Archive for the ‘issues’ Category

Huang Kuo-chang’s recall vote

November 18, 2017

The Central Election Commission has announced the date – December 16 – for the vote to recall New Power Party legislator Huang Kuo-chang 黃國昌, which gives me a convenient opportunity to rant about how stupid the new law is.

Recall that after the Sunflower movement, activists tried to recall several KMT legislators, including Chang Ching-chung 張慶忠, Wu Yu-sheng 吳育昇, Alex Tsai 蔡正元, and Lin Hung-chih 林鴻池. All of these efforts failed, and activists believed that the requirements for recall were unreasonably stringent. (The effort may have had some effect. None of the targeted legislators won re-election in 2016.)

When the NPP entered the legislature, one of its first goals was to revise the election law to make recall easier. Strangely, neither of the two big parties put up much resistance, and the revision was passed last December. I’ll steal this table from a UDN article summarizing the main changes:

  Previous law New law
Initiate a petition 2% of eligible voters 1% of eligible voters
Signatory period 30 days 60 days
Advertising Prohibited Allowed
Signatory threshold 13% of eligible voters 10% of eligible voters
Voting day concurrent with other election? Not allowed Allowed
Turnout threshold 50% of eligible voters Abolished
Yes votes Yes > No Yes votes must exceed 25% of eligible voters;

Yes > No

Let’s focus on those last two rows, since they are the most important. Previously, 50% turnout was required to pass a recall. This made it nearly impossible to pass a recall. The legislator could simply advise supporters to ignore the vote and stay at home. That meant that the opposition had to supply 50% of all eligible voters. In normal conditions and in normal districts, this was nearly impossible.

Huang’s district, New Taipei 12, had 251,191 eligible voters in 2016. (It’s probably a few thousand more now since Xizhi is a fast-growing area, but for the sake of simplicity I will ignore that.) This means that to recall Huang under the old law, opponents would have had to mobilize 125,596 votes. In winning the seat, Huang had only gotten 80,508 votes. That was in a general election concurrent with a presidential election, featuring campaign that dominated news in Taiwan for several months. The recall would have to mobilize 50% more votes without the benefit of a general election atmosphere. Not gonna happen.

As I’ve stated before, I think that is exactly how it should be. It should be nearly impossible to overturn an election result. One of the main ideas behind fixed terms is that we don’t need to continually re-litigate elections. We have a general election period, and then the winners get some time to focus on governing. The next election comes along in only a few years, so the wait is not oppressive. There is no need to overturn an election result except in the most exceptionally egregious cases. As a general principle, recalls should be doomed to fail unless most of the people who originally voted for the winner turn against him or her. In most such cases, the legislator will resign unilaterally, and there will be no need for a recall. However, if the legislator has really lost the confidence of his or her original supporters and refuses to step down, a recall may be necessary. In this case, that high threshold might be manageable.

The new law makes recall far too easy. Instead of 125,596 yes votes, recall supporters only need half that number, 62,798. How low is that number? In the 2016, Huang’s main opponent Lee Ching-hwa 李慶華 got 68,318 votes. That was nowhere near enough votes to win the seat, but if every one of those voters supports the recall, they can remove Huang from his seat. Take note, in this scenario, not a single person who originally supported Huang has changed his or her mind. It is now easier to recall Huang than it was to elect him in the first place.

Of course, the previous paragraph is ignoring the difficulties of mobilizing 62,798 yes votes without the atmosphere of a general election. This threshold is still probably unreachable. However, it is low enough that I have some doubts. 63,000 is difficult, but by no means impossible.

This puts Huang Kuo-chang in a difficult position. He now has to decide whether to try to mobilize his supporters to defend his seat. Even if they can pass the 62,798 threshold, he could still keep his seat if he can mobilize his original 80,508 supporters to come out to the polls and vote no. However, mobilization is expensive and difficult. The burden should be on the side trying to recall the legislator, not on the incumbent legislator. They are the ones trying to overturn a previous election result.

In a vacuum, I’d simply advise Huang to ignore the anti-gay marriage groups behind the recall effort. It’s highly unlikely that they have enough penetration in society to mobilize 10,000 votes, much less 63,000. However, there are other politicians making strategic choices. In particular, there are four city councilors who would love to have Huang’s seat. For the two KMT city councilors, this is a golden opportunity. Huang removed the old KMT incumbent, so now they have a wide open seat staring at them if the recall passes. You can bet that they are mobilizing their networks trying to recall Huang. The two DPP city councilors have to be more careful, since many of their supporters also voted for Huang. However, I suspect they wouldn’t be heartbroken if the seat were to come open. The point is, there are a lot of well-connected people who have an interest in Huang’s recall. The anti-gay marriage activists don’t have to supply all 63,000 votes; self-interested politicians will supply a substantial number of yes votes. It’s still a longshot, but it isn’t impossible.

Huang Kuo-chang won over 50% in 2016. Imagine how the calculations would be different for a candidate who had won a three-way race. For example, Tsai Shih-ying 蔡適應 won the Keelung seat with only 41.5% of the vote. He got 78,707 votes, but 111,162 people voted for one of the three blue camp candidates. The threshold in a recall election would only be 74,736, so a successful recall would be quite likely even if no voters who originally supported them had changed their minds. Recall elections are supposed to be tools to remove legislators who have betrayed their electoral contract, not second chances for when one side can’t agree on a single candidate. However, if Huang’s recall succeeds, this is where we are headed. Every legislator elected on the other party’s turf with less than 50% had better start looking over their shoulder.

If there is any ironic justice in this episode, it is that Huang and the NPP brought this recall on themselves. They insisted on drastically revising a law that was working well. At least they are the first ones to face the consequences of their lousy choice. And if the recall does pass, it won’t just be Huang personally who suffers. The outcome will be widely interpreted as an indicator that the general public is not ready for marriage equality, and the NPP will have succeeded in kneecapping one of its most cherished goals. Good going, guys.

Hopefully after the recall vote, the parties will decide to revise the election law again to make recalls harder and end this stupidity. In the meantime, Huang deserves to sweat a bit.

 

 

 

 

 

 

the state of (out of date) public opinion

September 26, 2017

I’d like to take a look at the general state of public opinion in Taiwan these days. I’m not really interested in exactly what it is right this moment. After all, the next election is still more than a year away, and by then no one will care whether Tsai Ing-wen had a 27% or 29% approval rating 14 months ago. I’m more interested in taking stock of the general trends over Tsai’s first year and a half in office. Over the past few months, we have seen headlines screaming that Tsai has a lower approval rating than Donald Trump or that her administration is sinking fast as it loses popularity. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are people who assume that the KMT is doomed and that continued DPP rule is inevitable, unless the New Power Party replaces it.

Public opinion is always a bit murky, but right now it is murkier than usual. To put it bluntly, reasonable people can see whatever they want to see in the data. None of the trends are sharp or clear enough that you can’t easily explain them away with other readily available numbers. It’s like staring at clouds: maybe it’s a duck, and maybe it’s a train. Not only that, but the person who thinks it is a duck can see the duck clearly, while the moron who thinks it is a train can’t see how anyone could look at that train and see a duck. I think that one interpretation of public opinion is more correct, and I’ll argue for that one. However, keep in mind that the other interpretations aren’t necessarily stupid or misguided.

I’m relying on data from the Taiwan Election and Democratization Studies (TEDS). TEDS is the main academic project for political surveys. The surveys are done by academic institutions (mostly the Election Study Center, NCCU) for scholarly purposes. They are not contracted out to private survey companies, nor are they designed to make a splash in the public discourse. Questions are designed by committees of scholars with all political stripes, so a leading question designed to make one side look good or the other side look bad will simply not make it onto the final questionnaire. We all have lots of questions that we want to ask, and space is severely limited. Only items that can be rigorously defended from an academic perspective make it through. You might wonder why you have never seen a media report trumpeting the latest finding from a TEDS survey. The reason is simple. TEDS doesn’t hold press conferences to announce its newest results. In fact, it doesn’t release results immediately at all. Data usually are only released several months after the interviews are completed. For example, I am using quarterly surveys in this post. These surveys are only released when interviewing for the next survey begins. For example, TEDS just released the data for the June 2017 survey, but we currently have a small army of students doing calls for the September 2017 survey. Who cares about the June 2017 results? We want up-to-the minute information! When the June survey was done, pension reform hadn’t passed, the brouhahas over the infrastructure plan were still in the future, Mayor Ko was still planning for the university games, and Lin Chuan still had a couple more months to go as premier. Everything is different now! Well, it is precisely because the media doesn’t pay attention to TEDS results that they are so trustworthy and valuable. Unlike all the other data you see, you can be confident that these results weren’t produced with the goal of manipulating your opinions. And if you want to know what the state of public opinion is today, I guess I’ll be able to tell you that in three months, even if by then you will no longer care what people thought before Trump’s nuclear attack on North Korea, the Bangladeshi refugee crisis following the massive cyclone, or the upheavals in China following Xi Jinping’s aborted attempt to name his housekeeper’s mentally deranged son as Crown Prince of the CCP.

 

Let’s start with the headline number. Everyone has been talking about President Tsai’s low approval rating. How far did she sink over her first year in office?

請問您對她擔任總統以來的整體表現滿不滿意?

“How satisfied are you with Tsai Ing-wen’s overall performance as president?”

(Chinese question wordings are from the TEDS website: teds.nccu.edu.tw. Some of the English translations are from that website, and some are my own.)

Tsai approval

As you can see from the chart, Tsai’s satisfaction rating dropped quite a bit from June 2016 to June 2017. In the first survey, she was over 50%, the next three surveys were in the mid-30s, and the latest survey was in the upper 20s. That looks pretty terrible. If you want to see the electorate as unhappy with her performance and primed for a change, you certainly can.

