Archive for the ‘cross straits’ Category

Public opinion and Pelosi’s (unimportant) visit

September 29, 2022

About a month ago, I started writing a post about the August My Formosa poll. It was not a good poll for President Tsai and the DPP. Given that Nancy Pelosi’s visit occurred in early August, I thought it was important to address this. To make a long story short, I don’t think Pelosi’s visit or cross-straits politics were driving the dip in President Tsai’s popularity. The My Formosa poll didn’t ask anything about that, but two other polls did. Both showed that the public generally approved of Pelosi’s visit. Instead, the dip seemed to be driven by purely domestic events. The most obvious thing was the plagiarism scandal that forced the DPP’s candidate for Taoyuan mayor to withdraw from the race, but there have been a few other things as well.

Unfortunately, I got distracted by other things, and I never got around to finishing that post. One of my conclusions was going to be that we should probably wait for more data to come out to see if August was a lasting change or just a blip in the long-term trends. Well, now the September survey is out. Tsai and the DPP have bounced back a little, though not all the way.

For the purposes of getting this post out as quickly as possible, I’m going to copy my draft from a month ago (denoted in blue), and I will add a few comments to update things for this month.

August was an important month in Taiwan. Speaker Pelosi visited, China reacted by holding unprecedented military drills that redefined the status quo, Senator Markey visited and China continued its drills, and Senator Blackburn visited and China apparently got tired of complaining. The KMT reacted to this by sending a delegation to China, a move that was criticized by KMT politicians as well as everyone else. So what effects did these BIG EVENTS have on Taiwanese public opinion?

The August My Formosa poll is out, and President Tsai and the DPP did not do well. The talking heads are not being subtle. I heard the words “collapse” and “crisis” screamed several times.

Before you jump to any conclusions, you should keep in mind two things. First, it wasn’t a good poll for Tsai and the DPP, but “collapse” and “crisis” are overstating things juuust a bit. President Tsai has had several months this bad during her second term, including one earlier this year. And “bad” puts her at a level that Presidents Chen and Ma would have salivated at during their second terms.  Second, the primary driver in the DPP’s decrease in popularity in August may not have been Pelosi and China. It was probably due to LITTLE EVENTS little events in domestic politics, specifically a plagiarism scandal resulting in a DPP mayoral candidate withdrawing from the race.

 So what did this poll find? Let’s start with President Tsai’s job satisfaction. In July, 56.2% were satisfied with her overall performance in office, while 41.0% were dissatisfied, yielding a net satisfaction of 15.2%. In August, satisfaction plunged to 50.4%, dissatisfaction skyrocketed to 46.5%, so net satisfaction plummeted to 3.9%!! What a disaster!! (Sorry, I got carried away there.) But seriously, this wasn’t a good result for the DPP. A 5% shift against you is pretty significant.

However, if we look at the August results against the last several years instead of just July, a somewhat more nuanced picture emerges. Over the past two years, Tsai has often had somewhere around a 55/40 satisfaction/dissatisfaction rating. However, there have now been three 5% shifts that produced a 50/45 balance, one after the May 2021 Covid outbreak, a second in the May 2022 Covid outbreak, and now this one. The softest supporters are the first to jump ship, and perhaps they just did it again. We will have to wait and see if they drift back in the next few months, as they did after the first two drops. At any rate, Tsai’s current satisfaction rating is at the bottom end of her previous range, but it is still within that established range. This isn’t a fundamentally new pattern. We certainly aren’t in the world of late 2018.

[update: Tsai’s approval rating bounced back a little in September, but it is a lot closer to August than July. Her net satisfaction is now at +5.9%. I didn’t expect it to bounce all the way back in one month, but I thought it might bounce back a little more than this.]

It’s the same basic story for party ID. The DPP didn’t do well in August (26.3%, down 2.3% from July). If you look at the past few years, the DPP has generally been somewhere between 25% and 33%, so this puts them at the lower end of that range. It’s not good news for them, but it also isn’t breaking any new ground.

Meanwhile, the KMT had a pretty good poll result. Between the summer of 2020 and the end of last year, the KMT usually got around 15%. However, they had several months of dismal results in the spring and summer getting 11-12%. In August, the KMT rebounded to 14.4%. That’s better than they had been doing recently, but well within the range of the previous two years. They’ll be very happy to have stopped their recent slide, but that’s about the extent of it. This is a good, not great, result for them.

[update: It’s actually not quite the same story for party ID. The DPP bounced back quite a lot in September. Their September support was actually a bit higher than in July. It’s interesting to see the difference in recoveries between Tsai and the DPP. The KMT fell a little, but their drop was fairly mild. The biggest story in party ID is over on the TPP side. The TPP got 10.4% in this poll. They had never even gotten 9% in a My Formosa poll before. The TPP has had a pretty good 18 months in party ID, so they might have high expectations for the upcoming elections.]

I could go through a few other standard questions from the My Formosa survey, but they are all basically the same story. The DPP had a bad month, falling near the bottom of its “normal” range. The KMT had a good month, recovering to the middle of its “normal” range.

So why do I think that this isn’t a reaction to Pelosi’s visit and Chinese military aggression? My normal inclination is to ignore the day-to-day minutia and pay attention to the big events. My basic assumption about Taiwanese politics is that an enormous proportion of things – maybe 80 or 90% – can be understood through the lens of national identity, attitudes toward China, party ID, sovereignty, and other questions that fit into the single dominant political cleavage. Everything else is fiddling around the edges. The last few things to really shake up the political system – the Sunflower movement and the Hong Kong protests/China’s suppression of political freedoms – were directly related to the dominant political cleavage. China making an aggressively threatening gesture like this could have mattered.

