Archive for the ‘China’ Category

the state of (out of date) public opinion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.

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.

Ma on independence

May 9, 2015

President Ma has come out swinging over the past few days. Two statements are particularly interesting.

First, Ma noted that Tsai Ing-wen claims she will maintain the status quo. Ma demanded to know if she wants the status quo from seven years ago or the status quo from today, seven years later. This is a brilliant trap question, like asking a man whether he has stopped beating his wife. No matter which way she answers, Tsai is backed into a corner. If she were to answer that she wants today’s status quo (her current position), she has to acknowledge that Ma’s seven years of governing have produced something worth keeping, that ECFA has produced benefits, and that the 92 Consensus has been useful. If she answers that the status quo from seven years ago was better (not her position), she will look like someone trying to live in the past and she will threaten everyone with interests in China. Tsai will ignore the question and insist simply that she wants to maintain the status quo. However, I expect to hear this question a few more times over the next eight months.

Second, Ma responded to criticism that One China was currying favor with China by arguing that One China is grounded in the constitution. Ma proclaimed, “This is delineated in the Republic of China’s constitution. How can our constitution permit two Chinas? How can it permit one China, one Taiwan? How can it permit Taiwan independence?”

Perhaps we should allow 2006 Ma Ying-jeou to rebut 2015 Ma Ying-jeou. In 2006, when KMT Chairman Ma was preparing to run for president, the KMT placed an ad in the Liberty Times stating that independence was a legal choice for Taiwan. Ma clarified that the KMT certainly did not support independence, but it did see independence as a possible choice, albeit a lousy one. As a democracy, Taiwan’s citizens certainly had that option. At the time, this was a major step for Ma and the KMT, and it was fairly controversial within the party.

Apparently 2015 Ma Ying-jeou no longer believes that Taiwan independence is a legal option. None of the relevant parts of the constitution have changed since then, but Ma seems now to believe that Taiwan independence is unconstitutional. Taken to the logical extreme, the government should revert back to Premier Hau Pei-tsun’s suggestion for how to deal with advocates of Taiwan independence: Arrest them all.

What Ma (and everyone in Taiwan) has to decide is what the essence of the constitution is. Is the most important point that the country is China, or is the most important point that the country is a democracy? Is it a nationalist constitution, or is it a democratic constitution? If it is a democratic constitution, the citizens of the state have the fundamental right to determine the nature of the state. If they become dissatisfied with the nature of the state, they have the right to change it. If the nature of the state is set in stone and the citizens of the state are not allowed to change it, it isn’t a democracy.

Israel can either be a Jewish state, or it can be a democracy. In the short run, it might be able to remain a Jewish democratic state, but if the population changes preferences, it will have to decide. In the USA, there are many who argue that the USA is a Christian state. Again, it can be a Christian state or a democracy, but it can’t be both. Iran has confronted this head on. It is an Islamic state, specifically one that gives special status to one sect of Shiites; democracy has clear limits. Thailand also seems to have confronted the fundamental choice it faces between democracy and monarchy and opted for monarchy.

In Taiwan, most people believe that the fundamental division is between a Chinese identity and a Taiwanese identity. I wonder if the real battle for Taiwan’s soul is actually nationalism against democracy.

Chu’s China Trip

May 9, 2015

Eric Chu’s trip to China for the KMT-CPP forum is now over, and Chu has completed his first event in the international spotlight. How did it go? From where I sit, it went pretty badly.

First, the optimistic assessment. Chu’s main message to China was that the KMT under his leadership will continue business as usual. Chu promised not only to continue to respect the 92 Consensus, but even to deepen it. He went out of his way to show respect for the CCP’s sensibilities by not stating the “each side with its own interpretations” part to their faces, and even when he needed to say “Republic of China” for domestic consumption he found a way to do that that the CCP leaders wouldn’t object to. He further stated that the two sides “both belong to One China” 兩岸同屬一中, a formulation that the Ma administration had previously rejected. In short, Chu presented himself as someone the PRC can work with. That will reassure the PRC, some people in Washington, some in Taiwan’s business community, and most in the KMT’s deep blue wing.

Now, the negative assessment. Reread the above paragraph.

The most important job of any party leader in a democracy is to win elections. Power is the top priority. I’m not convinced that Chu’s trip helped the KMT in winning votes next January. The current Ma government is deeply unpopular, and the 2014 elections and data from public opinion polls seem to indicate that the electorate does not want another term of the same old policies. It isn’t clear exactly how much change the electorate demands, but it does seem clear that the KMT needs to offer some sort of change from current policies.

The 92 Consensus, in particular, is living on borrowed time. It is under attack from both sides. China doesn’t seem satisfied with continuing the status quo indefinitely. Several Chinese leaders have made statements about needing to move forward with political integration. KMT presidential aspirant Hung Hsiu-chu has echoed this, saying the 92 Consensus has performed its historical transitional role, and now it is time to move forward and sign a peace agreement. In other words, the unification forces are just about ready to throw away the “each side with its own interpretation” clause. The Taiwan-First side is also just about ready to ditch the 92 Consensus. The usefulness of the 92 Consensus stemmed from its ambiguity. The PRC has suffocated it by squeezing the life out of the “each side with its own interpretation” clause and by refusing any international space for the ROC. If all that is left is One China and the PRC, it becomes harder and harder for people who think Taiwan is a sovereign country – the large majority of the electorate – to see any space for them within the 92 Consensus. Big business still supports the 92 Consensus, but the rest of the coalition is shrinking fast.

