Archive for the ‘referendum’ Category

Rethinking referendums

December 21, 2021

What have we learned from this round of referendums?

The most surprising outcome was that votes for the four ballot items were essentially identical. The polls suggested that many voters saw differences among the four items, and the parties certainly acted like they expected differences. However, the people who voted seem to have almost all voted the same way on all four. I didn’t see this coming, and it forces me to rethink some previous ideas about referendums in Taiwan.

I had thought that the strongest argument for separating referendums from general elections was to create a richer information environment for the referendums. Without candidates to soak up everyone’s energy and attention, voters have more opportunity to learn about the issues involved in the referendums. With more information, they might be less prone to make decisions based on superficial cues. And indeed, there was a pretty robust discussion about the details and wider implications of each referendum. However, with more information, I expected some voters to decide that some items were reasonable while others were not. I did not expect everyone to become highly informed and for half the people to reach one conclusion and the other half to reach exactly the opposite conclusion. One might think that the richer information environment did not matter at all. People voted with their party, just as they would have if the referendums had been combined with a general election.

However, I just cannot believe that all this discussion and all this information did not matter. It may not have mattered in the way I expected, but it must have mattered in some way.

One way it could have mattered was in convincing partisans to vote with their party. The November My-Formosa poll showed that significant numbers of partisans planned to vote against their party’s position on all four items. Another sizable group (though not quite as large) of partisans weren’t sure about how to vote. These voters seem to have either changed their minds and voted with the party or just stayed home. Voters tend to listen to trusted sources. For partisan voters, this often means partisan media or the parties themselves. The information these voters got could certainly have played an important role in aligning voting decisions with their preferred party’s positions.

 % of green identifiers% of blue identifiers
 against or unsure aboutagainst or unsure about
 green positionblue position
R17 4NPP19.230.7
R18 pork30.814.2
R19 same day41.534.2
R20 LNG/reef35.545.3

Another possibility is that the campaigns taught voters that what initially looked like a very easy decision was actually very complex. It is easy to imagine many voters two months ago saying, “of course I want to protect the reefs” or “of course I want safe food.” At the time, there wasn’t really a reason to doubt these positions. No one had made a serious argument against them. On pork, for example, the DPP government opened up the pork market last August, but there wasn’t a big information campaign to persuade people that ractopamine is safe. In the referendum campaign, the parties had to face these issues head on and make serious arguments about each topic. These arguments were often hard to follow. For example, in the 4NPP debate, the sides cited numerous technical reports on geology, nuclear waste disposal, energy prices, the status of the construction at different time points, safety inspections, and so on. To make a fully informed decision on the four items, you needed to be an expert in nuclear physics, climate science, oceanography, food science, international trade, political institutions, and a half dozen other fields. It is possible that the rich information environment taught people that these were difficult choices. Without an obvious right answer, I can imagine large numbers of people deciding to just stay home. This seems especially likely for nonpartisans. The partisans could trust that their party’s experts had looked at all facets of the problem and had come to a good conclusion. They could also ignore the difficulty and go out to vote to support their party (or oppose those jerks in the other party). Nonpartisans overwhelmed by the complexity of the choice didn’t have any easy solutions. And if you don’t know what the right answer is, there isn’t much incentive to go vote to express your opinion or to prevent the wrong choice from being made.

I’m not unhappy that all four items failed. Part of this is that I have my own partisan preferences. However, I also have a general skepticism toward referendums. When in doubt, I always vote no. It should be difficult to pass laws, and it should be prohibitively difficult to pass laws when you can’t figure out what you are passing. Moreover, Taiwan’s referendum law stipulates that referendum results can’t be overturned for two years. If you make a mistake, you are stuck with it.

What about the small parties?

The small parties didn’t play much of a role in this referendum. The NPP and TPP both supported some but not all of the items, but their endorsements don’t seem to have had much of an impact at all.

I guess it’s not all that surprising. Referendums are a majoritarian institution. When you need a majority of votes, the small parties are never going to play much more than a supporting role. Still, it’s surprising they didn’t even play a supporting role. They were basically absent.

The most shocking absence wasn’t the TPP or NPP, though. It was the Green Party. Where the hell was the Green Party?!? Two of these referendums were right in their wheelhouse, and pork should also arguably be one of their best issues. How is it possible they weren’t out on the front lines every day screaming about their ideals? Honestly, I don’t know what the environmental position on R20 (reef/LNG). It’s complicated. But this is precisely the kind of thing that an environmentally-centered party should take the lead on. If the Green Party doesn’t have an opinion on environmental questions, what good are they?

What should we expect from future referendums?

R19 failed, so future referendums will be held in August of odd-numbered years. This creates two very different environments. The 2025 referendums will be held a year and half after the 2024 national elections and over a year before the 2026 local elections. That’s a relatively dead time in the electoral calendar, and the referendums will be the biggest story for a couple of months. In contrast, the 2023 referendums will be held just as the 2024 presidential race is heating up. In August 2023, the two big parties will probably already have nominated their presidential candidates and most of their legislative candidates. Smaller parties will also be making their decisions about how to position themselves. The 2023 referendums are going to be completely subsumed by the upcoming national elections. They will almost certainly be seen as a dress rehearsal for the big clash. There will be very little oxygen for nonpartisan discussion of the various referendum issues.

Taiwan desperately needs to revise its electoral calendar. The easiest thing would be to shorten one presidential term[1] so that the president is inaugurated in early February. All elections and referendums could be held in late November or early December, and there would be a full year between each vote. I’m not holding my breath, though. I think we will have two very different referendum experiences depending on which part of the election cycle it is.

All four items failed, and both parties missed the threshold by about a million votes. One thing we learned from this experience is that you can’t just assume that people will turn out to vote for a referendum. It may simply be easier to mobilize people to vote for a candidate. In 2018, the concurrent general elections meant that the referendum threshold was not a problem, and seven items passed. This includes a few that I have almost no impression of. I learned very little about R7, R8, or R16. My biggest fear was that activists and special interests of all stripes would try to imitate these, putting their pet issue on the ballot and hoping it sails through without much consideration. I’m relieved that R19 didn’t pass, so the threshold will remain an obstacle. It costs money to launch a petition drive, so hopefully only efforts that can withstand public scrutiny and inspire intense, broad public support will bother. Free rides are likely to be more of a problem in the referendums five months before the presidential election because the parties and the general public will be treating them as a dress rehearsal for and bellwether of the upcoming (more important) contest. It will be much easier to get over the threshold, so that is where you might see more efforts by special interests to piggyback on partisan emotions to pass their pet law (which can’t be undone for two years – ka-ching!).

Why do we have referendums?

Ko Wen-je, Hou You-yi, and a few others complained that the two big parties were perverting the referendums by turning them into ordinary party-based election campaigns. They weren’t having rational[2] debates about the issues. Instead, they were just telling people to vote all four yes or all four no.

I don’t have a lot of patience for this complaint. If Ko and Hou sincerely believed this point, they are political simpletons. First, there was a lot of good debate. Maybe they weren’t paying attention, but I heard a lot of people delving into the nitty-gritty of complicated policies. Second, of course the main political parties are going to take a position! These are significant policies, and they are tightly related to many of the parties’ other goals. Ignoring the referendums would be irresponsible.

Third, these referendums were politicized right from the start. The KMT directly sponsored two and enthusiastically supported the other two. They didn’t do that because they were pursuing some apolitical goal. The primary purpose was to inflict political damage on the DPP government. They wanted to give the DPP a black eye and obstruct its policy agenda. The KMT directly or indirectly sponsored all four, so of course they asked voters to vote yes on all four. By the exact same logic, the DPP naturally opposed all four. In a system dominated by two strong parties, this is how almost all referendums will inevitably unfold. If it matters, it will be partisan and politicized. The calm, rational, detached, apolitical debate that Ko, Hou, and others are imagining is just never going to happen.

One of the interesting things in this campaign was that both the KMT and DPP seemed to understand referendums in the same way. Americans often talk about them as a way to go around the parties to make public policies that the parties can’t because of their conflicts of interest. That wasn’t how the KMT and DPP talked about them. Rather, they seemed to understand referendums as a mechanism to restrain a government that has gone too far. Referendums are a roadblock for elected politicians, not a detour around them. As I wrote in a previous post, this is how Sun Yat-sen understood referendums a hundred years ago, and that thinking seems to have trickled down to contemporary politicians. It is significant that three items were attempts to undo a current government policy (and the fourth was an attempt to reverse the longstanding DPP anti-nuclear policy).

Of course, in a democratic polity there exists another mechanism to discourage government overreach: general elections. I generally think that referendums are a lousy way to make public policy. I also think they ask too much of the voters. Representative democracy allows voters to make a fairly simple decision. This set of politicians has a vision for the society based on a set of ideas about what is desirable and possible. That set of politician has a different vision based on a different set of values. Voters don’t need to figure out all the details. They can choose a vision and a set of values and let the elected politicians figure out how to make all the complicated tradeoffs necessary to pursue that vision. Representative democracy works because voters don’t need to understand everything. Referendums demand much more from voters. It might be great in theory, but it isn’t practical to expect each voter to understand the details of every policy. Referendums simply produce decisions by uniformed policymakers.

However, I will suggest two constructive roles for Taiwan’s referendum system. First, in Taiwan’s strange electoral calendar, the 34-month gap between the national elections and local elections is just too long. It’s always difficult to be in the opposition, and it is especially difficult if you don’t have an outlet for your frustrations. Putting the referendums in the middle of that long gap provides that outlet. The opposition can put their energy into referendums that might show the government is out of touch with public opinion and should be restrained. It is important to have an institutional mechanism for opposition to keep it inside the system.

Second, Taiwan’s system is fairly majoritarian, and the party system is grounded in national identity. As you are doubtless aware, the national identity trends have turned pretty decisively against the KMT. There is a danger that the KMT might be turned into a permanent minority, too small to win but too big for a different challenger to emerge. And with this, there is a danger that the DPP will become entrenched in power, unconcerned with electoral pressures because the KMT is unacceptable to most of the population. Japan managed to get through most of the second half of the 20th century with this sort of dominant party system, but an entrenched government with no credible opposition is not generally a recipe for democratic stability. If the KMT insists on remaining unelectable, perhaps referendums can keep the DPP afraid of the voters. One can imagine unhappy voters approving KMT-sponsored referendums in order to show their displeasure and punish the government without facing the risk of actually putting the KMT in power.

All in all, I’d prefer to have elections every 24 months with two (or more) viable parties and no referendums at all.

[1] If it is politically impossible to shorten the current term because Tsai wants her full eight years or the upcoming term because Lai, Chu, Hou, Ko, and others think they will be the president, then change the 2032 inauguration date.

[2] I cringe at the term “rational” in Taiwanese political discourse. It seems to mean “arguments that I agree with.”

A KMT debacle

December 18, 2021

The results are in, and all four referendums have failed. This is a spectacular defeat for the KMT.

R17 nuke380475547.2%426245152.8%19.19%
R18 pork393655448.8%413120351.2%19.86%
R19 same day395188249.0%412003851.0%19.93%
R20 reef/LNG390117148.4%416346451.6%19.68%
threshold4956367   25.00%
Turnout: 41.1%     

Before getting to the KMT, let me talk about the DPP a bit. This is a win for President Tsai. She was facing significant policy setbacks if these referendums, especially pork, had passed. The polls showed all of them passing, and she managed to beat them all back. From a policy standpoint, a win is a win. It doesn’t matter how you win; it only matters whether you win or lose. She won, and her agenda is still on course.

I’m not a policy nerd, though. I’m an elections nerd, so I care about how she won. There are two thresholds, and the four referendums failed both of them. Yes didn’t beat no, and it failed to get 25% of eligible voters. I’ll talk more about the turnout when I get to the KMT, so here let me focus on the “no” vote. A TVBS poll in early November showed the KMT winning the pork referendum 55-32, and a Taiwan Public Opinion Foundation poll showed the gap at a spectacular 68-25. The gaps for the other items weren’t as large, but the KMT was leading in all of them in October. Somehow, the DPP made up that entire gap, and “no” actually outpolled “yes.” As I’ve previously written, the DPP made two arguments. On the one hand, they gave detailed arguments that these four were actually bad policy ideas. On the other hand, they argued that they have done a good job in office, and people who agree that they have done a good job should trust them to keep making the correct decisions. I think that last argument was the more effective. Tsai asked the voters to trust her, and they did, even going against their own instincts.

