Archive for the ‘referendum’ Category

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.

the politics of the marriage equality vote

May 21, 2019

Last Friday, Taiwan passed the Enforcement Act of Judicial Yuan Constitutional Interpretation No. 748, which is pointedly not named the Marriage Equality Act. This is not a post about how wonderful it is for Taiwan to pass such landmark legislation or how it is the first country in Asia to do so. (For the record, I think it is pretty great.) T his post is about the politics behind that momentous act.

This issue has turned into something of a political nightmare for President Tsai and the DPP. Courtney Donovan Smith has done a fantastic job of following all the twists and turns over the past four years, tracing how it all went politically wrong for the DPP. I highly recommend reading that piece before continuing this one, because I’m going to assume all that as background knowledge. I only have two points to add to Donovan’s excellent account. People don’t pay enough attention to President Tsai’s judicial appointments, and it isn’t commonly appreciated just how much the revisions to the Referendum Act changed the entire process and outlook for marriage equality.

Marriage equality would not have gotten to the front of Taiwan’s political agenda if the Council of Grand Justices hadn’t put it there. Yes, there were demonstrations and activists, but they weren’t anywhere near powerful enough to force their way onto the agenda. There wasn’t a consensus in public opinion, and it wasn’t close to getting on the party platform of either of the two major parties. Without the court, this would have lingered on the sidelines, waiting behind other stalled causes such as judicial reform, moving the Taipei city airport, and absentee voting. Why did the court put this case on the agenda? It did so because a majority of the justices took a progressive view of this question. And that happened because President Tsai appointed progressives to the Council of Grand Justices. There are fifteen justices. The President and Vice President of the Judicial Yuan serve four year terms, and the other thirteen serve eight year terms. Due to disputes dating back to the late Chen presidency (ie: the legislature refused to confirm anyone Chen nominated), the calendar for filling vacancies got screwed up. A political settlement allowed Tsai to fill seven vacancies (including the President and VP of the Judicial Yuan) after she took office, so there are four justices nominated by Ma in 2011, four more nominated by Ma in 2015, and seven nominated by Tsai in 2016. All seven of Tsai’s nominees went on record as being in favor of marriage equality. None of Ma’s eight nominees publicly expressed support for marriage equality. The 2011 nominees weren’t asked about the issue. The 2015 nominees were asked to raise their hands if they supported marriage equality, and none of them did. Granted, at least one of Ma’s nominees actually did vote for marriage equality, and only two issued formal dissenting opinions. However, there is a clear difference between the types of people Tsai and Ma nominated. If Tsai had appointed the types of people Ma did, it is highly unlikely that the court would have ruled in favor of marriage equality. In short, Tsai was responsible for getting marriage equality on Taiwan’s political agenda. The activists seem to feel she has betrayed them by not vocally leading the fight, but without her contributions, there wouldn’t even be much of a public fight. No Tsai, no marriage equality.

The second point is that revising the Referendum Act changed everything. The act was revised in December 2017 to lower the thresholds for both proposal and passage of referendums. Under the old law, a referendum needed 50% turnout and more yes than no votes to pass. Since opponents simply declined to vote, the yes side needed to supply 50% of the total electorate. Six referendums had been held since 2004, none of which had come very close to passing. Under the new law, the yes side simply needs to exceed 25% of the electorate, and yes votes must outnumber no votes. When combined with a general election, this effectively removed turnout as a consideration. As long as the yes side got more votes than the no side, the referendum would almost surely pass. In 2018, 31 referendums were introduced, 10 made it onto the ballot, and seven passed. Five of them dealt with marriage equality.

Why was the Referendum Law revised? Two groups were most vocal in support. On the one hand, Taiwan independence fundamentalists have been pushing referendums for years. They would have us believe that referendums (“direct democracy”!!)  are a fundamental democratic right, and any system that doesn’t allow for referendums is not actually a democracy. (As a political scientist, let me comment on that: Horsefeathers! Malarkey! Bovine Feces!) Of course, they actually want referendums to become institutionalized because they hope to one day hold a referendum on Taiwan independence. On the other hand, the growing group of young and alienated voters sees referendums as a way to bypass the established (read: corrupt) parties and go directly to the people. Ko Wen-je’s fascination with i-voting neatly reflects this sentiment (even though it has been a disaster every time he has tried to use i-voting to make a public policy decision). The two groups intersect perfectly in the person of Lin Yi-hsiung 林義雄。The independence fundamentalists, who are disproportionately socially conservative old men, probably weren’t too distressed by how referendums affected marriage equality. However, the young progressives should be. The New Power Party 時代力量 was the strongest voice in the legislature demanding the Referendum Act be changed. Ironically, its first important substantive impact has been to harm marriage equality, one of the NPP’s core goals. Somehow, the NPP leaders seem unable to connect these two points.

The court made its decision in May 2017 and set a two year deadline. Politicians rarely do anything controversial without a deadline, so it should surprise no one that the legislature hadn’t taken action by the beginning of 2018. Before the Referendum Act was revised, marriage equality activists could argue that public opinion was mostly on their side. They had some limited polling, which if you looked at it from just the right angle suggested that more people supported them than opposed them. They also convinced quite a few legislators to sign pledges supporting marriage equality. With the weight of the court opinion behind them, they had a strong case for hoping to get full marriage equality. As legislators went back home and talked to their constituents, we started getting rumblings of popular dissatisfaction. However, there was no authoritative way to quantify this public sentiment. Any circumstantial evidence could be countered by other circumstantial evidence. For example, NPP chair K.C. Huang 黃國昌 was subjected to a recall election in December 2017, and the activists who stood outside collecting signatures were almost all from social conservative groups opposing marriage equality. However, the recall vote failed, and it was easy to dismiss it as simply a KMT-led partisan effort (as I myself did) rather than as a sign of an enormous groundswell against gay marriage.

