Archive for August, 2021

The Covid outbreak and public opinion

August 31, 2021

It looks to me like this outbreak of Covid in Taiwan is almost finished, so we now have a full cycle of events under our belt. First, there was the news of the outbreak, then we watched in horror as cases spiked and the government scrambled to figure out how to react, then the cases started to fall, and now we are back to having almost no domestic transmissions. So how did all of this affect public opinion?

Let’s do a quick recap of the virus outbreak. I’m going to use several charts from the Our World in Data website run by Oxford which uses data collected by Johns Hopkins.

Up through April, the well-established narrative was that Taiwan had almost miraculously managed to stay Covid free while the rest of the world struggled with the virus. Of course, it wasn’t a miracle. It was a combination of circumstances, luck, public enthusiasm for masks, and, most of all, good public policy. Put simply, Taiwan’s performance was the best in the world. That all exploded in early May. We didn’t know it at the time, but Mother’s Day was probably a disaster. There was already enough virus floating around, and families – young and old – got together in big groups. During the second half of May, case numbers skyrocketed. Every day the news seemed to be worse, and we all watched, shellshocked. The same government that had seemed so confidently in control for over a year suddenly looked like it was no longer on top of things. For a year, lockdowns, shopping restrictions, and remote school and work were things they had to do in the rest of the world. Suddenly, the pandemic had come to Taiwan. We didn’t have a hard lockdown, but people were strongly encouraged not to go out and to work remotely if possible. Schools went virtual for the last two months of the school year. Restaurants were not allowed to have indoor dining. We had blackouts because suddenly people were running their home air conditioners during the hot summer days. And all at once, the entire population seemed to realize that almost no one had been vaccinated. It hadn’t seemed urgent in April, but by late May everyone wanted to get vaccinated NOW.

The chart shows that cases peaked right around June 1 and fell sharply all throughout June. Let’s just say that no one thought things were all rosy in June. Maybe things weren’t getting worse every day, but we were still solidly in the middle of the pandemic. By early July, the curve shows that Taiwan was under 100 cases a day, and it was roughly 20 cases a day in the second half of July. We finally started moving from a Level 3 emergency to a Level 2 emergency in late July, which I think is when most people started to feel that we were going to be ok. August has solidified that feeling. Hospitals are relaxing a bit and are more crowded. Restaurants are cautiously resuming indoor dining. Schools are started the new year with in-class instruction. There are still cases, but most days in August domestic transmissions were only in the single digits. In fact, there are more cases arriving at the airport (and identified during quarantine) than there are domestic transmissions. Things are still not exactly normal. Masks are ubiquitous. Baseball games are not crowded. People are hesitant to eat out or congregate. But it is much more normal now than it was two months ago. There is still a person at the door of most supermarkets making sure you register, but they are a lot more relaxed now.

The other thing that has changed is the rest of the world. In May and June, most of the world was feeling good. Cases had spiked in the winter but had fallen tremendously during the spring, so lots of countries were going “back to normal” right as Taiwan was entering the pandemic. Now, it is almost exactly the opposite. The delta variant has caused spikes around the world, and suddenly Taiwan is once again one of the safest places to be.

If you look at the standout performers, back in June Taiwan was much worse than New Zealand, Australia, or Singapore. You could often hear blue pundits screaming that Taiwan’s government was terrible and needed to be more like Singapore’s. At the end of August, it doesn’t look like that any longer. Those countries – even New Zealand – are all dealing with outbreaks, while Taiwan seems to have things under control. The TV pundits aren’t screaming that we need to follow the Singapore model these days.

If you look at our regional neighbors, Taiwan looks even better. South Korea and Vietnam were better than Taiwan back in May and June, and Japan was pretty close. South Korea has edged upward, while the other countries have gotten much worse. When you look at the data using this scale, Taiwan’s peak doesn’t even look very bad.

Of course, the country that Taiwanese most often use as a reference point is the USA, so let’s look at it and a few other rich democracies. The USA and UK are currently in the midst of terrible outbreaks. Germany and Canada would fit comfortably on the previous chart with Japan, but for the USA and UK we need to make the Y-axis three times higher. On this chart, you can barely even see Taiwan’s “surge.” It is true that all these countries have been, at one time or another, in the ballpark of Taiwan’s peak. However, right now they are all much, much worse.

Let’s be honest about how much this means. Even in relatively outward-looking Taiwan, most people judge the government by how things are going here, not by how things are going in other places. Still, it does seep into how people talk about local politics. Back in June, a friend asked me if I was going to go to the USA to get a Pfizer vaccine shot. In her mind, the USA was safe, and everyone was getting the good vaccines. She was flabbergasted when I responded that cases were twice as high in the USA as in Taiwan and that Taiwan would soon be more vaccinated than the USA. People here still routinely overestimate how well the USA is responding to the pandemic, but it isn’t a constant talking point as much right now. All in all, we are not back to the time when people proudly talked about how Taiwan was doing better than everyone else, and the rest of the world should learn from Taiwan. However, we are also not hearing that things here are a total disaster, and we should try to be more like other countries.