Why do I think it wasn’t the detailed policy arguments that mattered? These four referendum results all look almost identical. We just don’t see much difference in preferences for pork or reefs. Even nuclear power only differs from the others by less than 2%. I haven’t look at the results carefully place by place, but a first glance suggests there is very little geographic variation. If you got 900 yes votes and 800 no votes on R18, then you got just about the same thing for the other three. It sure looks like almost all voters either voted all four yes or all four no. If the policy arguments had been the crucial thing, you might have expected more people to decide that one referendum was reasonable while another wasn’t.

Taiwan doesn’t allow exit polls, so we don’t know much about whether the people who showed up to vote changed their minds. It is possible that all the ambivalent people stayed home and only the people who were always going to vote straight-ticket turned out. However, I think it is likely that Tsai persuaded a significant number of voters – perhaps including many DPP identifiers who had originally planned to vote the other way – to vote the party line.

The only damper in the DPP celebrations is the total number of votes that they mobilized. 4.1 to 4.3 million votes are not great numbers. For reference, Tsai won 6.89m in 2016 and 8.17m in 2020. The referendums needed 4.95m “yes” votes to pass. If they had managed to pass that threshold, the “no” votes would not have been sufficient to overturn them. Still, that’s picking nits. Overall, this is a great result for the DPP.

There are no disclaimers for the KMT. It was just a terrible result for them. The “yes” side lost all four referendums, and they weren’t even close to reaching the turnout threshold. They needed 5 million votes. Their best item didn’t even reach 4 million. None of these came close to actually passing.

Let’s step back and think about this battle. The KMT chose this battlefield. It could have put anything on the ballot, and it chose these four items. (Two were not formally sponsored by the KMT, but they would not have passed the petition stage without the KMT’s enthusiastic cooperation.) The KMT thought that these were the perfect issues to give the DPP a black eye. The polls certainly suggested that they were pretty good issues. It didn’t work.

One possibility is that when these issues became associated with the KMT, they became a lot less popular. That is, perhaps people were willing to support the LNG/reef policy, but they weren’t willing to support the KMT LNG/reef policy. The KMT was a dead weight that not even a popular issue could save.

Another possibility is that voters picked up on the disunity in the KMT and just stayed home. The kneejerk response is to blame Hou You-yi, Lu Hsiu-yan, and Lin Tzu-miao. However, I’d blame Johnny Chiang.[1] The energy referendums – especially the nuclear one – caused the three mayors to hesitate, and party chair Chiang was the one who let them get on the ballot. If the KMT had been disciplined enough to keep those two off the ballot, they would have been a lot mor unified. A better politician might have done some communication with their prominent members before this ever occurred to see whether anyone had objections to particular items. Again, the KMT picked this battlefield.

In their ungracious remarks tonight, Johnny Chiang and Eric Chu put the blame for the defeats on the DPP. Chiang said that the DPP had unfairly twisted these narrow issues by claiming they were about broader things, like international trade, relations with the United States, overall economic development, and what China wants. Apparently, when the KMT tries to deal the DPP government a serious policy setback, he doesn’t expect the DPP government to fight back to defend its agenda. Pointing out the negative consequences of a decision is hardly unfair politics. Chu complained that the autocratic DPP government has forever ruined democracy by putting referendums back in the birdcage. No referendum will ever be able to pass under these rules. Maybe someone can remind him that, just a few weeks ago, the KMT managed to mobilize enough voters to climb over this exact same (unfairly prohibitive!) threshold to recall Chen Po-wei.

Maybe the worst possibility for the KMT is that these simply weren’t great issues to start with. Sure, more people were for a ban on ractopamine than were against it, but most people just didn’t care all that much about it. The reason turnout was so low is that too many voters couldn’t be bothered to go out to vote (which is very easy for most people in Taiwan) for these boring topics. It’s not a problem for the KMT that they lost these specific votes. After all, I don’t think they particularly care about any of these issues. The problem is that this was a test case for a larger political strategy.

Party politics in Taiwan are founded on national identity and what to do about China, and the KMT represents what has clearly become a minority position. They don’t want to alter their cherished positions on the core questions in order to become more palatable to ordinary voters. That would be too painful. Instead, they would prefer to ignore identity and China and focus solely on smaller day-to-day issues. If elections are about paving roads, gas prices, inflation, or other non-partisan issues, maybe the KMT can compete. Food safety is a great example. The KMT started screaming about pork in the 2016 election. At the time, they were reeling from Ma’s attempted purge of Wang, the Sunflower Movement, the defeat of their nuclear policy, the 2014 election debacle, and the retracted presidential nomination of Hung Hsiu-chu. The didn’t want to talk about any of that. Pork was a safe haven, so suddenly they started pontificating about ractopamine. With all that strife, it wasn’t surprising that 2016 was a disaster. However, 2018 was a spectacular triumph. Han Kuo-yu talked about youth floating north, finding markets for Kaohsiung agricultural products, the moribund real estate market, potholes, and all kinds of other small issues. He pointedly avoided talking about China, except as a potential market for Kaohsiung goods. In the 2020 election, Hong Kong shifted the focus back to identity and China, and the KMT did very badly. See a pattern here? This referendum was going to be another triumph because identity and China aren’t involved.

What went wrong? Well, voters just don’t care enough about the small issues to come out to vote. They’re small. You simply can’t build a reliable party on issues that aren’t important. I suspect that almost all of the people who did come out to vote for the KMT positions in this referendum were actually motivated by identity and China, no matter how earnestly they explain to you that they have always passionately cared about referendums and election calendars.

Maybe this referendum will be a message to the KMT that it can’t paper over its unpopular identity and China positions by distracting voters with shiny objects. Maybe they will be motivated to finally start thinking about altering those unpopular stances on the most critical issues.

Probably not though. Eric Chu has already signaled that he is more comfortable finding excuses than reflecting on the causes of defeats. I keep waiting for the KMT to reform itself, and it keeps disappointing me.

I have a couple final thoughts. The KMT has already started turning on Hou You-yi. Apparently, his FB page has been inundated with angry KMT supporters who are blaming him for this debacle. Hou is probably the only KMT politician with a realistic chance in the 2024 election. This referendum might be the start of the KMT devouring its best hope.

The KMT lost the pork referendum, but they will still have to deal with the longer-term effects of this campaign. The KMT has been worried about how it is viewed in DC for a few years. Washington didn’t officially get involved in the 2020 election, but it was pretty clear they were more comfortable with Tsai and the DPP. Taiwanese voters care a lot about whether Americans trust the Taiwanese government. Chu is planning to open a KMT office in DC precisely to improve the KMT’s image there. Now, Tsai has just absorbed a big political hit to satisfy American trade negotiators, and they will trust her and the DPP even more. The KMT, on the other hand, just tried to foul up those relations, and DC will also remember this. When the 2024 KMT candidate goes to DC to talk at think tanks, he can probably expect a frosty reception.

This referendum was a disaster for the KMT. A disaster of their own making.

[1] Maybe Chiang wasn’t powerful enough within the KMT to make this decision. The most powerful voice speaking out for 4NPP in the campaign was Ma Ying-jeou. Maybe Ma was the driving force behind this ballot item. If so, I should blame Ma for the eventual party disunity. It wouldn’t be the first time he caused a party split.

Election eve KMT madness

December 18, 2021

I thought I’d write this while waiting for them to start counting votes. By the time you see this, it will either be prescient or comically misguided.

I was unable to go to any referendum-eve events last night. I can’t remember the last time I was physically present in Taiwan and didn’t go to an event on the last night. Maybe 1992 or 1993? Some genius at the Election Study Center decided to schedule a conference (on a topic completely unrelated to the referendums) early Friday and Saturday mornings, so a late Friday night just wasn’t going to happen for me.

I did watch the KMT and DPP rallies on YouTube. The DPP rally on the street in front of the presidential office was pretty standard. They had a nice crowd, though I’ve seen bigger. They didn’t need to block off traffic on the circle around the gate, but the area in front of that was pretty full. It was probably 4000-8000 people. They had all the standard speakers who said all the standard things. It was pretty much exactly what I expected.

The KMT rally, though, was a different matter. This was perhaps one of the worst events I have ever seen. I wish I had been there in person so that I could be surer of this, but what I saw on YouTube was pretty disastrous.

They never turned the camera around, so I never saw the crowd. I have no idea how big it was or how enthusiastic it was. The event was at the CKS Memorial. I have been told that it wasn’t inside the plaza. Rather it was in the space in front of the main gate. That’s enough space for 2000-3000 people, but not much more. From there, they could probably see the DPP crowd, which had to be a little disheartening if my guesses about crowd size are correct.

At most rallies, there are five to ten speakers who each speak for 10-30 minutes. A this KMT rally, they didn’t do that at all. They had dozens of speakers, but each on only got 30-120 seconds. Everyone got up there, proclaimed their support for the four referendums, added one or two other ideas, and then they were done. There was no time at all for subtlety, nuance, or logical argument. Instead, they enthusiastically screamed their support as quickly as possible. It was exhausting. A good rally needs emotional peaks and valleys. You need to turn the volume up and down. At this rally, they kept the emotions at full blast the entire time.

This event had one goal: the KMT wanted to display party unity. They brought up every city councilor and every legislator (the only legislator I noticed as missing was Wu Szu-huai 吳斯懷), one-by-one, in an effort to show that the entire KMT is all on the same page. Apparently, they were pretty spooked by the impression that they are internally divided since they felt they needed to prove their unity. Unified parties don’t need to send this message; everyone just assumes they are all working together. However, a series of statements from several high-profile KMT mayors questioning the party’s actions and positions on the referendums might be having an effect on KMT supporters. So they paraded all their office-holders out to try to show a unified front.

One problem is that they don’t really have a unified message. The DPP keeps hammering the same reasons why you should vote against the four items. The KMT isn’t quite as sure why they are supporting them. For example, several of them screamed that they wanted to teach President Tsai a lesson. Then Wayne Chiang 蔣萬安 got up and told the audience that referendums should not be used to try to teach anyone a lesson.

Another problem was that they let the most extreme voices in the party speak more loudly. Legislator Yeh Yu-lan 葉毓蘭 got a bit more time than other legislators. Yeh is an unpopular ideologue, and the DPP has featured her in its ads as someone they want voters to think about when they are making their decisions. Former party chair Hung Hsiu-chu 洪秀柱 got a lot of time, and when her time was up, she told the crowd that she was just going to keep talking until she was finished. Her speech, in which she imagined talking to the ghosts of several deceased and still living DPP politicians, might have seemed playful to a KMT fanatic, but it would have struck more neutral voters as inappropriate and DPP supporters as downright offensive.

The biggest problem was that the display of unity actually highlighted party disunity. After going through all the city councilors and legislators they got to the mayors. Aah finally, the main event! Now is when you hammer home the message of unity! Since mayors need to stay in their home areas, they had a short video message from each one saying how they strongly supported a “yes” vote on all four referendums. The went through eleven nearly identical videos, teaching us what to expect from each one. Then suddenly, the next video didn’t show a mayor talking directly to the camera in a specially recorded message. Instead, Yilan mayor Lin Tzu-miao 林姿妙 was shown campaigning on the street in her sound truck. And then Taichung mayor Lu Hsiu-yan 盧秀燕 was shown responding to questions in the Taichung city council. Hou You-yi 侯友宜 was shown at an event sitting next to Eric Chu 朱立倫, and the TV news crawl said “Eric Chu says ‘agree with all four.’” The three of them were clearly talking about pork, though it is not clear whether this was recent footage. Lin Tzu-miao’s footage seemed to be from the 2018 election. More importantly, they had clearly not agreed to film a short video for this event, and they were clearly not supporting all four referendums. Why in the world was the KMT showing them actively not being team players? If you knew beforehand that they weren’t going to cooperate, why frame the entire event as a show of party unity? What were they thinking?

During the second half of the rally, the emcees started teasing us about a very special guest who was going to show up at 9:45, so be sure to stay right here! Again and again, they promised us someone really big. Former President Ma and party chair Chu both gave (forgettable) speeches, so it wasn’t them. I wondered whether they would bring out Hou You-yi, after all. Wouldn’t that be a surprise! Nah, that couldn’t be it. The only other person I could think of was presidential candidate Han Kuo-yu. Hey, where has he been? He has been completely absent from this campaign, hasn’t he. It would be silly to save him until the last 15 minutes of the campaign, but who else is there? After all, the theme is party unity, so they wouldn’t want to make me think of another prominent party leader who wasn’t on board, would they? Well, whoever it was, it was definitely a very important person.