Once the Referendum Act passed, the anti-marriage groups started organizing almost immediately to put their measures on the ballot. And once it became clear that the public was going to have an opportunity to weigh in, the politicians had a perfect excuse to stall. Why should the politicians decide whether to amend the Civil Code or pass a special law before the voters had a chance to express their opinions? Once the Referendum Act passed, there was zero chance of the legislature doing anything on marriage equality before the November 24, 2018 election.

Stalling wasn’t the most important consequence. The most important consequence was that referendums provided a vehicle for activists to organize, focus, and interpret public opinion. Without a referendum, attitudes about marriage equality were vague. It wasn’t clear how broad or intense anti-marriage sentiment was. It wasn’t even clear if people cared enough about the issue to bother voting on it. There also wasn’t a strong organization of people to voice anti-marriage opinions or to decide exactly the form that those opinions should take. The referendum encouraged the religious organizations to join together under an umbrella group, to put together rosters of volunteers, to hold events, and to galvanize their own attitudes through their activism.

Once the referendum was held, society discovered that public opinion was much more strongly against marriage equality than even the anti-marriage activists expected. There simply is no way to sugarcoat losing by a two-to-one margin. You could tell that the anti-marriage side was stunned by their own success because they almost immediately tried to disown their own referendum. They had proposed a convoluted question in which they proposed “protecting” gay couples’ “rights” through some means other than amending the Civil Code. This measure passed 6.40 million to 4.07 million. (The marriage equality side asked a much clearer but logically equivalent question, and that one failed 3.38 million to 6.94 million.) The anti-marriage side had not dared to ask whether gay marriage should simply not be allowed. After the referendum results were tallied, they openly announced opposition to any legalization of gay marriage. The referendum emboldened them to take a much more radical stance than they had originally dared. Moreover, much of society bought into this new interpretation. Many people did not see the vote as an expression of support for a special law legalizing gay marriage (as it was literally written), but as an expression of opposition to any form of gay marriage.

The referendum erased any possibility of full marriage equality through a revision of the Civil Code. The only path that was politically palatable would be a special law, and even that was going to be extremely hard for the legislature. It took a heroic effort by the Tsai government, especially from Premier Su, to rescue the situation.



We now fast-forward to last week. With the May 24 deadline approaching, the legislature had to make its decision. In discussing the events of last week, I will draw heavily on two excellent accounts of what went on behind the scenes, one from Mirror Media (鏡週刊) and one from the Central News Agency (中央社). If you read Chinese, I highly recommend you read their full accounts.

The DPP had decided long ago to try to pass the cabinet bill without subjecting its members to extra votes. At the first reading on March 5, the DPP voted to bypass committee hearings and send the bill directly to the floor for the second reading. That vote passed 59-24, with 5 abstentions. All 59 yes votes came from the DPP and NPP; all 24 of the no votes came from the KMT and PFP. The five abstentions were all DPP members. The DPP did not want to force its members to go through public committee hearings in which the KMT would try to get them to openly take unpopular positions. The KMT, in contrast, was incensed that it was denied this fun. In addition to the cabinet’s bill, there were a few other bills proposed. Most of these were from marriage equality opponents, such as KMT legislator Lai Shi-pao’s 賴士葆 bill, which was tellingly titled, The Enforcement Act for Referendum #12 公投第十二案施行法草案. The DPP legislative caucus used its procedural powers to adopt a first-winner voting rule. Multiple versions of each clause would be placed on the agenda. The first one to be passed would be adopted with no need for a vote on any of the other versions. Moreover, the first version to be voted on would be the cabinet’s bill, so if the cabinet’s version passed, legislators would not have to vote on any of the other versions. The KMT screamed about these procedures, but there is nothing particularly abnormal about them. I wrote a chapter of my PhD dissertation on how majority parties use their procedural tools to provide political cover for their members to help those members make politically difficult decisions.

Even with these procedures in place, it was by no means certain that the cabinet’s bill would pass. In the days before the vote, the DPP party caucus polled its members and found it only had 31 solid votes. There are 113 legislators, and even if some of them don’t show up, 31 is not enough. There was even an attempt to organize legislators from central Taiwan to collectively boycott the votes. They knew they could probably count on the five votes from the NPP, and they thought they would have the support of one KMT legislator, Jason Hsu 許毓仁。With 39 other KMT, PFP, and independent legislators, the overwhelming majority of whom they expected to vote against them, they could not afford many absences, much less outright defections. There was a very real possibility that the cabinet’s bill would not pass. In that case, one of the other versions might have passed, or, worst of all, nothing might have passed.

