Referendum campaigns start. Pork is debated.

We are now about a month away from the Dec 18 referendums. Following the KMT’s successful attempt to recall Taiwan Statebuilding Party legislator Chen Po-wei last month, the government has given up any hope that they can just rely on low turnout to defeat the four referendums. They are going to have to mobilize voters to actively reject them. We are starting to see outlines of how this campaign will unfold.

There are four items on the ballot.

  • Bar pork imports containing ractopamine
  • Hold referendums on the same day as national elections
  • Restart work on the mothballed Fourth Nuclear Power Plant (4NPP)
  • Relocate a liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal to protect algal reefs

The former two are sponsored by the KMT. The latter two are not directly sponsored by the KMT, but the KMT was heavily involved in the signature drives to get these items on the ballot. All four can be seen as KMT initiatives designed to deal the government a defeat.

Let’s be clear. I fundamentally do not think these are sincere efforts to seek a good public policy outcome. Most people don’t really have strong opinions about these topics, with the possible exception of 4NPP. We have been talking about 4NPP for 30 years, and attitudes about 4NPP cross party lines. However, the debate among normal people rarely goes beyond the most basic ideas (it isn’t safe; we need clean air; renewables are better). It isn’t the case that the broad population is well-versed in the nuances of energy policy. Ractopamine has been on the national radar for a decade, but it is still generally talked about in alarmist rhetoric rather than any nuanced discussion. Notably, both major parties have been on both sides of this question, depending on whether they were in government or opposition. As for the other two, I just don’t believe many people have strong opinions at all. “What’s this one about? Protecting the environment? Sure, I’m for that.” “What’s this one about? Increasing the amount of coal we burn? I don’t want that!” It’s a problem we face in survey research all the time: If you ask people a question that they have never thought about, they’ll probably give you an answer. It just won’t be very meaningful. For the most part, positions on these referendums just reflect where the voter stands on other, more fundamental questions. “People I like say to vote yes, so I guess I’ll vote yes.” These referendums are about power, not good public policy. The KMT wants to kick the DPP in the teeth. Supporters of smaller parties wouldn’t mind seeing the DPP suffer some embarrassment.

Polling on the referendums is limited and fairly low-quality, but I think it is fair to say that all four were favored to pass in October (when the media and general public started to focus on the upcoming referendums). A few months ago, there were KMT leaders talking about how the referendums would be a referendum on President Tsai’s performance. In my opinion, that was an entirely accurate depiction of how referendums actually function. However, the KMT has stopped asking people to vote for the referendums to vote against Tsai for one simple reason: Tsai’s approval ratings have recovered. The October My Formosa poll shows Tsai has 53.7% job satisfaction and 43.3% dissatisfaction. If the vote is purely a referendum on Tsai, the KMT will probably lose. The DPP is losing the referendums right now, but Tsai and the DPP are not dragging the “no” campaigns down. They are popular enough to make a case. Still, it’s an uphill battle to change people’s minds once they have decided where they stand.

There is some garbage internet polling on the referendum that I won’t bother with. The only telephone polls thus far come from two of my least favorite pollsters, the deep green Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation and the deep blue TVBS. Still, this is what we have.

   yesnoDon’t know
PorkTPOFOct 2668.125.76.3
PorkTVBSNov 12553213
Same DayTPOFOct 2657.437.28.4
Same DayTVBSNov 12503713
4NPPTPOFOct 2646.741.711.5
4NPPTVBSNov 12424513
LNGTPOFOct 2647.729.622.8
LNGTVBSNov 12373330

The first major development in the campaign came in early November when important people inside the KMT started rebelling against the 4NPP proposal. Yilan county commissioner Lin Tzu-miao expressed opposition, and New Taipei mayor Hou You-yi expressed doubts. KMT chair Eric Chu, who a few weeks ago was talking about passing all four items, suddenly changed his tune. The KMT had only proposed two items (pork, same day referendums), and it was only dedicated to passing those two. The other two (4NPP, LNG) came from other groups. While the KMT was sympathetic to them, it would not demand its party members all support them. It was up to each member to decide for themselves. In effect, Chu was trying to distance the KMT from the two energy-related proposals.[1] The polls showed that these were the least popular of the four, and the arguments against them are the easiest to make. Without enthusiastic KMT support and loud DPP opposition, they seem to be in a bit of trouble. We’ll see if the polls continue to slide for these two.