At the end of Chu’s speech, he announced he was going to sing a song. Did you know that Chu can sing? No? That’s because it turns out he is a terrible singer. He didn’t know when to start the lyrics, he couldn’t remember the lyrics, and he could barely carry a tune. Someone tried to give him a sheet of paper with song lyrics, but he brushed them away. Other people started singing, and Chu spent the rest of the song looking at his phone. It was painful to watch. Again, if you aren’t a good singer, why are you choosing this moment to show off your ineptitude? Maybe he wanted to imitate Han Kuo-yu’s rallies. Han and his adoring fans always loved singing a few songs. Hey, maybe Han is going to come onstage next!

At 9:45, with 15 minutes left in the campaign, the KMT finally announced the last mystery guest. This is the last voice they wanted you to hear, the final message of the campaign. It was … a middle-aged pop star? I don’t know much about pop music so I had no idea who she was, though my wife knew Tsai Ching (?) right away. She made a few jokes about getting paid (or not getting paid?), barely said anything remotely political, and then sang two songs. The last one was Silent Night. It was a very weird way to end a political rally, much less an entire campaign.

On the eve of the referendums

December 16, 2021

With only a few days left until voting on the referendums, I have a few comments about the overall campaigns and how I will interpret the results.

The referendum campaigns have been very top-down. What I mean by that is that almost everything has been driven by the same few people. Nearly everything has featured Tsai Ing-wen, Su Tseng-chang, Eric Chu, and maybe Johnny Chiang. Other politicians have joined in, but they haven’t been nearly as engaged as they would be in a general election campaign. If one of the headliners isn’t organizing an event, no event is organized. Those headliners are working hard. At a recent event, Su said it was his 65th event this campaign. But no one else is working quite as desperately.

This is something we see in the media as well. In a general election, the last month is absolute saturation of election news and commentary. If you read or watch any news, nearly everything will be about the election. It hasn’t been that way this year. The newspapers usually have a story or maybe even half a page, but it is buried on page 3 or 4. Likewise, the TV news will mention the referendums, but it usually isn’t the top story and it isn’t very long or in-depth. But what really surprises me are the political talk shows. Several times over the past month, I have tried to see how they are talking about the referendums only to find that just one or two of them – sometimes none at all – are talking about the referendums. They seem to think that viewers are more interested in other topics. The green stations more likely to be talking about the Taichung by-election in three weeks than the national referendums this weekend, and the blue stations seem mostly disenguaged.

The visual campaign is almost entirely absent. There are almost no flags or billboards for this campaign.

I’m sure almost everyone is aware that there will be voting this weekend, but there just isn’t the same sense of urgency that we normally experience. I just don’t get the feeling that most people are desperate to express their opinion in the same way that they might demand to register their support or opposition to Han Kuo-yu or Lin Chia-lung. The lack of a specific individual to personalize the choice makes a difference, I think. Abstract things such as pork chop safety and LNG transportation are just not as easy to get emotional about as a concrete hero or villain.

I’m expecting a turnout to be fairly low. I think the general expectation is that it will be in the mid- or high-50s. I suspect it might not even break 50%.

I haven’t been able to go to a KMT event this year, but I have watched a few on YouTube and Facebook. The first thing you notice is how unprofessional they seem. Several of them haven’t had a proper stage with a standard background. Instead, all the events I’ve seen have been on a carnival truck with flashing neon lights. You typically see these portable stages at night markets and someone is singing, selling medicine, or having some other performance. Moreover, the cameras have been terrible. There is usually only one camera that doesn’t move at all. Some of them seem to have been shot on someone’s cell phone. I had to turn off one video posted on Eric Chu’s FB page because it there was just too much static and interference.  Look, I know the KMT wants to scream about its horrible financial straits, but political communication is the core function of the party. Instead of wasting money on expensive local networks, setting up an office in DC, or talking about putting together a bounty fund for people who expose DPP corruption, maybe they should prioritize actually talking to voters. After all, they do get a significant state subsidy precisely for these kinds of expenses. A proper camera, camera operator, and sound system isn’t that expensive.

Most of the speeches I saw were more emotional than substantive. That is, they weren’t calmly making a step-by-step case for why it was reasonable to move the LNG unloading station from Taoyuan to New Taipei, for example. Maybe one of every three speakers made any detailed points. For the most part, they were just angrily screaming about how awful the DPP is.

The most common talking point was not about the referendums at all. Instead, KMT speakers repeatedly railed about the DPP’s internet army. They assert, almost as an article of faith, that the DPP uses state funds to cultivate an online army on social media, YouTube, blogs, and so on. This is a point straight out of the Han Kuo-yu presidential campaign, and the sense of victimization seems to be getting deeper. It also fits in with Ma Ying-jeou’s recent argument that Taiwan is becoming an illiberal democracy.[1]

I find these statements to be distressing for a few reasons. First, they are flat-out ridiculous. Taiwan has a healthy, free, and fair democratic system. Second, I’d like the KMT be a confident party focused on the biggest challenges facing society rather than inwardly concentrating on imagined grievances. This might be red meat for their deepest, most loyal supporters, but it doesn’t help them appeal to ordinary voters who don’t share those grievances. Third, I think this obsession with an internet army is how the KMT is rationalizing its problems attracting young voters. They tell themselves young voters don’t like the KMT because they get their information from the internet, and the DPP is unfairly manipulating that information. This allows them to avoid the possibility that young people simply don’t like the KMT and are producing anti-KMT content to express their own opinions. We know that politics in Taiwan are organized by identity, and about 80% of young voters identify as exclusively Taiwanese. Should it be surprising that they are repelled by a party that insists on retaining the name “Chinese Nationalist Party”?

In the TV debates sponsored by the CEC, the speakers representing the “yes” side have generally refrained from calling on voters to cast a no-confidence vote against President Tsai. Her approval ratings are pretty good, so that probably wouldn’t be a great argument with neutral voters. However, in their own events, the KMT is absolutely asking for voters to vote “yes” in order to punish Tsai. I heard this appeal far more often than I heard them saying voters should vote “yes” to protect the algal reefs, because nuclear power is safe, or even because ractopamine is dangerous. When they are preaching to their own choir, the specific issues aren’t as important as partisan passions.

One of the most important developments of the past week involves New Taipei mayor Hou You-yi. Hou is running for re-election next year, and he is popular enough that many people think he is the front-runner to be the KMT presidential candidate in 2024. One reason that Hou is so popular is that he has repeatedly distanced himself from unpopular KMT people and positions and has instead positioned himself as a less ideological politician. During the 2020 presidential campaign, he mostly kept his head down and refused to energetically campaign for Han Kuo-yu, saying he needed to focus on New Taipei city local government issues. Likewise, he hasn’t been actively promoting KMT positions in this referendum campaign. About six weeks ago, he expressed concerns about the 4th nuclear power plant, and this forced the KMT to soften its position on that referendum. About a week ago, he posed a long statement on his Facebook page decrying how the referendum campaign had become like a partisan election campaign instead of a rational discussion in which every citizen could freely make their own choice. Effectively, he gave his supporters his permission to ignore the KMT’s entreaties to cast four “yes” votes or even to just stay home. Hou is the most popular KMT politician, and he is declining to actively support the KMT position. It is unclear how important this will be, but it can’t be great for the KMT.

The polls suggest that the nuclear referendum is likely to fail and the pork referendum is likely to pass. The other two are closer to toss-ups. When I think about those polls and my turnout expectations, I think a range of outcomes – everything from three passing to all four failing – are in play.

Suppose the pork referendum passes. How should we interpret this? Specifically, would it represent a no-confidence vote for President Tsai and the DPP government?

I would not interpret that result as a no-confidence vote, though I can see why people would. It would be a defeat for her policy agenda, but it would not be a sign that the DPP has lost the support of the average voter or that the DPP was headed for electoral defeats in 2022 and 2024. Unless the defeat came by an enormous margin, losing the pork referendum would not make Tsai a lame duck or necessitate Su’s resignation.

In both KMT and DPP events, speakers have framed this choice as one of trust in the current administration. DPP speakers have talked about all the wonderful things the government has done, reminded listeners that the country is on the right track, and argued that the KMT is using the referendums to create chaos and disruption. They argue, “you like us, you think we’re doing a good job, and we are trustworthy, so trust us to continue on this right track by rejecting the KMT referendums.” Meanwhile, the KMT argues that the Tsai government is doing a terrible job and is running democracy into the ground, so vote “yes” to deal her a political defeat and slow her down.”

However, these are the messages the parties are sending out to their loyal supporters. These voters have strong partisan preferences, so the two parties are trying to remind them that this is a partisan choice and they should vote the party position. But remember, the DPP is a much more popular party than the KMT. The KMT can’t win by relying solely on its core supporters. If a referendum passes, it will be because non-partisans voted for it. In fact, the polls show that a clear majority of non-identifiers favor barring ractopamine pork.

However, there is not much evidence that these non-identifiers would vote for the referendum in order to punish Tsai. Tsai’s approval ratings are pretty good right now precisely because lots of non-identifiers think she is doing a good job. This is not like 2018, when the DPP was dealt a heavy political blow causing Tsai to resign as party chair, Lai to resign as premier, and then Lai to feel emboldened to challenge Tsai for the 2020 presidential nomination. Tsai’s approval rating then was about half of what it is now. That was a vote in which a disgruntled electorate sent her a message. What we see in this year’s polling is quite different. The people who are for the pork ban tend to separate that from all other considerations. They think it will not affect relations with the USA or Taiwan’s attempts to join CPTPP, and it isn’t related to how much they like Tsai. It is just a food safety issue, pure and simple. They may reject Tsai’s arguments that this is a complex issue or that they should trust her on this matter, but they do not necessarily reject Tsai or the DPP in other political matters.

If, on the other hand, the pork referendum is defeated, I would see that as a tremendous political victory for Tsai and Su. I understand that some readers will wonder about this logic: don’t blame Tsai if it passes but do reward her if it is defeated?? Again, I refer you to the context. Two months ago when the campaign started, this referendum would have passed easily. For the past decade, we have learned that ractopamine is a dirty word. Tsai has had the task of overturning that consensus in a very short time, and the main weapon in her arsenal has been to ask the voters to trust her, put aside any doubts, and vote to accept ractopamine. This is a heavy lift and, it would be an impressive display of public support if it comes to fruition.

[1] On a recent CTV newscast, I watched a talking head rhetorically ask what the difference was between current Taiwan and Nazi Germany. No one questioned this comparison. Even more disorienting, the anchor went from this statement straight into a story about a traffic accident, seemingly unaware that the speaker was making a very serious charge that demands careful consideration and would, if accurate, require immediate actions.

DPP referendum event: starring Premier Su

December 3, 2021

On Wednesday night, I went to a park in Taipei City to hear a DPP rally against the four referendums. The crowd wasn’t big, probably a bit less than 1,000 people, but it was a weekday night and a cold front had just hit. It didn’t rain, and it wasn’t as cold as people feared.[1] As you can see, it is a fairly old crowd. Normally, that would be a warning sign, but, as I argued in a previous post, the key this time might be mobilizing the traditional DPP base. At the very least, this is a necessary step. The crowd was shockingly enthusiastic. You rarely see DPP crowds in Taipei this engaged for a candidate; I certainly didn’t expect them to be so hyped up for an abstract referendum.

They didn’t plan for a big crowd. This is probably about what they expected.

I got to the event late, so I missed the beginning. It was organized by city councilor Liang Wen-jieh 梁文傑 and his wife, legislator Lin Chu-yin 林楚茵.[2] I assume one or both of them spoke before I arrived. When I got there, Taoyuan mayor Chen Wen-tsan was speaking. He finished before I found a place to sit down and really settle in, so I don’t have any strong impressions of his speech. It was effective, though I can’t tell you more than that.