It gets worse. TEDS asks about Tsai’s performance in four specific policy areas, cross-straits relations, foreign affairs, the economy, and national defense. These all mirror her overall satisfaction rating fairly closely, except that the trend lines for economy and cross-straits relations are 5-10% lower than the overall trend line. That is, Tsai’s general satisfaction is the optimistic number. As you drill down into specifics, people are even less satisfied.

那您對蔡英文在處理兩岸關係的表現滿不滿意?

那您對她在外交方面的表現滿不滿意?

那您對她在國防方面的表現滿不滿意?

那您對她在促進經濟發展的表現滿不滿意?

Tsai approval areas

We can go further. People are even less satisfied with the cabinet’s performance than with President Tsai’s. Tsai just changed premiers, but most of the unpopular cabinet is still in office. (Premier Lin did slightly better than the cabinet but significantly worse than Tsai.) Ick.

cabinet approval

On the surface, it doesn’t look good. However, I think Tsai’s approval ratings probably mean a lot less than the international media thinks. Comparison with American presidents is especially misleading. Taiwanese are simply more skeptical of their presidents. Unlike American voters, Taiwanese voters historically do not connect expressing satisfaction and intention to vote for a politician. To give a famous example, Mayor Chen Shui-bian had an approval rating in the 70s during his 1998 re-election bid but only got 46% and lost. Looking at presidents, perhaps Ma Ying-jeou’s experience is instructive. Ma had fairly pedestrian approval ratings during his first term, and yet he was comfortably re-elected. In fact, President Ma’s first term approval ratings look shockingly similar to Tsai’s thus far. At roughly this point (August 2009 – February 2010), Ma hit his nadir and then slowly recovered as the 2012 election approached and partisan loyalties reasserted themselves. It probably didn’t hurt that Ma appointed a professional politician who could communicate effectively with the public as premier at about this time. You will also notice that Ma started with a sky-high approval rating. Both he and Tsai had honeymoon periods that quickly evaporated. If you ignore those first data points, the declines for both don’t look quite so dramatic. Somewhere between 25% and 40% approval seems to be normal for Taiwanese presidents. (In contrast, anything below 40% is a disaster for an American president.)

Anyway, I increasingly don’t believe in the predictive value of satisfaction. Lots of the people who are dissatisfied are unhappy that Tsai Ing-wen has been too timid. These people wanted more of her program, not less. Someone who is angry that transitional justice has been too slow or that pension reform wasn’t drastic enough is not itching to vote for the KMT in future elections.

 

So let’s turn to party ID, a much more important and accurate indicator of which way the winds are blowing. Here are the five quarterly surveys from Tsai’s first term:

在國內的政黨之中,請問您認為您比較支持哪一個政黨? (if none, follow-up) 那請問您有沒有比較偏向哪一個政黨?

“Among the political parties in our country, which do you support most?” (if none, follow-up) “Which party do you lean toward?”

party id recent.png

The initial impression is that the DPP is bleeding support and the KMT is gaining. The gap between the two parties has shrunk from about 20% in June 2016 to about 3% a year later. Wow!

Again, some caution and some longer-term perspective is useful. That first survey showing the DPP with 39% party ID is wildly out of line with historical patterns. The DPP has never been near that high in any other survey. Let’s chalk that up as a fleeting honeymoon effect and discard it. Still, the last few surveys show the DPP falling from about 30% to about 25% and the gap between the two main parties narrowing. The KMT is making a comeback!

About that, maybe we should look at a longer time period. The TEDS quarterly surveys started in September 2012, so we don’t have the same sort of regular data before that. Nevertheless, party ID is always asked on every ESC and TEDS survey, so we have fairly reliable numbers going back to the mid-1990s. I’ve started this chart at the end of the Chen era to compare current party ID trends to the relatively stable period during Ma’s first term. As you can see, during Ma’s first term the KMT generally had a 10-15% advantage over the DPP in party ID. During his second term, the KMT hemorrhaged support, going from the mid-30s to the low 20s while the DPP gained slightly, going from about 25% to 30%. Put into that context, party ID in June 2017 doesn’t look anything like party ID in 2009. We are still in the post-Sunflower world in which the DPP is the more popular party and the KMT is in second place. In the chart with only five surveys, it looks like the KMT is making a comeback. In the longer perspective, it doesn’t look like that so much. The KMT is still mired in the low 20s, where it has been since late 2014.

party id since 2008.png

One interesting thing about this chart concerns the DPP’s honeymoon peak. The DPP’s peak comes in June 2016, after Tsai’s inauguration. The KMT also has a massive peak, when it hit 43% at the end of 2011. The difference between these two peaks is that one occurred right around election day. The KMT’s 2012 campaign apparently peaked perfectly, with a spike in support for the party just when the voters were going to the polls. This spike (and the 15% advantage in party ID) produced 51% of the votes in the presidential election. In 2016, the DPP’s spike was well after the election, so it did not translate into more votes. At the election, the DPP had an advantage of just a bit more than 10% in party ID, not the 20% it would have in June. The DPP’s party ID in the low-30s around election day produced 56% of the vote for Tsai.

Historically, the DPP has added more voters to its base of identifiers than the KMT has. If the DPP still has a narrow lead in party identifiers, it probably has a somewhat larger lead in actual votes.

The past two data points are not good for the DPP. However, I’m not ready to proclaim them as a tipping point or the start of a new trend. On party ID, it looks to me like we are still in the same post-Sunflower world. Nonetheless, it is something I’ll be keeping my eye on.

 

If I want to know what will happen in the near term, I look at party ID. If I want to know about the longer and deeper trends, I look at national identity. This is measured using a very simple yet telling question:

我們社會上,有人說自己是「臺灣人」,也有人說自己是「中國人」,也有人說都是。請問您認為自己是「臺灣人」、「中國人」,或者都是?

“In Taiwan, some people think they are Taiwanese. There are also some people who think that they are Chinese. Do you consider yourself as Taiwanese, Chinese or both?”

national id recent.png

Looking at the recent data, it doesn’t appear that there is any honeymoon peak. Rather, there is simply a decrease in exclusively Taiwanese identity and a commensurate increase in Chinese and dual identity. This is wrong. Actually, the June 2016 data point is higher than either 2015 or the rest of 2016.

TaiwanChinese.jpg

A look at the longer trend shows that the decline in Taiwanese identity is not merely something that has happened over the past year. The gap between the lines peaked in 2014, when exclusive Taiwan identifiers outnumbered people with some Chinese identity by about 60 to 35%. Over the past three years, that gap has slowly narrowed to roughly 56 to 40%. This is not merely a statistical blip. These data points in the ESC chart combine data from numerous surveys; each data point represents over 10,000 respondents. There is a real decline in Taiwanese identity over the past three years; the only question is how we should think about it.

Many smart people think that 2014 was a real inflection point, and the historical trend toward more and more Taiwanese identifiers has now reversed. They expect that Chinese identity will continue to increase over future surveys. I have not yet heard a convincing explanation for why this might happen, but then I don’t have a airtight explanation for the last three years either.

For now, my working hypothesis is that long-term drivers of Taiwanese identity are still in place. Younger people identify more strongly as Taiwanese than older people, and this is driven by education and real-world experiences in which China clumsily continually reminds Taiwanese that they are a different group of people. If the fast-growing China of a decade ago couldn’t attract Taiwanese youth, I don’t see how the slower-growing and more oppressive version of today will win over many hearts and minds.

For the time being, I am considering the peak in 2014 to be the outlier. My guess is that after the dramatic upheavals of the previous few years, many respondents who would have normally been on the fence were inspired to describe themselves as exclusively Taiwanese. As things calmed down, those people may have drifted back to their more “normal” dual identities. There is a rapid growth in Taiwanese identity from 2011 to 2014, and I suspect at least some of the people who changed their minds then have changed them back again. If you look in longer terms, the basic trend line over the past two decades still looks like it fits the current data.

It is also important to note that, even with the changes over the past three years, we are still not back in the world of 2008, when Taiwanese and Chinese identities were roughly equal. Exclusive Taiwanese identifiers still significantly outnumber people with Chinese identity, and the current trends will require several more years to close that gap. However, if my interpretation is correct, there may not be many more wafflers to convert back to Chinese identity. Closing the gap much further will require some fundamental change in the relationship between China and Taiwan to make Chineseness more appealing to Taiwanese youth. Perhaps that has already happened, and I am simply oblivious to it.

Regardless, this is an important indicator to keep an eye on. It is not at all an overstatement to say that Taiwan’s political future depends on the distribution of opinions about national identity.

 

The TEDS quarterly surveys mostly ask the same questions each time, but they also stick in one or two questions on topical issues each time. Some of these are illuminating.

In September 2016, respondents were asked a question on the recent Illicit Party Assets bill:

立法院在今年7月通過「不當黨產處理條例」(全名: 政黨及其附隨組織不當取得財產處理條例),請問您對政府在處理不當黨產的表現滿不滿意?

“In July the legislature passed the Illicit Party Assets Act. Are you satisfied with the government’s performance in handling illicit party assets?”

35.0% of respondents said they were either somewhat satisfied or very satisfied, while 42.0% said they were either somewhat dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with the government’s handling of this issue. The easy interpretation might be that the public sides with the KMT’s insistence that the DPP is conducting a vengeful, unjustified, and undemocratic witch hunt against it. However, digging a little deeper casts doubt on that interpretation. 26.0% of people who self-identified as DPP or NPP supporters also expressed dissatisfaction with the government’s handling of illicit KMT assets. Of course, we can’t know exactly what each individual was thinking and every individual thinks something slightly different, but it isn’t too difficult to imagine that the overwhelming majority of these people were dissatisfied because they thought the efforts to recover illicit KMT assets were not aggressive enough. If you want to know how much support the KMT has for its position, you probably need to subtract the vast majority of these people – 9.9% of the full sample – from the 42.0% who were dissatisfied. Similarly, a considerable chunk of non-identifiers were probably also dissatisfied for the same reason. What starts out looking like a good result for the KMT is probably actually nothing of the sort. People might be dissatisfied with the Tsai government, but this does not necessarily mean they are jumping over to the KMT.