What has this meant for public opinion? I think it is safe to say that the pandemic has been far and away the biggest news story over the past four months. If there are changes in public opinion, it is fair to assume that they are driven by the pandemic.

I did not write about public opinion back in May and June for a couple of reasons. First, I was busy with other stuff. Second, I wasn’t sure about the polling. You don’t need to know about my personal life, but let me comment briefly on polling.

Good polls in Taiwan are still done by telephone. In many places, such as the UK and USA, internet polling is nearly as good or perhaps even better than telephone polling. This is both because their internet polls are better than Taiwan’s, and, more importantly, because their telephone polls are much, much worse. In the USA, if you call 100 numbers, you will successfully interview fewer than five people – maybe fewer than one. In Taiwan, we can usually complete over 20 interviews from those 100 calls. You can get a representative sample in Taiwan; it’s a struggle in the USA.

How do you complete 1000 interviews in two or three evenings? Taiwanese pollsters do not allow their interviewer to work from home. You have one big room with about 50 computers hooked up to phones. The random number is automatically put into the system, and the survey software is all right there. Having everything all in one place also aids quality control. You can listen in on interviews to make interviewers are asking questions correctly, and you can step in immediately if there are any problems. This all works well; it is a reliable and well-tested system.

In the age of Covid, there are problems. Putting 50 interviewers and 10 staff in a room is efficient but not particularly safe. You can spread people out, but that means only using one half or one third of your available lines. Instead of finishing in two or three days, a survey might take a week or ten days. Also, interviewers aren’t eager to show up for work. This is not a highly paid job, and it is usually paid by the hour. If it seems unsafe, it might be best to just opt out for a few weeks or months. And the official Covid regulations seemed to prohibit putting large numbers of people in a single room. At the Election Study Center, we simply stopped doing telephone polls in May and June.

The private pollsters, however, did not stop, and I wondered how they managed to produce their polls. As far as I have been able to understand, they simply did not observe the government guidelines as strictly as we did. As a public institution, we had to follow the rules very carefully. (Also, if the entire university had to close down because of a case involving an ESC interviewer, there would have been hell to pay.) Private pollsters had a bit more leeway. Apparently the restrictions on public gatherings had a loophole (something to the effect of “…unless it would cause significant financial damage”), and they just decided to go ahead until a government agency told them to stop.

There is also a question about the respondents. In the USA, many people suspect that the presidential polls were skewed by the lockdowns. People who stayed home were more likely Democrats, so there were too many Democrats answering the phones. We don’t know if anything like that happened here.

Anyway, back in May and June when the first post-pandemic polls came out, I was skeptical enough about their quality that I didn’t want to pay too much attention to them. Looking back at them now with a bit more knowledge of how they were produced and with a bit more data to compare them to, I guess I think they are … fine. They’ll do. There don’t seem to be any glaring red flags. There probably aren’t any pollsters who think these are the best polls they’ve ever produced, but they are probably good enough to give a general impression of what happened over the summer.

My favorite public polls are from Tai Li-an produces a monthly poll in which he asks the same questions every time, giving us a very nice time series and plenty of context.

I think everyone expects to see the pandemic causing a substantial drop in popularity for the government in May and a rebound in August. The main question is how much?

The best place to start is with President Tsai’s job satisfaction. During the first half of 2020, she had sky-high satisfaction ratings – in the high 60s. She had just won re-election, and Taiwan’s ability to keep the virus out won plaudits from all sides. This could not last, and it didn’t. In the second half of 2020, normal politics reemerged. Instead of talking about the pandemic all day every day, the focus turned to more mundane issues such as American pork imports, Chinese military threats, air quality, the train crash, water supply, and so on. As regular partisan attitudes pushed out the extraordinary pandemic response attitudes, Tsai’s approval ratings slipped a bit. From late 2020 into spring 2021, she was generally somewhere in the high 50s. This was still high, but no longer stratospheric. In March, she was at 59.3%, and in May she was at 56.0%. So let’s think of high 50s – maybe 57-58% – as the pre-pandemic baseline. May, June, and July are clearly different. For those three months, she as just below 50%, ranging from 47.6% to 49.6%. That’s about a 10% drop. To look at it another way, before the pandemic her approval ratings were about 20% above water. After it, approval and disapproval were roughly even.

I was surprised by the 10% drop. I expected it to be bigger. I had assumed that her previous high approval ratings were based heavily on the successful pandemic response, so this would take a heavy toll. 10% is not small, but after what the public seemed to think was a major governance failure, I expected more. I seemed surprising to me that, in the midst of this crisis, just as many people were satisfied with her performance as were dissatisfied. I can think of a few reasons I was wrong. First, it could be that people responded to the crisis by rallying behind the current government. We have seen this happen in several countries over the past two years. Second, another possibility is that people did not see the outbreak as quite as much of a governing failure as the media led us to believe. Third, perhaps people were impressed by the government’s crisis response. Fourth, it might be that Tsai’s satisfaction ratings were not as dependent on pandemic response as I had thought. At any rate, Tsai’s popularity took a noticeable hit, but it was not a catastrophic blow. Presidents around the world can and have governed effectively with net negative satisfaction ratings. A net zero rating is politically quite tenable.