But it doesn’t look like that is driving these changes in the polls. My Formosa certainly doesn’t think it is the big thing that we all need to focus on. They didn’t even bother to ask any questions about Pelosi or the military drills.

There are two reasonably good quality surveys that focused on these questions. One was done by the Chinese Association of Public Opinion Research (CAPOR), an organization formed by blue-leaning academics who are primarily interested in China and international relations rather than public opinion. The CAPOR survey was done by Apollo Research, a pollster originally associated with the Want Want Group. (To be fair to Apollo, their polls are pretty professional, and I know several respected academics who trust them to produce data for their research.) The other poll was by the Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation (TPOF), which is run by deep green (though not necessarily pro-Tsai) figures. I think it’s fair to say that, if these polls are biased, they should be skewed in opposite directions. In fact, they paint similar pictures.

TPOF asked if respondents welcomed Pelosi’s visit. 52.9% said they welcomed it, against 24.0% who said they did not welcome it. They then asked, “If we knew then that China would react by holding such a large-scale military exercise, should we have refused Pelosi’s visit?” Respondents rejected this suggestion by a 52.9% to 33.6% margin.

CAPOR asked if Pelosi’s visit had substantively helped Taiwan-USA relations. 53.7% said it had helped, while 27.4 said it had not helped. CAPOR then asked a few questions that looked to me like they were designed to attack the DPP. If so, they didn’t get the responses they were looking for. First, “Some people think, ‘Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan only benefitted the DPP; ordinary people didn’t feel anything at all.’ Do you agree or disagree?” 35.7% agreed, but 47.7% disagreed. Second, “Some people think, ‘If Taiwan still maintained the 1992 Consensus, Pelosi’s visit would not have caused such an extremely tense situation in the Taiwan Strait.’ Do you agree or disagree?” 36.1% agreed, and 41.3% disagreed.

The takeaway from both these polls is that there was no public backlash to Pelosi’s visit. On the contrary, it was popular, even though respondents could see China’s reaction. President Tsai and the DPP suffered in the polls following Pelosi’s visit, but it wasn’t because of Pelosi’s visit. Big events can have big consequences for public opinion, but that isn’t what happened this time.

Overall, Taiwan public opinion is still roughly the same as it was before the December referendums and perhaps even the January 2020 elections. Of course, these are local elections, and the individual candidates matter quite a lot. However, they are building their campaigns on fairly stable partisan turf. If the KMT candidates win easily in New Taipei and Taichung (as all signs indicate), it will be in spite of their party, not because of it.

Pelosi visit: What is China thinking?

July 31, 2022

A lot of people have written a lot of words about Nancy Pelosi’s possible upcoming visit to Taiwan. Many of these are very smart and well-informed people whose opinions I respect tremendously. However, there is one question that keeps eating away at me that almost no one is talking about: Is Xi Jinping in trouble?

Almost all the commentary has looked at the situation from the American point of view. Very little has thought much about the Chinese point of view. A lot of analysts have noted that China will make several important decisions about its leadership over the next few months, so this is a particularly sensitive time. Several have worried that Xi would find a Pelosi visit humiliating and might feel the need to act rashly. However, I have only read one column going much deeper into internal Chinese politics than that. These analysts also seem almost universally to assume that a third term for Xi Jinping is a foregone conclusion. Frankly speaking, it doesn’t quite add up to me.

Disclaimer: I am not a China specialist. I don’t know what is going on inside China.

Let me lay out a few basic assumptions that shape my thinking.

First, I assume that domestic power is Xi Jinping’s (and every other major Chinese actor’s) top priority right now. You have to secure power first before you can do anything else.

Second, Nancy Pelosi’s visit is not inherently worthy of a crisis. Members of Congress visit Taiwan all the time, and Pelosi does not have the power to decide American foreign policy. Arguably, the visits of cabinet-level figures over the past few years have been more significant than this visit. China could, if it wanted to, follow the normal script of issuing indignant complaints that everyone ignores. Instead, China has chosen to escalate the tension around this particular visit. I reiterate, this is a CHOICE.

Third, several well-informed American voices have argued that China is making threats about using force that seem more credible than normal. In many versions, this involves threatening the military plane carrying Pelosi; in others, it involves holding live fire exercises, sending fighters deeper into Taiwan’s airspace, or just ambiguous dire consequences. I am not in any position to dispute them. I’ll assume that China has, indeed, staked out a fairly extreme position, and the US military is quite concerned about Pelosi’s physical safety.

Fourth, China’s goal is to prevent Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. China has now invested quite a bit of political capital telling its domestic audience that it will not tolerate this visit. Its ideal outcome is that she will back down and cancel the visit.

Fifth, the chances that Pelosi will cancel the visit in the face of public Chinese pressure are pretty low. Once the visit became public, canceling it would have been a humiliating option for Pelosi. It also would give Republicans a powerful weapon to hammer Democrats with. China could get its preferred outcome, but it is highly likely that it will not. This is a risky bet for Xi and China.

Where does that leave us? China would seem to be faced with the choice of backing down or carrying through with its threats against Pelosi’s plane. Those are terrible options for the PRC. Backing down would be humiliating, but engaging would probably be worse. Pelosi will be flying on an American military plane, so threatening or attacking that plane would be directly confronting the American military. For China, this would be just about the worst way to get into a war with the USA.