Let’s pause to think about the political implications of such a failure. The Council of Grand Justices had set out a political demand, and there was a possibility that the legislature would challenge that demand. Among the alternate versions of the bill, there were some that did not include the term “marriage” and some that had larger legal differences between the version of marriage for straight couples as written in the Civil Code and the version for same-sex couples as written in this special law. The justices had left it up to the legislature to determine the exact form of the law, but they explicitly demanded that whatever framework was adopted would have to achieve “the equal protection of the freedom of marriage.” If everything had unraveled and the legislature had passed an extremely restrictive bill, it might have led to a constitutional confrontation with the court. It is entirely possible that the court would have lost this struggle. On the one hand, the referendum demonstrated that public opinion is not as favorable to marriage equality as most people had previously believed. In the Wikipedia entry on this case, one justice’s public statement in favor of marriage equality is precisely that people are more accepting now of homosexuality than they used to be. He might have to rethink that statement. On the other hand, when courts fight with elected officials, the courts usually lose. Courts have no power outside their courtroom. In one famous but probably apocryphal quote, U.S. President Andrew Jackson said, [Supreme Court Chief Justice] “Mr. Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it.” Although it probably would not have come to such a crisis, there is a sense in which the DPP was fighting a battle to ensure the continuing smooth operation of the rule of law.

More immediately, the DPP was fighting a battle to preserve its authority. When a leader sets out to do something, failure exposes the leader as toothless. If the Tsai government had staked its reputation on passing the bill and failed to do so, we would have seen a sheaf of declarations that Tsai was now officially a lame duck, that her party was in rebellion, that she was no longer the leader of her party, that her presidency was effectively over, and that the country would stumble along leaderless for the next year until a new president was inaugurated.

Finally, in the event that no bill had passed, we would have been plunged into administrative uncertainty. Local governments would have been left to figure out on their own how to (or even whether to) register same-sex marriages under their existing rules. The cries of “government incompetence” would have been deafening.

Politically speaking, one of the primary arguments for the DPP members to stick together was simply that failure to do so would have been worse. The party was not going to dodge the political responsibility for supporting marriage equality either way.

In the event, the DPP did not fail. Two things were critical: it slightly altered the language in the bill, and it launched a massive lobbying campaign at its legislators.

In discussions with its caucus members, it found that the hardest bit to swallow was the phrase “same-sex marriage” 同性婚姻 in Clause 2. Members proposed revisions removing that phrase and instead using wording such as “register in accordance with the directions set out in Constitutional Interpretation No. 748” and “register as same-sex spouses in accordance with the rules set out herein.”  However, Premier Su insisted on including the word “marriage” in the final wording. The compromise version was to remove the phrase “same-sex marriage” from Clause 2 but to instead stipulate that two people of the same sex could form a “permanent union” and to add in Clause 4 that couples should “register their marriage” at the local household registration office. Substantively, I don’t think there is any difference between the original wording and the final version. However, the compromise version was evidently politically more palatable.

The Tsai administration then launched a massive lobbying effort. Every legislator was targeted by multiple people from the party caucus, the presidential office, the cabinet, their geographic region, and their faction leaders. Some of the people involved included premier Su and vice premier Chen Chi-mai, presidential office secretary general Chen Chu and deputy secretary general Liu Chien-hsi 劉建析, caucus leader Ke Chien-ming, Taoyuan mayor Chen Wen-tsan, and a few cabinet ministers. Basically, almost all the DPP’s heavy hitters were enlisted. (The young progressives detest Ke Chien-ming, who they think is conservative and corrupt. Perhaps, but he gets things done, including this progressive reform.) The lobbyists made a variety of appeals, ranging from cold political calculations to emotional appeals about experiences fighting the authoritarian regime in the 1970s and 1980s. Premier Su was particularly effective; one of his entreaties reportedly left a group of legislators in tears.

William Lai is glaringly absent from this narrative. Lai did post a picture of himself with a rainbow background on social media, but he doesn’t seem to have lifted a finger to pass this bill, either when he was premier or in the last week.

The DPP wasn’t sure that its efforts would pay off until Friday morning, when it was finally confident that it had secured the votes of most of its members. The caucus decided not to formally impose party discipline on the votes, but rather to take collectively responsibility without such coercion. Somehow this worked. The group of legislators from central Taiwan that had been threatening a collective walkout instead decided to collectively support the cabinet bill. Other legislators that had been wavering under pressure from religious groups, such as Chao Tien-lin 趙天麟 and Liu Chao-hao 劉櫂豪, also stepped back in line. In the end, the DPP was able to get nearly 60 votes on every clause, more than enough to ensure passage. It ended up looking like an easy win, but a lot of DPP legislators swallowed some incredibly difficult votes.



So much for the media narrative. Let’s look at the voting record. For readers familiar with the US Congress, a short background note on how voting works is useful. In the US Congress (and many other legislatures), a bill is put before the floor, amendments are processed, and then a final passage vote is taken to pass or reject the entire bill. If no amendments are offered, only one final passage vote is required to pass the entire bill. In Taiwan, there are no final passage votes. Instead, in the second reading, the bill is processed clause by clause. Each clause is voted for and passed independently. There is a third reading in which the entire bill is reviewed again, but this is not supposed to be a substantive vote. The third reading is only to catch errors or contradictions in the legal wording, and it is almost always a mere formality.

Friday’s bill had 27 clauses, so legislators had to pass 28 items: the title of the bill and 27 individual clauses. In addition, the DPP allowed votes on two other items, a vote to not consider Lin Tai-hua’s 林岱樺 (more conservative) version of Clause 8 and a vote on the NPP’s (more progressive) version of Clause 27. In each of the 30 votes, a yes vote represented a vote for the more progressive option. The Legislative Yuan hasn’t published the official record yet, so I got the votes by watching the video of the session published on the legislature’s IVOD system. There are two big video boards on which the votes are recorded, and at the end of each vote, the screen is supposed to show both of them, one after the other. Unfortunately, the camera people weren’t always paying attention, and sometimes they never bothered switching back to the second screen. I was able to get most of the votes, but in two cases my vote tally came up one yes vote short from the official tally. In both cases, it looks to me like the most obvious person to have voted yes was Jason Hsu 許毓仁, who seemed to habitually wait until the very last moment to cast his vote. The bigger problem was Clause 18, since the camera never got around to showing the second screen at all. As a result, I will only discuss 29 roll call votes. Clause 18 was a fairly routine vote; most of the later clauses had the same people voting all the same ways. I don’t think Clause 18 would have changed any of the conclusions reached in the following discussion.