 

Both the March and June 2017 surveys had a question on pension reform. Note that the June survey was conducted about two weeks before the legislature passed the pension reform bill.

In March, the survey asked about the preferential savings rate:

有人說: 「公教優惠存款(十八趴)的廢除對退休公教人員不公平」,請問您同不同意這種說法?

“Some people say, “Abolishing the preferential savings policy (18%) is unfair to retired public employees.” Do you agree or disagree?”

Agree Disagree
All 30.2 58.7
KMT identifiers 45.3 44.2
DPP + NPP identifiers 21.8 72.7
Public employees 42.7 47.6

This question wording is a particularly strong one for proponents of pension reform. This focuses attention on the most easily understood aspects of a very complex topic. The preferential savings rate has been the horse that advocates have loved to beat for years, as a guaranteed 18% interest rate on savings deposits is far out of line with anything a normal person could hope to obtain. In fact, nearly twice as many people disagree with the statement as agree with it. Even among KMT identifiers and public employees, the two groups most hostile to pension reforms, nearly as many people disagreed as agreed with this statement.

In June, TEDS asked a very different question:

整體而言,請問您對政府處理公教人員年金改革的表現滿不滿意?

“Overall, are you satisfied with the government’s performance in handling public employees’ pension reform?”

satisfied Dissatisfied
All 31.7 56.4
KMT identifiers 17.6 77.5
DPP + NPP identifiers 49.9 43.0
Public employees 20.1 75.4

(Remember, this is before the legislature passed the bill.)

By now, you should know how I feel about these satisfied/dissatisfied questions. Taiwan’s population is highly critical. If they don’t get their ideal outcome, they do not hesitate to express dissatisfaction. In fact, the Tsai government moved deliberately and cautiously on pension reform, angering a lot of green supporters who wanted a more radical approach. In this survey, not even half of DPP and NPP supporters were satisfied.

On this topic, I have a little private data. I’m doing a project on fighting in the legislature, and I did an internet survey before and after the pension reform was passed. Now, internet surveys have to be interpreted with extreme caution since they are not representative samples. Our goal was to study how attitudes changed after a brawl, not to make statements describing the Taiwanese population. However, that is what Nathan Batto, rigorous scholar, does with the data. Frozen Garlic, the irresponsible blogger, is going to throw caution to the wind and give you some results that you shouldn’t take at face value.

First, let me tell you that my data are biased. My respondents are extremely highly educated, have too many middle aged people, too many northerners, not enough farmers or homemakers, and too many public employees. KMT and NPP identifiers are overrepresented, while DPP identifiers are underrepresented. In general, all the results in my survey skew much bluer than those of a representative telephone sample.

Unlike the TEDS questions, we framed our question in terms of partisan positions:

在年金改革的議題上,您比較支持國民黨的立場還是民進黨的立場?

“On pension reform, do you support the KMT position or the DPP position more?”

Wave 1 Wave 2
KMT position 20.8 21.1
DPP position 39.9 42.1
Neither/no opinion 39.3 36.8

In this sample, roughly twice as many people preferred the DPP position as the KMT position. Remember, this sample is too blue, so in the actual population it was probably more than a two to one ratio.

Think about this. The general population was generally dissatisfied with the government’s handling of the pension reform, even though it preferred the DPP’s position over the KMT’s position by a large margin. Taiwanese people are not easily satisfied! Nevertheless, even if the general public isn’t happy with the DPP’s performance, the pension reform issue is definitely not a winner for the KMT.

 

How about marriage equality? TEDS has questions from March and June 2017:

有人說: 「應該修改民法讓同性可以結婚組成家庭」,請問您同不同意這種說法?

“Some people say, “The Civil Code should be amended to allow gays to marry and form a family.” Do you agree?”

 

This question wording presents a stricter test for support of marriage equality than a less specific question, such as “Do you agree that gay should be allowed to marry?” Amending the Civil Code is the strongest version of marriage equality. There are people who support a weaker version of marriage equality, such as enacting a special law but not amending the Civil Code. Nonetheless, the degree of opposition to amending the Civil Code is striking.

agree Disagree
March 2017 39.1 52.1
June 2017 33.7 57.0
Breakdowns of June sample
KMT identifiers 21.9 69.4
DPP identifiers 37.5 54.3
NPP identifiers 64.6 32.3
Taipei City 40.3 44.8
Age 20-29 71.1 21.1
Age 30-39 50.0 40.5
Age 40 and up 18.6 72.1

KMT identifiers are overwhelmingly against amending the Civil Code, while DPP identifiers also have a clear majority against it. NPP supporters are clearly the outliers. Geographically, Taipei City sticks out. While Taipei residents are split evenly, every other place has 60-70% against amending the Civil Code. When Taiwanese sarcastically talk about Taipei residents living in a bubble (天龍國), maybe this is part of what they are talking about. There are dramatic differences by age. People in their 20s are overwhelmingly for marriage equality, while people in their 30s are somewhat for it. However, most eligible voters are over 40, and these people are overwhelmingly against amending the Civil Code.

In May, the Council of Grand Justices ruled that the current law is unconstitutional and gave the government two years to change it. Looking at these numbers, you can see why the Tsai government is not eager to push through an amendment to the Civil Code, regardless of President Tsai’s personal sympathies. I don’t think the very vocal supporters of marriage equality have yet realized that the government is on their side. (Don’t forget, Tsai appointed most of the Grand Justices.) With these numbers, the only realistic action is a special law, which the activists don’t want. Instead, the government has chosen a third path: wait for the two year period to expire and then simply consider the Civil Code to allow gays to marry. At the cost of a two year wait, the marriage equality activists will get their most favored outcome while not inflicting enormous political costs on a sympathetic government.

 

The final item to consider echoes newly elected KMT chair Wu Den-yi’s proposal that Taiwan should revert to the 1992 Consensus. This was asked in the June 2017 survey.

在處理兩岸關係上,有人主張我們應該使用九二共識與中國大陸協商,也有人主張我們不應該再使用九二共識,請問您比較支持哪一種看法?

“On cross straits relations, some people say the we should use the 1992 Consensus as a basis for negotiations with mainland China, other people say that we should not use the 1992 Consensus again. Which side do you support?”

use Don’t use Doesn’t exist
All 41.8 29.4 3.7
DPP + NPP identifiers 21.6 52.9 6.9
Exclusive Taiwan identity 26.0 41.4 5.6

I have to admit, I was quite surprised by this result. 42% of people were in favor of re-adopting the 1992 Consensus, while only 33% were against it. (I’m counting the 4% who refuse to admit the existence of the 1992 Consensus as being against using it.) I guess Wu Den-yi’s position is more popular than I thought.

Let’s take a minute to think about polling and the 1992 Consensus. For years, the Ma Ying-jeou government would shove reams of polling data showing a solid majority in support of the 1992 Consensus in the face of any journalist willing to look. Many eagerly and unskeptically repeated the government numbers in their stories. It wasn’t just journalists, though. I’ve heard academics reference the Mainland Affairs Council survey numbers. Here’s the problem. The MAC was producing survey results in order to justify – not to inform – its policies. The typical MAC question wording was both leading and confusing. (Is it possible to be both leading and misleading?) Here’s a footnote from one of my recent papers on this point:

“For example, a July 2014 survey asked, “The government’s position on the 1992 Consensus is that the ‘one China’ in ‘one China, each side with its own interpretation’ refers to the ROC. Do you support this position?” 52.3% expressed support, which was a fairly typical result. Sometimes the MAC preceded this question with other leading questions or employed even more loaded question wordings. For example, a May 2015 survey asked, “Some people say, ‘Since 2008, the important result of the government’s mainland policy has been to maintain cross-straits relations and a stable peace.’ Do you agree with this statement?” It then asked a loaded question on the 1992 Consensus: “Since 2008, on the foundation of the 1992 Consensus – One China, each side with its own interpretation, One China means the ROC, the government has steadily promoted cross-straits negotiations and exchanges. Do you support this position?” 53.9% expressed support.”

Note that in all of the MAC surveys, the formula is spelled out in its strongest version, emphasizing “each side with its own interpretation.” This matters a lot. The more you spell out the parts of the formula that the PRC doesn’t agree with, the more support there is. In these questions, they further emphasize the constitution and confusingly (at least to me) allow people to think they are agreeing with the statement that the government’s position is that One China refers to the ROC (and not the PRC), and so on. That’s how you get over 50% for this question. When TISR asked the questions in a more neutral manner two years ago, they got about 40% support for “one China, each side with its own interpretation”, 30% for “1992 Consensus,” and 20% for “one China, both sides with the same interpretation.”

Nearly two years later, support for the 1992 Consensus seems to have risen a bit. The 1992 Consensus gets 42% support, even though the wording does not include the phrase “each side with its own interpretation.” Moreover, this item has a response category for opposition, not just for support. 42% support turns out not to mean 58% opposition. In fact, 33% is not anywhere close to 58% opposition. A large chunk of the population is ambivalent on this question. Like many people, I interpreted the 2016 election result as a death sentence for the 1992 Consensus. I still think the chances of the Tsai government ever accepting it are between razor-thin and zero, but, in light of this result, I can see why Wu Den-yi and the KMT are holding out hope that the 1992 Consensus can still be the basis for a winning election campaign.