China might be preparing for a war to take Taiwan, and it might assume that it will inevitably get into a military conflict with the USA. However, they should probably prefer to choose an advantageous time and place for that. Forcing down Pelosi’s plane wouldn’t gain them any Taiwanese territory. Instead, it would probably galvanize American public opinion against China and for a rapid military buildup. It could create a huge backlash against Chinese manufactured goods that would inflict severe pain on an already weak Chinese economy. That is, it would probably force the USA to prepare more aggressively, making it less likely that China would win any future war. Moreover, Chinese strategy on Taiwan has been predicated on persuading the USA to stay out of any conflict, or, failing that, to take Taiwan quickly before the US military has time to mobilize. By directly attacking a US military plane, they would be cutting Taiwan out of the equation and forcing the US to get involved. In addition, attacking a non-threatening transport plane is a pretty good way to ensure that international opinion is firmly against you. Oh, and let’s not forget that any moves against Pelosi’s plane might not be successful. The American military has been alerted to the danger, and it has its own forces that it can use to protect her plane. There is a real possibility that China could create all that backlash AND find out that its military isn’t as strong as it had hoped.

In short, there are a lot of ways that this could go very badly for China.

Let’s go back to Xi Jinping. According to most analysts, Xi is firmly on course to secure a third term. There are complaints about the economy, the Covid response, and several other things, but most people don’t seem to think that anyone is ready to make a serious challenge to Xi’s power. If this is an accurate description, Xi’s strategy should be to hold everything steady. If nothing big changes, he will win. They should downplay Pelosi’s visit as unimportant and insignificant, while issuing all the standard complaints about Chinese sovereignty and Taiwan separatists. If there is nothing to see here, then there is no humiliation for Xi or China. Xi’s Taiwan strategy is still on track, and Xi marches inevitably toward a third term.

Yet what is happening with the Pelosi trip is just the opposite. China is actively creating/escalating an international crisis in which there is a high probability that it will not obtain a good outcome. Effectively, China could be inviting everyone to see Xi and the current government as weak and ineffective. This is precisely the sort of thing that could derail Xi’s pursuit of a third term. Why would Xi allow China to pursue a strategy that has the potential to remove him from power?

The only way China’s actions make sense to me is if everyone is wrong about Xi’s grip on power and Xi Jinping is in serious trouble. There are two versions of this story.

The first scenario is that Xi Jinping expects he will lose. In this version, opponents have taken advantage of all those complaints about the economy and the general direction of China to secretly put together a coalition broad enough to unseat Xi. Western scholars and journalists, who have largely been kept out of China for the past two years, have not picked up the scent of this rebellion, but Xi has. Moreover, it is so large and powerful that he can’t just purge his opponents. He has to persuade them. In this scenario, he needs a major victory to re-establish his prestige. Even though there is a high risk of failure over Pelosi’s trip, he feels he has to take this chance in order to maintain his grip on power.

In the second scenario, Xi is still on track to win, but there is a significant challenge and his grip on power is looser than most people think. In this scenario, Xi understands that risks involved in escalating the conflict over the Pelosi visit. However, Xi is not fully in control. His opponents, sensing an opportunity, have used their influence over the media and other institutions to escalate the tension and forced Xi to go along with them. Essentially, they are pushing him into a situation in which there is a high possibility that he will come out looking weak. It is possible they might be able to push Xi out of power, and a significant defeat in Taiwan policy might be the thing that secures that outcome.

Again, most analysts reassure us that Xi is firmly on track to secure a third term, so neither of these scenarios should be in play. However, China’s actions and statements about the Pelosi visit make a lot more sense if Xi is in trouble.

Alternatively, perhaps no one in China is actually that worked up about Pelosi’s visit, and the USA is just taking China’s standard (insincere) doomsday rhetoric seriously yet again. I don’t think it is that simple, but it is logically consistent.

Postscript: While I was writing this, Nancy Pelosi’s office issued a press statement saying that she is leading a delegation to Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea, and Japan. This doesn’t mean she is definitely not coming to Taiwan, but it seems more likely that she will not. China’s gamble might be paying off.

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

August 7, 2019

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Relax. The Sky Isn’t Falling.

September 5, 2016

I haven’t weighed in on the current state of affairs in Taiwan in recent months since I have been busy with my regular job and since not all that much significant has happened. However, it seems that the rest of the world has a very different view of things than I do.

(I’m writing this on an airplane without access to the internet, so you’ll have to excuse my lack of concrete numbers. If you need some polling numbers, I suggest checking the TISR website.)

I keep reading that President Tsai’s and Premier Lin’s approval ratings are sinking fast. Communications in the new government do not flow smoothly. The new administration has taken some shockingly conservative positions, bungled several appointments, and is basically on the verge of becoming a failed administration.

Hey, relax! The world I see looks very little like that. Sure, Tsai’s new administration is going through some growing pains as it learns how to wield power. There have been a few missteps, but let’s keep a sense of perspective. These have been minor bumps rather than major failures that might define her first term. I think the biggest problem is that many deep green true believers are suffering from wildly unrealistic expectations. Did they really expect transitional justice to occur, economic transformation to be completed, KMT party assets to be recovered, the judicial system to be thoroughly reformed, and cross-straits relations to be fundamentally reset to Taiwan’s ideal position in just one hundred days? Maybe we should wait a couple of years before making our preliminary judgements.

Also, maybe DPP supporters might want to enjoy the victories when they occur. The party assets bill is a good example of unwarranted hand-wringing. So the process was marked by stops and starts, with compromises, delays, and a fair amount of screaming from both sides. So what? That’s how the process works in democratic politics. The important thing is that the bill was eventually passed, not whether the government was sufficiently sincere, enthusiastic, or inflexible during the process. To roughly paraphrase a friend, recovering ill-gotten KMT assets has been a core DPP goal since before there even was a DPP. And now they have won! They have completely won! But do they stop to enjoy the moment or give any credit to their leadership for this achievement? Not at all. They are too busy criticizing the slight imperfections to enjoy the larger victory. The DPP is the establishment now! It needs to learn how to accept and enjoy winning. It needs to stop thinking like idealist, perfectionist activists and start thinking like pragmatists.