On Saturday, the Central Election Commission held four public forums, one for each referendum. In the hour-long event, the proposer made the case for the referendum and one person made the case against. I’m not sure how the latter people were chosen, but they are all high-ranking government bureaucrats in the agencies responsible for the specific policy [edit: they are all political appointees, not regular civil servants]. I haven’t watched all four forums yet, but I have watched the one on pork, which is the one I assume my readers will care more about. KMT legislator Lin Wei-chou 林為洲 presented the case in favor, while Council of Agriculture Chair Chen Chi-chung 陳吉仲 presented the case against. To give you a flavor of how the two sides are making their arguments, I present a summary of their main points.

For the anti-pork referendum (1st round)

  • The DPP was against ractopamine beef and pork before the adoption of the Codex establishing acceptable levels (in 2011), and continued to oppose it after that.
  • Racto-pork is not the same as American pork. This referendum is not anti-American. That is government misleading people.
  • Ractopamine is not safe. The Codex vote only passed by two votes, and lots of countries – including Taiwan – still prohibit its use domestically.
  • Why did the government suddenly approve ractopamine last August? Some people wonder whether the government was trying to support a particular candidate in the American election.
  • The KMT legislative caucus proposed several bills regulating racto-pork (no offal, protecting students, labeling whether pork contains ractopamine), but they were all rejected.
  • Taiwanese eat 6-7 times more pork than beef, so it is much more important to regulate pork quality. We are especially worried about processed pork products, which are harder to trace.


Against the anti-pork referendum (1st round)

  • This is an anti-American pork initiative. Past KMT protests have said they were against American pork.
  • Since the Codex was passed, 109 countries allow imports of meat with ractopamine
  • The market has been opened for several months, and there haven’t been dire effects on the domestic pork industry. The price of pork is still high, and pork exports are higher. The government has implemented a program of new policies in order to minimize the impact of opening the market. President’s Chen and Ma tried to open the market, but couldn’t. Tsai has been able to do it because she has pushed the entire policy package.
  • Taiwan is following the Japanese model of differentiating between imported meat allowing ractopamine and domestic meat not allowing it so that consumers concerned about ractopamine will be able to tell which meat does not contain it. Thus far since there is no market demand, no pork with ractopamine has been imported. Consumers win, local producers win, and Taiwan follows the international rules of the game.
  • Taiwan has been importing American beef since 2012. There haven’t been any health problems. In fact, there haven’t been any reported ractopamine-related problems globally.
  • Many countries have opened up to ractopamine mean, including many CPTPP members.
  • This is a question of international economic arrangements, not food safety. Because President Tsai opened the market, Taiwan has been able to restart TIFA talks. We have a NTD2.4trillion trading relationship with the USA, including a trade surplus of NTD530billion.
  • CPTPP has rules about food safety. Applicants must follow international standards.


For the anti-pork referendum (2nd round)

  • You are misrepresenting our position by calling it anti-American. Taiwan has been importing American pork for 30 years with no problem.
  • 160 countries don’t allow ractopamine in domestic production. Would they do this if there were no health problems? The Codex allows countries to make their own domestic policies. The EU does not allow any ractopamine imports, including from the USA. If the EU can, why can’t we?
  • Pork is labeled as American, but we can’t tell if it contains ractopamine. The government wouldn’t let us label ractopamine or not. It’s all mixed together. But these meats will all get into processed pork products whether we want them or not.
  • We haven’t had American ractopamine pork imports, but if the referendum fails they will all flood in since they are cheaper.
  • On CPTPP, the USA is not in CPTPP. Several CPTPP countries don’t allow racto-beef but allow racto-pork. Why? Because Australia, New Zealand, and Malaysia eat more beef than pork, so opening the pork market doesn’t have much impact. We eat more pork than beef. Why can’t we act strategically like them?