I didn’t really expect Chu to reject the 92 Consensus, but I thought he might play to public opinion and try to differentiate his position from Ma’s. After all, the classic KMT electoral strategy is to talk about being Taiwanese, placing Taiwan first, and affirming that the ROC is an independent, sovereign state. Chu’s public image is still not yet fully formed, and he had an opportunity to position himself closer to the median voter. Instead, Chu doubled down on Ma’s position. He effectively told the electorate that he would continue Ma’s strategy of incrementally moving closer and closer to China and unification. Predictably, KMT mouthpieces complained that the green media was painting him red. Actually, the green media didn’t need to smear him. Chu went out of his way to ensure we all know that he is firmly in the pro-unification slice of the spectrum.

By deciding to attend the forum personally, Chu also signaled that he doesn’t see anything wrong with the party-to-party model of cross-strait affairs. If the KMT controls the government, it can use government channels to arrange policy. If the KMT loses control of the executive branch, it will revert to party-to-party channels to try to control Taiwan’s interactions with China. Unless I’m reading public opinion incorrectly, this is not a winning political position. The public is in favor of cross-strait exchanges, but it wants politics and negotiations to be done on a government-to-government basis. I don’t think Chu’s smug and condescending question of why the DPP didn’t have its own forum with the CCP resonated as well with the general public as he thought it would. Chu apparently doesn’t see anything wrong with undermining his own country’s government to collaborate with another country’s rulers. This, of course, is what One China means. The KMT and CCP are both from the same country, so there is no question of undermining the country.

Perhaps it was inevitable that Chu would toe the party line on the 92 Consensus. However, he could have easily differentiated himself from Ma by calling for policies that would help ordinary wage earners. Instead, he asked the PRC for cooperation on exactly the same things that the Ma administration wants. He asked for Taiwan to join the AIIB and to participate in China’s regional economic cooperation program (RCEP). Laissez-faire economists often argue that more trade and economic grown will trickle down to ordinary people, and the KMT also generally takes this stance. However, the Taiwanese public is increasing rejecting the idea that cross-strait economic integration has been good for everyone. Widening income inequality certainly seems to indicate that the gains have been monopolized by a small minority while the broader public shoulders the costs. Who would benefit from Taiwan’s participation in the AIIB and a trading block run under Chinese rules? Probably the same big corporations that benefitted from earlier rounds of integration into the Chinese economy. In other words, Chu is doubling down on Ma’s economic strategy, and he is forgoing the opportunity to try to appeal to wage-earning sectors of the voting public.

The American in me thought that Chu looked like a leader. He was energetic, friendly, and spoke eloquently without a script. This was in marked contrast to the other side of the table, which seemed dull and lifeless. However, the voice in my head that pretends to understand Chinese political stagecraft laughed at my inner American’s naiveté. Chu was overeager, a younger smiling too broadly and showing his desperation for the older man’s approval. Xi showed his dominance by giving only the faintest of smiles in the official photo. Xi read his remarks from a script without much emotion, as if this were just another – relatively unimportant – event in his busy schedule. Yesterday while I was driving home, a talk show host (on a deep blue radio station) lambasted Chu for introducing his team one by one in the reception line, as if he were presenting a group of schoolchildren to the principal for a pat on the head. Chu simply didn’t seem to have the gravitas of people like Lien Chan.

Overall, my overall impression of Chu from this visit is that he’s still not quite ready for the big stage. He didn’t take the opportunity to present any sort of independent image or vision. He seemed content to not offend anyone and to reassure everyone that he would continue Ma’s policies. Most of all, he didn’t seem to understand that he was talking to people at home as much as he was talking to Beijing leaders. His “ROC” moment was particularly instructive. Green voices always complain that blue people only talk about the ROC at home. When they go to China, suddenly they are afraid to say anything about the ROC. Chu decided that he would take this talking point away by directing saying the term “ROC” to Xi Jinping’s face. Of course, he didn’t want to offend Xi, so what he did was to say something about “back when Sun Yat-sen established the ROC…” Of course, the ROC that existed during Sun Yat-sen’s time is not controversial at all. Apparently Chu thought that Taiwanese wouldn’t be able to see through this ruse, and DPP politicians would no longer be able to claim he didn’t dare talk about the ROC in China. Maybe he thought no one was watching the 24 hour news channels? In fact, now he simply opens himself to ridicule, and DPP attack dogs will be even more likely to bring up the topic.

I guess I should remind myself that Chu hasn’t exactly had good training for national leadership. He was a professor of accounting, a one-term legislator, and head of a local government for 12 years. His one stint in upper-level national politics was a very short eight-month stint as Vice Premier, during which he wasn’t exactly the public face of the government and may not have been included in President Ma’s strategy sessions on how to deal with China and manage the economy. In high politics, Chu is a greenhorn.

Of course, we shouldn’t overstate the impact of Chu’s performance. Within the KMT, he is still the most popular figure and the overwhelming preference for the presidential race. Now that he has come back and the deadline for deciding the presidential candidate is fast approaching, the KMT is putting the pressure on him to run. We are now in full flattery mode. “Only you can save the party from disaster.” “You are our only hope.” “We nurtured your career; you have no right to avoid a fight when the party needs you.” In 2010, Tsai Ing-wen found it impossible to resist her party’s pressure to run, even though it was pretty clear she would have preferred to sit out the race. My impression is that Chu was sincere in planning not to run, but I’m not sure he will be able to resist the pressure coming from almost all corners of his party.

If Chu does end up as the KMT’s candidate, the KMT-CCP forum will be even more awkward. It will appear as though he went to Beijing to inform Xi he was running, or, worse, to get Xi’s blessing. The forum and the presidential nomination are temporally so close that it is nearly impossible not to draw a connection in your mind. This is not helping Chu’s case with the general electorate. It didn’t have to be this way. If Chu was going to be the candidate, he probably should have sent someone else to Beijing to meet with Xi. At the very least, he could have changed the date of one of the events. Hey, he’s the party chair. He could have decided that the forum should be a month earlier or the nomination registration deadline would be moved back to June. If it looks like Chu went to China to get Xi’s imperial approval of his presidential bid, it’s his own damn fault. He shouldn’t blame the media for painting him red when he arranges events in this way.