Tsai took a lot of heat from the true believers over the international court’s decision on the South China Seas. They seemed infuriated that she had not taken the opportunity to renounce ROC claims to the nine-dash line, the various islands, or whatever. Personally, I couldn’t care less about all those islands way out in the ocean far away from Taiwan, but I thought her “conservative” stance showed considerable restraint. In a sense, this was showing that her promise to respect the “constitutional order” has real meaning. It doesn’t only constrain her from doing things that ardent Chinese nationalists want (ie: unification with no reference to public opinion), it also constrains her from doing things that many ardent Taiwanese nationalists want (ie: renouncing all commitments made and positions taken by the KMT regime). I don’t know whether Beijing was taking note, but they should have been. That this sort of message could be sent using “disposable” assets made it all the better. Taiwan actually has security interests in the Daioyutai and Pengjiayu Islands, so it might need to be more careful in how it treats those territories.


On public opinion, everyone is clearly overreacting. Tsai and Lin’s aggregate approval ratings have declined a bit from their initial levels. However, those initial approval ratings in the 70s were always unrealistic. Those were classic honeymoon numbers. Once normal partisan politics kicked in, a certain number of those people who have never liked the DPP were inevitably going to discover that she was doing DPP-type things. It’s not as if her current numbers are terrible. An approval rating of somewhere around 50%, give or take 5%, is a perfectly workable number. By all appearances, she is mostly holding her coalition together. It looks to me as though the green voters who are dissatisfied are mostly the deep green ideologues who sure as hell won’t be defecting to the blue camp. Moreover, there is another number that isn’t getting near the attention of the satisfaction ratings but is far more important. Party ID is trending in favor of the DPP. During the first three years of Ma’s second term, the KMT hemorrhaged support while this DPP gained identifiers and eventually passed the KMT. By the end of 2014, this trend had played out, and party ID was fairly stable between the December 2014 mayoral elections and the 2016 presidential election. However, in the past six months, the lines have started moving again, with the DPP stretching its party ID advantage over the KMT to unprecedented levels. At the beginning of the year, the DPP usually had a 5-10% edge; now that edge is around 20% in most polls. This is hardly a sign of a presidency in collapse.


So, hey, try something different. Just chill. Taiwan was in ultra-politicized/crisis mode almost constantly between September 2013 and January 2016. Try to enjoy a few months, maybe even a couple of years, of more normal, relatively boring politics. Go take a bike ride or hike a mountain or something. Just stop panicking.

Xi Jinping in campaign ads

January 12, 2016

I ran across an interesting ad in Neihu in Taipei 4. This is the district that in 2012 elected Alex Tsai, one of the most reviled legislators of the sunflower movement. Tsai is not running for re-election. Instead, city councilor Lee Yan-hsiu is representing the KMT. The DPP did not nominate a candidate in this district and instead is supporting Huang Shan-shan, a PFP city councilor. Not all the green camp supporters are comfortable with supporting a person who has always been a supporter of the other side, and a TSU candidate has stayed in the race in order to soak up all those votes.

Huang only has one campaign picture. It has her and the slogans, “listen carefully,” and “hear your voice.”



The attack ad from TSU candidate Hsiao Ya-tan plays on this slogan. It has a picture of PFP chair James Soong shaking hands with Xi Jinping. The characters say, “listen carefully,” and “hear the sounds of boots at the military parade.” At the bottom it says, “defend Taiwan, go all out to rescue Hsiao Ya-tan.”



This is not a post about how Xi Jinping is being used in this year’s election campaign. What is most striking to me is that this is the ONLY ad I’ve seen using his image. Notably, this is an ad of Soong and Xi, not Ma or Chu and Xi. Its purpose is to keep green voters from voting for a blue candidate, not to convince previously blue voters to change sides and support a green candidate. [Hsiao’s campaign isn’t very well funded, and I’ve only seen this billboard in two locations. As if to emphasize just how unique this ad is, while I was taking a picture of it, I glanced to my left and saw a TVBS also news reporter doing a quick report on it.]



When Eric Chu went to China last spring to meet Xi and when President Ma held his surprised meeting with Xi in November, I assumed that photos of those two shaking hands would show up in someone’s campaign ads. Thus far, I have not seen any such ads. Isn’t that interesting?

I’m not terribly surprised that the KMT isn’t using any pictures of Ma or Chu shaking Xi’s hands. No one in the KMT wants to suggest to voters that the KMT and CCP are allies. It would almost be like telling voters that a vote for the KMT equals a vote for the DPP.

I’m much more surprised that I haven’t seen any photos of Ma or Chu with Xi used in New Party or TSU ads. I would have expected one of these smaller parties to stake out an ideologically extreme position in an effort to appeal to the most radical sliver of the population.

However, it is most fascinating to me that no one in the DPP has used one of those photos. There has to have been some sort of command from the central party strategists to all candidates telling them not to go there. Otherwise, you have to imagine that someone would have put a picture on a flier or banner. It’s not as if the individual campaigns have been shy about using a variety of other attacks, and I have heard several people complaining about Ma’s behavior in the Ma-Xi meeting on the stump.