Minister of Economics Wang Mei-hua 王美花 followed Cheng. She has played a major role in the campaign against the four items. In the CEC-sponsored TV debates, she has represented the no side twice, once in a pork debate and once in a LNG/reef debate. I had never seen her speak publicly before this campaign, and, at least for me, she has emerged as one of the most persuasive voices for DPP policies. In this event, Wang went heavily into the details of pork and energy while somehow still being easily accessible. It was an impressive talk in which she answered questions at various levels of sophistication. If you just wanted a general impression, she gave you that. If you wanted to know about how the revised LNG project was designed to protect the reefs, she gave you that, too. If you wanted to know about energy supply, carbon emissions, and projected demand, she had broad and detailed explanations there, too. She speaks with the expertise and authority of a career bureaucrat, never raising her voice or getting too emotional. However, unlike most bureaucrats, she was able to bring it all down to a level that most people could understand. Moreover, she kept the audience engaged. The college professor in me was in awe of her ability to communicate complex ideas while still holding the attention of an audience that could have easily tuned her out.

In the buffet of campaign speeches, she was a really good salad. I mean that as a complement – I love salad. But when you eat a really good salad, you are always still aware that you are eating something nutritious. No matter how great it tastes, there is no guilty pleasure in vegetables because in addition to being delicious they are also packed with nearly everything else you need for good health. Wang didn’t thrill the audience with the empty calories of a chocolate cake or a deep-fried treat, but she satisfied them with wholesome content.

Don’t forget how grateful we are for the 4 million Moderna vaccines.

American pork is safe. AIT Director Oudkirk feeds it to her children.

Defeating this referendum is crucial to our application to join CPTPP.

The main speaker of the night was Premier Su Tseng-chang 蘇貞昌. In my informal list of Taiwan’s great outdoor speakers, Su is probably at the top. It’s a joy for a rally junkie like myself to observe a master of the craft at work, and, on Wednesday, Su had a good night even by his lofty standards. The audience was eating out of his hand right from the start. He spoke for about 45 minutes without any lulls in energy or passion. There were several times when the audience broke into impromptu applause, and, even if these were started by staffers planted in the crowd,[3] the rest of the people picked up those cues immediately and joined in enthusiastically.

Su spent more than half of his time talking about his record as premier. He talked about keeping swine flu out of Taiwan, the government’s quick and effective response to Covid, economic growth, various social welfare policies, fruit exports, wage increases, and other wonderful policy successes. One thing that impressed me was how he presented old-age stipends and long-term health care to this audience, most of whom were seniors. First he talked about welfare for younger people, such as day care and stipends for new parents. Only after that did he turn to things for seniors. It felt to me that he was allowing the crowd to feel generous rather than selfish. First, let’s talk about all the important things we are doing to take care of other people in society; your grandchildren are our priority. Then, there is something for you, too; you are also important. Deft!

This was all presented with the flair of a confident showman. After his introductory remarks and some praise for the two local politicians, Su announced he was about to start the main talk by dramatically pulling out a pool cue.[4] You rarely get a crowd response from a gesture, but this got a few murmurs, then a bit of laughter, and finally some applause. He went through a series of slides using his pool cue to emphasize his points. Last week, I questioned Chao Yi-hsiang’s 趙怡翔 use of powerpoint to give his speech. On Wednesday, I realized that both Wang and Su were basically using powerpoint slides in their speeches, even if they didn’t feel like powerpoint presentations because they were so flawlessly integrated. Thinking back, Su started doing this in the 2020 campaign. Then, it was only a few slides. Now, he has built his entire speech around the pictures on the screen behind him. So I should apologize to Chao Yi-hsiang. It turns out he is an early (though a bit clumsy) adopter of what might turn out to be the next great campaign innovation.

Remember how swine flu devastated our pork farmers? No? That’s because we didn’t let it in!

Check out our fantastic economic growth!

And we have some great welfare for all you old geezers, too!

After Su finished the extensive segment about how wonderful the DPP’s record of governance has been, he turned briefly to the KMT. The KMT, he said, has been obstructing the government at every turn. As an example, he pointed to the current visits by representatives from Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, which he considered major diplomatic breakthroughs. The KMT had dismissed them as three “small” countries. Each of them, Su pointed out, has twice as much land as Taiwan, and they are all fairly wealthy countries inside the EU. They’re important! Meanwhile, the KMT legislative caucus was refusing to review the Foreign Ministry’s annual budget to protest Foreign Minister Joseph Wu’s decision to meet the Baltic delegations rather than show up in person at the legislator. Is this party on the same side as the rest of us, Su asked incredulously.

Su also lambasted the KMT for brawling in the legislature, which is a richly ironic attack coming from the DPP. I can’t remember such a specific accusation in a campaign speech. The KMT and New Party used to routinely call the DPP a chaotic party 亂黨, but they rarely explained in any detail. It was a reference to legislative brawls during the transition to democracy, but it was also probably a reference to years of street protests. Su, however, was talking about two specific legislative brawls (the infrastructure brawls and the pork brawl) to make a more general point about the KMT’s character. The KMT, he explained, was always trying to twist things up in order to obstruct progress.

Look at these guys. Aren’t they disgusting.
(Note: He didn’t neglect the opportunity to single out Yen Kuan-heng, the KMT’s candidate in the upcoming Taichung City by-election.)

Look on the floor. Those are pork intestines. That’s what the KMT really thinks of Taiwanese pork!

And the referendums were another example. The KMT was twisting people’s honest and good impulses – to protect the environment and food safety – in order to obstruct policies necessary for Taiwan’s future.

I won’t go into the details of Su’s arguments about the pork and energy referendums. He made most of the same, familiar points. He didn’t have the depth of Minister Wang, but he had a lot more charisma and flair. She made the rational arguments, and he filled in some of the emotion. The two complemented each other very well.

Can you believe this guy! When he was New Taipei mayor he said we should build the project as scheduled in Taoyuan. Now that he is party chair, he suddenly wants to move it to New Taipei.

The last thing he talked about was R19, the proposal to hold referendums on the same day as general elections. He barely spent any time at all on this. He simply reminded people of the horrible lines in 2018 and concluded that he was definitely against R19. R19 is a difficult referendum for the DPP base since it has been taught for years that referendums are unquestionably good. Strategically, it seems the DPP is trying to win R19 by mobilizing its base to vote against the other three items. Once they are in the voting booth voting no on everything else, hopefully they will trust the DPP to vote no on this one too.

Su’s more general strategy is to make this a referendum on both the government and the KMT. He wants you to remember how good the DPP has been in office, and he also wants you to remember how much you don’t like the KMT. Remember, polls show that the DPP is pretty popular right now, Tsai’s approval ratings are pretty good, and the KMT’s numbers are miserable. Su doesn’t want you to think about the ractopamine pork referendum, he wants you to think about the KMT pork referendum intended to block the DPP government.

A final thought on Premier Su. I was stunned by his energy and vitality. A few years ago, he seemed tired and ready to leave the stage. He wanted his protégé Wu Ping-jui 吳秉叡 to run for New Taipei mayor in 2018, but Wu fizzled and the party dragged Su back into the fray. After the 2018 election debacle and Premier Lai’s resignation, the DPP turned once again to their old warhorse. It reeked of desperation. However, Su’s second stint as premier has gone better than anyone could have predicted. He is known as a workaholic, and the pressure of the job seems to have made him younger and sharper. You can make a good argument that he saved Tsai’s presidency, and, as an encore, he led Taiwan’s world-acclaimed Covid response. On stage Wednesday, he was fully engaged and committed. This didn’t seem like a person counting down the days until he can retire to a life of leisure and relaxation. For the first time on Wednesday, the thought crossed my mind that maybe this isn’t the last triumphant act of his illustrious career. Most people expect the DPP’s 2024 presidential nomination to be a contest between VP William Lai and Taoyuang mayor Cheng Wen-tsan, with an outside chance that Transportation Minister Lin Chia-lung will get involved. Lai ran against Tsai in 2020, and Cheng is positioning himself as the heir to Tsai’s more progressive platform. Currently, Lai is pretty far ahead in the polls, and Cheng doesn’t seem to be catching up. If Cheng isn’t up to the challenge, perhaps the progressive side of the DPP will turn to Su to stop the much more conservative Lai. He’s 74 years old now, but in the age of Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, and Donald Trump, maybe that’s not too old to launch a new enterprise. It’s highly unlikely, but after watching him oozing charisma, vitality, optimism, and pluck on Wednesday, it suddenly doesn’t seem impossible.

[1] The weather reports had suggested it might be 12-13, but my car thermometer said it was around 16-18.

[2] Yes, it seems awkward and perhaps a bit sexist to name the man first and the woman second when she holds a higher position, especially since I devoted quite a bit of the past decade to documenting the rise of women in Taiwanese politics. But in this case, Liang is almost certainly the primary organizer. He has been in electoral politics for a decade and is one of the national leaders of the New Tide faction. This is his district, and he has been organizing it for a long time. Lin was a TV reporter who, seemingly out of nowhere, suddenly got placed on the DPP party list in 2020. It probably shocked everyone — including them — that she got to the legislature before he did.

[3] I don’t know if they were. I’m trying to be as skeptical as possible.

[4] It reminded me of Phantom Regiment. I’ll be shocked if any of my readers understand this reference, but maybe there’s a drum corps fan out there who will absolutely get it.

My-Formosa poll on referendums

November 29, 2021

My-Formosa 美麗島電子報 has released its November poll. This is the first high quality poll to be released since the referendum campaigns began in earnest about a month ago. Earlier polls showed that all four items were favored to pass, but the DPP has been waging an energetic campaign to vote “no” on all four. This poll is the first solid evidence we have of the effectiveness of that campaign.

Before looking at the referendums, let’s first look at the general lay of the land. From a partisan perspective, this month’s poll is similar to or even slightly better for President Tsai and the DPP than the previous few months. Tsai’s favorability rating is currently +14.0% (55.8% satisfied, 41.8% dissatisfied). On party ID, 40.4% support a green party, 19.0% support a blue party, and 7.0% support the TPP. If you consider the TPP to actually be in the blue camp (and that increasingly seems to be a reasonable assumption), the numbers look a lot like those right around the January 2020 election. As you’ll recall, Tsai won that election by 19%. As far as I can tell, the electorate hasn’t changed very much since then. So that’s the underlying partisan structure.

With that out of the way, let’s get to the referendums. Here are the bottom-line numbers.

All respondentsyesnoYes – no
R17: Restart 4NPP37.851.9-14.1
R18: Ban ractopamine pork55.437.9+17.5
R19: Referendums on same day46.141.7+4.4
R20: Move LNG / protect coral reef35.041.1-6.1

The two energy referendums (R17 and R20) are now showing more opposition than support, and this is particularly evident for R17. This probably has something to do with the KMT withdrawing its all-out support for these two items a month ago. The two items that the KMT explicitly sponsored are still in positive territory. The gap in R19 is positive, though it is smaller than it was in much earlier polls. The gap in R18, the pork referendum, is still a gaping 17.5%. At first glance, the DPP doesn’t seem to have made any headway there at all.

But wait. That might not be the entire story. We don’t know what turnout will be, but it certainly won’t be 100%. Only 62% of respondents said they would definitely turn out to vote. For reference, a month before the Jan 2020 election, 77% said they would definitely turn out. I’m skeptical we will get 62%, but mid- or high 50s seems plausible. At any rate, those 62% are a bit different from the 38% who aren’t so sure about voting.

Will Definitely Vote (62%)yesnoYes – no
R17: Restart 4NPP39.154.9-15.8
R18: Ban ractopamine pork51.044.6+6.4
R19: Referendums on same day47.246.5+0.7
R20: Move LNG / protect coral reef37.946.6-8.7

The two energy referendums are basically the same, but the two KMT referendums are much closer. R19 is now basically tied. R18 is still passing, but more than half of the margin has evaporated. If this is the right way to look at the polls, R18 is within shouting distance.

Let’s unpack these results a bit. One of the great things about the My-Formosa polls is that they give us lots of cross-tables, so that we can look at the results in a bit more detail.

Why does turnout matter so much? Green voters are more motivated to vote, and they are the biggest section of the electorate.[1] In the full sample, green voters make up 40% of the sample. When you adjust for turnout, they make up nearly half the voters.

Party IDWill definitely voterespondentsGroup sizeAdjusted group size

Ok, but are those green voters a disciplined, monolithic voting bloc? Actually, no. And neither are the blue voters. As for TPP supporters, they are pretty close to the KMT in every category. This isn’t just a matter of referendums; their answers to more partisan questions such as satisfaction with President Tsai also look a lot like those from blue supporters. There really isn’t much point in discussing them separately; mentally you can just lump them in with the blue voters.

R17 has the clearest partisan lines of the four items. Since Taiwanese have been fighting over the 4th Nuclear Power Plant for three decades and the fights were sharply defined along partisan lines early in Chen Shui-bian’s presidency, maybe this isn’t surprising. However, even here the two big camps aren’t monolithic. This is a more difficult topic for blue voters, and only 70% of them support this referendum.