[Of course, I could be wrong. I’m still waiting for a post-trip opinion poll to be published.]

The 92 Consensus in 1992

May 5, 2015

I’m pretty fed up with claims that the 92 Consensus is historically based and claims that it is a fiction invented a decade later. Personally, I think the important point is that the KMT and CCP have found an idea they can agree on; whether or not it is based on something that happened in 1992 is not that critical. They could call it the “Super Awesome Neato Arrangement Sponsored by Samsung and Coca-Cola” for all I care. Diplomatic-speak makes me yearn for the relatively straightforward and honest rhetoric of election campaigns.

Still, I thought it was about time I went back and looked at newspaper reports from 1992 to try to sort out what was said. I could have just read the Wiki page which basically covers all the main points, but instead I dove into old United Daily News stories. Here are a few of the important ones:

海峽兩會對「一個中國」問題無共識
文書查證協商告中挫
【記者何振忠香港卅日電】
經過延長半天的討論,海基會與海協會的文書查證協商仍然無法對「一個中國」問題達成共識,協商再告中挫。

海基會提出新的方案建議,界定為「屬於兩岸中國人的事務」,但並未獲得海協會的同意。雙方約定以適當方式聯絡,再行磋商。

儘管海協會主談代表周寧數度宣稱已經結束廿八日、十九日兩天的「工作性商談」,但兩會今天下午仍在海基會人員下榻的港麗酒店延長會商。海基會在此首次提出我方對「一個中國」原則的表述方式:「事務性協商應屬於兩岸中國人的事務」,但並未獲對方同意。

(記者白富美─台北)

行政院陸委會副主任委員馬英九昨(卅)日指出,政府已充分授權海基會就兩岸文書驗証與大陸海協會進行協商,希望雙方可以在這次的香港會談中完成草簽,同時海基會和海協會的人員可以繼續留在香港就「辜汪會談」展開磋商預備會議,以便辜汪會談可以儘快舉行。

【1992-10-31/經濟日報/02版/要聞】

In this story, the two sides have not reached any consensus on One China. The ROC side has tried to avoid the question by suggesting that “negotiations on practical matters are a matter for Chinese people on both sides,” but the PRC side rejected this. At this point, they are both still insisting that there is One China, and that One China can only be represented by their own government.

海協會同意口頭表述「一個中國」
我方協商代表許惠祐 將再停留香港等候回覆
【記者何振忠╱台北報導】
兩岸文書查證協商出現突破性發展。大陸海協會昨天以電話通如及透過通訊社發佈新聞表示,該會決定尊重並接受海基會的建議,同意以口頭聲明方式處理表述「一個中國」原則的問題:至於表述內容,將再另行協商。

海協會副秘書長孫亞夫昨天上午大約十點半左右以電話通知海基會秘書長陳榮傑,告知海協會經過研究之後,決定尊重並接受海基會的建議,以口頭聲明方式表述「一個中國」的原則;至於具體表述內容,將再協商而定。這項新的發展,昨天傍晚並透過新華社及中新社發佈新聞。

海協會這項決定可說是作了一個關鍵性的讓步,使陷於僵局的文書查證協商,再度出現轉圜的機會。海基會在獲得這項訊息後,立即告知陸委會等有關單位,陸委會高層在經過短時間協商後,仍決定依前晚確定的原則,去函海協會表明我方希望在草簽協議後,立刻續談辜汪會談預備性磋商的立場。據瞭解,海基會曾以電話向海協會表明,希望能在今天上午十點以前,也就是許惠祐等人返台之前,獲得答覆。

兩岸文書查證協商之所以遲遲無法突破,就在於中共方面始終堅持要把「一個中國」原則納入協議文字當中。

但是,口頭表述究竟是雙方共同說一套表述內容,或是雙方各以自己的表述內容「各說各話」,海協會昨天並未明確答覆。這一點將是雙方未來協商的關鍵所在。

根據研判,中共方面在「一個中國」問題上作此妥協,在接下來的協商地點上,可能會堅持在北京或台灣進行會商。至於我方是否接受,有待進一步觀察。

記者何振忠/台北報導

海協會昨天表示願意接受以口頭聲明方式表達「一個中國」的原則,陸委會與海協會連夜會商決定,責成我方代表許惠祐等人在香港多停留一至兩天,希望海協會在五日中午以前作成決定回覆我方。同時,海基會發表聲明指出,口頭聲明的具體內容,我方將根據國統綱領及國統會今年八月一日對「一個中國」涵義所作決議,加以表達。

惟據瞭解,海協會同意再度南下香港協商的可能性極低。

【1992-11-04/聯合報/01版/要聞】

This is the critical report, since this is the compromise the 92 Consensus is supposedly based on. On November 3, the SEF proposed that the two sides would each orally state the One China principle, and ARATS agreed to this procedure. As to the content of what each side would say, they would continue to negotiate.

In other words, the two sides did not come to any consensus about One China at this point. The agreement was simply to avoid the topic by not writing anything down. Both sides (presumably) continued to insist on their previous position, and both sides could continue to insist that the precondition of the meeting was met because they had stated their version of One China and the other side had not walked out or registered a formal objection. Since there would be no written record, there was no way to prove that the other side did not accept their version.

This is quite different from the 92 Consensus, in which the two sides actually agreed to the wording of “One China, Each side with its own interpretation.” (Even if China never states the second half of the 92 Consensus, it also does not openly object that the second half does not exist.) In the 1992 bargain, there was no actual agreement on content, and the PRC did not (even tacitly) admit that any other legitimate interpretations might exist. That agreement simply allowed the two sides to sidestep the One China question and move on to practical matters.