I suspect that there are two reasons the DPP is eschewing this line of attack in its official campaign materials. One is that the public is not necessarily against engagement with China. What we learned during the Ma-Xi episode is that there can be quite high levels of support for such talks, provided that various conditions of transparency and national dignity are satisfied. The DPP doesn’t want to get an image as a party that automatically shuns contact with China. Second, Tsai and the DPP are probably deliberately leaving some breathing space for future dealings with China. By not demonizing Xi Jinping in the campaign, they might be sending a message to the PRC that they are willing to have contact and even leader-to-leader meetings in the future. In other words, Tsai is being very careful not to poison the well.

Chen Deming has foot in mouth disease

December 6, 2015

Chinese bigwig Chen Deming was in Taiwan last week, and he made some awkward comments. Chen is one of the top officials in charge of China’s Taiwan policy, so he might be expected to have a nuanced understanding of Taiwan’s democratic politics or have a feel for how certain comments might be received. Apparently not.

First, Chen praised the Want China Times group for upholding the freedom of the press. Yes! We all know that the CCP and PRC are fervently dedicated to the freedom of the press! And Want Want has a long track record of insisting on the facts, no matter how inconvenient they are!

Second, Chen suggested that public opinion isn’t always right, and sometimes history judges people who at one time had majority support very negatively. You know, like the Nazis. Yes, exactly! Why didn’t we see that before? Tsai Ing-wen is clearly the second coming of Hitler! Thanks to Chen Deming’s incisive argument, I’m sure voters’ eyes have been opened to the DPP’s true nature, and next week’s polls will show the KMT surging into the lead.

There is a “law” that the first person to bring up Hitler loses the argument, since the analogy is almost always ill-advised. Now, East Asians aren’t as sensitive about Nazism and Hitler as Americans or Europeans, but even in this part of the world most people know that you have to wait for a fairly serious case to bust out the Hitler comparisons. This kind of crude overkill (How in the world is Tsai like Hitler?? Hell, she isn’t even very charismatic.) says more about the person making the argument than the target of the argument.

By now, China should know that their best strategy for dealing with Taiwanese elections is to just shut up. When they say such outlandish things, it leads Taiwanese to think that “they” simply don’t think the way that “we” do. Moreover, the Taiwanese electorate is fiercely protective of its autonomy, and anything China says or does will backfire. But they can’t help themselves. Internal pressures force Chinese officials to try to stick their noses in. What’s more surprising is that, after all these years, they are still so clumsy at it.


Three reporters

November 11, 2015

As I sit down to write tonight, it was almost exactly one week ago that news of the Ma-Xi meeting broke, and I thought it would be instructive to look at the role of the media in this episode. I’m going to do this through the lens of three reporters.

The first is Ho Chen-chung 何振忠 from the United Daily News. Ho was the first reporter called on to ask a question at Ma’s press conference. There was a reason for this. After answering Ho’s question, Ma feigned surprise that Ho was there and then praised him for being present once again at such an important historical juncture. Ma then showed a copy of the story Ho had written in 1992 in Singapore. This story forms the basis for Ma’s insistence that the 92 Consensus does indeed date to 1992, so Ma’s comment was intended both to kiss up a friendly media outlet and also to bolster his ideological position. (I wrote about the UDN’s reporting of events in 1992 here.) The UDN eagerly soaked up this blatant flattery, publishing this story basking in the enormous face Ma had given them. For a paper that considers itself to be the newspaper of record in Taiwan, the New York Times of Taipei, if you will, this was tremendously gratifying. To complete this circle of mutual love, Ho lobbed a big fat, juicy, softball right into Ma’s wheelhouse, asking what expectations Ma had for the next president to be able to accomplish the five concrete plans that Ma and Xi had agreed upon. Look, I know Taiwan has a partisan media, but this was a little too cooperative for me. The point of having experienced reporters is that they are supposed to have a sense of context so that they can ask incisive questions. There were lots of tough questions waiting to be asked, but Ho amiably gave Ma an opportunity to say exactly what Ma wanted to say. This episode took me back to 1992 in more ways than one.

The second person is Clara Chou 周玉蔻, who is no stranger to the limelight. She made scenes during both Zhang Zhijun’s and Ma Ying-jeou’s press conferences, demanding that they answer inconvenient questions. If I had to describe her in one word, it might be “screechy.” Nevertheless, even if I suspect her actions were motivated as much be ego and a desire for the spotlight, it was extremely welcome. The media is supposed to ask tough questions, and it should call attention to politicians who try to avoid those questions. If China wants to swallow up Taiwan, it should be aware that it will have to digest an aggressive an impolite media that will not passively repeat government platitudes. Chou sent that message loudly, clearly, and shrilly.

The third person is Tsou Ching-wen 鄒景雯 from the Liberty Times. Tsou scooped the rest of the media and the legislature twice, first by breaking the news of the meeting and then by reporting that the Ma administration was considering softening the language of the 92 Consensus. With these two stories, she single-handedly shaped the media coverage of the entire episode, both domestically and internationally.

Tsou broke the story only about 12 hours before the government wanted to announce the news, but those 12 hours were critical. As far as I can tell, the government planned to report the trip to legislative leaders in a closed-door session on Wednesday morning, and then they would hold a press conference announcing the trip to the public. This would have let them have the first shot at framing the story. Reporters are like the rest of us, and they will use what they have at hand to write a story. They would have all had government press releases and information packets, and many reporters would have relied heavily on that to write their first stories. They would have heard about opportunities for peaceful interaction, that 80% of the public supported top-level meetings, how this would build a bridge for future presidents, and so on. Some reporters would have sought out opposition reactions, but it would have taken a few hours for a surprised opposition to come up with a coherent response. The first stories would have come out in the United Evening News, which is now the only afternoon newspaper left and is, along with its sister paper UDN, among the most friendly to the Ma administration. The UEN doesn’t have a big audience, but it has a big influence on how the evening TV news channels frame their news. In short, the government would have had the first opportunity to present its story, and the opposition would have been playing catch-up.