R17: 4NPPyesnootherGroup size
All respondents37.851.910.3100.0

The pork referendum is the mirror image of 4NPP. Here, the blue side is overwhelmingly in favor, and the green side is a little divided. One-fourth of green voters plan to vote against the DPP’s position. Given that they are trailing and still need to change some minds, this isn’t necessarily bad news for the DPP. The existence of a pool of voters who generally like and trust Tsai for the DPP to work on is a good thing. It should be a lot easier to appeal to those voters than to other groups. If they can persuade DPP sympathizers to turn out and vote for the DPP position, victory is not impossible. It is also stunning how lopsided the neutral voters are. These will be harder for Tsai and the DPP to persuade since they don’t necessarily trust the messengers. A higher turnout of this group would probably guarantee passage of the referendum.

R18: porkyesnootherGroup size
All respondents55.137.97.0100.0

R19 has even more muddled partisan lines. For the blue camp, this probably reflects longstanding skepticism toward referendums and the memory of the chaotic 2018 elections. For the green camp, it is probably due to decades of arguing for the establishment of referendums and then for more permissive rules.

R19: same dayyesnootherGroup size
All respondents46.141.712.2100.0

R20 is the most opaque. Both camps are internally divided. More than that, voters seem to be more unsure about this referendum than the others. Nearly one-fourth of respondents did not express a preference on R20. This is a technically difficult question, and, unlike the others, voters haven’t been discussing this topic for years and years. There will be a lot of voters who turn out to vote for the other three items and then, by the way, also cast an unsure vote on R20, and those voters could well decide whether this referendum passes or fails.

R20: LNT / coral reefyesnootherGroup size
All respondents35.041.123.9100.0

I had expected that support for the two energy-related items would look similar, but I was dead wrong. This table shows the percentage of the electorate in each box (so if you add them horizontally or vertically you will get the subtotal). I expected people to vote yes on both or no on both, but the poll shows a much more complex picture. About 10% of all respondents chose yes-no, and about the same number chose no-yes. And there are a lot more who are still unsure. Clearly, large parts of the electorate do not think of these two measures as being closely related.

  R20LNG, reef  

Finally, let’s look at some demographic differences. There aren’t a lot of dramatic patterns, and many of the differences can be explained by partisanship.

On gender, it is useful to remember that men generally support the DPP a bit more than women. For example, President Tsai’s satisfaction rating is 5.6% lower among women than men.

On three of the four items, there is not much of a gender gap. For example, women are against R17 by a 14.5% margin while men are against it by a 13.5% margin. That’s not much of a difference. However, there is a gaping gender gap on the pork referendum, where women support it by 28.1% but men only support it by 6.6%. If R18 passes, it will be driven by women.

The other thing to note is how many more women are unsure. On R20, 84.1% of men expressed a preference while only 68.8% of women did. If you stare at the numbers long enough, you can almost hear the mansplaining.

 R174NPPR18porkR19same dayR20LNG, reef
Gender gap-1.0 21.5 2.2 4.1 

There aren’t a lot of geographic differences, and most of those are probably related to partisanship. However, I will note that support for R20 is highest in Taoyuan-Hsinchu-Miaoli (+9.6% locally; -6.1% nationally). Cynically, I suspect that they are more interested in blocking construction of a local power plant than saving their local coral reef.

I’m also not seeing a lot of dramatic patterns in age and education. Perhaps the most interesting deals with education and R20. Recall that R20 was the most confusing item. There isn’t a lot of difference in the “no” vote, but there are enormous differences in “yes.” I’m not sure how to interpret this, but it is striking. R17 and R19 show similar patterns, but they are not quite as extreme. R18, the pork referendum, is the outlier. In that one, there is a U-shaped pattern, with support for R18 lowest in the primary or less group, highest in the high school group, and just about at the national average in the university and up group.

 R20LNG, reefSize of group
Primary or less11.842.512.0%
Junior high28.346.311.8%
High school34.438.927.6%
Technical college46.634.811.6%
University and up41.442.636.9%

Many of these patterns are probably insignificant or even ephemeral. There are only two that I’m fairly confident about. There are clear partisan patterns, and there is a clear gender gap on the pork referendum.

Right now, the pork referendum is the most likely to pass, and the 4NPP referendum is most likely to fail. However, there are clear indications in this data of how the DPP might defeat the pork referendum, which is after all far and away the most important of these. In a nutshell, they need to convince their supporters to support them. If they can persuade voters who already prefer to the DPP to vote overwhelmingly against the pork referendum, they have a realistic path to victory. It’s a heavy lift, but there is a path.

[1] There isn’t much to learn about the New Power Party (1.1% support), Taiwan Statebuilding Party (2.2%), or People First Party (0.2%) from this poll. They just don’t have enough support to fruitfully analyze. The overwhelming majority of the blue (green) voters support the KMT (DPP). Both camps also have about 5% who don’t mention any specific party but place themselves in that camp. Generally speaking, all the trends are a bit sharper if you look specifically at KMT and DPP support, but I prefer simplifying things into four big groups. I’m also ignoring the 3.1% of the sample that didn’t give a valid response to the party ID question since they are very small and the least likely to turn out.

The referendum campaigns so far

November 27, 2021

We are now three weeks away from the referendum votes, and the battle lines in the campaigns are now pretty well established. I’d like to offer some general thoughts about the process in general and some on the individual items.

Referendum #19 is a good place to start since it deals with the institutional question of how to conduct referendums.[1] This item will allow referendums to be held on the same day as general elections.

I’m on the record as being against referendums in general. I think they are a lousy way to make public policy. There are two fundamental problems. First, referendums invite voters to consider issues in isolation without thinking about possible tradeoffs. However, very few decisions are isolated. Almost everything affects something else, and tradeoffs are unavoidable. If you don’t consider the full array of tradeoffs, you are going to make some lousy choices. Second, referendums place a high burden on voters to become educated. When the question is about a highly technical question, it is unrealistic to expect all voters to read technical reports and academic papers. It is simply unreasonable to demand that voters become experts in every policy area. Without sufficient information, even educated and sophisticated voters are prone to manipulation and making ill-advised choices. Unfortunately, there isn’t much support for eliminating referendums altogether. Nevertheless, I’ll come back to these flaws in my subsequent discussion.

This round of referendums is a new experience for Taiwan. We’ve had referendums in the past, but they have always been conducted at the same time as a larger election. In fact, that has usually been the point. Starting with Chen Shui-bian, parties have used referendums to mobilize sets of voters that they were worried might not otherwise turn out or be energetic enough. Prior to lowering the threshold in 2017, there was no hope of passing the referendum. The entire purpose was to create another talking point to whip your supporters into a frenzy to maximize turnout in the general election, which is what the politicians (and most of the people promoting the referendum) really cared about. The 2017 reform changed these calculations a bit by making it very easy to put a question on the ballot and making it possible to actually pass that item. In 2018, there was a flood of items trying to get on the ballot. More than 50 items started the process, ten actually got on the ballot, and seven actually passed. It was a clear signal that a powerful tool had been unleashed. If nothing had changed, we would have seen an even larger flood of referendums in the next general election. Of course, we all know that the 2018 election was an administrative disaster. The referendums led to long lines and chaotic polling stations, with many people waiting three hours, as people slowly tried to figure out how to vote on each of the measures. To avoid a repeat, the law was changed in 2019 to conduct referendums separately from general elections. There was some uncertainty about how this would affect political calculations. Most importantly, many people speculated that the turnout in a referendum-only election wouldn’t be high enough, so items wouldn’t easily pass. This probably discouraged quite a few groups from launching ballot initiatives this time. Only four items qualified. However, it won’t discourage them in the future. What we have learned this time is that the threshold is so low that the main parties have to assume turnout will be high enough. As a result, the parties have conducted energetic campaigns, which ensures turnout will be high enough. In other words, future activists will have every incentive to put their pet cause on the ballot. We will probably be flooded with referendums in the future, regardless of whether R19 passes. If the law isn’t further revised, I think we should probably expect 25 next time, give or take a dozen.

To me, the critical question is whether the system will work better if those 25 referendums are held jointly with a general election or on a separate day by themselves. So far, the only arguments for the same day are that turnout will be higher (and higher turnout is always better), voters who don’t live near their household registration only need to make one trip home, and it is cheaper to administer one election than two. Personally, I don’t find any of these very compelling. Voting once a year is not an unreasonable burden on citizens, and people who don’t care enough about the referendums to turn out probably aren’t informed enough to make very good choices. As for the costs, democracy costs money. When you skimp on administrative costs, you usually get low-quality democracy. Anyway, if you have 25 referendums with your general election, the lesson of 2018 is that you need a lot more polling stations and polling workers. You won’t be saving as much as you might think.

I think there is a very good reason for holding referendums separately, though it hasn’t been anyone’s main talking point. The process this year has been markedly better than it was in 2018. By that, I mean that the public debate has focused on these four items, and voters have much more information about the choices.

Think back to 2018. A month before the election, what was everyone thinking about? We weren’t talking about the referendums at all. The TV coverage was all about Han Kuo-yu and the possibility of a Han wave. If you were watching blue media, you got 17 hours of Han Kuo-yu a day with a bit of weather, sports, and traffic accidents on the side. If you weren’t thinking about Han Kuo-yu, you might have been thinking about your local candidates. But there was very little in-depth discussion of the ten referendums. Can you remember ever having a substantive discussion about education and homosexuality, the importance of Clause 95 in the Electricity Act, or whether reducing the output of power plants by 1% a year was good public policy? I certainly didn’t, and I consider myself to be a fairly well-informed person. Almost everyone was focused on the mayoral races. This is how all those long lines were produced. Almost all voters knew which mayoral candidate they supported – that’s why they were there. And they mostly knew about their local city council and neighborhood head candidates. Those votes didn’t take very long. But then they had ten other votes to think about, and many people hadn’t really thought very much about them. So in the voting booth, they had to read each (confusing) question, think about it, and come up with an answer. Everything ground to a halt. If it takes ten minutes for each voter to complete their votes, the lines are going to back up pretty quickly.

Now compare that experience to this year. There are not mayoral candidates to dominate our attention. All the discussion has been on the four referendums. We have learned all the main talking points, as the politicians have guided us in the best ways to think about each question. We have had to think about tradeoffs. When one side has raised the costs of a decision, the other side has generally denied that there is, in fact, a serious tradeoff. But at least voters have been exposed to this debate. Some of the debates have been better than others, but all of them have been more substantial than any of the 2018 referendum debates. And when it is time to vote, every voter will go to the polls with an idea of how they want to vote on these four items. That is, after all, why they are going to vote this year. Election administration should be much, much smoother.

There is no question in my mind that holding referendums separately from general elections has created a better referendum system. This doesn’t make it a good system, but at least it isn’t quite as terrible.

Ironically, the debate over R19 has arguably featured the worst quality of the four items. Instead of talking about how referendums work better, both sides have spent most of their energy calling the other side an unprincipled, insincere, anti-democratic flip-flopper. The typical attack is something like, a decade ago they said this, but now they say the opposite. Were they lying then, or have they abandoned their principles now? Both sides have used this heavily; the KMT has used it almost exclusively. One of their debaters dressed up as Lin Yi-hsiung 林義雄, and they have all discovered a reverence for Tsai Trong 蔡同榮. Another one even quoted Chen Shui-bian (who the KMT has always held in the highest esteem!). It’s a very cynical game of gotcha. Look at how insincere the DPP is! They’ll say anything! Their elders would be appalled at how the current party has utterly betrayed its ideals! Now they’re even trying to take away your right to a referendum! I think the main purpose is simply to criticize the DPP, but this might also have a strategic purpose. They need to win a majority, and the KMT doesn’t have a lot of credibility on referendums, especially with DPP-leaning voters. They might think that reminding voters of those DPP elders’ campaigns for referendums will persuade some people to vote “yes” out of fondness for those old guys even if it means voting with the KMT. They have tried to argue that the constitution guarantees the right of referendums based on Sun Yat-sen’s ideas,[2] but that isn’t very persuasive. After all, the KMT spent six decades trying to not to honor that pledge.