The 92 Consensus is seen as a framework that allows the two sides to negotiate on other matters without worrying about One China at every step. The 1992 agreement did not achieve that, as this story from Nov. 18, 1992 suggests:

「一個中國」兩岸表述有異 雙方漏列「和平統一」問題
若先解決事務性問題 有助打破不接觸僵局
【丘宏達】
中共對台各種聲明或說明中,一再說任何事只要坐下來談就可以解決,但我方真正派人去談的時候,卻又提出一些所謂「原則」問題,使談判無法進行。海基會成立以後,派人去了大陸多次,但一件事都談不成,因為中共突然提出要先解決「一個中國原則」問題,這就將問題複雜化。由於中共一再主張「一個中國」就是「中華人民共和國」,台灣包括在內。海基會一則無權討論這種政治性極高的問題,二則我方政府也不可能給千這種授權,因為這牽涉到變更國體,而必須由國民大會通過才行。

【1992-11-18/聯合報/02版/焦點新聞】

Here, Taiwan’s government complains that China says they are willing to talk about anything, but as soon as Taiwan sends negotiators, China always bogs things down by insisting that they should talk about One China first.

I couldn’t find any UDN stories about exactly what happened with regard to One China in the Koo-Wang meeting in Singapore on April 27, 1993. However, about a week later, Premier Lien Chan stated that the government’s position had not been changed at all because of the summit. (Just to bewilder future readers, Lien also complained that the mainland had “malicious intent” 敵意 toward Taiwan and hadn’t renounce the right to use force. Also Huang Kun-hui 黃昆輝 was then head of MAC and nominally committed to unification. Today, he is head of the TSU and not so much in favor of the same position. His deputy was Ma Ying-jeou. I wonder how tense their working relations were.)

連戰重申‘一個中國’立場
答覆立委質詢指中國分裂狀態是無法視而不見的事實
【記者馬道容/台北報導】
行政院長連戰上午在立法院指出,「辜、汪會談」不會影響政府「一個中國」的立場,一個中國是所有中國人共同的理念,目前中國處於分裂狀態是不容忽視的事實,未來政府將站在對等、分裂、分治的基礎上持續發展兩岸關係。

連 戰上午答復立委呂秀蓮質詢時做以上表示。連戰說,大家必須以務實的角度討論中國的前途問題。中共這個強大而有敵意的政權,不僅要貶抑我為地方政府,且無視 於我國在國際間應享的國際地位,更不肯正面明確表示,願意放棄以武力犯台。連戰強調,今日中國處於分裂狀態是無法「視而不見」的事實,這是中共與我方都必 須面對的事實。立委呂秀蓮上午針對「辜、汪會談」後的兩岸關係與我國重返聯合國等問題向行政院提出質詢。呂秀蓮說,「辜、汪會談」之後,一個中國的神話已經被打破,演變成在台灣的中華民國,在北京的中華人民共和國,還有一個兩岸要統一建立虛幻的中國,形成「3個中國」的新局面。

記者陳敏鳳/台北報導

陸委會主委黃昆輝上午表示,整個辜、汪會談的利弊得失仍在作評估中,但至少有兩項優點,一是創造兩岸兩會和平理性對等、互惠原則、開創先例,二是完成陸委會指定的任務。

黃昆輝是在立法院答復立委呂秀蓮質詢有關行政院對辜、汪會談的利弊評估時作上述表示。

【1993-05-04/聯合晚報/03版/話題新聞】

Overall, the claim that there was a consensus in 1992 is misleading. There was an agreement to avoid the topic, but the “each side with its own interpretation” was more a statement of behavior than of content. I can see why the KMT today feels comfortable in tracing the 92 Consensus to 1992, since it is roughly a description of what happened. That is, each side actually gave its own interpretation, the other side pretended not to hear it, and no one wrote anything down. However, they never actually agreed on “One China, each side with its own interpretation.” After the meeting, the ROC government didn’t seem to think it had changed its policy, and China felt the need to continually raise the One China question because it did not seem to feel that a consensus existed.

LY considers restrictions on MAC

January 13, 2014

On Friday, something quite important may have happened.  At the legislature, party leaders agreed to put a fascinating item on the agenda for Tuesday.  The DPP and TSU will introduce a resolution limiting what Mainland Affairs Council Minister Wang Yu-chi can say or do at his upcoming meeting with Chinese counterparts.  Of course, the DPP and TSU don’t have the power to control the agenda.  Critically, the KMT party leaders and Speaker Wang also agreed to let this resolution come before the floor.  The details of the resolution can be found in this story, and, if you read Chinese, these two stories from the front pages of yesterday’s and today’s Liberty Times are a bit more detailed.

The Taipei Times story is on the bottom of page 3, and the United Daily News and China Times buried this story even further back.  They might be correct.  After all, it is quite possible that Tuesday’s legislative business will go unexpectedly slowly and this resolution will never make it off the calendar.  However, I think the Liberty Times’ front page treatment is probably appropriate, and not just because it meshes with their ideological preferences.  This story might be significant in several ways.

First, this resolution is a clear signal to cross-strait negotiators (on both sides) not to expect any major breakthroughs.  The elected politicians are telling the negotiators not to go too far.  They are also telling China not to bother pressing Taiwan for too much at this time.  Even if Minister Wang publicly supports something that China wants, such as the One China framework, they have been publicly notified that this position will be repudiated by the legislature as soon as he gets back.  It might be wiser to wait for another day than to force Taiwan to openly disavow a position.  This direct effect on cross-straits talks is probably the most important angle to the story.  To me, however, it is the least interesting.

Second, this resolution might reflect an adjustment in the relations between the executive and legislative branches.  In a sense, this is an effort to wrest control of a vital policy area away from the executive branch.  Before, the president had been in charge of deciding how fast relations with China could develop.  The legislature has just asserted its prerogative by setting the outer limits of what is acceptable.  That is, they are suggesting that the executive branch can take care of the little details, but the broad vision shall be determined by the legislature.