The first five votes were the most important. The first vote, over the title of the bill, was the first test of how legislators would vote. It passed 68-27. Clause 1 passed 68-25. Clause 2 was the one that the DPP changed the wording of to avoid the scary “same-sex marriage” wording. It passed 75-22. Clause 3 passed 71-27. Clause 4, which included the word “marriage” was the most difficult vote for many legislators. It passed 66-27. The legislature needed about four hours to get through these first five votes. There was an extensive general discussion before the voting started, and several legislators spoke before the voting on the individual clauses. After Clause 4 passed, the legislature took a short recess. When the session resumed, deputy speaker Tsai took over the meeting, and it went through the remaining votes in less than two hours. For most of them, there was no debate at all; the staff member read the text, and the legislature voted. Almost all of Clauses 5 through 27 passed by either a 66-27 or a 67-26 vote. There was a short recess before Clause 27 so that speaker Su could preside over the passage of the bill.

The five New Power Party legislators all voted yes 29 times. They were the only legislators to do so.

The three PFP legislators voted no the first 27 times and didn’t bother to vote on the last two items.

The three independent legislators were absent.

The 68 DPP legislators had a few different patterns. The speaker and deputy speaker usually don’t participate in roll call votes; Su did not vote, but Tsai did vote (yes) on the first five items. 48 DPP legislators voted the party line all 29 times, including all 17 of the party list legislators (other than Speaker Su).  Eleven DPP legislators voted the party line 28 times but missed one vote. A few of these look like bathroom breaks. For example, Chen Ou-po 陳歐珀 missed the vote on Clause 14, Wu Chi-ming 吳琪銘 missed Clause 20, and Lin Chun-hsien 林俊憲 missed Clause 17. These random missing votes don’t seem very consequential. However, many of the single missing yes votes were on the controversial Clause 4. Liu Chao-hao 劉櫂豪, Chao Tien-lin 趙天麟, Chen Ting-fei 陳亭妃, Yeh Yi-chin 葉宜津, Ho Hsin-chun 何欣純, and Chen Ying 陳瑩 all voted the DPP party line 28 times, but they were absent on Clause 4. Tsai Shi-ying 蔡適應 was absent four times, on Clauses 3, 4, 14, and 20; he voted with the party the other 25 times. I think these seven legislators were trying to both support the party line and also dodge a controversial vote. By the time they took the vote, they were certainly aware that their vote would not be decisive. Still, they did skip the single most important vote.

Five DPP legislators broke ranks and refused to show up at all. Huang Kuo-shu 黃國書, Chiang Yung-chang 江永昌, Hsu Chih-chieh 許智傑, Hung Tsung-yi 洪宗熠, and Yang Yao 楊曜 missed all the votes. Of these, Hung and Yang represent rural swing districts. If the party is going to forgive anyone for breaking discipline, they would be at the top of the list. Huang and Hsu, in green-leaning urban districts, have far weaker excuses. Finally, there is Lin Tai-hua 林岱樺, from a deep green district in Kaohsiung. Lin is perhaps the most vocal opponent of marriage equality within the DPP caucus, and she even offered her own (far more conservative) draft of the bill. Unlike the other opponents, Lin showed up and voted. She voted yes 18 times and no 11 times; she was the only legislator to vote both yes and no. I’m not sure what message she wanted to communicate with that action.

The 34 KMT legislators also had a few different patterns. 18 voted no all 29 times, and five others voted no at least 26 times but missed a few votes. Ma Wen-chun 馬文君 voted no four of the first five items (missing Clause 1) and then stopped voting altogether. Lin Li-chan 林麗蟬 and Wang Jin-pyng 王金平 missed all 29 votes. These 26 KMT legislators collectively cast zero votes in favor of marriage equality.

At the other end of the spectrum, I have Jason Hsu casting 24 yes votes, missing two, and voting to abstain three times. Recall, I think those two absent votes were probably actually yes votes. His three abstentions were on Clauses 7, 20, and 26, which seems pretty random to me. He was the only legislator to vote with the NPP on the NPP version of Clause 27.

This leaves seven KMT members who voted yes between one and three times. Wayne Chiang 蔣萬安, Ke Chih-en 柯志恩, Lee Yen-hsiu 李彥秀, Lin Yi-hua 林奕華, and Chen Yi-min 陳宜民  all skipped the first two votes, voted yes on Clauses 2 through 4, and then took the rest of the day off. Hsu Shu-hua 許淑華 voted yes on Clauses 2 and 4, and Lin Wei-chou voted yes on Clause 2. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out what I should think about their action. On the one hand, they voted yes on the three most critical clauses. On the other hand, they skipped out afterwards, and pointedly did not vote for the rest of the bill. If you are a supporter of marriage equality, wouldn’t you want to be on record as supporting the entire bill? On the third hand, this was a DPP bill. The KMT was entirely cut out of the process. Once they went on record as supporting marriage equality, they also wanted to express displeasure with the DPP’s actions. Expressing both substance and partisanship is entirely reasonable. On the fourth hand, the insider narratives indicated that these seven KMT legislators’ intentions were entirely unknown to the DPP caucus leaders. Because the DPP caucus leaders were expecting support from only Jason Hsu, they felt pressure to alter the language of the bill. They didn’t make substantively serious alterations, but they considered doing so. If the KMT legislators had openly expressed support for the original language, they might have ensured that the strongest version possible passed. On the fifth hand, maybe they, like those wavering DPP legislators, were only willing to vote for the altered language. On the sixth hand, their open support might be the bulwark that prevents other KMT politicians from trying to overturn the bill in the future. On the seventh hand, perhaps if the DPP hadn’t been able to cobble together enough votes, they would have let the bill go up in flames. They pointedly sat out the first two votes, which were the proof of strength. On the eighth hand, who the hell has eight hands?