It might work, because the DPP isn’t mounting a very powerful argument either. The DPP has been trying to argue that they have always been the party of referendums, and the KMT has always opposed them. (Look at what they said twenty years ago!) Now they have to argue that they are protecting referendums by separating them from general elections (Look at all the chaos it caused in 2018!). I’m not convinced all of them believe themselves. They have been arguing that more referendums are better for so long, and some of them just seem uncomfortable with the nuanced argument that is required now. It is much easier to argue simply that the DPP has always been the party for referendums, and the KMT has always been against them, and so the voters should trust the DPP to make the right choices on referendums. In the third debate, the DPP speaker spent as much of his time on the other three items as on R19.

The debate on R20 has been much more informative. The government is planning to build a facility to unload liquid natural gas (LNG) on the Taoyuan coast so that it can run a new power plant. Taoyuan is the most industrialized region in Taiwan, and the nearby Hsinchu science park also consumes large amounts of electricity. The plan is to generate power locally with LNG so that the coal-burning plants in Taichung and Kaohsiung can cut back their emissions. Air quality is a major political issue in Taichung. This is also part of the plan to retire the aging three nuclear power plants. The problem is that there is a coral reef on the Taoyuan coast, and environmental activists fear the LNG project would destroy or severely damage the reef. Their proposal is to move the LNG unloading facility elsewhere. The government has dismissed this as unrealistic. It has also argued that the original plan has been dramatically modified in order to ensure that the reef will not be damaged.

This referendum was proposed as a simple environmental measure: save the reef. However, through the various rounds of debates, we have learned a lot about the potential tradeoffs involved. Both sides argue that we need to worry about climate change, though they have different angles on how to do that. The government has stressed the impact this will have on air quality in other areas, since stopping an LNG project here inevitably means more coal elsewhere. They have also talked about whether this is a development vs environment problem or merely a tradeoff between different environmental values. And of course, the impact on TSMC has been raised, since Taiwan can’t do anything these days without talking about semiconductors.

This has largely been a sincere and respectful debate. Both sides seem to sincerely believe in their position, and they seem to have been trying to honestly present solid scientific evidence in their favor. They don’t always agree about which evidence is more important or even about the meaning of that evidence, but they don’t seem to be trying to willfully manipulate voters.

Can I follow their debate? Not very well. I don’t have a PhD in environmental studies, civil engineering, marine biology, oceanography, or climate change. The studies they are citing are well beyond my capacity. When they say the project would have a devastating impact or very little impact, I don’t have any idea how I’m supposed to judge which conclusion is more authoritative. I’m much more informed about the choice than I was a month ago, but I don’t think I’m remotely qualified yet to make a good decision. Unfortunately, I suspect most voters will make their choices based on even less information than I have right now. At least I watched all three of the hourlong debates on R20. I’m guessing that puts me in the top 10%. R20 is the best of the four information campaigns, and it is still inadequate. This decision will be based on emotions, not science.

R17 has been much worse in every way. R17 proposes restarting work on the 4th nuclear power plant. 4NPP has been Taiwan’s nightmare for three decades, and they finally sealed the plant in 2014 after wasting massive amounts of money on what turned out to be a Frankenstein project that (thankfully) never started operations. I don’t know if I am for or against nuclear power in the abstract, but 4NPP is a horrifying rusted-out jerry-rigged monstrosity that is nowhere near operational. Regardless of this referendum result, it isn’t ever going to open. The entire referendum is an exercise in cynicism.

I’m fairly confident this one won’t pass. Several weeks ago, the referendum campaign kicked off when two prominent KMT members, New Taipei mayor Hou You-yi and Ilan County magistrate Lin Tzu-miao, said they were against it. Then the KMT decided it wasn’t really responsible for this referendum, so members were free to vote against it. A few other KMT members have since joined in, though the top leadership remains sympathetic.

R17 has become synonymous with one person. Huang Shi-hsiu 黃士修 is the sponsor and the voice. Each referendum has now had three public debates. Everyone else has used three different people for the three debates. Only Huang has represented his side each time. He becomes nastier, less likeable, and less credible each time. Unlike the R20 debate, this has not been an honest, sincere exchange. We only see bad faith.

Huang speaks fast, throwing facts out left and right. It seems to me that he might not always be careful with his research. He gives the impression of someone who scans papers for lines he might use, regardless of what the rest of the paper says. Several times during the debates, his opponent has said something to the effect of “you seem to have misunderstood that part.” They clearly believe it is willful misuse.

The worst moment came in the second debate, in which Huang faced off against a former employee of Taipower who had been involved in several safety inspections.  As Huang finished his opening statement, he warned his opponent to be careful with his words. If Huang detected any lies, he and his team of lawyers would sue. Be careful! His opponent had not yet said a word, mind you. In the second section, Huang repeatedly pointed to reports the guy had signed and accused him of making false statements. In the third debate, he gleefully reported that he had, in fact, brought a lawsuit. Let’s just say that I don’t consider bullying and intimidation hallmarks of a good faith debate.

In the third debate, he proudly admitted to sending reporters materials with the wrong dates on them. This was, he explained, a brilliant trap that he had set for them. (I didn’t follow his logic.) Now, he was revealing his cunning scheme. See how smart he is! (Oh yeah, a few reporters caught the error before he corrected it.) So, we are supposed to trust this guy who is deliberately sending out false evidence because he thinks you are too stupid to notice?? What a creep!

There are some reports that he is connected to Chang Ya-chung, the pro-unification radical who just lost the KMT party chair election. Somehow, that doesn’t surprise me at all. I think he is aiming for a city council seat or a political talk show on CiTV. Or maybe he will just specialize in referendums. He sponsored one in 2018 (R16, dealing with the Electricity Act). With no one paying much attention, that one passed. He seems destined to be an onerous troll for years to come.

Most of the debates have had Huang saying things like 4NPP has passed many safety tests, nuclear waste storage is not a problem, and there are more active faults in central Taiwan than in northern Taiwan so earthquakes are not a problem. His opponents have refuted all these claims and pointed out that 4NPP couldn’t possibly come online for at least another decade.

R17 has been a miserable experience.

That leaves us with R18, the pork referendum. Overall, I think the debate on pork has been pretty informative. There have been plenty of cheap shots and irrelevant tangents, but we have gotten a fairly good depiction of the question at hand. The main considerations are:

  • How safe is ractopamine?
  • How much does the USA care? Will this affect relations with the USA?
  • Will this affect TIFA and/or CPTPP?
  • Does Taiwan have an obligation to follow international standards?

The KMT wants to argue that ractopamine is unsafe, and that is the only thing that matters. Those other concerns are wildly exaggerated. The DPP argues that ractopamine is mostly safe, and those other concerns are extremely important.

Unlike R20, which involves extremely technical considerations, the pork debate is relatively easy to follow. I don’t understand the chemistry or biology of ractopamine, but I can understand pork chops. 33 pork chops every day for five years or six bowls of pork liver soup a day for five years would be too much. In many ways, it is harder to understand the effect this would have on international trade. Many voters will see this as a “he said, she said” situation. However, it is relatively easy to follow the logic of how it might matter. The tradeoff is clear to see if the voters are willing to see it.

I’m not going to make any predictions about how this will turn out. We haven’t had much polling, and what we do have is either extremely low quality or too long ago to reflect the effects of the campaign. I’m waiting anxiously for the monthly My-Formosa poll which should come out in the next few days and provide a much better picture of where we are.

[1] Ok, it’s a good place to start because I am a political scientist who studies political institutions. For everyone else, this seems to be the least interesting of the four referendums.

[2] I wonder how many of them have actually read SYS on referendums. His justification was that democratic government works like a piston. Elections push the piston out, and referendums push the piston back in. There’s are reason no one outside the KMT church considers SYS a genius political philosopher.

DPP referendum event: Politics is Hard

November 26, 2021

Mass politics is hard. Sometimes it looks easy, but it isn’t. Political communication is a skill, and it is easy to overlook all the hours that have gone into refining that skill. Every now and then, however, I am jolted back to an appreciation of just how hard this game is.

On Thursday,[1] I went to a small event in a basement in downtown Taipei where three potential future DPP leaders were arguing against the four referendums. I wanted to get a closeup look at Hsieh Pei-fen 謝佩芬, Enoch Wu Yi-nung 吳怡農, and, especially, Vincent Chao Yi-hsiang 趙怡翔 in action. In 2020, both Hsieh and Wu both ran for the legislature in difficult districts, and both lost. I have seen Wu a few times. His challenge to Wayne Chiang Wan-an 蔣萬安 was, after all, one of the glamour races of the cycle. I had never seen Hsieh in person. The conventional wisdom was that her race was hopeless, and I tried to see candidates in the most competitive races. Arguably, Hsieh’s loss by 10% in that district was a better performance than Wu’s loss by 6% in a significantly easier district. Onstage Thursday night, Wu and Hsieh were fine. Wu is slowly learning to be a better speaker, though he still has room to improve. Hsieh was the best speaker of the night, which might be expected since she is currently a DPP spokesperson. However, I thought everyone went too fast to try to cram too much information into a limited time, and the result was that none of them really made any memorable points. I’m struggling right now to remember one killer point that either of them made. Admittedly, I have been thinking most intensely about the other main speaker, so their speeches didn’t really have a fair chance to sink in to my brain. So let’s talk about the event as if it were just a showcase for Chao.[2]

Vincent Chao has a pretty spectacular resume. He is only in his early 30s, but he has already worked in a variety of influential positions. He has worked in the DPP’s International Affairs Department, Office of the Secretariat of the National Security Council, Office of the Secretariat for the Presidential Office, and the head of Foreign Minister Joseph Wu’s office. I ran into him in TECO the last time I was in DC. He is known and trusted by a wide array of powerful DPP figures, including, if media speculation is to be believed, President Tsai herself. For a person working in other people’s offices, he already has a fairly significant national profile. The obvious next step in building his career is to move out of other people’s staffs and get his feet wet in electoral politics. If you want to go anywhere in the DPP, party culture demands that contribute to the party by winning some elections. He has announced that he will run for the Taipei City council, and that is a great place to start. It is an entry level job in which aspiring politicians can learn the craft of electoral politics. Even if you don’t stay in electoral politics, the experience of fighting for votes is a prerequisite for power at the highest levels of the DPP.

The city council election is still a year away. Right now, we are in the final stages of a referendum campaign. It’s a good time to try to develop your skills at mass politics. This is, as we shall see, a very different skill set than that required to be a policy advisor.

The event was not designed to be a mass, outdoor rally. Rather, it was supposed to be a small, indoor event in which a real discussion could occur. It was supposed to go for 60 minutes (or maybe 90?), and after each of the four speakers gave a short (roughly ten minute) speech, they opened the floor to questions. The room might have held 200 people if it had been absolutely packed, but there were lots of empty chairs. I’m guessing there were about 80 people present, including staff. We are a month before the vote, so maybe it might be a good time to switch from retail to wholesale campaigning. At this point, winning 10 more votes is meaningless. For this event to be a success, it had to produce a multiplier effect. Each of those 80 had to be inspired to go out and get 10 other votes. But this was not a church revival filled with Hallelujahs; neither was it a “how to” seminar filled with easily memorable and repeatable talking points that the audience could take home with them.

Chao prepared a powerpoint. I can’t remember ever seeing a powerpoint presentation at a political event before. He started by talking about Brexit. His point was that the Brexit debate was filled with fake information, and British people now all think that they made the wrong choice because of this fake information. His powerpoint slide listed about six or seven misleading arguments in the campaign, but he talked mostly about the famous bus that promised the UK could stop sending an enormous amount of money each week to the EU and save it to support the national healthcare system.

At this point, I was already shaking my head. In a short speech, you have to get right to the point. Brexit is not on the ballot in Taiwan this year. Moreover, if you are going to use an event as an illustration, you need to be sure that (a) it is something that everyone has a deep, emotional reaction to and (b) that everyone has the same understanding of it. I don’t think Brexit meets either of those conditions here in Taiwan. In the Q&A, one of the questioners challenged Chao’s interpretation of Brexit, and we wasted five more minutes on this irrelevant topic. This did not persuade anyone to vote against the pork referendum.

After the Brexit introduction, we got to what should have been the heart of his talk. Chao listed four areas of misleading information in the pork referendum. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you exactly what the four topics were. I’m pretty sure the first one was that American pork is not safe, and the second one was that there won’t be any backlash if this referendum passes. The other two? I wish he had hammered them home and forced me to remember them, but he didn’t.