 

To sum up, I think these data suggest that the DPP is still on track to win another term in 2020. There are some encouraging numbers for the KMT, but they are easily exaggerated. Overall, I think these data are at least as discouraging for the KMT as for the DPP. I think we are most likely going to have something like the previous Japanese election in which a somewhat unpopular government easily beat an even more unpopular opposition.

PS: If these results trouble you in any way, don’t worry. They’re all horribly out of date. Everything is probably completely different now.

Musings on the old and new premiers

September 11, 2017

It seems I don’t get around to blogging very much these days. Hopefully I’ll pick up the pace as we move into the next election cycle. In the meantime, I have a few thoughts on the recent cabinet reshuffle.

 

Former Premier Lin Chuan’s 林全 resignation did not come as much of a surprise. After 16 months, it was time for a reset. His satisfaction ratings were not great, but it’s easy to overstate that point. We’ve had several stories in the international media gasping about President Tsai’s cratering satisfaction ratings in the high 20s or low 30s (“worse than Trump!!!!”), and Lin’s ratings were a notch below those levels. However, the Taiwanese electorate is historically much stingier with its approval for national politicians than the American electorate, and ratings in this range haven’t historically heralded disaster. I’ll have more to say on public opinion in a subsequent post. For right now, let’s just say that Lin’s ratings weren’t spectacular.

Taiwanese cabinet members come in two broad prototypes: elected politicians and technocrats. Lin is a classic technocrat, having served in various administrative and policy-focused positions since the mid-1990s. It is somewhat ironic that his biggest failings were technical rather than political. In recent weeks, the KMT has enthusiastically thrown the legislature into chaos protesting the Forward-Looking infrastructure package. They have made some substantive arguments against the package, such as claiming that spending on railways is wasteful, but their first and most effective argument was that the documentation was sloppy and incomplete. The cabinet’s original proposal for the massive eight year package came with a pitifully thin set of documents explaining exactly what the money would used for. In other words, the technocrats had not bothered to dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s. This is the kind of problem you might expect a career politician – with a focus on power and coalitions – to make, not a career technocrat who supposedly revels in the details of public policy. Lin ran into the same sort of problem in his biggest failing, the revision of the Labor Standards Law that has left almost no one satisfied. The broad and inflexible brush strokes of the new policy are the kind of thing you would not expect from a policy nerd with a detailed understanding of labor markets. They are exactly what you might expect from a politician catering to the whims of a specific interest group and ignoring all the others.

Meanwhile, Lin passed one of the most important political tests for any premier: he could almost always count on support from a majority in the legislature. The DPP LY caucus may not have been thrilled with the amendments to the Labor Standards Law, but they were willing not only to vote en masse for those amendments but even to physically push KMT legislators off the speaker’s podium so that they could vote for Lin’s bill. Likewise, in the fight over infrastructure, the DPP LY caucus allowed the KMT caucus to make noise and express their discontent, but at the end of the day, they passed the cabinet’s plan relatively unchanged. For the most part, the LY had Lin’s back. If you think that is trivial, try talking to former KMT Premier Jiang Yi-huah 江宜樺about whether a majority party in the LY always supports the premier’s agenda.

From a political perspective, Lin also handled marriage equality quite deftly. In the face of strident demands from pro-marriage equality forces to amend the Civil Code and deep trepidation from DPP legislators staring at polls showing substantial opposition to this among back in their districts, Lin simply sidestepped the issue. By interpreting the Grand Justices’ ruling as implying that the language in the Civil Code requiring marriage to include one man and one woman was unconstitutional, Lin decided that there was no need to amend the Civil Code. Gay marriages can be registered under the current law. In this way, Lin did not force DPP legislators into a no-win situation by forcing them to offend either their young voters or everyone over forty.

This is not to say that Lin has been a terrible technocrat and a genius politician. He has had plenty of political failings. For example, somehow the DPP managed to tackle the very thorny issue of pension reform, pass a bill that the KMT didn’t dare try to physically block in the legislature, and still leave the majority of people dissatisfied. What should have been a crowning triumph of Lin’s tenure is instead something that most people think should have been handled better. The technocratic efforts are, by nature, less visible, but it is reasonable to assume that he has quietly launched drives to remake government policy in a number of areas. Still, it is striking to me that his highest profile setbacks were mostly technical in nature.

 

Tainan mayor William Lai 賴清德 is the new premier, and there is a lot of speculation about his next move. Some people think he will run for New Taipei mayor next year, while others think he is planning to run for president in 2020. I don’t think either of these are likely.

The timetable for a mayoral run is very tight. The election will be in late November or early December next year, so he would have to start his campaign (and resign as premier) by May or June at the latest. However, he would have to announce his intention (or “reluctant capitulation” to the intense arm-twisting pressure from the rest of the DPP) to run a month or two before that. In other words, he would ony have a maximum of eight months in office as premier before starting the campaign. In April 2010, Eric Chu 朱立倫 announced he would be willing to run for New Taipei mayor after only eight months as deputy premier, so maybe the calendar isn’t too tight. However, I think premier and deputy premier are fundamentally different positions. The deputy premier isn’t the one in charge of the executive branch; Chu was not the one determining policy directions. When the deputy premier resigns, there is no need to formally reshuffle the cabinet. Mayor is arguably a step up from deputy premier, while it is almost certainly a step down from premier. It just doesn’t make sense for the premier, after only eight months, to claim that he has successfully accomplished everything he wants to do in his current job and is now ready to move on to a new and less important challenge. For the deputy premier, though, that makes perfect sense. Perhaps Frank Hsieh 謝長廷 is a better model for this proposed jump than Eric Chu. Hsieh was re-elected as Kaohsiung mayor in 2002, became premier in 2005, and then ran for Taipei mayor in 2006. However, Hsieh served as premier from February 2005 to January 2006, almost a full calendar year. Moreover, he took over as premier much earlier in the cycle (February rather than September) and he resigned well before the nominations for the next mayoral elections were decided. His calendar was much less compressed than Lai’s. Still, one year is not a particularly long time as premier, and Hsieh did not exactly resign in triumph. This lackluster record as premier probably contributed to his landslide defeat in the Taipei mayoral race. It is hard to see Lai arguing that he was a successful premier with only eight months in office. Running for mayor would probably require him to talk defensively rather than brag proudly about his tenure as premier.

Lai is even less likely to run for president in 2020 than to run for mayor in 2018. For one thing, as premier, he will now be tightly identified with Tsai. His triumphs are her triumphs, and her failings will rub off on him. More fundamentally, there simply is not much demand within the DPP right now for someone to split the party by running against their incumbent president. Tsai is still the leader of the party. Some of the shine may have come off her leadership, but she is still the unquestioned top dog and still on track to win a second term.

Lai’s goal should be for the DPP’s 2024 nomination. He is not necessarily in a great position for this. Premiers tend to have a relatively short shelf life. If he does very well, he might make it to the 2020 presidential election as premier. It is almost unthinkable that he might make it all the way to the 2024 election as premier. Perhaps his best scheme might be to persuade the current VP to yield that spot to him in order to guarantee his survival to 2024. However, it seems highly unlikely at this point that Chen Chien-jen 陳建仁 would want to step aside or that Tsai Ing-wen would ask him to. If we are still thinking of Lai as a presidential contender after his tenure as premier ends, he will have to find some other platform to keep him in the public eye for a year or three until the 2024 presidential campaign begins. However, that is a problem that we don’t have to worry about right now.

 

We are hearing a lot about how Lai is a leader of the New Tide 新潮流 faction, and some people are wondering if the New Tide faction is becoming dominant within the DPP. After all, it now controls the cabinet, many important local governments (Kaohsiung, Tainan, Taoyuan, Changhua, Pingtung), and it has a powerful presence in the LY. This is correct on the surface, but it is worth asking how cohesive the New Tide still is. From the 1980s through the Chen presidency, New Tide was famous for its internal discipline. There were three leaders (Lin Cho-shui 林濁水, Chiu I-jen 邱義仁, and Wu Nai-jen 吳乃仁) who ran the faction. They defined the ideals and policy priorities, built the organizational network, raised money, recruited and trained talent, made deals with other factions, and generally cultivated a tightly disciplined faction. Those three leaders have mostly faded from the scenes. Today’s New Tide is led by a disparate group of local leaders (the aforementioned mayors) and legislators (especially Tuan Yi-kang段宜康). There is no longer any central authority. Chen Chu 陳菊 may be a New Tide member, but she is primarily the mayor of Kaohsiung and her highest priority is on Kaohsiung’s problems. She isn’t going to take orders from William Lai or any other New Tide member. In fact, it is not an exaggeration to think that she has organized her own Kaohsiung-based faction including many people who are not necessarily New Tide figures and who answers to her rather than to any national New Tide leadership. The same goes for Cheng Wen-tsan 鄭文燦 in Taoyuan and every other mayor. In the legislature, the New Tide faction might help win nominations, but I don’t think it exercises quite as much control over its members as it once did. During the Chen-era, we started hearing about the North Tide 北流, Central Tide 中流, and South Tide 南流. These three had very different attitudes about whether to support the embattled President Chen. The North Tide led calls for him to resign, while the South Tide was much more supportive (reflecting difference in the larger population among northern and southern voters). The New Tide didn’t quite fracture, but its cohesion did suffer. I don’t think it has or will ever fully recover. So while it is not meaningless that Lai is a New Tide member, this doesn’t imply that New Tide is taking over everything. New Tide isn’t really a cohesive (unitary) actor with a distinctive set of policy preferences these days.