Aside: I do think this vote was extremely savvy for Wayne Chiang. I assume that, as Taiwan gets used to the idea of same-sex marriage, the yes vote will look better and better. Unlike many other legislators who have difficult elections this year, Chiang can afford to think a few years down the road. He will probably be the KMT’s Taipei mayoral candidate in 2022, and that will put him on the short list for the presidency somewhere between 2028 and 2048. He will be able to point back to this vote as an example of foresight, progressive values, and the courage to take an unpopular position.

Aside continued: In contrast, Johnny Chiang 江啟臣, one of the KMT legislators who voted no all 29 times, tried to claim that the KMT wasn’t really against marriage equality but were simply expressing anger with the DPP’s procedural tactics. Johnny Chiang is sometimes touted as a future KMT leader, but this statement was pathetic. There are some days in which you can complain about procedures, but this wasn’t one of them. The international media didn’t turn its eyes to Taiwan because they were interested in the DPP’s committee referral strategy. There are some times when a milestone decision is before you and you have to take a stand. This was one of those times. His grandchildren won’t care about procedures. They will only care if he was on the right side of history, whichever side that turns out to be.

Overall, the bill was the DPP’s bill, and the DPP provided the votes to pass it. DPP legislators had 1972 votes to cast, and they voted the party line 1749 times (88.7%). From a different perspective, there were 1875 total yes votes cast. The DPP provided 1688 of those yes votes (90.0%), the NPP provided 145 (8.6%), and the KMT only provided 42 (2.5%). In contrast, the KMT provided 662 (81.3%) of the total 814 no votes. While some media reports played up the DPP defections and the KMT yes votes to give the impression that both sides acted similarly, that simply isn’t correct. A small number of KMT legislators gave a small amount of support, and a small number of DPP legislators withheld their support. However, the main pattern was that the DPP overwhelmingly supported marriage equality, and the KMT mostly opposed it.

Energy policy and referenda

December 1, 2018

I feel the need to rant about referenda today.


So what the hell is Taiwan’s energy policy supposed to be now?


Last Saturday, voters passed the referendum #16, commonly labeled as “go nuclear to go green” (my clumsy translation), which deleted a clause in one of the laws setting the phase-out date for nuclear power. (At least I think that’s what it did. I’m actually not sure, which, eventually, is the point.) They also voted overwhelmingly against the Shen-ao coal-fired power plant project (which the government had already cancelled). And Taichung voters elected KMT candidate Lu Hsiu-yen in a landslide, partially because she campaigned on the poor air quality caused by the huge coal power plant. She further promised to stop sending electricity generated in Taichung to northern Taiwan.

But while those are the most recent results, we also have to think about previous lessons from public opinion. Five years ago, the government wanted to have a referendum on whether to open the fourth nuclear power plant, but it was so unpopular that KMT legislators weren’t even willing to vote to propose the referendum. Also, after the KMT lost the 2016 presidential election, Eric Chu singled out increases in electricity (and propane gas) prices as one of the major reasons that the public rebelled against the Ma government. Finally, let’s remember how much outrage there was last summer when an accident at one power plant caused one day of blackouts over much of the island.

To summarize, the voters don’t want clearly coal. They definitely don’t want nuclear, or maybe they do. They don’t want any power plants in their neighborhood, and they definitely don’t want electricity generated in their neighborhood to be sent elsewhere. They want low prices, and they absolutely demand a stable supply of electricity.

It should be easy to satisfy all those demands simultaneously. I’m glad we used referenda to clear up this entire matter.


I have three big objections to this attempt to use referenda to decide energy policy. First, voters are not forced to consider trade-offs. None of the proposals suggested that cutting coal power might be possible if an increase in electricity prices spurred less electricity consumption. Voters in central Taiwan were not asked if they supported refusing to send electricity generated in central Taiwan northward even if it resulted in companies in the Hsinchu Science Party (read: Taiwan Semiconductors) being forced to cut production. Trade-offs are exactly what governments do. The Tsai government restarted nuclear reactors that had previously been offline over the protesting screams of its anti-nuclear wing because it was much more afraid of blackouts. Taiwan could cut pollution by using higher prices to suppress demand, but that would be unpopular. It could also cut pollution by retrofitting some of its older coal plants, but that is extremely expensive and it would take a few years. None of the options are ideal. You can’t have everything you want; you have to make trade-offs. Referenda almost never present the question this way.

