier Su, took the stage. After they introduce someone, there is often a little lull between the noisy introduction and the speaker beginning to speak. During that lull, something a bit unusual happened. Just as Su was about to start speaking, people spontaneously started clapping. It spread through the audience, and then people stood up. Eventually, the entire crowd was giving him a standing ovation. There were no air horns or yelling, just people standing and quietly clapping. It was quite a moving demonstration of affection. As you probably know, Su was recently diagnosed with a virus that causes facial palsy. It isn’t a serious health issue, but one side of his face droops noticeably. Su thanked the crowd for their welcome, and talked about his experience with the virus. He contracted it on the day that Tsai opened her national campaign headquarters [note: I went to that event, and it was obvious on his face that day]. Tsai had personally told him to go to the doctor and get some rest. Su, who justifiably has a reputation for an incredible work ethic, took exactly one day off. Somehow, Su managed to slip in a comparison to Han Kuo-yu, who is not famous for his fantastic work ethic, without being too mean-spirited. From there, Su went on to talk about Chiang Yung-chang and hard work, repeating and reinforcing many of the same themes that Lin and Chiang had stressed earlier. Su is an incredibly talented public speaker, and he was on his game Saturday night. He had the audience on the edges of their seats, making them laugh repeatedly and eliciting responses at will. It was a substantive speech so they weren’t frothing with passion, but when he left the stage, they were all awake and engaged.

President Tsai was the final speaker. I’ve seen her several times this year, and this was her best speech. Even after a decade in the spotlight, she remains a work in progress when it comes to public speaking. She has spoken a lot more in Taiwanese this year, but this speech was almost entirely in Mandarin. When she is tired, her rhythm becomes monotonous. She has a laundry list of points she needs to get through, and she goes through them one by one, never breaking her (too fast) tempo and ending each phrase with the same call and response. It gets tedious very fast. On Saturday, she slowed down, varied her tempo, spoke with emotional peaks and troughs, and didn’t become overly reliant on the same old call and response phrases. Her delivery helped her to punctuate her points far more effectively, and she came off as much more likeable and trustworthy. Normally, her entrance is the emotional high point, and her actual speech is something of a letdown. On Saturday, her speech itself was the highlight, and the crowd was just as engaged and enthusiastic at the end of her speech as at the beginning. At one point, she looked to the side and exclaimed, “Oh, there are a lot of people over there! I thought it was only the people here in front. Why don’t you make more noise!” Of course, this prompted a big roar from them. I don’t know if it was a genuinely impromptu reaction from her, but it certainly looked great later that night on the TV news. If it was intentional, it was one of the most deft tricks I’ve ever seen her produce.

She spent quite a lot of time talking up Chiang Yung-chang and his list of achievements, such as the electricity transmission towers. At one point, she joked to the crowd that they seemed to like her more than him. Everywhere she goes, she has been asking voters to give one vote to her and one vote to the local candidate. However, since Chiang had done such a good job, was so popular, and she feared he might get more votes than her, she pointedly turned that appeal around, asking for one vote for Chiang and one vote for her. This is something she does in many deep blue districts as a way of communicating to voters that the race is not hopeless even though the DPP has not historically done well. This time, she was particularly convincing. In general, the rally was quite effective in conveying the message that Chiang has done a good job and has a reasonable chance of winning re-election.

There was one other notable thing about Tsai’s speech, but I think I’m going to write a separate post about her call to pass the Anti-Infiltration Bill before the end of the year.

I can’t remember anyone saying anything about the KMT candidate. He is a fairly anonymous and generic KMT candidate, and their focus was on everything else. They talked a lot about the DPP’s record in office, Chiang’s personal record in office, Han Kuo-yu, the KMT party list, Hong Kong, and China, but they didn’t feel any need to address the opposing legislative candidate.