The closest parallel I can think of comes from American politics.  In the early 1970s, the Vietnam War was increasingly unpopular, and then Nixon ordered a major bombing campaign into Laos and Cambodia.  Congress was fed up with the president’s unilateral use of the American military and passed the War Powers Resolution of 1973, putting limits on the president’s power to use military force.  Congress argued that the US constitution gave them the right to declare war, so the president should not be able to have undeclared wars.  Every president since 1973 has replied that the resolution is unconstitutional, since it inhibits a president’s power to act as commander in chief.  The important point for us is that the power to use the American military had always been considered as one of the major pillars of presidential power.  In 1973, the legislature tried to pry some of that power away from the executive branch by asserting that they, not the president, had the right to determine the broad outlines (which major military conflicts the US would be involved in) of that area of power.  The current resolution in Taiwan is not quite so dramatic.  For one thing, the proposal is for a specific context, not for a general new law.  The resolution will only apply to this visit by Minister Wang.  It does not apply to other delegations that might negotiate in other places or times.  Even so, if the legislature passes the resolution next week, it will be asserting both some very concrete limits for Wang’s upcoming trip AND a more general right to set such limits whenever it sees fit.  I expect that the Ma administration will make at least a minor statement rejecting the legislature’s right to determine the basic course of cross-strait relations.

Third, this story lifts the covers just a little and gives a peek at the KMT’s intense intra-party conflagration.  The war between Ma and Wang is still running hot, even if it isn’t on the front pages these days.  Ma is still pursuing the court case, and there is a good chance that Wang won’t be able to finish out this term.  One of the main complaints from the Ma side about Wang is that he uses inter-party negotiations to get everything he wants.  Here again, the item was put on the agenda in inter-party negotiations, chaired by Wang.  In the Liberty Times stories, Wang says clearly that the KMT reps didn’t want to sign on to the original proposal.  It was only after some give and take that they agreed.  If you read between the lines just a little bit, you can see a resolution that Wang could have easily killed, had he so wished.  Instead, he kept the negotiations alive, cajoled the various sides to give a bit, and produced an agreement that President Ma will absolutely hate.  Wang may genuinely have different preferences than Ma, but it probably didn’t hurt that Ma is trying to politically assassinate him and that this resolution will place humiliating and potentially significant limitations on Ma’s executive branch.

Beyond the feud between Ma and Wang, this also exposes a rift between Ma and the overall KMT legislative caucus.  Putting these preemptive restrictions on Minister Wang basically equates to an admission by the KMT legislative caucus that it doesn’t trust him.  You rarely hear of this sort of thing, except in divided government.  The back channels of communication must not be working very well if the KMT caucus feels it has to send a public message.  President Ma and Minister Wang will hear the message, but so will all the voters.  One part of the KMT is telling the voters that there is a possibility that another part of the party might do something crazy and they are taking steps to ensure that doesn’t happen.  Unified parties don’t do things like this because that telling voters that powerful people in your party are irresponsible is a good way to lose elections.

I’m increasingly persuaded by the argument that Ma is driven by his historical legacy.  To use a more provocative phrase, Ma might have Nobel Fever.  If he does, he will want to do big things with China before he leaves office.  Rather than waiting for the time to be ripe, he needs to act now in the two years he has left.  He can probably already see the shadow of the lame duck creeping up on him, so he has no time to waste.  The rest of the party has a much longer timeline on China.  Their immediate priority is electoral.  They need to cozy back up to public opinion before this year’s elections, and the public is not clamoring for dramatic new agreements with China right now.  This puts Ma at odds with the mainstream of his party, and it seems that the mainstream might be taking precautions to prevent him from pursuing his goals at the expense of theirs.

The resolution might never reach the floor, though if it does I think it will pass.  There are a few extremist legislators who won’t mind going on record as wanting to allow Minister Wang (and the whole ROC government) to support One China or One Country, Two Regions.  However, most will be want to be closer to the median voter.  If they have to vote, they’ll vote for the resolution.  Even if Ma’s allies can mobilize enough support to keep the resolution off the floor, just by putting this item on the agenda the KMT caucus has sent a warning shot to the administration.

the open revolving door

January 6, 2014

I’m very worried about the abuses that can occur when ROC officials who negotiate with China also do business in China.  There is a clear motive and opportunity for China to give them special treatment in business dealings in exchange for agreeing to more favorable regulations on cross-straits activities.  An excellent article in the Liberty Times points out that Taiwan facilitates such corruption by not extending the normal revolving door provisions to officials in the Straits Exchange Foundation.  Most officials are prohibited from engaging in business in industries regulated by their ministry for three years after leaving their post.  Since SEF officials are already technically retired, the government’s position is that there is no need to worry about their next jobs.  Of course, this is ludicrous.  SEF officials are not actually retired; they are actively on the job.  However, the more important effect is that since the revolving door provision doesn’t extend to the SEF, it also does not extend to the family members of SEF officials.  Well, that couldn’t possibly lead to anything improper, could it?

support for independence, unification, and the status quo

December 31, 2013

The front page headline of the Taipei Times has an incendiary headline today.  In bold type, it screams, “Independence beats ‘status quo’ in poll.”  This headline is a lie.  Independence did not beat status quo in any meaningful sense.  I assume the headline reflects incompetence by the reporter and headline writer and not willful manipulation.  However, this sort of irresponsible journalism serves only to discredit the Taipei Times’ reputation.

Putting aside the misleading reporting, there actually is an interesting story to tell.  In fact, a more honest accounting of public opinion leads us to nearly the same conclusion that the Taipei Times’ fabrication wants us to reach.