However, Tsai does not have to navigate around her net zero satisfaction rating. In August, Tsai’s popularity has recovered most of those losses. It is now 55.0%, which is only a bit lower than her pre-outbreak numbers. Her dissatisfaction is a bit higher than it was in the spring, so instead of being almost 20% above water, she is only 12% above water. Still, this is a clear rebound from three months of relatively bad results.

We can see the same pattern in feelings toward the DPP. For most of the past year, good feelings toward the DPP have outweighed bad feelings. However, the was not the case in May, June, and July, when more people expressed negative feelings toward the DPP. In August, the DPP recovered most, though not all, of those losses.

Well, we’ve seen a pretty clear pattern. May, June, and July were terrible for the DPP, and then it recovered. Since there are two big parties, we’ll see the exact opposite for the KMT, right? No!! The outbreak hurt the DPP, but it did not help the KMT.

Looking at feelings toward the KMT, in the several months before the outbreak, about 34% expressed positive feelings toward the KMT. This fell to the high 20s in June and July. The KMT was LESS popular during the outbreak. It’s almost as if the public didn’t appreciate their willingness to jump on any opportunity to score cheap political points.

You can see the KMT’s failure to capitalize on this opportunity in the party ID figures. We see support for the DPP taking the expected dip in May, June, and July. But during those months, the KMT’s support was also going down. When you aggregate all the parties into their respective camps, you can see that the blue camp had generally been doing better in late 2020 and early 2021 than in early 2020. That is, when Tsai’s satisfaction fell as regular politics reemerged, the KMT also regained some of its support. That is the normal pattern of things. However, that didn’t happen during this outbreak. Even in August when the blue camp’s overall support recovered a bit, it wasn’t the KMT that was benefitting. Rather, there was a big increase in “other blue.” If I understand the answer categories correctly, this is not a reference to a specific blue camp party such as the New Party or the MKT. Rather, respondents are given the option of saying simply that they support the blue camp without specifically choosing a blue camp party. To put it another way, these respondents haven’t fundamentally changed sides, but they also aren’t crazy about the KMT these days. They are looking for alternatives.

One of those alternatives might be the TPP. Before the outbreak, the TPP was at 4-5%. After the outbreak, it has been around 7%. Most people think of the TPP as a not-green, not-blue party, but it might be shifting more and more into the blue orbit. Mayor Ko enjoys much more popularity with blue voters than with green voters these days (though he is still strongest among neutral voters). (The my-formosa polls have interesting data on the presidential contenders, but that is a rabbit hole for another time.)

There is a cottage industry of pundits who are constantly proclaiming that the dominant trend in party ID is dealignment. That is, what we really see are voters not identifying with any party. These people are wrong. In this data series, the percentage of unaligned voters is usually around 35%, though this there are fluctuations up and down. The only trends away from this tend to be fairly fleeting. So June and July were a bit higher, but August is back to normal. If you look at longer trends, it is the same. In the ESC’s chart of the last 30 years, independents have been at about 40% since before Chen Shui-bian was president. Yes, the numbers in 2018 and 2019 were a bit higher, but that turned out to be ephemeral. Dealignment is not the story today, and it hasn’t been the story in the past. It wasn’t even the story in the early 1990s when over half of respondents declined to express preference for a party. Martial law was still a recent experience, and people were simply hesitant to tell a stranger they supported the opposition. These are not the droids you’re looking for. (Yes, I know those were, in fact, the droids they were looking for. But really, this isn’t the big trend in Taiwanese politics.) This is still a system with strong, meaningful parties.

The last thing I’ll show you is on economic confidence. Respondents are asked whether they have generally positive or negative views on the overall domestic economy. In the August survey, 33.9% had positive views but 64.3% had negative views. As you might expect, opinions had gotten quite a bit more negative in May, June, and July, and August was a bit of a rebound. But from an absolute point of view, isn’t 30% net negative a pretty bad result? Doesn’t this show that Taiwanese think the current economic strategy isn’t working?

That’s one interpretation, but I think it might be wrong. Taiwanese are generally pretty skeptical about the economy. Enough people can remember (or have heard of) the booming 1980s and 1990s that everything seems lousy in comparison. They are also constantly reminded that the PRC is growing at fantastic rates, and Taiwan’s economy doesn’t measure up. So the default answer for this question is going to be negative. Things have to be noticeably good to change that.

In the latest report, Tai Li-an helpfully included a chart of responses this question going back to 2006 (using his old data from Global Views and TISR surveys). During that entire timespan, positive views never reached 30% before the last six months of Tsai’s first term. Even in the headiest days of Ma’s push to pass ECFA and tap into the Chinese market (“Will 85°C be the next Starbucks?!?”), positive views only got up to about 25%. For most of the time, positive views were only around 10%. In that perspective, the current 33% in the aftermath of a Covid outbreak looks outstanding.