 

I’m not exactly buying into the hype about William Lai. I think there are a lot of parallels between Lai and Eric Chu. Both were relentlessly promoted by the media as the party’s great savior without having done very much to earn that mantle. Chu was a scholar and Lai was a doctor, both were singled out at a fairly young age and placed into a solidly blue/green district that they could win without much challenge. Both are physically attractive enough, neither is brimming with charisma, and neither has actually accomplished as much as you have the impression they have. Yet, somehow, we all have been led to believe that they are presidential material. In their first forays into cross-straits affairs, they even employed similar strategies by playing superficial word games. Chu tweaked the 1992 consensus, changing one character and advocating One China, both sides with the same interpretation 一中同表. Lai tried to coin a vacuous pro-China, love Taiwan 親中愛台. Both seemed to think that they could cleverly clear away all the obstacles to cross-straits relations by coming up with a better four-character slogan than anyone else. Neither seems to have bothered to think through the implications of these formulae the way Ma, Tsai, or Hsieh did.

In early 2015 when Chu took over as KMT party chair, I wrote that he was now stepping out of the easy aura of a local mayor, in which most every action is reported with a favorable tinge by an accommodating local reporter, and into the harsh light of national politics, where every action would be scrutinized and (fairly or unfairly) attacked if any partisan advantage could be gained. Likewise, Lai now steps into that harsh limelight. Rather than taking credit for the mango harvest or paving a road, he will more likely be blamed for not having a quick and painless solution to a variety of intractable problems such as the low birthrate, systemic youth unemployment, or companies willing to compromise food safety in order to cut costs. Lai just stepped into the big leagues, and the vague hero image that his boosters have so assiduously cultivated won’t survive if he doesn’t deliver the goods.

The parallel to Chu isn’t perfect. Lai has faced and overcome a few more electoral challenges than Chu. Chu won one term in the legislature; Lai won four terms. In particular, Lai survived the 2008 KMT tidal wave even though Ma beat Hsieh in his district. In addition, while Chu had both the Taoyuan and New Taipei mayoral nominations handed to him, Lai won an intense primary in 2010 to secure the mayoral nomination. However, if Lai has a few more substantial victories than Chu, he also has a couple of red flags. Lai has not been able to forge a compromise with affected residents over the rerouting of a rail line. He was also unable to manage a Dengue Fever outbreak.

But most disturbing was his response to the election of a KMT politician as speaker of the Tainan City council. Lai accused the speaker of buying votes and refused to attend city council meetings until the speaker was removed. The speaker probably had bought votes, but that is hardly justification for Lai’s behavior. The mayor does not have the power to assign guilt; that is job of the judiciary. Lai’s certitude in his right to assign guilt and ignore his legal duty to give reports and answer interpellations in the city council belies a stunning moral arrogance. The KMT sarcastically dubbed him Deity Lai 賴神, and, dishearteningly, he has not shied away from that moniker. It is very easy to imagine him refusing to see a flawed decision or even doubling down on it. If he is to have a successful tenure as premier, he will have to show a bit more humility that he has thus far.

 

Pension reform

June 30, 2017

As I start this post, the legislature has just passed the third reading of the civil servants pension bill. It now moves onto the bill for teachers, and the legislature has yet to take up the bill for military pensions. Nonetheless, now that the rules for civil servants have been rewritten, the others should follow along those basic lines. There is a lot of cleanup work still left for the legislature, but the basic fights have already been waged.

We all have a basic understanding that the current system needed some adjustment. There was too much money going out and too little coming in, and the system was going to go bankrupt in fairly short order. Even President Ma recognized the need for reform. (He quickly aborted his nascent reform in the face of a backlash from public servants, who constitute one of the KMT’s most important voting blocs.) The retirement benefits were simply too generous. Civil servants could often retire in their early fifties and collect monthly stipends nearly equal to their full salaries. Since benefits were based on their last month’s salary (ie: the highest they had collected in their entire career), that meant that the state was often paying people more in their retirement than it had while they were working AND their retirements might be as long as their working careers had been. This system may have been defensible when the GDP was growing by double digits every year, the birth rate was high, and civil servants earned a relatively low base salary. However, those conditions haven’t described Taiwan for two or three decades. Things had to change.

Pension reform was one of the three or four most important goals for Tsai Ing-wen’s first term; arguably it is the single most important domestic reform item on her agenda. Tsai has taken a lot of criticism over the past year. People who didn’t vote for her (predictably) think she is doing a terrible job, and they point to things like China’s more antagonistic stance toward Taiwan and the resulting drop in group tourism from China. They are also furious about the effort to nationalize the KMT’s ill-gotten party assets, which they see as a witch hunt (the “green terror”). Many people who did vote for Tsai are also somewhat disillusioned. Her support for marriage equality has been less than strident, her cabinet is full of old men (many of whom have ties to previous discredited administrations), some of the government’s economic policies have been presented and implemented clumsily (labor standards law, infrastructure package), the economy isn’t growing at 8% a year, transitional justice hasn’t been achieved yet, and the world isn’t perfect yet. Against this background, achieving pension reform should be a shining star on Tsai’s report card.

In fact, I’d argue that pension reform has almost perfectly embodied Tsai Ing-wen’s vision of consensus democracy. There were a lot of people who wanted the DPP to present their ideal bill and ram it through the legislature. After all, what is a majority for? Instead, Tsai took the process slowly and deliberately. Tsai’s cabinet included Minister Without Portfolio Lee Wan-yi, whose sole job was to oversee pension reform. The government held a national forum on pension reform, and Lee’s committee held several other hearings. These hearings were somewhat contentious and the opposition did not always participate in good faith. Still, most of the important political arguments were presented, and the committee was able to filter through them. One of Tsai’s stated goals at the outset was not to treat public servants as an enemy. As she put it, they were to be seen as partners in the reform rather than objects to be reformed. The Executive Yuan committee ultimately came out with a fairly moderate bill. At about the same time, the Examination Yuan came out with its own bill. The Examination Yuan members have fixed terms, and over half of them are still left over from the Ma era. As might be expected, the Examination Yuan bill was even more modest than the Executive Yuan bill. Transition periods were stretched out over more years and various formulas were adjusted to be somewhat more favorable to public servants. However, the two bills were surprisingly similar. By the time the Examination Yuan was ready to propose its bill it had become clear that some sort of reform was unavoidable, so the Examination Yuan proposed a substantive reform bill. During the first half of 2017, anti-reform forces were trying to arouse public opinion against Tsai. Various veterans, civil servants, and teachers groups held rallies, but these were generally not well attended. Surveys showed that public opinion was solidly in favor of reform, and this did not soften as a result of anti-reform activism. If anything, public opinion solidified in favor of a more aggressive reform. By the time the bills got to the legislature, the anti-reform movement was largely played out. In the legislature, the pro-reform forces took their turn trying to pass a more aggressive bill. Both the DPP and NPP caucuses demanded changes to various formulae and transition periods. They succeeded in some of these demands, and the law that eventually passed was somewhat more aggressive than the Executive Yuan bill. Nonetheless, Tsai stepped in to ensure that the most radical demands would not be adopted.

By the end of the process, the KMT found itself in a quandary. Public servants constitute a core constituency, and the KMT wanted to speak for them. However, public opinion was clearly against them, and the DPP caucus showed no signs of wavering. As the saying goes, there are two ways to resist in the legislature: civil and military (文、武). The “military” method involves physically occupying the speaker’s podium and disrupting the normal parliamentary procedures. The “civil” method involves using dilatory tactics such as introducing hundreds of amendments to stretch out proceedings as long as possible. In general, if you are sure of your position and your support in society, you go for the military option. If you are on shaky ground, the civil option is the best you can do. For months, I expected we were heading for a “military” showdown. However, the KMT will eventually crumbled. The KMT could not agree on an alternative bill, so the caucus was reduced to supporting various bills proposed by individual members. Instead of occupying the podium or offering hundreds of amendments, the KMT opted for a very weak battle plan. They would have several people speak on every clause, thus taking several days to pass the bills. The DPP was relatively happy to oblige, so the legislature has been engaged in marathon sessions all week. (A minor but telling point: When the DPP made a motion to extend yesterday’s meeting until midnight, it passed unanimously. If the KMT were really trying to resist, it would have opposed lengthening the meeting.) I’ve been sick this week, so I watched a fair amount of these debates on the LY channel. The KMT offered two main arguments against the reform. On the one hand, they suggested that the reform unfairly cut civil servants’ pensions too much. On the other hand, since the pension fund is forecast to go bankrupt in about 2049 (as opposed to in about 5-10 years under the current system), this reform doesn’t really solve the financial problem so there is no point in doing it. Note that those two positions are contradictory. If you want a reform that will be permanently sustainable, you are going to have to cut pensions even more.

In the end, Taiwan got a pension reform that both sides were a bit unhappy with, which is probably a pretty good indicator that it is a moderate compromise. Public discussion was allowed to percolate until some arguments were discredited and others emerged as superior. Opposition was marginalized, with the street protesters painting themselves into an ever smaller box. Instead of forming the vanguard of a public movement against reform, the anti-reformers demonstrated themselves to be merely selfishly interested in defending a system that unfairly privileged them. As they got smaller, their appeals got cruder and further discredited their moral position. (Example: a sign referring to President Tsai’s genitalia is not a smart way to make the case that civil servants are being unfairly discriminated against.)

If you had asked President Tsai after her inauguration when she expected to pass pension reform, I suspect she would have replied that it would take about a year. In fact, it has taken just over a year. One year to study the problem, hold public discussions, allow protesters to make their case, for supporters to reaffirm their insistence on this reform, and to pass a new law. Don’t expect the media to come out with glowing editorials praising President Tsai’s leadership. Democracy is messy, and we have been watching a messy and aggravating process unfold for nearly a year. Moreover, we ended up with something of a compromise, and no one loves a compromise. Nonetheless, I suspect this is exactly how President Tsai thinks democracy should work.

Is marriage equality a cleavage?