The Taipei Times story is based on an unpublished DPP survey that another media outlet obtained and published.  Without asking anything about the methodology, the Taipei Times gleefully informed us that the poll showed 60.2% in favor of independence, 23.4% in favor of unification, and only 8.7% in favor of the status quo.  (They then furthered the impression of incompetence by asking a professor of medicine to give an expert opinion on the results.  One wonders which part of his medical school training covered public opinion survey methodology.)  Years and years of data from a variety of different survey organizations have consistently shown that status quo beats both independence and unification by large margins.  Suddenly, we are supposed to believe that society has violently shifted and half the population has suddenly changed its mind on the single most important political question facing Taiwan?  Perhaps I might believe that if the People’s Liberation Army had launched an attack and was trying to land soldiers on the Chiayi coastline, but nothing quite so monumental has happened in recent months.  So where do the survey results come from?

In every survey, the status quo always wins, and many people want to further probe what these people think.  One suspicion is that they are simply avoiding conflict by giving a neutral answer and that they must really support some concrete option.  Another suspicion is that they aren’t really neutral; they must lean at least a little to one side or the other.  A third group of (more manipulative) people simply wants to look for evidence that allows them to redefine these respondents as favoring their side in the debate.  At any rate, there have been several attempts over the years to get status quo supporters to clarify whether they “really” support unification or independence.

The most straightforward method is to simply take away the neutral category.  Instead of asking whether respondents favor independence, unification, or the status quo, they are asked whether they favor independence or unification.  Even when only given these two choices, a small number of people will insist that they favor maintaining the status quo.  This is how the DPP survey’s results were obtained.  There is nothing wrong with asking the question this way, but it is not fair to claim that independence beat the status quo based on these results.  You could claim almost anything that way.  (Q: Do you prefer totalitarianism or prison?  A: Totalitarianism 40%, prison 35%, democracy 3%.  Headline: “People prefer totalitarianism to democracy!!!)  The fact that independence beat unification 60-23 in a two-category question is interesting, but it does not imply any fundamental shift in the three-category question that we are used to seeing.

So has there actually been a decrease in support for the status quo?  We need more information.  Consider the following TVBS poll conducted about a month ago.  If you read Chinese, the original report is here.  All translations are mine.

­­­­­­­­­­­__________________________________________________________________

TVBS poll, Oct 24-28, 2013.  Sample size: n=1075.  Sorry for the strange numbering.

  1. President Ma stated that people on both sides of the straits belong to the Chinese nation.* Do you agree with this statement? [兩岸人民同屬中華民族, could also be translated as “people on both sides of the strait are ethnically Chinese”]
    1. Agree:                44
    2. Disagree:            42
    3. Non response:    14
  1. 2. President Ma stated that the cross-strait relationship is not an international relationship.  Do you agree?
    1. Agree:            20
    2. Disagree:        66
    3. NR                   14
  2. 3. If there is an opportunity, do you favor President Ma meeting with mainland President Xi?
    1. Favor:              54
    2. Oppose:           32
    3. NR                   15
  1. 4. Do you understand the contents of the cross-straits trade services agreement that Taiwan and the mainland signed?
    1. Understand:            16
    2. Don’t understand:   85
  1. 5. Generally speaking, do you support or oppose the cross-straits trade services agreement that Taiwan and the mainland signed?
    1. Support:           32
    2. Oppose:           43
    3. NR:                  26
  1. 6. Generally speaking, are you satisfied with the policies and methods the government is using to handle cross-straits relations?
3.27.2012 10.17.2012 6.5.2013 10.28.2013
Satisfied 29 26 25 24
Dissatisfied 55 54 48 64
NR 16 21 26 12
  1. 7. Looking at the situation now, do you think the relationship between the mainland and us is friendly or antagonistic?
    1. Friendly:          40
    2. Antagonistic:   37
    3. NR                   14
  1. 8. When the two sides negotiate and sign cross-strait agreements, do you have confidence that the government will protect Taiwan’s interests?
1.28.2011 3.27.2012 10.17.2012 8.30.2013 10.28.2013
Confident 39 34 27 25 21
Not confident 53 57 62 64 71
NR 8 9 12 11 7
  1. 9. Some people say that the Ma government’s cross-straits policies lean too strongly toward mainland China.  Do you agree?
8.26.2008 5.21.2009 12.17.2009 3.27.2012 10.28.2013
Agree 42 43 52 59 62
Disagree 44 40 33 31 27
NR 14 18 15 9 11
  1. 10. Concerning the relationship between Taiwan and mainland China, do you favor independence, unification, or maintaining the status quo?
    1. Independence         24
    2. Unification              7
    3. Status quo               64
    4. NR                           5
  1.  11. If you can only choose one, would you prefer for Taiwan to become an independent country or for Taiwan to unify with the mainland?
    1. Independence         71
    2. Unification              18
    3. NR                           11
  1.  12. In our society, some people say they are Chinese, and some people say they are Taiwanese.  Do you think that you are Taiwanese or Chinese?
    1. Taiwanese               78
    2. Chinese                   13
    3. NR                           9
  1.  13. In our society, some people say they are Chinese, some people say they are Taiwanese, and some people think they are both Taiwanese and Chinese.  Do you think that you are Taiwanese, Chinese, or both?
    1. Taiwanese               55
    2. Chinese                   3
    3. Both                         38
    4. NR                           4

­­­­­­­­­­­__________________________________________________________________

Questions 10 and 11 ask the independence/unification question in two ways, allowing and disallowing status quo.  When status quo is provided as one of the three answers, it easily beats the other two categories with 64%.  Independence beats unification 24-7%, but both percentages are fairly low.  This is the result we are all familiar with.  When only two answer categories are allowed, the results look much different, with independence beating unification 71-18%.  This result is roughly similar to that of the DPP poll.  (The TVBS methodology is more radical than the DPP’s.  TVBS won’t allow respondents to insist that they support the status quo.  Interviewers will keep pushing them until they pick one side or the other.  If a respondent absolutely refuses to pick a side, he or she is coded as a non-response.)  Maybe the Taipei Times should have run a story on this survey, claiming that independence beat the status quo by 71-0%!