And this, as much as anything else, might explain why the outbreak has had such a mild effect on public opinion. Things seem to be going fairly well. Maybe it’s best not to overreact.

Book review: Taiwan’s Green Parties

August 23, 2021

My friend Dafydd Fell’s new book, Taiwan’s Green Parties: Alternative Politics in Taiwan, has been staring at me for several months. I was finally able to read it this week, and it was quite informative and stimulating. I consider myself to be quite knowledgeable on Taiwan electoral politics, but I learned A LOT about this little corner of the political spectrum. Dafydd spent about eight years working on this book, and during that time he interviewed nearly everyone in or around the Green Party Taiwan (GPT). When he tells us about the internal conflicts or soap operas, he isn’t drawing on secondhand information gleaned from actors who gave political spin to reporters. He is getting it straight from the actors themselves, usually a few months after the events in which they have had time to distance themselves from the day-to-day events. The result is as much of an insider account as you will ever find in an academic book. This is fantastic research, and if you are interested in Taiwan’s electoral politics, the Green Party Taiwan, movement parties, or what life is like inside a fringe party, you need to read this book.

 Most of the book is centered around explaining the GPT’s electoral ups and downs from its founding in 1996 to the 2020 elections. A number of factors are considered, but two are identified as the most important. On the one hand, the GPT has had to find space in a political system dominated by two mainstream parties, and it hasn’t always been easy to find such space. For each election, Dafydd starts with a discussion of the party system. How has the party system (including events that shape the party system) changed since the last electoral cycle, and how did that present or restrict opportunities for the GPT? On the other hand, given the concrete space that the GPT faces in each election, how did it go about trying to take advantage those opportunities? The GPT has agency, and it has made many consequential decisions over the years. After giving the broad overview of each election, we look at individual campaigns. The GPT hasn’t nominated all that many candidates over the years, so Dafydd is able to look at a lot of obscure campaigns in quite a lot of detail. This includes not only campaigns for the national legislature, but also many campaigns for city and county council.

Now, I’ve done more work on city and county council elections that most political scientists, but even I found a lot of these campaigns to be obscure. One example that was compelling to me personally was the case of Chang Ming-li 張明麗, who in 2014 ran for the Keelung City Council, District 6. It was a four-seat district, and her 1048 votes placed her 10th out of 12 candidates. It wasn’t that close; the last winner got two and a half times as many votes as she did. The reason I know anything at all about her is that I live in this district. I have only a very vague memory of her. As with all candidates, the first question is whether to take them seriously. I think I looked at one of her leaflets and dismissed her as a certain loser. Dafydd devotes an entire page to her, concluding that she realized too late that she needed to go out and campaign and that she was actually quite good at it. If only she had started earlier! It was such a pity that she didn’t try again in 2018! Um, that might be a slightly optimistic interpretation of the result… Regardless, I rejoice in academic work that digs down into the weeds to find things that others might have neglected, and this book is a celebration of weed-digging. From all this minutia, we emerge with a rich picture of what GPT campaigns look like on the ground. And since they don’t look like KMT or DPP campaigns, this is a fresh perspective on Taiwanese politics.

The GPT’s electoral record is unimpressive. Dafydd identifies different eras as being more or less successful. So 1996-8 was better, 1999-2005 was dormant, the party re-emerged from 2006-2010, and it was close but never quite made an electoral breakthrough in 2012-2020. I think this is quite a generous reading of history. From my perspective, there is clear failure, dismal failure, and utter failure. I don’t think the GPT has ever been politically relevant in any meaningful sense. There’s a reason that pollsters almost never include the GPT as one of the options when they ask about party ID.

The book is full of stories like Chang’s, in which a candidate didn’t come particularly close to winning. In most cases, the GPT figures explain these results in terms of candidate quality. We didn’t nominate early enough, they didn’t get out of the office and go talk to voters, they didn’t work hard enough, we didn’t have enough money. One of the oldest tropes in politics is that when my side loses, it’s because we had a lousy candidate. When my side wins, it’s because we had better ideas. The GPT uses this trope quite liberally.

Another reason for the GPT’s lousy electoral record is incessant infighting. Fringe parties are notorious for internal squabbles and inability to cooperate (The Judean People’s Front!). The GPT seems to have been constantly bickering. Whenever anyone tried to do something that might win more votes, other people in the party complained that they were sellouts. There were many instances of a new leadership trying to marginalize former leaders. And proposed coalitions with other parties … well I’ll get to that in a minute. For now, let’s just say that the GPT placed far more importance on maintaining their “purity” than on winning elections.