Second, energy policy takes years to implement. Five years ago, the Ma government bowed to public pressure and shuttered the fourth nuclear power plant. Unfortunately, this left Taiwan’s energy reserves precariously low. The Tsai government has invested heavily in wind power, which is starting to come online now, and it is planning a natural gas facility in northern Taiwan. However, in the meantime, the choice was essentially getting more electricity out of the existing coal plants or the existing nuclear plants. In fact, the government had to do both. It’s a reasonable stopgap measure, given the long-term strategy. Unfortunately, Taiwan’s referendum law has a short-term orientation. Under the December 2017 revision, the thresholds for proposal and passage are ludicrously low. A successful referendum doesn’t necessarily reflect a deeply held consensus in society. It can just as easily reflect a short-term blip in public opinion. A few years ago, nuclear was extremely unpopular. Now, that has faded somewhat, so maybe this year coal is the villain. What if we do this next year and find that public opinion has shifted again? Are we supposed to fundamentally shift energy policy every two years just because 29.8% of eligible voters said yes to some unintelligible question on the ballot?

And that brings me to the third and most basic problem: information. Referenda place extremely high demands on voters to become educated, and there is very little evidence that voters are up to the task. I’ve been reading Democracy for Realists by Chris Achen and Larry Bartels, and they make this point forcefully. Voters simply do not have the time, capacity, or desire to become fully informed on any given question. We all have better things to do. At any rate, division of labor is a hallmark of modern society. Why should we think that society is better off if everyone neglects their other responsibilities (that is, the things that they are good at) and spends months learning about energy policy? That’s crazy. Instead, people find shortcuts. There are usually plenty of people who are happy to advise them how to vote, but that isn’t necessarily good advice. The people with the strongest incentive to give advice are the people who will directly benefit from the outcome. Not surprisingly, referenda tend to favor the wealthy. The promise of referenda is that voters can bypass the disgusting politicians and go directly to the people. Unfortunately, the people have to rely on an even more disgusting set of people (who are actually also politicians in a different guise) for advice.

Achen and Bartels cite a couple of stories vividly illustrate these problems. In one, many counties in Illinois adopted a requirement that any increase in taxes to fund fire departments had to be approved by referendum. In other counties, the local administrators and councils made this decision. Predictably, voters refused to pay higher taxes, and the quality of fire departments in the referendum counties declined noticeably. Training was neglected, equipment became outdated, staffing was thinner, and response times were longer. Wait, maybe that’s what voters wanted. Maybe they were willing to accept worse fire protection for lower taxes. It seems unlikely; most people also want better services, especially when those services involve life and death. However, they did not save money. They paid lower taxes, but they paid higher fire insurance rates. The county administrators understood this, but voters did not. Poorly informed voters made self-harming choices, and this problem, unlike national energy policy, was fairly easy to understand. Voters are ALWAYS underinformed.

But what if some voters could be fully informed? Would other voters defer to them? In Canada, the province of British Columbia tried to find out. There was a movement to reform the electoral system by putting in some form of proportional representation. The provincial government took a large group of citizens and basically gave them a college class for a few months. Various experts came in and taught this group all the pros and cons of the various proposals. Eventually, the group formed an overwhelming consensus for a specific proposal which was put on the ballot. The voters rejected it by a decisive margin. The voters apparently weren’t impressed by all the study that the select group had done. Average voters made their decisions based on their own limited knowledge rather than assuming they, like the people in the select group, would see things differently if they were more fully informed.

Remember at the beginning when I stated that I wasn’t exactly sure what referendum #16 did? Of course I don’t! I’m underinformed. I’ll bet you are too. I want experts who have spent their careers thinking about the details and tradeoffs involved to sit down with politicians who have spent their careers thinking about how to balance the aggregated demands of society and figure the damn thing out. If I try to set energy policy, I’m probably going to overlook something very basic and end up with expensive, dirty, and unreliable electricity. I might even end up burning my own house down.

Referenda are a terrible way to make public choices.

Election summary

November 30, 2018

I wrote a short recap of the election for Taiwan Insight.

I have a lot of work on my desk right now, and I probably won’t write too much more about the overall result. If I do write anything, it will probably be about the referenda. I’m not so interested in the outcomes of these ten votes as in the process. Theoretically, referenda do not necessarily create better policies or deeper democracy. Empirically, referenda tend to favor rich people over poor people. They do not sidestep politicians; they simply empower a different set of political elites. As such, I’m not crazy about referenda in the first place. Ideally, the chaos created by this year’s ten referenda would be an inspiration to abolish the Referendum Law, to forbid holding referenda on the same day as a general election, or, at the very least, to raise the thresholds for proposal and passage. Unfortunately, I’m not confident that this will happen. More likely, politicians will try to “solve” the problem by using “better” technology: someone will decide that digital voting is the way forward. I don’t have the time to go into it now, but this is a TERRIBLE idea. The current low-tech system is fantastic. It is transparent, accurate, fast (when not swamped by numerous referenda), trustworthy, highly resistant to vote rigging, and completely unhackable. When the CEC says that Ko Wen-je won the Taipei mayoral race by 3000 votes out of over 1.4 million cast, no one doubts this. No one doubts that the people who voted all had the right to vote, that they only voted once, that they each made a choice without coercion, and that their preferences were accurately counted and recorded. That is a fucking miracle. Putting a touchscreen voting machine in the middle of it might seem “modern,” but it is not more trustworthy, it might be less accurate (since some people will not know how to use the new machines), and it is almost certainly more prone to breakdowns. It is also much, much more fertile territory for conspiracy theorists as well as actual hackers.

Is this plan B?

January 5, 2014

So the government is apparently just going to go ahead with testing at the 4th nuclear power plant.  They even have plans to insert fuel rods.  Didn’t they promise to ask the voters before doing this?  Does this mean that they have abandoned the referendum idea?  Did I miss that press release?  I thought that the promise of a vote was one of the core premises of Premier Jiang Yi-huah’s cabinet.  I’m a bit confused.