TVBS did a similar thing for the familiar ethnic identity question (Q12, 13).  When they forced the people who thought of themselves as both Taiwanese and Chinese to pick only one, suddenly Taiwanese identity beats Chinese identity by 78-13%.

Philosophically, are the two-category results better than the three-category results?  This is a subjective question.  I tend to believe that it is intellectually more honest to simply categorize them as neutral.  You can force me to have an opinion on whether people should take multivitamins or not, but I really don’t care.  If you eventually force an answer out of me, you probably shouldn’t use that as evidence that public opinion is against taking multivitamins.  If people are conflicted, confused, or genuinely want to put the decision of unification or independence off until further developments, we observers probably should respect that stance.  If you only report one result, I think it should be the three-category result.

That said, there is value in probing what lies under neutrality.  Consider a person who favors the status quo in Q10 but independence in Q11.  This person is not really an independence supporter, but he or she is closer to the independence side than to the unification side.  A slight to moderate change might be enough to push this person out of the status quo category and into the independence category.  However, it would probably require a major shift to push this person into the unification category.  What Q11 implies is that there are a lot more status quo supporters who might eventually shift to the independence camp than who might shift into the unification camp.

The TVBS/DPP two-category question is one way of seeing this.  I prefer a different set of questions developed by Yu Ching-hsin 游清鑫 and Hsiao Yi-ching 蕭怡靖.  In a paper published in the Taiwanese Political Science Review in 2011, Yu and Hsiao asked the normal six category question (immediate unification, eventual unification, immediate independence, eventual independence, decide later, status quo forever).  As usual, most people chose one of the two neutral categories.  (11.7% for the two unification categories, 27.5% for the two independence categories, and 56.9% for the two neutral categories.)  They then asked, “If that option is not possible, what would you prefer?”  This question teased out a few more answers.  Finally they asked, “Which option is least acceptable to you?”  This gave very interesting results.  59.9% were most strongly against unification, and 21.4% were most strongly against independence.  Using these answers, they put together a 7 category classification:

Conception of U or I

Yu & Hsiao

narrow

moderate

Broad

Immediate unification

0.8

0.8

19.5

29.1

Status quo, eventual unification

18.7

88.3

Status quo, oppose independence

9.6

40.4

Unclassified

10.9

10.9

Status quo, oppose unification

19.9

60.9

Status quo, eventual independence

30.1

41.0

Immediate independence

10.9

10.9

Total

100.0

(This poll was conducted from April 30 to May 3, 2011, by the Election Study Center at NCCU.  Sample size: 1130.)

What this does it to look at different levels of intensity for unification and independence.  If you think of pro-independence or pro-unification as being something you want right now, then 88% of the population is for the status quo and almost no one is for unification.  If you think of them as something that people want to obtain eventually, then only 40% favor the status quo, and independence beats unification by about 2-1.  If you take the broadest definition, by defining the two sides as including people who don’t want the other side, then only 10% are for the status quo, and independence still beats unification by about 2-1.

To me, this is much more interesting and honest than simply screaming that people support independence in the most sensational manner possible.  The real story is that, at every level of intensity that we have measured, more people prefer independence to unification by quite a large margin.  At the current juncture, it is probably somewhere close to 2-1 for independence, for all measures except the narrowest conception of independence and unification.

There is another interesting lesson from the TVBS data.  On all the abstract questions, President Ma is losing badly.  On Taiwanese/Chinese identity and on unification/independence, Ma’s side is clearly outnumbered.  Moreover, these numbers are trending against him.  Similarly, on all the vague questions about cross-straits negotiations, Ma is also losing badly.  66% disagree with Ma that the cross-strait relationship is not an international one.  64% are dissatisfied with the policies and methods the government is using to handle cross-straits relations.  62% agree that the Ma government’s cross-straits policies lean too strongly toward mainland China.  71% is not confident that the government will protect Taiwan’s interests.  Moreover, Ma is doing worse and worse over time on these questions.  In the very general and abstract, the Taiwanese public seems to have completely rejected Ma and his China policy.

However, when we look at the more concrete questions, the picture looks a bit different.  54% favor a meeting between Ma and Xi.  The cross-straits services trade agreement has 32% in favor.  While this is less than the 43% opposed, the gap is much smaller than those for the more abstract questions.  Ma is doing much, much better on these more specific questions.

What this suggests to me is that while Ma’s China policy may be built on an ideological foundation, it is tenable because it appeals to pragmatism.  Ma is clearly and decisively losing the ideological battle about identity.  However, he has found some space to operate in the more practical questions of how exactly Taiwan and China should interact.  All sides in Taiwan agree that Taiwan needs a prosperous economy and that, in an interconnected world, Taiwan and China have to have some sorts of economic interactions.  Even those people who don’t want to be part of China and don’t trust the Ma administration at all will concede that Taiwan’s government has to have some relations with China.  Doing nothing is not a very good choice.  There are a lot of people who are willing to look past their ideological differences with the Ma government and will consider individual policies for their economic impact.  To put it another way, the unification side is losing (badly) the battle for Taiwanese hearts and minds.  The revised strategy for unification rests on Taiwanese wallets.

a new political cleavage?

January 15, 2012

I think when we look back at the 2012 election a decade from now, we might remember this as the year the economic cleavage was introduced to Taiwan’s politics.

This is the first year that big businesses have lined up so unanimously on one side.  Moreover, there was a real difference in Tsai’s vision of a welfare state with wealth distributed more evenly and Ma’s focus on the traditional numbers like GDP growth.

However, if this is the first time the election has been so explicitly framed in terms of a left-right divide, we must remind ourselves that this was not a cross-cutting cleavage.  Instead, the new left-right divide was simply layered on top of the China cleavage.  The big businesses lined up on the KMT’s side precisely because they want access to the China market.  Tsai framed her concern about the growing wealth gap in terms of how integration into the China market affects normal people’s incomes.