There are numerous occasions in this book in which someone says something extremely revealing. Perhaps the most shocking instance involves Wang Hau-yu. Wang became the party leader from 2017 until he not only resigned that position but withdrew from the Green Party altogether in the aftermath of the 2020 election. Wang was unique among GPT politicians for his ability to regularly get media attention. One way he did this in the 2020 campaign was by releasing survey data on the state of the race. He claimed to have commissioned 25 separate surveys, and each time he was able to add his own spin to the resulting media reports. If nothing else, his continual presence in the media reminded potential voters of the GPT’s existence. At the time, I wondered how he was funding all these surveys. 25 surveys add up to a pretty penny for a cash-strapped organization like the GPT. One of the informants hints at an answer. According to an anonymous party insider, Wang had a secret arrangement with the DPP in which the DPP provided him with survey data. In return, Wang would attack the KMT, NPP, and TPP (p 264). In short, Wang got exposure and chances to argue against GPT rivals, while the DPP was able to outsource negative campaigning and avoid any blame. This doesn’t sound terrible for the GPT, but there’s more. In the last days of the campaign the DPP (predictably) issued a plea with sympathetic voters to vote for the DPP on the party list. One might have expected Wang – the GPT party leader – to make a counterargument that it was the GPT that desperately needed the votes. A few days after the election (in which the DPP won a comfortable majority while the GPT was completely shut out of the legislature), Wang explained why he did not do this on his Facebook page, “of course I knew that at this time the best method would be to tell everyone that the DPP was not in danger. But I did not, I could not do that. I could not put the GPT’s interests first if that meant there was the slightest possibility of there not being a [DPP] parliamentary majority and Han Kuo-yu winning the presidency” (pp 264-5). This is a stunning betrayal! If Wang thought it was most important for the DPP to get votes, he had no business at all representing the GPT! It appears that Wang was simply a DPP agent using the GPT to do the DPP’s dirty work. If this is correct, he had no business leading the GPT, and the only surprising part of his departure from the party immediately after the election is that it wasn’t more acrimonious.

Movement parties often find elections difficult. One reason for this is that social movements and electoral politics demand different priorities. For example, a labor movement might push workers to strike in order to obtain higher salaries or better working conditions, even though strikes are usually very unpopular among the general public. Movements have to be more radical; elections demand currying favor with mainstream voters. There is an inherent contradiction. However, this hasn’t been the GPT’s problem. They have been a lousy electoral party, but they’ve also been pretty lousy at movement politics. The GPT hasn’t offended mainstream voters because it was staging sit-ins on construction sites, leading marches against Formosa Plastics, protesting nuclear power plants, or engaging in any kind of civil disobedience for … anything. The GPT simply hasn’t been a radical force. When GPT members talk about their record, they point to the fact that some of their longtime positions – against nuclear power, for marriage equality – how now been accepted as mainstream. See, they’re winning! The only problem is that the GPT hasn’t had much to do with that process. In any neutral account of the anti-nuclear movement, for example, the GPT is merely going to be a peripheral actor. The other thing the GPT repeatedly stresses is their international character. They are part of the Global Green Movement! When they talk about what they do between elections, time after time they talk about attending the Global Green convention. Hooray. Forgive me for suggesting that taking a week to go on a trip to London, New Zealand, or Tokyo isn’t exactly my idea of a political movement. They are proud that they persuaded the Global Greens to pass a resolution recognizing Taiwan’s sovereignty. Ok, but when the German Foreign Minister was from the German Green Party, did he care at all about that resolution? The GPT has a party platform, but they don’t seem to do any of the hard work necessary – electoral or movement – to turn those ideals into concrete public policy. In fact, in discussing the aftermath of the 2020 election, the GPT talks about needing to rebuild its ties to social movements since they have let those wither over the past decade.

While this book is an exhaustive look at GPT leaders and candidates and their roles in elections, there is one largely overlooked actor: the voters. Does the GPT have a stable block of supporters? The GPT estimated that between 2016 and 2020, it lost about 1 million voters and gained about the same number (pp 269-71), which suggests that the GPT’s core support base is smaller than they might hope. Who is the GPT tying to appeal to? Some people suggest they should concentrate on Taipei City, while others argue they will have more success in rural areas and small cities. Are they targeting affluent people or working-class voters? Do they expect more support among young or old voters? More important than any demographic categories, how do voters think about the GPT’s issue appeals? Throughout this book, we find GPT politicians rejecting the notion that they are a single-issue party. In their minds, they are promoting a whole range of progressive positions, such as labor rights, housing justice, social inequality, good government reforms, trade policies, and national sovereignty. However, I suspect that most ordinary voters do not share such a broad image of the GPT. In a telling quote, GPT activist Robin Winkler recalls early discussions of cooperation with the SDP before 2016, “my first question [to SDP representatives] was ‘why don’t you just join us?’ They said that you’re just about the environment. I said, ‘have you read our charter?’” (p 211). If these politically sophisticated and sympathetic people – activists who were considering cooperation – thought that they GPT was merely a single-issue party, it seems very likely that most ordinary voters probably would as well. (Winkler’s reaction, that they needed to educate themselves, is also revealing. Successful parties don’t reflexively assign homework to the people they are trying to attract.) Even if most voters don’t know what the GPT stands for, are many voters open to those positions? Do the different arguments conflict with each other, attracting some voters but repelling others?