May 12, 2017

Last week, my colleague Wu Yu-shan gave a stimulating talk about changes in political cleavage structures around the world. Most of the talk was about the rise of pre-material cleavages (ie: nationalism) in western industrial democracies, but he also had something to say about Taiwan. He believes that we are seeing the rise of materialist (ie: a left-right cleavage) and post-materialist (ie: marriage equality and environmentalism) cleavages in addition to the old nationalism cleavage. In Taiwan’s political science world, Wu is the major voice staking out this position. The opposite view, that national identity is still basically the only cleavage that matters, has most recently and forcefully been voiced by Chris Achen and T.Y. Wang in their forthcoming edited volume, The Taiwan Voter. It is hard to overstate the importance of this debate. Depending on whether you believe Taiwan has one or multiple important political cleavages, you might come to different conclusions on many of the most central questions facing Taiwan today. Does the KMT need to change its position on China, or is returning to the 1992 Consensus a viable option? Will the NPP be able to encroach on the DPP’s pool of voters? Will it be able to appeal to voters that the DPP cannot? Did the 2016 election mark a fundamental break with the past, or is it merely a deviance from a well-established pattern? Should President Tsai push for marriage equality? Why isn’t President Tsai aggressively pushing for admission to the United Nations under the name “Taiwan”? This question of one or many cleavages gets right to the heart of our understanding of how Taiwanese politics work.

During his talk, Wu presented a fascinating graph, taken from a story on Commonwealth Magazine’s website. In this post, I want to explore what we should and maybe should not learn from this graph.

CW UI ME plot.jpg

This graph plots legislators’ positions in the political space along two dimensions. The X axis is the Independence-Unification dimension (with independence on the left), while the Y axis is support or opposition to marriage equality (with support at the top).

I don’t understand exactly what the authors did to produce this graph, but I’ll do my best to explain the methodology. The authors looked at Facebook data from each legislator. They used the two party chairs as anchors, examining people who followed both the party chair and the legislator. (Note: I don’t understand exactly how they used these overlapping followers. However, they presented this part in detail, as if they believed it was the most important thing for us to know.) They examined the “likes” on various posts and put that data into a factor analysis model. The purpose of factor analysis is to condense many variables into a smaller number. If you start with n variables, the model calculates a matrix to multiply each variable by to produce n new variables that are completely uncorrelated to each other. However, these n variables are not equally useful. Some have a lot of explanatory power, while others have almost none. Typically, we throw all the variables that account for less than 1/n of the total variance in the data. They have kept two dimensions, though they did not report how much explanatory power each one had or how many variables cleared the 1/n threshold. The final challenge in factor analysis is naming the new variables. Remember, the algorithm has simply produced new variables that are orthogonal to each other; it doesn’t care what went into them. The researcher typically looks at the coefficients that were multiplied with the original variables and decides on a name. Factor analysis has the veneer of cold, objective data analysis, but interpreting it is actually highly subjective. At any rate, I’m going to assume that the authors made reasonable assumptions and inferences in handling the data. For example, I’m going to assume that the dimensions are appropriately labeled. I’m also going to mostly ignore the possibility that Facebook likes and followers don’t necessarily mirror a legislator’s own positions or even the preferences of that legislator’s constituents.

What are we supposed to see in this graph?

I suspect the first thing people will notice is the position of the two party chairs. Tsai Ing-wen is fairly distant from her party median on both dimensions. On the IU axis, she is in the center of the political spectrum. This looks reasonable; most of us think of her as a moderate on identity and nationalism. The Y axis suggests she is also a bit out of touch with the rest of her party on marriage equality. She is noticeably higher on the plot, suggesting she is a stronger supporter of marriage equality than the average DPP legislator. I think this also fits in with the conventional wisdom. There are a few DPP legislators who are more stridently in favor of marriage equality than Tsai, but there are also a lot of hesitant legislators terrified of angering their socially conservative constituents. So Tsai is moderate on China and somewhat progressive on marriage equality. Hung Hsiu-chu’s position is rather more surprising. Hung is widely known as an extremist on national identity questions. Yet here she is smack dab in the center of the KMT caucus. Further, she has made several statements that indicate she is more pro- marriage equality than the average KMT legislator, yet here she is, again, right in the middle of the KMT caucus. These data suggest that Hung Hsiu-chu is not an extremist. She is actually a nearly perfect representation of the average KMT legislator!

CW1.png

The second thing people might notice is how lonely Jason Hsu looks up at the top of the graph. He is the only KMT legislator firmly in the pro- marriage equality camp. Reporters love to interview him on this topic, and this gives the impression that there is a significant wing favoring marriage equality in the KMT. Nope. Not according to this plot.

CW2.png

Third, there is a relationship between the two dimensions. In the DPP, there seems to be a tradeoff. Extreme nationalists tend to be social conservatives, while social progressives tend to be moderate on identity. Why does someone choose to be in the DPP? It is one or the other. I don’t know why it isn’t both, but it doesn’t seem to work that way. The same relationship also exists to a lesser extent in the KMT. Social progressives are slightly more moderate on identity.

CW3.png

Fourth, the NPP is all located in roughly the same position (though Hsu Yung-ming is slightly less progressive and more nationalist than the other four). It is socially progressive but moderate on nationalism. I think this will surprise many people. The common perception is that the NPP is extreme on both dimensions. Here it simply looks like an extension of the progressive wing of the DPP.

CW4.png

I think those are the obvious things we are supposed to see. What are some of the less obvious things?

First, this is a two dimensional plot, giving the impression that there are two equally important cleavages in Taiwan. However, the second dimension isn’t necessary. A vertical line perfectly separates the blue and green camps.

CW5.png

The authors did not report the eigenvalues of the two factors, which indicate how much of the variance each factor accounts for. We don’t know that the second value was at least 1/n or that the first dimension wasn’t several times as powerful as the first. Maybe instead of a square box, this graph should have been flattened into a short and wide rectangle like this to give a better sense of the actual political space:

CW7.png

If you think about the plot this way, one of the takeaways is the extent to which the DPP has captured the middle ground and the KMT has been pushed back into the far right. I’ll bet the KMT held much more of the middle ground in 2008.

Second, look at that cluster of DPP legislators in the top half of the graph. Notice anything about them? How about if I list all the DPP legislators higher than the top KMT legislator (roughly from top down):

尤美女 You Mei-nu, party list

鄭麗君 Cheng Li-chun, party list

林靜儀 Lin Ching-yi, party list

蔡培慧 Tsai Pei-hui, party list

林淑芬 Lin Shu-fen, New Taipei 2

鍾孔炤 Chung Kung-chao, party list

段宜康 Tuan Yi-kang, party list

邱泰源 Chiu Tai-yuan, party list

吳焜裕 Wu Kun-yu, party list

陳曼麗 Chen Man-li, party list

Kolas Yotaka, party list

蔡英文 Tsai Ing-wen, president and party chair

余宛如 Yu Wan-ju, party list

何欣純 Ho Hsin-chun, Taichung 7

蘇嘉全 Su Chia-chuan, party list

施義芳 Shih Yi-fang, party list

徐國勇 Hsu Kuo-yung, party list

吳思瑤 Wu Si-yao, Taipei 1

That’s 14 party list legislators (of 22 total) and 3 district legislators (of 51). Lin Shu-fen is the only district legislator occupying a clearly pro- marriage equality position. This radically changes the way I look at this chart.

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For one thing, as the party chair, Tsai Ing-wen had the final say on the composition of the party list. She seems to have packed it with social progressives. So while she might be somewhat out of favor with gay rights activists for her current tepid stance, most of the strong voices in favor of gay rights in the legislature are there because she put them there.

From another point of view, if you only consider district legislators – the ones who actually go out and win votes – the DPP and the KMT don’t look all that different. The two big parties both cover roughly the same portion of the Y axis. The DPP may be slightly more progressive, but the difference isn’t all that great.

Ignoring the DPP list legislators also makes the NPP stand out. They now occupy a distinctive space on the political spectrum (assuming the second dimension is important). They are basically the only politicians who take a clear pro- marriage equality position before the voters.

One way to think about this is that elected politicians are socially conservative, and this social conservatism probably reflects a cold strategic judgement that full marriage equality is too radical for the electorate to swallow. A different way to think about it is that Lin Shu-fen, Huang Kuo-chang, Hung Tzu-yung, and Freddy Lim all won district elections while occupying this part of the political space, so maybe there wasn’t a marriage equality penalty in 2016. It certainly didn’t seem to hurt the other major politician in the top half of the chart, Tsai Ing-wen. It could be the case that (a) there are plenty of socially progressive voters, or (b) the second dimension simply doesn’t matter. Of course, it could also be the case that the cleavage simply hadn’t fully emerged in 2016.

Still, that vertical line perfectly dividing the space is a major problem for the idea that the second dimension matters. I’ll be more open to the idea when that line needs to be drawn at a 60 degree slope. To me, it looks as though there is still one dominant cleavage line in Taiwanese politics, and it isn’t marriage equality. However, this debate is far from settled.

Protests against pension reform

March 22, 2017

This morning I was downtown, and I walked by the legislature. There is a group of people opposed to the DPP’s proposed pension reform who have been protesting outside it for a few weeks now. They label themselves the 800 heroes, and have claimed that if President Tsai persists they will turn into 8000 or maybe even 80,000. However, when I walked by I think there may have been closer to 8 than 80, much less 800. Well, it was lunchtime, so maybe they were busy.

The legislature has beefed up security. The government clearly doesn’t want to allow another occupation of the legislature by protesters.

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Anyway, they have lots of signs and banners up identifying their members and stating their views. Let’s look at some of the photos.

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This one identifies them as members of various graduating classes from the military academy.

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Here they are complaining that their benefits that they were promised are being taken away. This is supposedly the heart of the controversy.

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This sign says they are both against unfair pension reform and “mobbing.” Does that mean that they don’t believe protesters should be allowed to affect public decisions? No? Maybe only the “good” protesters should be heard.