However because Tsou broke the story 12 hours before the government was ready, this is not what happened. She posted her story at 10:30pm, which was too late for the evening TV news cycle, and the newspapers only had very basic coverage for the next day. Even her own Liberty Times didn’t have time to put together too much coverage of the story for the next day’s paper. However, this was not too late at all for international news outlets, especially those based in the USA and Europe. Their problem wasn’t time, it was sources. Since the government bureaucrats were all gone for the night, they didn’t have anyone to interview. Here, civil society and the internet stepped into the breach. Respected media outlets don’t normally quote blogs, but they quoted my 4:00am post, which I wrote through bleary eyes while lying in bed. I certainly wasn’t the only source like this. By the time the government officials started working in the morning, a narrative had already started to form. Ma was a lame duck president with low popularity trying to build a personal legacy by doing something that he hoped would rescue his party’s dismal hopes in the upcoming election. From the start, public opinion and awareness that the KMT was facing an election defeat were major ingredients shaping nearly every international media story. Instead of writing glowing stories about a major diplomatic breakthrough, there were stories about an impotent president throwing desperate Hail Mary passes. The Ma administration never really recovered control of the narrative in the international media. Domestically, instead of walking into a press conference completely unprepared, the press corps went to work foaming at the mouths and in full attack mode. Why was this visit negotiated in secrecy? Did Speaker Wang know about it? Who was the leak? Why did Ma, being an unpopular lame duck, think he had the legitimacy to take this initiative? The TSU legislators showed up, screamed for the cameras, and stormed out. NPP leader Huang Kuo-chang led a group of demonstrators and gave a fiery speech denouncing the move. Instead of controlling and leading the media, the Ma administration was on the defensive right from the beginning. They recovered somewhat, but the early combative tone ensured that the administration’s discourse would never dominate the domestic public discussion.

Tsou once again scooped the rest of the press corps on Friday, when she reported that Ma was considering softening the wording of the 92 Consensus. I’m not sure how much of an effect this had, but it did cause MAC Chair Andrew Hsia to have to answer inconvenient questions about this topic before he wanted to. It also might have played some role in convincing Hsia to later report that the MAC bureaucrats wanted to include the detailed version of the 92 Consensus and that Ma was responsible for softening the text. It looks to me like Hsia, a career civil servant, decided that he did not want the professional bureaucrats to have to take political responsibility for Ma’s decision.

This week Ho and Chou got a lot of media attention, but Tsou was the reporter who made a real difference. Tsou Ching-wen gave real meaning to the idea that the media is the Fourth Estate and plays a critical role in maintaining democracy by overseeing the government. Tsou Ching-wen, this week, you are my hero.

[edit 2015.11.11: Maybe that last paragraph is a bit too effusive. Storm media today has a story (original and translation) speculating that the DPP leaked news of the meeting to the media. I had assumed that it had been leaked to Tsou by some contact within the KMT or the bureaucracy. It’s a lot less impressive reporting if the source is a political party strategically leaking to friendly media at a time calculated to maximize their strategic interests.]

Ma vs MAC

November 10, 2015

A few days ago, I wrote a post about the rumor that Ma Ying-jeou would drop the “each side with its own interpretation” and simply state that the ROC was committed to One China. In the event, Ma did not go that far. However, in his opening remarks, he stated his position as the 92 Consensus, which he further explained as being the One China principle. This caused no small amount of controversy back home. Moreover, the choice to take this stance seems to have been Ma’s, and he did it over the opposition of the professional bureaucrats in the MAC. The rumor, it turns out, was not entirely unfounded.

On the one hand, part of me thinks that this whole controversy is overblown. Ma did state his position as the 92 Consensus, and the 92 Consensus is not a new idea. It has a well-worn history, so it is not reasonable to imagine that it doesn’t actually include the second half. Moreover, Ma talked about the “each side with its own interpretation” during the press conference. I still believe that the big picture is that Ma did not jettison the second part of the phrase or redefine the 92 Consensus as meaning simply One China.

On the other hand, the omission is significant. Xi Jinping did not specifically state “One China” in his remarks; he simply stated the phrase “92 Consensus.” Ma seemed to voluntarily do the dirty work of trying to squeeze the meaning of that phrase from a broader range to a narrower range of possibilities. This is causing quite a bit furor in Taiwan, not least because Ma always emphasizes the second part of the formula when he talks to domestic audiences. In fact, one of the reasons that Ma is so unpopular back home is that people have increasingly gotten tired of him saying one thing to the Taiwanese people and then a very different thing to international audiences or to China. The KMT campaign logo that was introduced just before the trip was announced is a classic example. The logo says, “One Taiwan,” which was a grating contrast with Ma’s repeated insistence of “One China” in Singapore. To give another pertinent example, when Ma ran for Taipei mayor, his campaign slogan was, “Taipei First, Taiwan First.” You might notice the absence of “China First.”

The 92 Consensus does have a certain level of support here in Taiwan, though it is lower and more fragile than Ma would like the world to believe. A few weeks ago, before the announcement of the Ma-Xi meeting, Taiwan Indicators Survey Research [original and English translation] asked a very interesting poll question. Respondents were asked if they supported various formulae for cross-strait relations. In descending order of popularity, here are the results:

One Country on Each Side 69.3%
Conduct relations according to the ROC constitutional framework 69.0
One China, One Taiwan 64.8
No unification, no independence, no war 63.8
One China, Each side with its own interpretation 36.2
One Country, Two Systems 28.3
92 Consensus 27.4
Two Chinas 25.8
Both Sides belong to one China 16.2
One Country, two governments 16.0
One Country, two regions 15.6
One China with the same interpretation 12.0
Eventual unification 10.5

(A poll released by the Cross Straits Policy Association today found similar results.)