It is hard to do research on fringe parties since our standard survey data isn’t very useful for parties that have less than 3% support. Dafydd devotes five pages (103-108) to this topic, but the lack of good data means that he is only able to come up with some speculative suggestions. The only data we see about issues comes from a 2016 internet survey of 116 GPT/SDP supporters, which is very small and probably has a skewed sample (60% were students). We find that LGBT rights, environmental protection, labor right, and land justice were the top four issues for these supporters. Unfortunately, we don’t know if labor rights supporters, for example, were expressing support for the GPT, the SDP, or both. All in all, we simply don’t learn much about the GPT’s support base beyond the stories that they tell themselves. And given that we have learned that they aren’t exactly a group of professional politicians deeply embedded in their constituencies, I don’t have a lot of faith that they actually know who votes for them and why.

It is finally time to talk about the beast looming over everything related to Taiwanese politics including the GPT: national identity. National identity is impossible to ignore. China forces this issue on Taiwan, and it permeates all sorts of seemingly unrelated questions. Baseball, airline names, vaccine purchases, a trip to Bolivia, hotel development on Taiwan’s east coast, pineapple farming, national health care costs, my quest for Taiwanese citizenship: China twists them all. There simply aren’t any issues on which Taiwanese voters don’t have to think about the relationship between Taiwan and China. Decisions about how to respond to all these different questions are usually grounded in national identity. People who feel a bit Chinese tend to opt for different policies than people who don’t feel at all Chinese. National identity will continue to dominate Taiwanese politics until Taiwan’s sovereignty is settled. It is inescapable.

From one perspective, the GPT has taken a quite clear stance on Taiwan identity. Kao Cheng-yen sailed out into the Taiwan Strait in 1996 to “catch” the missiles China was firing. The TGP got the Global Greens to pass resolutions on Taiwan sovereignty. The GPT issued statements in favor of Hong Kong protesters. Isn’t all that pretty clear? Well, no. While there are undoubtedly many GPT figures with a strong stance on Taiwan identity and almost none screaming about how they are Chinese, there are hints of ambiguity. A GPT executive committee member suggested the GPT’s task was, “the GPT needs to convince the public that the GPT wants to transcend the issue of unification or independence, either way Taiwan needs to survive and have a good environment” (p 140). This person wants to play both sides; she is not interested in a clear position. An even more striking statement comes from a GPT supporter, “young people in Taiwan today, they have a good life. Young people today don’t say, ‘I want to be independent.’ They don’t think about that as much as before. We have a good life now. … If you keep shouting about independence, unification all days, people will feel annoyed. We are a country now, why do you need to keep repeating those things? (p107). I have spent quite a bit of time over the past year looking at Han Kuo-yu’s rhetoric, and he repeatedly said almost exactly the same thing (except he would have insisted that life in Taiwan is currently lousy). In the current environment, when someone insists identity is not important, it often means they simply don’t want to talk about their opinion because they know it is unpopular.

The GPT seems to know they have an ambiguous stance. GPT activists blamed their poor showings in 2016 and 2020 on a popular desire for a clearer stance on China questions after the Chou Tzu-yu incident and the Hong Kong protests. Either they don’t believe their own autopsy, or they are willingly paying a price for this ambiguous stance.

It isn’t just a question for voters. National identity is probably behind the GPT’s problems in forming electorally advantageous coalitions. In 2012 and 2016, the DPP yielded a legislative district to a GPT (or GPT allied) candidate. This should have been a golden opportunity. The GPT’s candidate was guaranteed media coverage, and the DPP was basically inviting it to make a sales pitch to its tens of thousands of local supporters. This was also an opportunity for the GPT to make contact with organizational networks and potential financial backers. However, the GPT was not able to take advantage of these opportunities. In both cases, when Tsai Ing-wen campaigned with the GPT candidate (national attention!! this is your chance!!), GPT party activists publicly revolted against any suggestion that they were endorsing her presidential campaign. In a contest between the KMT and DPP presidential candidates, they did not want to take a side (even though the DPP presidential candidate was endorsing their legislative candidate). They might have argued that their neutrality had nothing to do with national identity, but presidential elections are essentially referendums on exactly that question. The GPT might write something about sovereignty in its party charter, but very few people read party charters. These incidents got national press coverage, making it clear for all to see that the GPT was internally divided on Taiwan identity. Moreover, because of this internal division, they weren’t able to commit to an electorally advantageous alliance. They wanted to tell people to ignore identity and focus on the environment, but they were unable to take their own advice. Identity is inescapable.

Taiwan is rainy — sometimes

August 18, 2021

I haven’t written a lot on Frozen Garlic in the past year and a half. Part of this is that this is the dead time in the election cycle, so there really isn’t a whole lot of news to write about. More importantly, this has been a difficult year and a half for me. I’ve been preoccupied with other things, of which the Covid pandemic is merely somewhere in the top ten. Anyway, this blog has always been a fun thing for me rather than a responsibility, so when I don’t want to write anything, I just don’t write anything. And that has described most of the last year and a half.

Today’s topic is going to be strange and uninteresting to many readers, and I imagine many people will not read all the way to the end. That’s ok with me.