Overall, this was both a small and unambitious event but also a crowded, substantive, and engaging event. In terms of messages and speeches, this was the best event I have seen all year. It was also one of the smallest events I have seen, certainly the smallest Saturday night event.

Keelung mayor Lin You-chang makes a point.

On the side of the rally in front of the overflow crowd, they had an extra screen. These screens usually just show a live show of what is going on onstage. However, most people in that section had a pretty clear view of the stage (which, since it was such a small event, wasn’t very far away), so sometimes they used this extra screen to show powerpoint slides of Tsai’s various accomplishments or to echo the points speakers were making onstage. I thought this was a nice little innovation.

Lin You-chang and Chiang Yung-chang. The little sun logo on Chiang’s vest has a long history. Chiang’s mentor, former legislator Chao Yung-ching, started using that logo way back in 1992, when he was a young KMT politician trying to impress voters with his good image.

Premier Su makes a point. You can see the that the right side of his face is drooping a little. It is much better now than it was a few weeks ago.

President Tsai enjoys her own joke.

Photo 2019-12-14, 8 43 35 PM.jpg

In the nearby night market, I came upon these two ads of the two main aspirants for the KMT nomination. Remember back when all the KMT people wanted to be associated with Han Kuo-yu?

Bonus event: On Sunday night, I went to a DPP event across the street from Taipei 101. This was a rap concert, aimed at the youth vote. The venue was pathetically small. There were perhaps 800 people when President Tsai gave a short speech. Also, they weren’t young. Her speech is usually the finale of an event, but she spoke early on in this one. After she finished, about 20% of the audience left, which was fewer than I expected. I stuck around for about a half-hour more, expecting a few songs and a few speeches. In fact, it was 90% music and very little politics. On the other hand, by the time I left, the crowd was filling in and was a little bigger than it had been when Tsai spoke.

Tsai explicitly said that she had only agreed to attend the event on the condition that she would not sing. This was a wise choice. Older readers will remember how Taipei mayor Chen Shui-bian dressed up as Michael Jackson and Superman to show how he was getting into the spirit of things. For the next decade, the blue side used those photos every time they wanted to show how terrible he was. In the age of internet memes, Tsai was smart to avoid doing anything that might go viral.

Again and again this year, I have been struck by the fact that the DPP is acting like the KMT used to and vice versa. This is mostly because the DPP is now the incumbent party and can run on its record in office rather than pointing to abstract ideals. This event was a variation on that theme. Back in the 1990s, I used to hate going to KMT events because they were mostly musical performances with almost no political substance. Years of graduate school spent reading about political psychology and campaign strategies gave me a new appreciation for these sorts of tactics, but I still don’t like them. I want politics in my politics. So it was a strange feeling for me to be at such an apolitical political rally for the DPP, not for the KMT.

One thing that hasn’t changed is that I still don’t particularly like the music. As we were leaving, some hip hop group from the USA was performing a totally inappropriate song for a Taiwanese nationalist political party’s rally. The song was about “my Asians” and “my Chinese,” which might make sense in Los Angeles, where “Asian” is an identity. However, here in Taiwan, the point is precisely that Taiwanese are not Chinese, and that all Asians are not alike. No one else seemed to notice the incongruity of this song.

This is an event to attract the youth vote. It’s clearly working.

The Statebuilding Party people showed up to ask for votes. They don’t usually show up at DPP events, so they must have specially targeted this youth  / cultural event.

President Tsai makes fun of Lin Fei-fan. From left to right, the “band” members are DPP deputy secretary general Lin Fei-fan, Taipei city councilor Chiu Wei-chieh, President Tsai, legislative candidate Hsu Shu-hua, and Taipei city councilor Lee Chien-chang. I think Lee might be the only one who actually plays guitar.

DJ iing scratching out a groove.

Sorry. I meant to write, this is a photo op of President Tsai pretending to be DJ iing scratching out a groove. That’s about as far as President Tsai will go.