[Edit: One day later, the Liberty Times is asking the same question.]

Disobedient KMT legislators?

September 24, 2013

Here’s an interesting bit of news.  KMT legislative party whip Lin Hung-chih 林鴻池 announced that the legislature will not take up the nuclear referendum this session.  Lin explained that the Ministry of Economics has not yet produced a safety report, and the legislature cannot be expected to act before that report comes out.

This is interesting to me because my working assumption is that the current KMT political struggle is all about the executive branch demanding that its party members in the legislature toe the party line and pass the executive’s legislative agenda.  According to all accounts, there are three big items on that agenda: the services trade agreement, the nuclear referendum, and the annual budget.  Lin has just told the executive that Santa isn’t giving them everything they want for Christmas this year.

This comes after Ma announced the KMT would rearrange the coordinating meetings between the party, executive, and legislature by replacing Speaker Wang with Party Whip Lin.  Apparently, before the first meeting in which the president, premier, vice-president, and party secretary-general would have told him what to do, Lin pre-empted them by publicly announcing what he would not do.

Ma’s inner circle may have thought that Wang was behind all the obstruction in the legislature and that things would move much more smoothly once his power was hollowed out.  However, if the underlying problem was that many KMT legislators don’t want to be associated with unpopular executive proposals, Ma may be in for a rude awakening.

KMT proposes referendum on nuclear power

February 27, 2013

The KMT has announced that it will support holding a referendum on whether to start operations at the 4th nuclear power plant (4NPP).

This is a stunning turn of events, at least to me.  They are venturing onto treacherous ground.  There are lots of ways this can go wrong for them, and only one way that it can turn out well.

Nuclear power divides along the traditional blue/green lines, though there have been defectors from both sides.  I recall one budget fight in the late 1990s in which the KMT demanded party discipline from everyone except for legislators from Taipei County, who were allowed to vote with their constituency.  Similarly, the DPP was not monolithically anti-nuclear either.  The polarizing moment came early in Chen’s presidency when he stopped construction on 4NPP.  Chen had won the presidency with 39%, and the DPP had roughly the same share of seats in the legislature.  The newly emerging blue camp had a clear majority, and nuclear power was the test case to see if the president or the legislature would dominate the government for the rest of the term.  Whatever deviance from party positions had previously existed was quickly overwhelmed by the partisan struggle for power.  Eventually, the KMT won out and the DPP was forced to resume construction on 4NPP.  If it wasn’t already clear, this episode indelibly branded the KMT and DPP as pro-nuclear and anti-nuclear parties.

The project has had a bumpy history, to put it mildly.  There have been numerous cost overruns, safety problems, construction delays, and various other snafus.  Of course, the site is near the Taipei metropolitan area, vulnerable to tsunamis, on an earthquake fault, and even sits atop a not-quite-dormant volcano.  The fact that Taiwan has three other (much older) nuclear power plants (with not entirely pristine safety records) has done little to qualm fears about whether 4NPP will be safe.  Fukushima sharpened all these concerns and forced Taiwanese to rethink whether nuclear power was a good idea.

During the 2012 presidential election, the KMT tried to take the nuclear issue off the table.  It promised to decommission the three existing plants on schedule.  4NPP would be opened, but not until it had been rigorously tested.  At the end of its scheduled life, Taiwan would be nuclear free.  Somehow, these verbal gymnastics allowed Ma to claim that he was simultaneously for (a) opening a new nuclear power plant and (b) making Taiwan nuclear free.  The DPP position was more straightforward.  They would not open 4NPP, and they would hasten the decommissioning of the old plants.  I think the KMT strategy largely worked.  Nuclear power did not seem to be a central issue in the 2012 campaign.

I have not seen specific polling data on support for nuclear power, but it is my impression that public opinion is shifting, perhaps decisively, away from the KMT.


Why is the KMT so politically committed to nuclear power?  Most importantly, they have committed enormous piles of money to this project over the past two decades.  They cannot simply walk away with nothing to show for it.  The DPP would beat over the head relentlessly for years and years.  How many schools, hospitals, roads, public housing, MRT lines, or flower festivals were sacrificed for 4NPP?  It would be strong evidence that the KMT had a flawed vision for the future and had stubbornly insisted on imposing that flawed vision on an unwilling population.  The KMT has been attacking the DPP for a decade over the 2001 showdown.  When the DPP stopped construction, they broke numerous contracts and had to pay heavy financial penalties.  Of course, the project was then resumed, so that money was just wasted.  However, if the plant never opens, this argument gets reversed: the DPP tried to save Taiwan an enormous amount of money, and the KMT wasted 10 more years of construction budgets.  For the KMT, reversing course is simply not an option.

There are also other reasons the KMT wants nuclear power.  One way to understand the KMT regime is as a construction state, much like the LDP’s Japan.  The ruling party hands out lots of construction contracts and turns these contracts into political support.  Some aspects are legal, some are hazy, and some are outright illegal.  However, it is pretty effective.  4NPP has been a 20 year gravy train of contracts to hand out.  (I hope I’m wrong about this.  Contracts used for this purpose often lead to shoddy public works.  This prospect terrifies me.)  Many manufacturers support nuclear power.  To be clear, they don’t care where the electricity comes from, but they can’t stomach the prospects of insufficient or unreliable power.  Many of the exporters that drive Taiwan’s economy want 4NPP opened because they believe it will provide steady and reliable electricity for the next few decades.  The KMT also listens closely to Taipower, the state run electricity company.  Taipower is deeply embedded in the KMT’s power structure.  The Economics Minister is a former Taipower executive, and the head of the Taipower workers’ union is a member of the KMT’s Central Standing Committee.  Taipower wants 4NPP.  It can be pushed and prodded to reluctantly try out the odd alternative energy project, but 4NPP is Taipower’s crown jewel.