Maybe in the future, the left-right cleavage will take on a life of its own and cut across the traditional unification-independence axis.  If it does, that might upset the KMT’s seeming perpetual majority.  For now, I am simply observing the emergence of a left-right cleavage as an important way to decide which side you are on.

 

Ma and the peace agreement

November 10, 2011

Wow.  This election is boring.  Two months before election day, and it is really, really cold.  And now, a lightning fast reaction to a story that is two weeks old.

In stating that he is open to negotiating a peace treaty with China, Ma Ying-jeou made a either a horrible campaign mistake or a responsible policy statement.

Politically, it is clear that Ma’s support took a hit in the polls almost immediately after he introduced this issue into the campaign.  One never knows for sure exactly why these numbers go up and down, but it’s hard to avoid connecting the dots in this case.  Experience tells us that nothing matters in Taiwanese elections as much as the China issue.  Four years ago, Ma managed to diffuse suspicions that he was a unification advocate, or at least he managed to convince people that he wouldn’t actively pursue unification.  The No Unification, No Independence, No War slogan was quite powerful.  In the same way that Chen Shui-bian used the DPP’s Resolution on Taiwan’s Future to neutralize fears that he would pursue a radical course, Ma assuaged fears that he would be the opposite sort of radical.  However, by suggesting that he would negotiate a political settlement with China, Ma has stepped away from his moderate stance.  This is important, because the moderate position is where most of the electorate resides.  The Election Study Center’s most recent data point shows that about 60% of the electorate wants either to maintain the status quo and decide about unification or independence in the future or simply maintain the status quo forever.  One of the big advantages of incumbency is that the challenger is usually seen as the riskier choice, since voters have a hard time imagining what she would be like if she actually were the president.  In a stroke, Ma made himself into the dangerous candidate.

One of the more curious aspects of this case was Ma wondering why everyone reacted so suspiciously.  After all, Lee Teng-hui, Chen Shui-bian, and Tsai Ing-wen have all mentioned the possibility of a peace agreement at one point or another.  Why hasn’t anyone accused them of acting dangerously or pursuing unification?  Well, when different people say the same thing, it doesn’t always mean the same thing.  The classic case is Nixon in China.  Richard Nixon spent the 1950s and 1960s building a reputation as the United State’s premier anti-communist.  Even within the Republican Party, no one was more anti-communist than Nixon.  When Nixon suddenly announced that he was visiting China in 1972, no one doubted that he was being soft on communism or naïve about Mao.  If Eugene McCarthy, who demanded that the USA pull out of Vietnam immediately, had won the 1968 presidential election and then announced that he was going to visit China in 1972, the reaction would have been very different.  There would have been uproar about surrender to communism.  Nixon could do it; McCarthy couldn’t have.  To give an example from Taiwan, many people have noted that in the 2000 presidential election, the formal policy positions on China of all three candidates were basically the same.  Did that mean that people understood Chen, Lien, and Soong to have the same stance?  Of course not!  They had each been associated with a particular stance for years, and their supporters had quite different ideas about what the proper relation with China was.  Ignoring the policy statements, voters judged Chen to be on the independence side of the spectrum, Soong to be on the unification side, and Lien to be closer to the middle.  Moreover, the voters were right to ignore the platforms.  Subsequent events showed that Chen actually leaned to the independence side while Soong and Lien clearly located themselves on the unification side of the spectrum.[1]  When voters reacted differently to almost exactly the same statements by the three candidates, they were wise to do so.  It is no wonder if people today think that when Ma is moving toward unification when he proposes a peace agreement.  He has a long history of Chinese identity, pro-unification activities, and he is supported by people who share those values.  Likewise, it is no wonder that people might react differently if Lee, Chen, or Tsai say exactly the same thing.

(I don’t really think Ma doesn’t understand this.  Whining about how unfairly the other side treats you is part of the political game.  It is all fodder for your side to chew on so you can tell yourself that the other side is completely unreasonable.)

Raising the idea of a peace agreement is almost certainly a vote loser.  However, the policy-oriented democrat in me sees a certain value in it.  Assume that Ma is planning to win the election and seek a peace agreement.  He has a certain responsibility to tell voters that before the election.  If Candidate Ma denied he would do any such thing and then President Ma turned around and did it, it would almost certainly be met with outrage and might cripple his presidency.  It certainly would lack legitimacy.  However, re-elected President Ma can tell voters that he told them about his plans, asked for their support, and got their votes, so seeking a peace agreement has a democratic legitimacy.[2]  Think about ECFA.  No matter how much the DPP protested, Ma always had a trump card.  In the 2008 campaign, he had run on the idea that he would pursue closer economic ties with China, and he won the election with 58%.  He could simply reply that he was fulfilling his campaign promises.

As a democrat, I believe that elections should have consequences.  By putting the possibility of a peace agreement out in the open, Ma has made it very clear what those consequences could be.  Responsible.

On the other hand, as a democrat, I believe in winning elections.  Ma’s actions have made that less likely for him.  Stupid.


[1] Actually, there probably was a mistake in those popular judgments in 2000.  Soong is probably more moderate than Lien.  However, in 2000 Soong was commonly evaluated as pro-unification, probably because he is a mainlander, while Lien was judged as more moderate because of his position as Lee Teng-hui’s protégé.  Lien subsequently made a complete break with Lee and took a much more pro-unification stance.

[2] There is a third way.  In addition to (1) telling the voters and then doing it and (2) not telling the voters and then doing it, Ma could opt for (3) not telling the voters and not doing it.  The third way would simply be continuing his present policy.  Apparently Ma wants to change his present policy so much that he is willing to risk losing the presidency.  Either that or he simply miscalculated the potential impact of announcing a major change in China policy.  Or maybe I am overreacting.