The point about American backlash was the most glaring missed opportunity. This is the crucial point of the debate. If Taiwanese voters believe there will not be any serious cost to voting yes, they will vote yes. Even people who believe ractopamine is mostly safe will vote yes to help domestic pig farmers. No one in Taiwan is desperate to gain access to American pork. On this point, Chao is in a unique position to make a powerful point. He can say something like, “They tell you Americans won’t care. I’ve spent a lot of time in DC recently talking to influential American politicians and bureaucrats, and let me promise you that they absolutely DO care. They have made it clear to me that opening the pork market is absolutely crucial to any and all future trade deals. If we backtrack on this opening, they will absolutely retaliate.” If he has a concrete anecdote about someone who told him something one time, even better! The point is that Chao could have put a credible personal stamp on the debate, transforming it from a hypothetical potential consequence into a much surer, highly predictable reaction.

And then Chao could have brought out the sledgehammer. Maybe you don’t believe him. Maybe you think the people who say the USA won’t react at all seem more credible. Well, Chao had a unique window on what Americans are saying. On Wednesday, he had interviewed Bonnie Glaser on his podcast.[3] Admittedly, Glaser is not an official representative of the American government, but official representatives typically stay silent before other country’s votes. Glaser, a highly connected, well-informed scholar in an influential DC think tank is exactly the sort of person who can informally communicate American sentiments. In the interview, Glaser spends the first ten minutes talking about the tortured history of the trade talks, explaining how American negotiators have seen several previous Taiwanese moves to block beef and pork as betrayals. She makes it clear that bureaucrats at USTR already don’t trust Taiwanese promises because of this troubled history, and she solemnly concludes that another backtrack from a promise would have a devastating effect on trade talks for years to come. Chao simply had to tell us about this interview, and then soberly assure us that there is no doubt at all that passing the pork referendum would have disastrous consequences for Taiwan.

It would have been a powerful argument. And let’s not forget that Chao is running for office next year in a 13-seat district in which the DPP will probably nominate five or six candidates. This is an argument that only he can make, and that makes him stand out from the crowd. No one else has the high-level international contacts that he has. And he has those international contacts because he has pull at the highest levels of government here. This would have been a good argument in the current debate, and it would have been good politics for next year’s election.

Chao didn’t make those arguments. He never talked about how people in DC had personally convinced him that they really care about pork. He didn’t put his own credibility on the line by saying, “Believe me, I can assure you this is true.” And most inexplicably, he never once mentioned his interview with Bonnie Glaser. Instead, he made a few bland statements based on stale media reports that anyone else could have made. If you didn’t already believe the USA would react, nothing he said would have changed your mind. It was a bewildering missed opportunity.

Chao did not close his talk by issuing a passionate plea to vote against the pork referendum. Instead, he encouraged everyone to educate themselves on the referendums and make the best decision possible. If, after extensive consideration, they came to the conclusion that the pork referendum was a good idea, he would respect that. In the Q&A, he came back to this theme. The KMT, he said, wanted to present it as a black and white issue. But it is really a complicated problem with several layers of gray.

That might be the right approach in a university seminar where the main goal is for students to develop critical thinking skills rather than to reach any specific conclusion. It might also be appropriate for a policy advisor, admitting that it is a difficult choice and the boss must weight the positive and negative aspects of each option (and maybe a third path might be best). However, this doesn’t work at all in mass politics. By the time we get to the campaign, the politicians are supposed to know what they think. They are supposed to have considered all the pros and cons and come to a clear decision on what the best path is. And then the politicians are supposed to lead the public, telling them how to think about the choice and why one option is clearly the better one. When you say both sides have some good points and don’t add that they are clearly outweighed by the bad points, what you are really saying is that you don’t believe your own argument. You might be speaking for the “no” side, but, deep down, you suspect that “yes” might be the better option. If you don’t have confidence in your position, why should ordinary voters? Of course you must respect voters’ decisions. Accepting election results is a minimum requirement for every democrat. However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t passionately advise them to vote in a certain way, especially if you believe that the other outcome will have serious negative consequences. In mass politics, politicians have to know what they stand for, and they have to passionately urge voters to join them.

Chao clearly hasn’t learned or accepted this lesson yet, but he will eventually. The alternative is to be drummed out the game, either by voters who have no reason to follow him or by fellow party members who cannot trust him. Politics is a team sport.

All in all, I don’t think this was a very successful event. No one had enough time to make a full argument, and they didn’t make very good use of the time they had. The questions from the audience were mostly off topic (eg: “How did these questions get on the ballot?”), so there wasn’t a very fruitful discussion. I don’t expect that they changed many votes or inspired many people to go out and work to persuade other people. And I don’t think the four speakers did very much to enhance their own personal reputations, though three of them could at least claim they were fighting the good fight for their party.

When you see a master at the top of their game, politics looks easy. But persuading large numbers of people is actually very difficult. Some voters need a message that is simple and forceful while others want a bit more complexity and evidence. Ultimately though, you need large numbers of people all come to the same conclusion and vote with you. Figuring out how to craft a message that can do all that is really hard. And then you have to deliver that message effectively, which is an entirely different challenge. All of the speakers at this event spoke too fast, trying to jam in as many words as possible in a limited amount of time. The result was that I didn’t remember very much of what they said. The best speakers slow down when they want to make an impact. In effect, they say that   this   is   the   point   I    want    you    to    remember.

The good news is that political communication is a skill that can be learned. Mrs. Garlic and I were recently watching a speech by President Tsai, and we were struck by what a polished and effective speaker she has become. When Tsai first ran for office in 2010, she was a pretty terrible at mass events. (I’ll never forget when she told a crowd to stop cheering because she needed to lecture them about her policy agenda. We can should slogans in a little while.)  She is a much better president now because she has learned to be a much better communicator. What I saw last night from Chao (and to a lesser extent, from Wu and Hsieh) is that he is at the beginning of a path. He clearly has political talent, but he will have to do some work to develop that potential.

[1] Personally, I can’t think of any better way to spend a Thanksgiving in Taiwan than at a mass politics event! I’m Frozen Garlic, after all!

[2] There were actually four speakers. The first was three-term Taipei City council member Juan Chao-hsiung 阮昭雄. He gave a pretty standard-issue performance. He might run for the legislature again, but he’s a bit older and I don’t think he has the same potential to rise much higher than that the way the other three do.

[3] Most of the news outlets had a short story on this interview in which they reported that Glaser thinks the referendum will have a significant impact on the American trade relationship if is passes. Mrs. Garlic saw one of these stories and alerted me to it. I looked for five minutes for the entire interview, but Chao did not post it on Youtube where it might be easily found. I finally found it on his Facebook page, where it was obscured underneath an advertisement for the Thursday night event. The full interview presents a much more powerful argument than the media stories convey; it is the kind of message that opponents of the pork referendum should take pains to amplify as loudly as possible. The media seems to have taken it more seriously than Chao and the DPP. Doesn’t anyone remember the power of Douglas Paal in 2012?

The 2nd pork debate

November 21, 2021

The CEC held the second round of debates on the four referendums last week. There will be one more round of official debates. I’m going to continue to focus on the pork referendum.

For the pork question, the pro- side was represented by Chao Shao-kang (趙少康, also spelled Jaw Shao-kang). This is an interesting choice, since Chao has a long history in Taiwan politics. Let me stop here to refresh your memory about Chao.

Chao Shao-kang burst on the scene in the 1980s, winning huge numbers of votes in his two Taipei City Council elections in 1981 and 1985 and then winning seats in the legislature easily in 1986 and 1989. He was nicknamed the “political golden boy” 政治金童 and the media covered him heavily. He was an unapologetic Chinese patriot and a cheerleader for the ROC, but he was also part of the “liberal KMT” that was in favor of opening up the political system to democratic reforms. In the early days of Lee Teng-hui’s presidency, Chao was sometimes an ally in the fights against the old KMT dinosaurs. However, Chao quickly changed sides, and spent the rest of his career fighting against Lee and the DPP. During the fight between Lee and Premier Hau Pei-tsun (roughly 1990-1993), Chao was one of the primary organizers of the New KMT Alliance, a legislative caucus supporting Hau. Chao then resigned his seat to enter Hau’s cabinet as Environmental Protection Council Chair. In December 1992, Taiwan fully elected the LY for the first time, and this marked Hau’s loss. Without the automatic majority of the eternal legislators, Hau no longer had enough support in the legislature to continue. He resigned as premier and was replaced by LTH’s protégé, Lien Chan. Chao, who could see the writing on the wall, stormed back into the legislature, winning a remarkable 215,000 votes in Taipei County. In August 1993, Chao led the New KMT Alliance to quit LTH’s KMT and form a purer party, the Chinese New Party. For the first year, the New Party talked a lot about ordinary people 小市民 and things like corruption, land prices, and income inequality. In 1994, Chao decided to run for Taipei City mayor, and his campaign changed Taiwanese politics. Chao’s candidacy split the KMT vote in Taipei, allowing Chen Shui-bian to sneak into office with only 43% of the vote, and CSB’s performance in office set the stage for his presidential run in 2000.  Chao also transformed the New Party. During the campaign, he stopped talking so much about ordinary people and started talking about his sacred quest to protect the ROC. LTH, he said, had a secret timetable for Taiwan independence. Chao successfully rallied his base of true ROC believers, but he also narrowed the party to that base. The New Party became increasingly identified with Mainlanders, and surveys showed that half of his voters were Mainlanders. Mainlanders made up about 13% of Taiwan’s electorate at the time, and the New Party got about 15% of the vote in the 1995 legislative and 1996 national assembly elections, but Chao had effectively capped their support at those numbers. After the 1994 election, Chao faded from the front line of electoral politics. When Ma Ying-jeou decided to preemptively sell off some KMT assets, Chao managed to buy a controlling interest in the China Broadcasting Company (CBC, 中廣). He then reinvented himself as a media figure. For the last decade or two, he has been the Taiwanese equivalent of Bill O’Reilly or Rush Limbaugh. In the last year, he has made noise about rejoining the KMT, running for KMT chair, and running for president in 2024. He is also the person who started calling for the KMT to become the “fighting blue” force 戰鬥藍。

The point of this history is that Chao is not a very neutral figure. He is also not an expert on pork, food safety, or free trade. He is a very partisan and polarizing figure who has strong opinions on everything (almost all of which, coincidentally, involve the DPP being terrible). He’s a good choice if you want to whip up a fervor among people who are already on your side, but he might not be the best person to talk to neutral voters or those who want a calm discussion. Younger voters might not have strong feelings about him, but for anyone my age or older, Chao comes with some significant baggage. The KMT is sponsoring this referendum, so I assume they picked Chao. Again, it’s an interesting choice.

The anti- side was represented by Lee Chun 李淳, a public policy expert at the Chung Hua Institution for Economic Research (CIER). He is just about the polar opposite of Chao. He wasn’t boring or unpersuasive, but he also never seemed interested in making things about himself.

Here are the main points that each side made.

First Round, In favor of banning imports of ractopamine pork

  • First, he presented three complaints about the debate. It was unfair that he didn’t get the last word. It should go 1-2-2-1, not 1-2-1-2. Second, the CEC should have all three debates on the weekend when more people can watch. They are unfairly trying to depress turnout. Third, the government should provide funds for the pro- side to make its case. Unfair.
  • The government has several arguments against us. 1) Opposing racto-pork is opposing American pork. Opposing American pork is opposing America. 2) If we don’t allow racto-pork, Americans will be angry. 3) Americans eat racto-pork, so why shouldn’t Taiwanese? 4) If we don’t allow racto-pork, we won’t be able to enter CPTPP. These are all wrong.
  • Racto-pork is only a small part of pork imports. How can you equate this to be anti-American? I love the USA. I studied in the USA, I drive a Tesla, I love macadamia nuts, I have an iphone, I have a Costco membership. I love the USA, I’m just against racto-pork.
  • The USA should be angry against the DPP for not allowing students, soldiers, and athletes to eat American pork. They are only allowed to eat Taiwan pork. Why? If it’s safe, you should let them eat it. Last year we imported 16m tons of American pork; this year it’s only 0.4m tons. This policy of not labeling ractopamine pork is hurting the USA.
  • You should tune into my program next week to hear my interview with an AIT representative talking about importing American agricultural products.
  • They talk about scientific standards. Codex was only passed by two votes. That is politics, not science.
  • The international standard is in ppb. Why did we change it to ppm?
  • The EU doesn’t allow racto imports.
  • If racto is so great, why don’t we allow domestic pigs to eat it?
  • The Mainland doesn’t allow it. Are we second-class citizens?
  • The three big American pork packers (Smithfield, Tyson, JBS) have stopped raising racto-pigs. Why should we import it?
  • If we allow racto-pork, will we be able to enter CPTPP? Why didn’t we apply to join CPTPP as soon as we opened? Why were we a week later than the Mainland? Before you said the critical barrier to CPTPP was food imports from Fukushima. Now it is racto-pork? Anyway, the USA is not in CPTPP.
  • According to DPP, we must allow pork to enter CPTPP. The Mainland has terrible relations with the USA and doesn’t allow racto-pork. Why should we be worried that they can enter CPTPP before us?
  • Three questions for Lee: 1) If we allow racto-pork, can we enter CPTPP? 2) Is opposing racto-pork equal to opposing American pork equal to opposing the USA? 3) Why doesn’t the DPP allow students, firefighters, soldiers, and athletes to eat American pork?