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“Pension reform; first change the ministers and legislators.” Actually, the Ma administration tried pension reform, but it went nowhere. So just over a year ago, we changed the the ministers and legislators. Public opinion doesn’t seem to be clamoring to change them again just yet.

The sign on the right says, “Oppose Tsai Ing-wen’s cultural revolution-style struggle.”

Wait, what?  Did I miss something? While I was looking the other way, did Tsai become tremendously charismatic, institute a cult of personality, mobilize mobs of students to hold a massive demonstration demanding that she sweep away the regular institutions of government and the conservative members of the DPP in order to impose a pension reform? Are those students organizing themselves into paramilitary bands, arresting opponents, and holding struggle sessions?  Did I miss that? Well, what exactly do they think happened in the Cultural Revolution? Do they really think it was about pension reform or getting a majority of votes in the national legislature?

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Um, maybe a good place to start would be by studying some Chinese history so you don’t make a fool of yourself when you invoke the Cultural Revolution.

Somehow, we don’t seem to be talking about pension reform any more.

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Is that what they mean by reviving Chinese culture? Institutionalizing inequality? Ok, maybe that little bit of snarkiness was unfair, but what the heck is this sign asking for? Every democratic constitution in the world sets out formal equality of all citizens as a fundamental principle. Opposing equality is like opposing families or prosperity; you aren’t going to get very far if that is your appeal.

I guess I’m just a bit confused by these protesters. Maybe they are revealing a bit too much about themselves.

Effort to recall Ker

November 30, 2016

Hey, there’s a bit of election news in Taiwan. As part of the current battle over marriage equality, there are efforts to recall DPP floor leader Ker Chien-ming 柯建銘.

[As an aside, I haven’t paid particularly close attention to Taiwanese politics over the past ten months. Rather, I have watched developments in Europe and America, often rapt in horror. We seem to be on the cusp of a fundamental shakeup in the international order, and, in my darkest nightmares, I worry that a democratic implosion is right around the corner. I’m not sure if it is reassuring or terrifying that Taiwan is preoccupied with “normal” political controversies, such as how to schedule vacation days, blissfully unconcerned that the rest of the world looks like it might be about to go up in flames. Is this oasis of calm one of the few sane spots in the world right now, or is it sticking its fingers in its ears and willfully ignoring the looming storm?]

The Taiwan Law Blog speculates that I do not support the efforts to recall Ker Chien-ming. That is correct, even though I support marriage equality. I explained my general dislike of recalls in the post the Taiwan Law Blog links to, and I stand by that reasoning. When the votes are counted, the election should stop. The battle over who occupies the seat should be settled until the next regularly scheduled election.

Recalls have a role, but they should only be used as a last-ditch resort when an elected official has fundamentally violated the implicit contract with the voters. I do not believe Ker Chien-ming has fundamentally violated his contract with his voters. When he ran, I do not remember him ever taking a public stance on marriage equality. His campaign was about representing the DPP and supporting Tsai Ing-wen’s agenda in the legislature. Marriage equality was merely one, very small part of that agenda. No matter what he does on this issue, it is hard to imagine it constituting a fundamental betrayal of his positions.

What do I think would be justifiable grounds to launch a recall? To give one example, I think South Korean President Park has fundamentally violated her contract with the voters. Massive corruption, allowing an unelected and unappointed spiritual advisor to make major decisions, and all the rest of it were clearly not what the Korean voters had in mind when they voted for her.

To go back to Ker’s case, since Ker’s central appeal was being a good party soldier, if he suddenly emerged as an intransigent opponent of Tsai’s agenda and plotted with the KMT to thwart her proposals, a recall would be justifiable. If we confine the hypothetical to the issue of marriage equality, if Ker had made support for marriage equality a central issue in his campaign but then had decided to throw his support behind a separate law that did not grant full equality, I think that would probably still be defensible and not justify a recall. After all, it is eminently defensible to compromise for 50% or 75% of your original goal. If he did all that, and then we further learned that he had accepted a massive bribe from an opponent of marriage equality to change his position, then a recall would probably be justified. In that case, Ker would have ignored his voters’ demands in favor of the briber’s demands. Ker’s current behavior is nowhere near these thresholds, and I hope the recall effort fizzles out.

The Taiwan Law Blog suggests that, instead of trying to recall Ker, perhaps marriage equality activists should campaign for him to lose his spot as the DPP party whip. I think he and many others are making the same mistake that President Ma made when he tried to purge Speaker Wang in 2013. They are imagining that the party floor leader is pursuing his own agenda.

In fact, what successful floor leaders do is to help the party rank-and-file get what they want. Sometimes, this means that the floor leader has to take some public heat in order to shield the backbenchers from criticism. In the American case, the classic example is from budgetary politics. A house member knows that a particular spending item should be cut but it is also very popular back home. The backbencher needs the speaker to arrange the agenda so that he can tell his voters that he fought hard to keep the item in the budget but he just couldn’t overcome opposition from everyone else. Sometimes, the legislator will even single out the speaker for criticism, and a good speaker understands what is happening and facilitates it. In 2013, President Ma blamed Speaker Wang for not pushing the Services Trade Agreement strongly enough. Ma should have realized that Wang was protecting KMT legislators who did not want to defend support for particular clauses to their voters.

In today’s case, Ker is probably protecting DPP legislators as well. Most DPP legislators have publicly come out in support of marriage equality, probably because they cannot afford to alienate progressive activists and voters. They certainly do not want to alienate young people. (Ask Hillary Clinton if alienating young voters has any costs.) However, Taiwanese society has hardly reached a consensus in support of marriage equality. The surveys I have seen suggest that support and opposition are about evenly split. I am a bit skeptical of these support levels. While elites and young people have mostly come to a consensus on gay marriage, I suspect the rest of society has not. To put it simply, I doubt that Taiwan has wrestled with this issue enough yet. To too many people, homosexuality is simply an idea rather than an everyday reality of many friends and family. There are still a lot of moms and dads my age or older who grew up with the unchallenged assumption that homosexuality was weird and/or wrong, and you can’t simply tell them that they have been prejudiced all their lives. They will need some time and a lot of discussion before they come around. Moving too quickly could cause a backlash, and I suspect that many DPP legislators intuitively grasp that not everyone in society is comfortable with rewriting the social rules just yet. If there were actually overwhelming support for marriage equality in the DPP caucus, Ker would make it happen quickly. He hasn’t been re-elected party whip time and time again because he ignores the rank-and-file’s wishes. If he is stalling or pushing some compromise package, it is almost certainly because they are asking him to do it. Moreover, like any good floor leader, he is taking the public criticism so that they won’t have to.

So what do I suggest for marriage equality activists? Ker Chien-ming is not your problem. Your problem is that you haven’t yet thoroughly sold Taiwanese society on the idea of marriage equality. To put it another way, the DPP caucus looks like it would like to change the law, but activists haven’t done enough work changing minds among ordinary voters to make DPP legislators feel comfortable taking this step. Rather than bullying or threatening Ker Chien-ming, activists should be focusing on broader society, explaining why marriage equality is a good idea that everyone can support. The good news is that the marriage equality side has good arguments and, with a lot of discussion and persuasion, should be able to produce a stronger consensus in society. When that happens, resistance in the legislature will melt away.

J. Wang’s press conference

December 9, 2015

Today KMT Vice Presidential candidate Jennifer Wang 王如玄 held a press conference to answer questions about her investments in military housing. The KMT’s new campaign manager, Jason Hu, insisted that she needed to take this problem seriously. However, my immediate reaction is that she has probably made things worse. In addition to admitting that she bought 12 units, not the 5 she previously stated, there were lots of places left for skeptics to question. Instead of providing full details on each transaction, she merely provided her annual wealth reports to the Control Yuan. Unfortunately, the “Sunshine Law” has been defanged so much that these reports barely reveal anything. They certainly do not list purchase or sale prices, so we have to take Wang’s word on how much profit she made on each transaction. Unfortunately for her, many people are no longer taking her word for anything. The talk shows are awash in people speculating about all the missing details.

 

However, the part of her statement that I want to focus on is about the principles, not the details. To me, this part might be more disturbing. Wang stated the following:

“[Over a decade ago,] I was a lawyer and, in the course of my duties, I met a real estate agent who raised the prospect of this type of investment. At the time, I felt that there was no legal problem, so I made several investments with the real estate agent. However, today after all this controversy, I have looked in detail at the underlying policy goals of the laws, and, ethically, I have let many people down. Actually, I am disappointed in myself. Truthfully speaking, I have failed this ethical test. In addition to apologizing for the controversies caused, after looking in depth at the relevant policy goals, I deeply apologize for buying military residences, an action that is not consistent with the ethical standards that people demand from a vice presidential candidate.”

Thus, according to Wang’s own statement, someone pitched her an idea and she implemented that idea without ever stopping to think about ethics. This is extremely troubling, since the essence of a politician’s job is precisely to make value judgments. Bureaucrats ask, “Can we?” Politicians ask, “Should we?” Voters choose politicians precisely to make subjective decisions that are in line with mainstream values. If Wang is not the kind of person in the habit of asking about whether something is good or bad, she probably should get out of politics.

 

Of course, I don’t believe for a minute that Wang has suddenly, after looking into the policy goals of military housing laws for the first time, discovered that she made an enormous ethical mistake. (I also don’t believe the bosses of Tinghsin and Volkswagen were sincerely sorry about their decisions. I believe they were sorry they got caught and sorry that the exposure of their misdeeds caused financial repercussions.) She knew exactly how the laws were written and how to exploit the loopholes. Am I supposed to believe that she is so oblivious that she never thought about the reason the five year lockout period existed? She wasn’t sorry a week ago, and she didn’t see any ethical problems. No, what happened is that lots of KMT voters became furious when they learned of her investments. It’s not just that she violated the spirit of the law; it’s also that many of them wonder if she exploited unsuspecting deep blue constituents. Deep blue voters think she has failed an ethical test, so she has to appease them lest they stay at home or cast their votes for one of the other parties in the blue camp. Maybe this (and her donation to charity) will satisfy them. However, I suspect this story won’t go away. Too many loose ends remain unaccounted for.