The party list debate

December 16, 2019

Today, Citizens’ Congress Watch held a debate for the party list ballot. There are 19 parties registered for the party list section, but only eight were invited to participate in this debate. The debate lasted nearly three hours and each party only had five scheduled two-minute slots, so it’s hard to blame CCW for limiting participation to the eight leading contenders.

What follow are my general impressions of each party’s overall performance. I did not take notes and I’m writing this from memory several hours later, so it’s possible I am remembering something incorrectly or overlooking something. That said, here are my impressions, party by party.



This was a pretty forgettable performance by the DPP, and that counts as a success. Each party had two representatives, and while the small parties sent their best people, the big guns from the two major parties were all out on the campaign trail. The DPP had a party spokesperson and the #28 person on the party list (that is, an anonymous person with no hope of getting into the legislature this time). They did a fairly competent/bland job of presenting party positions and rebutting various attacks.

Let’s be honest, this was not an important forum for the DPP. They get lots of media attention, and they have lots of opportunities to define their party positions. Today, they just needed to avoid any major errors. Mission accomplished.

Grade: B-



The KMT was roughly in the same position as the DPP, though it did not handle the challenge as well. They also sent two relatively obscure people, Chen Yi-hsin (#10 on the party list) and former legislator Chang Hsien-yao. Chen did fine. The problem was that Chang spoke about two-thirds of the time, and he was terrible. He was very shouty, shrill, and complainy. He was also unprepared. Some of the other parties prepared visual aids; Chang scribbled some unintelligible diagram on a blank sheet of paper and screamed about some conspiracy theory. He also got off topic repeatedly. And he complained about “being labeled” as pro-China. (Recall that four years ago, it was President Ma who accused Chang of being a Chinese agent.) Basically, every time Chang appeared on the screen, I spent the next two minutes cringing.

One thing the KMT has repeatedly failed to do in this campaign (and again in this debate) is to present an alternative vision of how they would govern. It is the biggest opposition party and the only one with a plausible chance of replacing the DPP in power. However, its campaign has been entirely devoted to attacking the DPP’s record. The KMT has not explained at all what it would do in office. I guess that is (barely) defensible in the presidential race, but the party list is exactly the place where that argument is insufficient. If you don’t like the DPP, you have 18 other options, including several other blue and/or viable options. The KMT didn’t give anti-DPP voters any positive reason at all today to vote for them.

Grade: D+


New Party

The New Party complained very loudly and energetically about the DPP, so its supporters are probably mostly happy with their debate performance. However, I feel frustrated by the New Party. They have an honest substantive argument to make. The New Party should be making the case that unification with China is in Taiwan’s best interest. They started out that way, talking about the necessity of peace. However, they shied away from embracing the full argument, talking about pride in their Chinese identity, the prosperity resulting from being part of a huge economy, and things like that. Instead, they tried to downplay their pro-unification position and spent a lot of time talking about conspiracy theories, such as President Tsai PhD dissertation. What kind of tiny radical fringe party is afraid to boldly proclaim its core beliefs?

Grade: C+


Taiwan Statebuilding Party 台灣基進黨

I think the Statebuilding Party was one of two clear winners in today’s debate. They spoke entirely in Taiwanese, the only party to do so. My Taiwanese is worse than rudimentary and the time-pressured format makes debaters speak in a machine-gun rapid-fire pace, so I had no chance of following their content. However, I could tell that they focused heavily on sovereignty.

The Statebuilding Party’s task today was to define itself as the main party for radical Taiwan independence supporters. In a sense, they won by simply being on the stage. Their main competitors (TSU, Formosa Alliance 喜樂島聯盟, Taiwan Action Party Alliance 一邊一國行動黨) for this bloc of votes were not invited. The Statebuilding Party can now make a simple argument: don’t waste your votes on them, we are the only Taiwan independence party with a chance of passing the 5% threshold.