There are four options that get a lot of support. None of them are based on One China. All of them are based on Taiwan maintaining its current de facto sovereignty. What is really interesting is to look at the different ways that the 92 Consensus can be stated. If you just call it the 92 Consensus, it gets 27% support. If you explicitly spell out the entire formula, “One China, each side with its own interpretation,” support rises to 37%. If you only use the words “One China”, support falls to around 15% (in several different formulations). With 37% support, you can probably maintain a viable position, even if only at a minimal level of legitimacy. You will probably have to have outstanding performance in other areas to compensate, but it might be doable. With 27%, it is probably untenable. With 15%, it is absolutely impossible. Why are there such differences in support? Ma bragged that the 92 Consensus is a masterpiece of ambiguity. There are small differences in each version, but those differences are important enough for many people to tip the balance from acceptable to unacceptable. In short, it was important for a large number of Taiwanese for Ma to explicitly spell out the phrase, “each side with its own interpretation.”

Opinion polls thus far send a split message. There are numbers that Ma will point to, and there are numbers the DPP will focus on. I’d say the DPP has more ammunition than Ma, but Ma has enough to work with at the moment that he can survive. However, I think public opinion on how well Ma did last weekend could take a downturn. We are starting to get information that the Liberty Times reporter was right. Ma was considering weakening the 92 Consensus, and he, in fact, actually did so. Andrew Hsia, head of the Mainland Affairs Council, went the legislature today. Under intense questioning from the media and in legislative interpellation, Hsia revealed that Ma had made important revisions to the draft produced by the MAC. The MAC had argued for spelling out the 92 Consensus in full. Ma made the decision to only state the part about One China and omit the second half of the formula.

Other insiders – including deep blue people angry at Ma’s treatment of the ROC – are starting to talk to reporters as well, and a common narrative keeps coming up. The MAC actually prepared two drafts, a more aggressive one using language including “ROC constitution” and “One China, each side with its own interpretation” to use if Xi Jinping raised a several more provocative points such as opposing Taiwan independence and One China with a common interpretation, and a more conciliatory draft to use if Xi left those out. The MAC finally got word from the TAO that Xi would use the latter script so the MAC moved to its more conciliatory script as well. However, Ma insisted that he would go further and only use the One China line. It seems that when Hsia said on October 6 that they were still hammering out the final wording and a reporter asked in disbelief if they were still negotiating, the MAC bureaucrats were actually negotiating with both their counterparts in the PRC’s Taiwan Affairs Office and also the One China hawks in the Presidential Office. As news of this comes out (and insiders – including deep blue people angry at Ma’s treatment of the ROC – are starting to talk to reporters off the record), I suspect the public will judge Ma more harshly. He overruled the professional bureaucrats to take a position closer to China’s and against mainstream public opinion. That doesn’t seem like it will go over well.


After Ma-Xi

November 8, 2015 a long day with a full schedule, I don’t have the energy to do a full recap of my thoughts on the Ma-Xi meeting. Michael Cole has written an excellent summary of the events, so look there for a blow by blow account.

I want to focus on two questions. First, was there any important breakthrough? That is, did the two sides depart from any of their previous positions? I don’t think that anything significant happened. On the critical question of One China, both sides basically stuck to their previous positions. There was a lot of splitting hairs here in Taiwan, with some complaining that Ma didn’t add the phrase “each side with its own interpretation” in his statements before the meeting, for instance. However, I think that Ma used the phrase “92 Consensus” enough times to make it clear that he was not abandoning that position.

Interestingly, I think Ma may have actually made a mistake and provided an opening for Tsai Ing-wen to exploit. As an ardent Chinese nationalist, Ma’s purpose has always been to forestall any possibility of Taiwan independence. In this, he and Xi are allies. For domestic political purposes, Ma also wanted to say the words “ROC” in Xi’s presence, though he wanted to do this without causing offense. To do this, Ma explained to Xi that “One China, Each Side with its own Interpretation” does not mean Taiwan independence or One China, One Taiwan “because the ROC Constitution does not allow those.” In making this statement, Ma was subordinating the 92 Consensus to the ROC constitution, saying that the 92 Consensus follows logically from his interpretation of the ROC constitution. Here’s the problem: His interpretation of the ROC constitution is obviously wrong. Anyone who spends a few minutes in Taiwan will realize that there are lots of people who are advocating and organizing for Taiwan independence. It is not illegal to pursue Taiwan independence or One China, One Taiwan in Taiwan today. Even Ma Ying-jeou himself once took out an ad in a major Taiwan newspaper stating that Taiwan independence was a legal, though not desirable, option for the Taiwanese people. Ma might be correct that the original 1945 constitution did not allow Taiwan independence, but that constitution no longer governs the country. The constitutional order that exists today is based on that original document, but it has been modified many times (by the people of Taiwan) and augmented by many judicial interpretations. These later modifications supersede the original text. (As an American, Ma’s reading reminds me of those people who think the income tax is unconstitutional since they think the original text of the constitution is higher than the 16th Amendment. They are simply wrong.) Tsai Ing-wen has stressed that she will be bound by the constitutional order, which clearly allows options other than eventual unification with China. By Ma Ying-jeou’s logic of subordinating the ROC’s orientation to China to the constitutional order, the 92 Consensus is itself unconstitutional unless it allows for a wider array of options. In other words, grounding the policy in the constitution requires a future president Tsai to insist that a democratic Taiwan must be allowed to democratically choose its future from among all options. Of course she was always going to go in this direction, but I wonder if, instead of boxing her into a One China framework, Ma has inadvertently made it easier for her to escape that trap.