 

[Aside: Wang is relying heavily on her financial reports to the Control Yuan, even saying that if any errors were found she would be willing to accept all legal responsibility. Sounds great, doesn’t it. The problem is that there are no legal penalties for failing to report. By law, if someone points out an error in a report to the Control Yuan, the official has 30 days to correct the error. If the error is corrected within 30 days, there is no penalty. This is why politicians routinely report that they have no bank accounts, securities, or real estate. For example, Soong’s VP candidate Hsu Hsin-ying 徐欣瑩 (who sure seems to have a lot of financial power at her disposal) reported that only she owns a Toyota Corolla. The Sunshine Law is so useless now that It is up to the general public to point out specifically what she is hiding, and then she can simply fill in that item. So when Wang says she will face all legal responsibility, it sounds to me like a weasely lawyer’s statement designed to deceive the listener.]

Scenes from the Ministry of Education student protests

August 7, 2015

Two nights ago I went to the Ministry of Education to observe the students’ protests. It turned out that they would announce yesterday that they were ending their sit-in. The announcement wasn’t surprising to me since it looked like the protesters who were still there looked exhausted. The looming typhoon was a convenient face-saving device. I’m really sorry that I didn’t get out to the site earlier, while the protests were at their height.

Here are some pictures.

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This is the best shot I could get of the entire MoE courtyard. Note the stack of barbed wire bariers and the TV reporter in the foreground.

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There weren’t a lot of students left. These were playing music to keep their spirits up.

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Some students take a selfie. My gosh, they are so young.

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I like this guy’s jersey. I want him on my team.

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Outside the walls, these people were holding a petition drive about the KMT party assets.

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Vendors. The most popular items were anti-nuclear and sunflower paraphernalia. Surprisingly (to me), there was not much supporting the DPP or Tsai’s presidential campaign.

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Students relaxing over in the corner. By the second to last night, students were already in the minority. Most of the people there were older (like me) who had come to express support or see for themselves what was going on.

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When these girls saw I was taking pictures, they jumped up and posed for me with the list of their demands.

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The occupation of the courtyard was in its 143rd hour.

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A few banners to give an idea of what they want. Both of these demand retracting the black-box guidelines, which was the most basic theme.

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This one also stays on the theme of retracting the guidelines.

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We’ll print our own textbooks!

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However, many of the banners went far beyond the textbooks to talk about more basic themes.

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Restore Taiwan’s true history, refuse to become slaves to the invaders.

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There was a kiosk were people could write their own messages on post-it notes. I think this one from a student at Hsinchu Girls High School is particularly relevant to changing ideas of Taiwanese identity. “I am from Taiwan; I was born in Taiwan; I live in Taiwan; I am a Taiwanese; I only study Taiwan history.”

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“Those who don’t identify with this land; Chinese refugees; Go back to China”

This slogan sounds a lot like those from an earlier era, telling Mainlanders to go back to China. However, there is a critical difference. This one draws the line at subjective identity, not objective heritage.  It’s also a bit different from the previous student’s post-it message, which simply assumes that all people born, raised, and living in Taiwan are Taiwanese (and of course identify with Taiwan). Keep these various ideas in mind the next time you see that NCCU Election Study Center chart of the long term trends of Taiwanese/Chinese identity. There are lots of ideas floating around of what it means to be Taiwanese, and the changing notions of what it means to be Chinese might be even more complicated.

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Adults apologizing to children was another theme. Sorry that we weren’t brave enough to handle this problem.

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This one thanks rather than apologizes, but it’s the same general idea. Adults have failed, and the students have had to step into the void.

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The government keeps calling for an end to emotional methods and a return to rational discussion. This note says, “rational is not equal to passively watching from the sidelines.”

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In the 1992 USA presidential election, Bill Clinton famously reminded his campaign team not to overthink things and get distracted with minor problems with his slogan, “it’s the economy, stupid.” This note reminds demonstrators not to lose focus on the root problem: “it’s the KMT, stupid.”

 

China demands. Ko caves. Or does he?

August 5, 2015

Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je had a significant breakthrough in his efforts to deal with China this past week. There has been uncertainty over whether this year’s Taipei-Shanghai Forum would occur, since the PRC insists that all such interaction should occur under the One China framework. As One China is decidedly at odds with mainstream public opinion in Taiwan, Ko has resisted China’s demands for a “friendly gesture.” However, this past weekend the deputy mayor of Shanghai visited, and the two city governments reached an agreement that the forum would be held and Ko would travel to Shanghai to take part. What kind of “friendly gesture” did Ko commit himself to that the PRC found acceptable enough to green light the event?

Ko did not “accept” the 92 Consensus. Instead, he stated that he “respects” (zunzhong, 尊重) and “understands” (liaojie, 了解) the 92 Consensus. However, he stressed that his core position was laid out in the 2015 New Perspective, which he explained at a press conference with PRC media on March 30. At that time, he stated that he would respect the agreements that had already been signed as well as the history of interaction, and on this political foundation, he would proceed according to the principals of mutual recognition*, mutual understanding, mutual respect, and mutual cooperation, all the while maintaining the spirit of “one extended family on both sides of the straits.” 他當時 提出兩岸關係「一五新觀點」,表示願尊重兩岸過去已經簽署的協議和互動的歷史,並在既有的政治基礎上,以「互相認識、互相了解、互相尊重、互相合作」的原則,並秉持「兩岸一家親」的精神。

(* This “recognition” (renshi, 認識) is closer to understanding or knowing than the term used for formal diplomatic recognition (chengren, 承認) of states.)

What does all this diplomatic gobbledygook mean? Unfortunately, I’m not a diplomat, and I don’t speak fluent diplomatese. So keep in mind that I might be missing something.

Let’s start with the part about the 92 Consensus. Ko respects and understands it. “Understand” is useless word. It does not constrain him in any way. “Respect” is trickier. I’ve asked a few people what this means, and it also doesn’t seem to have a clear meaning. That is, respecting something could be as meaningless as taking note of it. It does not seem to indicate that Ko is promising to adhere to or be constrained by the 92 Consensus. In other words, as I understand it, the whole statement that Ko respects and understands the 92 Consensus is completely empty. It sounds good, but it doesn’t actually mean anything.

If the first statement is empty, the 2015 New Perspective must be the critical part. All of those “mutual” statements are fairly meaningless. They simply say that the two sides will act civilly toward each other. They certainly don’t imply anything about One China. The final statement, about being one big family, has a tiny bit of content, since stanch Taiwan nationalists won’t admit to being part of the Chinese family in any sense. However, this statement is also full of ambiguity, since it is easily dismissed as something about common origins hundreds of years ago or similar cultural heritages. Again, this all sounds good, but when you look closely, it is mostly hot air.
That leaves the part about respecting the existing political foundation of agreements that have already been signed and of the history of interaction. Finally, here is something more concrete: Ko respects the status quo. What is that status quo? Well, it includes all those negotiations in which the ROC insisted (in varying degrees of diplomatic vagueness) on its version of One China as well as on the ROC’s right to exist (and its right to sign agreements). In other words, if you really want to find One China in that blob of historical interaction, you can. However, you can also find plenty of support for a sovereign, independent ROC in that same blob. It is ambiguous and flexible, as long as both sides are willing to let it be ambiguous and flexible.

Does this sound familiar? To me, this is strikingly similar to Tsai Ing-wen’s statement that she will maintain the status quo by respecting the existing constitutional order, including all the cross-straits agreements that have previously been signed. What does that mean? Again, it can mean lots of things. If you want to look narrowly at the ROC constitution, it is a document originally written in China in a time when One China was not in dispute at all. Or, you can focus on the fact that the 23 million people in Taiwan have exercised sovereignty for over six decades, doing things like collecting taxes, educating children, electing presidents, and amending the constitution.
The PRC sent out signals that Tsai’s position was not acceptable since she has not accepted One China. However, they seem to be willing to work with Ko Wen-je, who seems (to me) to be taking almost exactly the same position as Tsai. It might be different because Ko is a mayor in local government, or I might be missing something important buried in those statements. Still, this might be an indication that the PRC, however reluctantly, will engage with the Tsai administration rather than simply try to isolate it.

I have to admit that when I saw that the Taipei-Shanghai Forum was back on track, I expected that Ko would have made some important gesture. The news reports seemed clear that China was making this a precondition, and Ko had suggested that the Forum was in danger of being cancelled because he was unwilling to budge. The various headlines also led me to believe that Ko had, in fact, changed his position. However, as I read through the details, I was surprised to find that I could not find any significant shifts. Ko spurted out a lot of wonderful sounding bullshit phrases without ever saying anything substantive, and that turned out to be sufficient for China. I had not expected that Ko would be able to use ambiguity so deftly. My estimation of his political skills just went up considerably.

While this could be a signal of how China will deal with a future Tsai administration, it could also be that they are attempting to cultivate Ko as an alternate conduit to Taiwan. That is, rather than legitimizing Tsai’s administration and cross-straits policy by dealing with the central government, they might have decided that it is better to deal with the Taipei mayor. They might even try to build him up to become a rival to Tsai. However, to do this, they have had to accept his position, with only the fig leaf of a few pleasant sounding but meaningless platitudes. To put it another way, they weren’t able to move him toward the blue camp. If they are cultivating him, they are building up a person who has not made any public commitments toward their preferred position.