If the KMT is so deeply committed to nuclear power, how is it possible that they can accept a referendum?  Admittedly, I didn’t think it was possible until they announced it.  I fully expected that they would make a big show of safety tests, have a blue ribbon commission pronounce the plant safe, and use their majority in the legislature to push away any remaining obstacles.  Apparently public opinion is shifting enough that they don’t feel this strategy is tenable.  We have seen several prominent blue camp supporters ask the KMT to reconsider its stance.  The one that struck me was the foundation associated with Fubon Financial Group.  If even powerful people in Fubon, which is betting heavily on further integration into the Chinese market, are willing to speak out against nuclear power, anyone in the blue camp can.  The pressure from within the blue camp coalition must be intense.

One thought is that the KMT is using the referendum as a mechanism to back away from nuclear power.  If the public votes against 4NPP in the referendum, the KMT will have a rationale for changing its position.  The public will be responsible for the economic consequences of the decision, not the KMT.  I don’t think this is correct.  (Or if it is, it is a terrible strategy.)  If the public repudiates 4NPP, they will effectively be saying that the policy the KMT has been doggedly pursuing over the past 20 years was not just wrong, it was so wrong that voters are willing to stomach wasting billions of dollars to reverse it.  Don’t think that voters will simply forgive the KMT for all that money.  The KMT insisted on spending it.  Just as a government reaps political benefits for doing things that turn out well, they are penalized for making poor choices.  The KMT might hope it can foist off that responsibility onto the people, but one of the axioms of democratic politics is that the voters are never wrong.  Someone has to take the blame if 4NPP never opens, and that someone will be the KMT.

Moreover, if President Ma loses a referendum this summer, he might as well just tattoo “lame duck” across his forehead.  He will be politically neutered.

No, the KMT cannot lose this referendum.  They have to win it.  The only way this turns out well for them is if a clear majority of voters vote against not starting operations at 4NPP.  This means that the KMT will have to fully engage the debate.  President Ma will have to commit completely and publicly to this project; he won’t be able to prevaricate the way he did in the presidential campaign.  The KMT will have to convince the electorate that nuclear power is safe, efficient, clean, reliable, and desirable.

Don’t assume that Ma will fail.  His biggest advantage is that there is an information asymmetry.  The government will have all the details about 4NPP and Taiwan’s electricity needs.  When they need to know something, they can simply make a phone call.  Opponents will have to satisfy themselves with publicly available data, which is far less thorough.  Because of this, the KMT will usually have more convincing evidence for their arguments than the opposition will.  They also have all the resources of the state at their disposal to publicize their arguments.  In the ECFA debate, we saw lots of advertizing touting the advantages of ECFA.  Every government press release was infused with a pro-ECFA message.  Heck, even our electricity bills had a pro-ECFA message on them.  Get ready for an even more intense campaign.

The anti-nuclear camp also has to worry about this turning into a straight blue/green fight.  Dissatisfaction with the Ma administration is high, but there are a lot of people who will grit their teeth, curse bitterly, and vote for him rather than support the DPP.  The anti-nuclear camp needs to make sure that blue camp supporters who are against nuclear power feel that nuclear power is not just a proxy for feelings about China.  Given that the two big parties are clearly aligned against each other on this issue and will be leading their respective camps, that might be challenging.


This will be unlike any previous referendum.  We really haven’t had true referendum yet.  All prior cases were really just exercises in mobilizing voters in a general election campaign.  The questions were always designed to be as uncontroversial as possible.  “Do you favor a competent national defense?”  “Should we have high economic growth?” “Are you against pedophilia?”  (Ok, maybe those weren’t the exact questions…)  This question will be designed to resolve a public policy issue, not to mobilize voters for a different election.  While the government will phrase the question in as advantageous a way as possible, this question will inevitably split the electorate into two clear sides.

One thing opponents don’t need to worry about is turnout.  In the past, one side mobilized and the other side boycotted.  Since referenda need 50% turnout to become binding, all failed.  The question will be phrased in the negative, something like “Do you favor not beginning operations at 4NPP?” so technically the KMT could ensure the failure of the referendum by boycotting.

However, the KMT needs to win politically, not legally.  Consider if turnout is 40% and 90% of the votes are “yes” votes.  What that demonstrates is that there are a lot of voters who are against nuclear power.  It does not demonstrate that anyone actually supports it.  If the KMT felt passive support were enough, they would have been better off just pushing 4NPP through the normal legislative process rather than asking for a referendum.  The KMT needs active support.  It needs more “no” votes than “yes” votes.

The DPP will lead the charge against nuclear power, and the KMT will have to lead the demands for nuclear power.  With both sides fully mobilizing, turnout will not be so important.  I expect that 50% will not be a problem, but even if turnout is only 48%, if one side wins by a clear margin, that will be decisive in the political battle.  If the KMT wins, they will, of course, go forward.  If they lose by a clear amount, the party will not be able to stomach flagrantly defying public opinion.  (President Ma might, but the politicians who still have to fight future elections will not.)

I’m still stunned that the KMT has chosen this path.  However, they have cast their lot, and we are in for an interesting spring and summer.