I’ve been distracting myself over the past few months by thinking about water. Water is one of those topics that people interested in politics only think about when something goes wrong. It’s always important, but usually it fades into the background. However, when water becomes a problem, it has the potential to shift political outcomes. Taichung experienced a few months of water rationing this spring. When no water comes out of your faucet two days a week, the pain can build up. The train accident earlier this year got more headlines, but that was a one-time event that didn’t affect many people and was quickly forgotten. Water rationing had the potential to be a much more demoralizing event.

I don’t think water will turn out to be a critical factor in the next elections. It started raining the last two days in May, and it has been basically raining ever since. The reservoirs were all dangerously low then, but now they are all full. I might be wrong, but I think the pain of water rationing will fade from memory, even for Taichung voters. So the rest of this post will be discussing something that I don’t think will matter much for the 2022 or 2024 elections.

I’ve never really looked at rain and reservoirs before this year, so I’m probably going to “discover” a lot of things that experts already know. It’s also possible I will be making all the obvious mistakes that they learned to avoid long ago.

Let’s start with a data point. In the 16 days from July 25 to August 9, the Pingtung weather station recorded 1496.5mm of rain. 1.5 meters!!! I’m a pretty average height, and that is nearly to the top of my shoulders. And remember, this is the official Pingtung weather station. There are lots of rain gauges in Pingtung, and many of them were considerably higher.

But wait a minute. The first thing that you learn in dealing with data is that you have to ask, “Is that a lot?” At first glance, it seems like a lot, but is it? Is that more than normal? If so, is it a lot more than normal? After all, Taiwan is a rainy place. And when typhoons hit, we can see unfathomable amounts of rain in just a day or two. Anyone who has traveled through Taiwan has seen enormous river beds with just a trickle of water in them. Once or twice every few years, those enormous river beds are needed for a few hours to transport stupendous quantities of water back into the ocean. So maybe this year has just been – ordinary?

While we’re asking these questions, what about last year? This spring when all the reservoirs were nearly empty, we were reminded that last year no typhoons hit Taiwan so the rainfall had been abnormally low. It seems like a good time to check that assertion. Was rainfall markedly lower last year?

The Central Weather Bureau website provides daily rainfall data for 35 weather stations starting in 2009. However, some of these are missing chunks of data and some of them are rocks in the middle of the ocean that I don’t care about. Also, daily data would have been more than just a time-wasting project. I ended up collecting monthly rain data from 2009 to 2020 for 26 weather stations. (If it had been a real research project, I would have gotten daily data for the hundreds (thousands?) of rain measurement stations. But I study politics, not rain. Gotta keep time-wasting side projects under control.)

How much rain does Taiwan get? Most places get somewhere between 1500 and 2500mm annually, though there are some pretty big discrepancies. Central Taiwan (in red) gets a bit less than most places, while the Taipei area (in dark blue) gets a bit more. The islands (in diamonds) in the Taiwan Strait (light blue) all get considerably less than everywhere else, with Kinmen not even averaging 1000mm a year. Meanwhile, the northeastern corner (in yellow) of Taiwan is very rainy, with Keelung getting over 3500mm a year. I live in Keelung, so that didn’t surprise me. What did surprise me was Su-ao, a little port town in southern Ilan. Su-ao is unbelievably rainy, averaging a staggering 4482mm a year! The mountains (with horizontal stripes) generally get more rain than the coastal areas. The two weather stations on Yangmingshan* get twice as much rain as downtown Taipei, and the station atop Alishan gets twice as much as Chiayi City. What’s crazy about Su-ao is that it gets mountainous quantities of rain at sea level.

*Why do we need two weather stations right next each other on Yangmingshan? Wouldn’t it be better to have a mountainous weather station somewhere in, say, Hsinchu or Miaoli? I’m guessing this has something to do with bureaucrats who want to be stationed in Yangmingshan and not deep in the Central Mountain Range.

How much rain is this? Is it a lot or a little? I did a quick internet search of annual rainfall in major cities around the world. For comparison, I used the Taiwan scale (0-5000mm). Taiwan’s rainfall is pretty standard for Southeast Asia (in red) and the two coastal South Asian cities (in green), but this is the rainiest region on earth. West Asia is very dry, with most cities getting somewhere around 500mm a year. In most of the rest of the world, cities get somewhere around 1000mm a year. In the USA, the southeast gets a bit more and the west gets quite a bit less. (Contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t rain very much in Seattle.) Europe is quite a bit dryer than the USA, with very few cities even getting 1000mm a year. British comedians moan incessantly about how much it rains in Scotland and Wales, but Glasgow would be considered a dry spot here in Taiwan (and Cardiff is even dryer). In global perspective, Kinmen doesn’t seem arid at all.

I live in Keelung, so I was well aware that I live in the rainiest corner of the island. What I didn’t realize is that the rain falls at different times during the year here.