The Statebuilding Party is different from those other three parties in another sense. Those are all parties for old men trying to relive the glory days; the Statebuilding Party is run by young and energetic people. Those other parties have stopped doing things to attract any new voters, while the Statebuilding Party has worked hard to build itself up over the past four years from almost nothing to earning a place on the debate stage. I don’t think they are going to get into the legislature this year, but they might establish themselves as the only viable vehicle for the independence movement going forward.

Grade: B+



To some extent, the remaining four parties are all in the middle of the political spectrum. Moreover, their strategies are all being affected by the fact that the KMT is failing to hold massive numbers of voters who would have traditionally voted for them. As a result, all these center parties are shifting toward a bluer position or reacting to other parties shifting in that direction.

The PFP’s job today was to establish itself as the main option for people who can’t stand the DPP but aren’t comfortable with the KMT this year. It did an ok job of attacking the DPP, but it did take some uncomfortable fire from the Green Party (see below).

Grade: B-


Green Party

The Green Party was the biggest winner today. They had the best performer on the stage (Wang Hao-yu 王浩宇 is a future political star) and also the most coherent message. Unlike everyone else, they had a consistent theme throughout the debate: the Green Party has ideals – environmentalism, pluralism, and sovereignty – that guide its decisions. Wang used this theme to attack the other parties. He asked the PFP why it was acceptable for one of its senior leaders to attend a PRC event, equating his action to KMT list nominee Wu Si-huai. He asked the TPP exactly what its ideals are, asking who they supported for president and whether they would vote for Wu Si-huai as a committee convener in the legislature. He also took a couple of shots at the NPP, though he didn’t explicitly name them. Party ideals had led them to support Tsai for re-election, even back earlier in the year when her polling numbers were low and “other parties” were on the fence. If elected to the legislature, party ideals would guide their actions, so they wouldn’t play games like introducing incomplete bills on marriage equality and then screaming that the DPP was against marriage equality when it blocked those flawed bills. In short, the Green Party landed shots against all its major competitors, painting them as speculators interested in short-term gains and devoid of guiding ideals.

Grade: A-



The TPP had an ok performance. I think we learned two things about them.

First, they explained their position on cross-straits issues. The USA will not permit unification with China or Taiwan independence, so it is useless to spend any time on sovereignty questions. [Note: It’s worth reading that sentence again and thinking about its assumptions and implications.]

They stuck to this position in other answers. The TPP representative refused to endorse anyone in the presidential race, saying that was up to each individual voter. However, he did say that, just speaking for himself personally, if elected to the legislature he would not vote to make Wu Si-huai a committee convener.

Second, if they don’t have any opinions on cross-straits issues, what do they stand for? They believe in budgeting. Apparently, the most important thing a party can do is to spend money carefully and repay outstanding public debt.

[Note: That doesn’t help. What is worth spending money on? Anything?]

Grade: C



I think the NPP might have had the worst performance of all today. They tried to talk about detailed public policy today, but you simply cannot do that in this format. You only have a few speaking slots, so you really don’t have time to develop any detailed ideas. Moreover, if you try to talk about public housing, you don’t have any time to talk about any of the other public policies you stand for. You get lost in details, and you look like you don’t have any broad vision.

Unfortunately, the NPP is in the middle of a vision crisis. Half the party has defected, not because they think there is a problem with the details of the party’s public housing platform, but because they think there is a problem with the party’s grand vision. What does the NPP stand for? What position does it occupy within Taiwan’s political space? We didn’t get any answers to those big questions.

Grade: D+


Ultimately, this debate won’t matter very much. I doubt many people watched it, and most who did are probably political junkies who made up their minds a long time ago. However, if it does matter for anyone, it could be precisely the type of highly educated but somewhat ambivalent voter that the TPP, NPP, Green Party, and PFP are fighting over in the middle of the political spectrum. Of those, the Green Party was the least popular going in but (I think) did the most in the debate to improve its position.