First Round, against banning imports of ractopamine pork

  • Let me answer those three questions. Yes, racto-pork is a barrier to CPTPP. 1) We have already opened up. If we reverse that, it will be cancelling an international promise our president made. We will be bouncing a check. 2) CPTPP requires members to follow international standards or provide scientific evidence for why they can’t. We have done two studies under President Ma and President Tsai, and both showed that conditions in Taiwan are consistent with using the international standard. If we don’t follow our own scientific evidence and instead allow politics to override the decision, our CPTPP negotiators won’t have any credibility. We already did this in 2012. Are we going to do it again in 2022? If we are going to refuse to use international standards without any scientific justification, they will worry that we will do the same thing with Malaysian shrimp or Vietnamese fruit. It’s already hard enough to enter CPTPP. We should set up another obstacle. We shouldn’t use a referendum to reject an international standard.
  • Is opposing racto-pork equal to opposing American pork equal to opposing the USA? This measure will hurt the USA more than anyone else. We get our pork imports from Canada, the EU, and the USA. Canada uses racto domestically, but not for export in order to differentiate Canadian pork from American pork. The EU doesn’t use racto. So the only real target is American pork. So opposing racto-pork is opposing American pork. I’ll reserve comment on whether that is also opposing the USA.
  • Why don’t we eat American pork? This is support for domestic food products, not opposition to American pork.
  • Do other countries ban ractopamine? Japan, Korea, Singapore, New Zealand, Australia, Malaysia, Vietnam allow it; all 11 CPTPP countries have made their regulations according to international standards. China and EU are not exceptions. Ractopamine is a hormone, and the EU bans all hormones including ractopamine. However, the WTO has never accepted this choice. The USA sued the EU in 1997 and won, so the EU has to make an annual payment of USD100m to compensate the USA as well as zero tariffs on beef and guaranteed soybean purchases. They have to do this every year. China? In the recent agreement, China promised to make rules according to the Codex.
  • Is ractopamine really dangerous? If it were, I’d be against it too. It’s not. We opened to American beef in 2012. We eat more pork than beef, but 90% of our pork is domestic and 50% of beef is from the USA. We each eat an average of 2.7kg/year of American beef and only 0.6kg/year of American pork. It’s important to note that there hasn’t been a single case of racto health problems in the nine years that the market has been open to American beef.
  • According to our studies, a person would have to each 10 jin (6kg) of racto pork every day to cause a problem. That’s about 33 pork chops. My wrist is injured (shows wrist brace), so my wife fed by pork soup three meals a day. That was only 0.5 jin – it’s impossible to eat 33 pork chops a day. And you have to do that every day for five years for it to be toxic. And since 90% of our pork is domestic, it’s nearly impossible to buy that much racto pork. Everything is toxic if you take too much. The doctor gave me some pain medicine for my wrist. A small amount is safe; too much is dangerous. As long as you stay under the limits, it is fine. We don’t eat anywhere near 33 pork chops, and you can’t buy that much racto-pork. Our culture and practices are perfectly consistent with following the international standard.

Second Round, In favor of banning imports of ractopamine pork

  • Those explanations are not reasonable.
  • We eat 2.7kg of beef a year. Do you know how much pork we eat? 38kg! Of course we worry more about pork! All our box lunches are pork, not beef. You can’t compare beef and pork. We eat 3kg of pork offal every year. This is why President Ma could open up the beef market.
  • The EU pays a fine. We can do that too! I’m willing to pay a fine. We love American pork; we just don’t love racto-pork. Don’t you understand?
  • Codex was 69-67. How is that science? That is politics!
  • Why would we oppose Australian beef or Malaysian shrimp? They’re fine, so we don’t have any reason to oppose them.
  • You are afraid of bouncing checks on our promises. I don’t know what various presidents have promised. But this is a referendum. This is the will of 23m people. The DPP says this is the highest moral value. Taiwan’s future is determined by the 23m Taiwanese people. The will of 23m people is higher than the government’s policy. What government would dare override the result of their country’s referendum? The government can explain that they didn’t break their promise. It was the referendum that did it; it’s the public will. 沒辦法.
  • Why can the Mainland import 5m tons of American pork without ractopamine and we can’t import even 10,000 tons? Are we second class citizens? If they can, why can’t we?
  • If American racto pork can’t go to other countries, all of it will flood into Taiwan. Isn’t that scary? Do we need that?
  • Isn’t the USA our great friend? Will they really break their rock-solid friendship over a bit of pork? We can buy something else. We are buying a lot of military weapons. In the end, they will care about the bottom line, not whether we are specifically buying pork.
  • He talked about 33 pork chops, but scientists say that 6 bowls of pork liver soup is dangerous. Don’t tell me that 6 bowls is impossible. Mother-in-laws make pregnant women eat a lot of things.
  • I’m worried about offal. Last year we imported 6000 tons of pork intestines and bones, and 20,000 tons of ground up offal. That goes into all kinds of pork products we eat (lists several). Can we tell which ones have ractopamine? Why can’t we label it? What rule is that breaking? We can label GMO foods, so why not this?
  • He says there are no bad health effects. Have you asked any doctors? Maybe its ok for ordinary people, but people who are pregnant, have high blood pressure, heart problems shouldn’t touch it. How many people have high blood pressure? Why do we need this?
  • Domestic pork hold 93% of the market. If imported pork increases to 20-30% of the market, Taiwanese pork famers will lose at least NTD 15 billion (USD500m).
  • On CPTPP, the Japanese agricultural market is only 78% open. 21% of their market is closed and protected. Peru and Vietnam are 96% open. Canada and Mexico are 94%, New Zealand, Australia, and Singapore are 100%. Every country has its own national conditions. You never see a country like Taiwan that loves to eat certain pork offal products. This is science. Every year we eat 3kg of offal. That is science. We eat 38kg of pork. That is science.
  • Americans don’t eat this stuff, especially offal. Americans barely eat any pork. Just bacon and sausage. Taiwanese eat lots of pork. That’s why we care about this.
  • When they talk about nuclear power, they don’t talk at all about science, it’s all emotion. We import less than 20kg of American pork a year. One nuclear power plant is at least USD10 billion. That’s GE and Westinghouse. That’s a big deal. When you stopped the 4NPP, weren’t they angry? Then we didn’t care about Americans. Isn’t that a double standard?
  • Why is the government using ppm instead of ppb?
  • Taiwan has a trade surplus of USD150billion with the Mainland. We don’t allow 2,444 agricultural products from the Mainland. Is that fair? Is this fair trade?
  • Legislators are useless. From both parties. All we have left is a public opinion. The government lies to us. Medigen is a fraud. Racto pork is a fraud. Algal reefs are a fraud. Green energy is a fraud. Four yes votes: that is public opinion.

Second Round, against banning imports of ractopamine pork

  • Chao asks why we can’t use a referendum to decide policy since public opinion is the highest value. Don’t forget: every country has public opinion. If we use public opinion to decide international trade, countries that rely on exports will be the biggest losers. Last year we had over NTD9 trillion in exports. Our total tax revenue was only NTD 2.9t. International trade is critical to all of us. Take computer chips. Countries don’t tax our chip exports because of WTO rules. Our chip trade surplus depends on other countries respecting their agreement to follow the rules. If Taiwan goes outside those rules to use a referendum to decide its trade policies, this would violate those international rules. If we use public opinion instead of international rules, Taiwan will be the biggest loser.
  • We eat 38kg of pork a year. 90% is domestic pork. Only 1.2% of our pork is American. It’s actually quite difficult to buy racto pork right now. Domestic pork doesn’t use racto. So if you are worried about racto, eat domestic pork and you won’t eat any ractopamine. It’s easy. If you are like me and don’t worry about ractopamine, most of the time I will still buy domestic pork. How much danger is there in that 38kg if we barely eat any American pork?
  • We eat 0.7kg of American pork and 2.7kg of American beef. After 9 years of imported beef, we have confidence that it is safe.
  • Why can’t we pay a fine like the EU? The EU has already paid 15 years, and it will continue to have to pay. Do our pork producers even want this? Anyway, why does the EU agree to pay this fine? If it is to ensure safety, I’d say it was worth it. But all our evidence shows that, even considering Taiwan’s eating culture, there is no danger to our health. Why should we pay this fine?
  • Chao says the Codex is political. It’s true that all international standards are voted on. But remember, our standards are just set by the Codex. We start from the Codex and then our experts do our own studies. President Ma did one; President Tsai did another. Australia, Singapore, and Japan all did their own studies of food safety and decided to open. The vote on the Codex is irrelevant. Our decisions are based on our own studies, just like everyone else’s.
  • Chao says that he has heard things on Line and the internet. Every society has people who don’t believe things no matter how much scientific evidence there is. That’s ok. That’s why we label the country of origin. Domestic pork doesn’t have ractopamine, so if you care about it you can avoid it.
  • Chao is worried that American pork will flood the market. We’ve been importing pork for over 20 years (since we joined WTO) and the market share has rarely been much above 10%, even when we had an outbreak of foot and mouth disease. We finally defeated foot and mouth disease in 2020, and we were able to resume pork exports. What if Japan and other countries use public opinion to pass a referendum saying they don’t believe we are really free of foot and mouth disease and ban our pork imports? Would that be fair?
  • According to our studies, Japanese studies, Australian studies, Singapore studies, there is no issue with food safety. If people don’t believe these studies, it’s ok. They can just look at the label and choose domestic pork.
  • GMO labeling is voluntary, not mandatory, so there is no question of international rules. If you want to use mandatory labeling for ractopamine, you have to provide a scientific justification for violating the international rules. This would cause stress with Canada, the USA, and others, and our own domestic pork producers would oppose it. Labeling country of origin and forbidding domestic use of ractopamine is simple, effective, and follows the rules.
  • Chao says Japan is only 78% open. Japan has several categories that are slowly transitioning to zero tariff, but they allow all these imports. None of the imports are banned. This is different from a move to ban imports of racto pork. The rules say you can only ban a product if you have a scientific basis. Again, our studies (and those from Japan, Australia, Singapore) don’t provide a scientific basis to ban racto pork, even considering our dietary customs. Again, we haven’t had a single case in 9 years of eating American beef, and we eat even less American pork. If you don’t believe this, just eat domestic pork and you don’t have to worry.
  • If the world uses public opinion to make decision, Taiwan will be the biggest loser.

My impression is that Lee generally made more persuasive arguments. Chao asked a lot of questions, but didn’t provide nearly as many concrete points to support himself. He likes to ask simple questions of the “If they can, why can’t we?” variety. These sound good until someone challenges them and explains that either “they can’t” or “here’s why we can’t.” The danger for the government side is that it is a lot easier to remember the simple question than the complex answer.

As an American, I’m a bit offended that Chao thinks that consuming American products is the same as loving America. Driving a Tesla is more an act of conspicuous consumption than one of patriotism. Also, I’m shocked to learn that Americans don’t eat pork. Chao got a MA from Clemson. Surely, he must have been introduced to Carolina BBQ.

More seriously, we can now see that debate focusing on several critical points.

  • Is ractopamine safe?
  • Is this referendum anti-American?
  • Will this referendum have an effect on CPTPP?
  • More generally, is it acceptable for Taiwan to make decisions case-by-case, or does Taiwan have an obligation to make its decisions according to international standards?

If people are paying attention to this debate, they are getting a fairly solid set of criteria to make their decision. I’m not sure how many people are paying attention, though.

Referendum campaigns start. Pork is debated.

November 15, 2021

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.