There are two distinct rain patterns in Taiwan. The dominant pattern covers central and southern Taiwan. In this pattern, there isn’t much rain at all between October and April. Almost all the rain comes from May to September, especially in June and August. The chart shows the rainfall for Tainan, but everything from Miaoli to Pingtung looks about the same. The second pattern is the northeastern pattern, covering Keelung and Ilan. Here, it rains all year round, and there is actually more rain in the winter than in the summer. The rest of northern Taiwan is a transition zone between these two patterns, though it is generally closer to the southern pattern than the northeastern pattern. In Taipei, for example, May-October is the rainy season, but it isn’t quite as rainy as in the south then. And the winter is the dry season, but it isn’t nearly as dry as the south.

The summer spike for Tainan makes it clear just how seasonal rain is in central and southern Taiwan. All the rain comes either in late spring/early summer plum rains or in late summer typhoons. Even more importantly, when the rain comes, it comes all at once. On average, most places in central and southern Taiwan get a fourth to a third of their rain in August, but there is tremendous variation in that average. Tainan, for example, averages 576mm in August, but that has ranged from 91mm in 2016 to 1301mm in 2018. Remember, this is only a 12-year dataset; if we went back 50 or 100 years, we’d almost certainly find even more extreme Tainan Augusts. Remember that 1.5m of rain in Pingtung? Is that extreme? Well, it’s a lot, but it’s not unheard of. There are 48 months in my dataset with at least 1000mm, and 11 months with at least 1500mm. This Pingtung storm was split between July and August and didn’t reach 1000mm in either month, so it is not part of the 48 1000mm months, much less the 11 1500mm months. The heaviest rainfall in a single month since 2009 was August 2009, when Typhoon Morakot dumped 3346mm of rain on the Alishan weather station. For those of you who don’t understand metric, that is almost exactly 11 feet. Think about eleven feet of rain. It’s hard to even imagine.

The reservoirs were all empty in mid-May. Was 2020 really an extremely dry year? It turns out that 2020 wasn’t the worst year for a lot of places. It was the lowest year (from 2009 to 2020) for 11 of the 26 weather stations that I had data on. That means that the other 15 had at least one dryer year. In fact, the three northeastern areas got more rain than normal.

2020 wasn’t a historically dry year everywhere, but it was in central Taiwan. 2020 was the worst year for Hsinchu, Taichung, Wuqi, Sun Moon Lake, Chiay, Alishan, and Yushan. I’m missing some data for Miaoli, Changhua, and Yunlin, but from the data I have, 2020 was the worst year for them too. It just didn’t rain much in central Taiwan.

Every ranked list has to have a first and last place, so maybe it’s better to use a threshold. It is very rare for a place to get less than 60% of its normal yearly rainfall. Of the 312 place-years, only 8 fell below this 60% threshold. Four of those occurred in 2020, including three in central Taiwan. (Kinmen was the other.) Miaoli and Changhua may have also fallen below this threshold, but I don’t have complete data for the other years. Remember, people don’t get first claim to rainfall. The trees drink first. If central Taiwan only saw 60% of the normal rainfall, that implies that the reservoirs probably got quite a bit less than 60% of their normal supply. Central Taiwan was dry, dry, dry in 2020.

Ok, so it didn’t rain much in central Taiwan in 2020. Why were all the reservoirs empty? Why was there a water crisis stretching from New Taipei City all the way to Kaohsiung?

I learned something new this year staring at maps of rain and reservoirs: most of the reservoirs are fed by central Taiwan. The Shimen Reservoir is located in Taoyuan and supplies most of Taoyuan and New Taipei City, so I have always thought of it as a northern reservoir. However, its watershed covers the mountainous areas of Miaoli, Hsinchu, and Taoyuan. That stretches pretty far into central Taiwan. If it doesn’t rain in Miaoli and Hsinchu (like in 2020), the Taipei suburbs are going to run out of water (as almost happened in May 2021). Likewise, the Tsengwen reservoir, which supplies most of southern Taiwan, is fed by the Tsengwen River, which empties out into the ocean in Tainan City. I think of it as southern. However, the water in the Tsengwen Reservoir comes mostly from Alishan. While most of us think of Chiayi as politically and culturally southern, geographically it looks pretty central. If it doesn’t rain in Alishan (as in 2020), the water supply in Kaohsiung is going to run low (as happened in 2021).

In May, the only big reservoir that was more than half full was Feitsui, which supplies Taipei City. Feitsui is in Shiding, southeast of the city. More to the point, the rainfall pattern in Shiding is closer to the Keelung pattern of steady rain all year long than the central Taiwan feast or famine pattern. Strangely, this is one place where the Japanese did not plan well. It might seem obvious to build a reservoir where there is a steady supply of water, but Feitsui was not built until the 1970s.

We are all very aware that power plants in Taichung ship electricity north. I never realized that central Taiwan also supplies most of the water for the island. Except Taipei. CKS – always wary of angry mobs in the capital – was careful to ensure a steady water supply for Taipei.

To conclude, I am very happy to say that I assume none of this will have much impact on any elections coming up over the next few years. We (mostly) dodged a bullet this time.