Against the anti-pork referendum (2nd round)

  • In fact, this is an anti-American pork initiative.
  • No country allows labeling ractopamine, so this is against international practices. Actually, sales of American pork have declined since we opened the market. Consumers win, producers win, the country wins.
  • We each eat 2.7kg of American beef annually. Ractopamine goes through your system quickly. This is not a food safety issue.
  • President Tsai’s policies have been good for Taiwanese farmers. They successfully eradicated foot and mouth disease so that pork farmers could export meat.
  • There were a lot of food safety scandals under President Ma. There haven’t been any under Tsai. Food safety isn’t done by a referendum; it takes detailed policies and action. He talks about inspecting food in markets. We use more domestic food products for school lunches than before and teach students about where it comes from and how it is produced. That is food safety.
  • Food safety is not what is driving this question. We don’t decide international rules of the game with a referendum. President Tsai is taking Taiwan into the world. Remember when China suddenly and arbitrarily blocked our pineapples? We were angry. If we do that, won’t the USA be angry? This is respecting the international rules.

A few final thoughts. In writing this out, Lin Wei-chou’s arguments in favor seem a bit thin. They seemed much better when I was just listening to him. I think Chen Chi-chung had the better performance, though I’m wouldn’t say he clearly won the debate. For example, much of Lin’s argument was based on worries that ractopamine might be dangerous rather than solid arguments that it actually is, while Chen could say that there isn’t a single documented case globally of a ractopamine-caused health problem. In the abstract, that’s a point to Chen. However, if you – like many Taiwanese – are predisposed to suspect that ractopamine is dangerous, Lin’s argument becomes much more compelling.  

It is also interesting to me that Chen mentions President Tsai again and again. Both sides have strategic reasons to not explicitly turn this into a referendum on the government’s performance, but they both know that it is one. Chen is much more aggressive in making the case that the government has generally done a good job and deserves voters’ trust.

The two sides seem to agree that the crucial question is whether or not this is a narrow question about domestic consumption of ractopamine pork. Lin argues that there are no international implications, while Chen argues that the international effects would be dire.[2] Chen says that ractopamine is safe, but he implicitly admits that Taiwanese don’t really want ractopamine pork.[3] Remember, he brags about how domestic sales of Taiwanese pork have risen since labeling of the country of origin became mandatory –presumably because consumers don’t trust the safety of imported pork. Opening the market to ractopamine pork is something he says we have to do for TIFA, CPTPP, and the larger economy. The point here is that, if this referendum is defeated, it won’t be because people see the wonderful benefits of cheaper American pork. It will be because they value good relations with the USA and are willing to pay a hefty price for those relations.

The government is starting this campaign from behind, and it only has a month left to change people’s minds. This is a daunting task, but at least it has finally started directly attacking the problem.


[1] After watching the 4NPP forum, I can see why Chu wants to distance himself. That guy is a disaster! His solution for dealing with nuclear waste was to flippantly say they could store it at his house.

[2] Above, I assumed that my readers are more interested in pork than the other referendums. I don’t think most of you care very much about the quality of the pork I eat; I assume most of you – especially those living outside Taiwan – are primarily worried about the effect this referendum could have on Taiwan-USA relations. Lin is betting that many Taiwanese voters will reject this premise.

[3] For the record, I’m not crazy about American pork, either. This is not specifically due to ractopamine; I’m generally concerned about industrialized agricultural products. I’m not crazy about American beef or milk, either. I prefer the higher prices created by Taiwan’s smaller farms, since the smaller scale farmers don’t have the same incentives to “rationalize” every aspect of their operations. On pork, I’m partial to meat from black pigs, a local breed that grows more slowly and is less responsive to lean meat enhancers. I can’t be sure our local pig farmers don’t use all kinds of hormones and chemicals to make more profit, but I assume that the farmers interested in those sorts of strategies wouldn’t be raising the less competitive black pigs in the first place. Lin worries about pork in processed foods and restaurants, and he has a point. No one is monitoring my local noodle shop every day to ensure that the pork they bought in the market that morning for their 榨菜肉絲麵 noodles is actually ractopamine-free. We inevitably consume some of it, though I don’t think I eat enough meat to consume dangerous levels of ractopamine or (hopefully) any other chemicals.

One Response to “Referendum campaigns start. Pork is debated.”

  1. jadebenn Says:

    Honestly, I’d be more than willing to store nuclear waste at my house too. Put a CASTOR cask on a pad in the yard. I’d be at no risk. My neighbors wouldn’t be big fans, though…

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