The biggest breakthrough of the meeting was the meeting itself. Ma and Xi got a nice handshake. It will make good fodder for deep green and, to a lesser extent, deep blue candidates’ campaign ads. Other than that, not much substantive happened.

The second big question is how all of this plays back at home. Did Ma score political points? Again, I think the answer is that this won’t have too much of an effect. The blue side will think that Ma did a great job, while the green side will wonder how in the world he has the gall to shamelessly do these things. He will try to sell some things as accomplishments. For example, he will talk about how he dared to raise controversial points directly to Xi’s face. I think he won’t get a lot of credit for this. For example, he talked about the missiles, and Xi said that those weren’t targeted specifically at Taiwan. Well, they are. We all know they are. And they still are. Xi didn’t offer to untarget them. Even if he had, we all know that it takes about 20 seconds to retarget them. Ma can try to claim credit, but the PRC isn’t diminishing its military threat to Taiwan. What exactly is he claiming to have accomplished? Ma asked for the PRC to stop continually insulting Taiwan NGOs and government organizations. How long do you think it will be before the next case of some Chinese nationalist demonstrating his or her patriotism by declaring to Taiwanese that they aren’t from a real country? Within a few weeks, the narrative will be that Chinese STILL do that, even though they now know that Taiwanese hate it. As for RCEP and AIIB, these are things that are desired primarily by big businesses, and big businesses are already in bed with the KMT.

On the other hand, I don’t think Ma overplayed his hand. The complaints are mostly the same ones that the opposition has been lobbing at him for several years. He conducted all the negations in secrecy and didn’t respect the principle of transparency. He didn’t talk about the right of Taiwan’s voters to decide their own future. His top goals were for his party, his nationalist dreams, and his personal glory, not for the people of Taiwan. He didn’t insist on an appropriate level of dignity and mutual respect. He is actively trying to move the country toward unification. I am not suggesting that these attacks aren’t warranted. Many of them clearly are. However, if you weren’t swayed by these attacks two weeks ago, you probably won’t be swayed by them next week.

I think Ma will probably experience a small bump in his popularity, but any positive effects in the legislative races will be offset by the negative effects of nationalizing the race. Ma and the KMT are still overwhelmingly unpopular, and the election has now been reframed in terms of high politics. Given that the KMT’s best chance of surviving January is the local popularity (based on things like intensive constituency service) of their 40 incumbents, forcing voters to think about national issues (ie: vote for the party, not the individual) is perhaps not the wisest strategy. In the presidential polls, Tsai is so far ahead that there is almost no chance that the Ma-Xi meeting will affect the outcome. (Before this all broke, most polls had her ahead by around 20%, and the gap was widening. Historically, a 20% gap in polls has usually meant something around a 20% margin in the final vote. So I wouldn’t be shocked if the roughly 45-23% gap ends up as a 58-36% victory.) Ma has tried to argue to voters that Tsai can’t conduct relations with China since she won’t accept the 92 Consensus. According to hundreds of polls, the voters haven’t bought that message so far. I didn’t see anything this weekend that would make them change their minds en masse.

[Bonus snarky contest: Anyone want to guess which statement from the international media Ma will claim to have been misquoted on?]

Rumor: Ma will accept “One China”

November 7, 2015

Tsou Ching-wen 鄒景雯, a senior reporter at the Liberty Times, reported today that Ma Ying-jeou is considering accepting the One China principle – without the usual statement of “each side with its own interpretation” – at the news conference tomorrow, when he will announce the consensus positions of the two sides. Ma has promised that he will not sign any agreement, promise to sign any agreement, or issue any joint communiqué. However, Tsou reports that Ma is considering issuing a press release, and the press release would include a statement of consensus principles. China has asked that the press release mention the “One China principle” while the ROC position thus far has been to insist on the 92 Consensus. The difference is that the latter includes the phrase “each side with its own interpretation.”

This rumor is credible for two reasons. First, Tsou is the reporter who broke the news of the Ma-Xi meeting on Tuesday night. She has good sources, and she has been ahead of everyone else on this story. Second and more important, the media asked MAC Chair Andrew Hsia 夏立言 whether Ma would accept the One China principle, and Hsia did not deny it.

In this video, starting at the 1:00 mark, the reporter says, “On the question of whether to include the One China principle in the post-meeting summary of consensuses, Hsia said, “On this part, wait until tomorrow and we will have further comment, ok?” The reporter in the background asks, “Are you really still negotiating these things?” Hsia responds, “On the final details, we are still communicating with them.””

This is potentially a big move. Essentially, the ROC government position would be moving to the “One China with the same interpretation” 一中同表 position that Hung Hsiu-chu proposed earlier this year. That position had so little support in Taiwan society that the KMT was forced to back away and retreat to the less offensive 92 Consensus. Eric Chu pronounced her to be out of step with mainstream public opinion, her support in the polls fell to the low teens, and the KMT eventually replaced her as its nominee. If the government does take this step tomorrow, it will be doing so in defiance of clearly established popular opposition. This would also a violation of the spirit of his promise not to issue a joint communiqué or promise to sign any agreements – a promise that isn’t even a week old! He would be putting the ROC on record in a very public way in an effort to try to confine it to a particular course.

I really hope this is a groundless rumor.

[Edit: Here is the story. It basically reiterates the version of events laid out in the Liberty Times piece and in the TV clip.]