The National Assembly Election
and Fellow Traveler Spin Control
May 20, 2005
The End of Mainland Fever?
Taiwan independence fellow travelers, to no one’s surprise, are spinning the May 14, 2005 National Assembly Election as “an affirmation of Taiwan independence” and “a repudiation of Mainland Fever.”
In a May 17, 2005 International Herald Tribune editorial entitled “Taiwan reads the election’s tea leaves,” inveterate China demonizer Philip Bowring writes:
The result of Taiwan’s election on Saturday has put into perspective the cross-strait hype and hoopla of the previous two weeks. The opposition leaders Lien Chan and James Soong had been feted on the mainland, and visions of imminent cross-strait rapprochement were conjured up, not least by Beijing-based foreign news media. Despite the excitement and media attention at home and abroad, Taiwanese [“Taiwanese” is the Taiwan independence fellow traveler term for Chinese people living on Taiwan.] in the end seem largely unmoved.
An ERA TV Poll conducted the day after Lien Chan’s triumphant return from the mainland asked the public on Taiwan “Do you think that overall, KMT Chairman Lien Chan’s visit to the mainland is helpful or unhelpful to Taiwan’s society and cross-straits relations?”
A 55% majority answered “Very helpful” or “Somewhat helpful.” A 27% minority answered “Very unhelpful” or “Somewhat unhelpful.”
The same poll asked the public “Is it your hope that Chen Shui-bian can successfully reach an agreement on the future of both sides of the strait during the remaining three years of his term?”
A 72% majority answered “Very much my hope” or “Somewhat my hope.” A 15% minority answered “Very much not my hope” or “Somewhat not my hope.”
“Largely unmoved?” I don’t think so.
A second ERA TV Poll conducted the day before James Soong’s return from the mainland asked the public on Taiwan “Do you think now that Lien Chan and James Soong have each met with Hu Jintao, that Chen Shui-bian and the ruling DPP should be more forthcoming or more reserved in contacts with the Chinese Communists?”
A 59% majority said “More forthcoming.” A 24% minority said “More reserved.”
So much for Bowring’s heavy-handed attempt at “disinformation.”
Lying by Omission
Admittedly, the polling significance of the election was reduced by the low turnout… Nonetheless the result must be judged as the first formal reaction by voters to the Lien and Soong visits. The ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) of President Chen Shui-bian performed rather better than had been expected, with 42.5 percent of the vote. Add in the 7 percent of the fiercely pro-independence Taiwan Solidarity Union and the forces most skeptical of Beijing appeared in a small majority. Against that, Lien’s Kuomintang mustered 38.9 percent and Soong’s People First Party a mere 6.1 percent. Assorted independents got 5.4 percent.
The polling significance of the election was not just “reduced” by what Bowring disingenuously refers to as “the low turnout,” it was rendered meaningless. The result of the National Assembly Election did not constitute a reaction to the Lien and Soong visits, and Bowring knows it. Why else did Bowring omit the actual number for the turnout in his article?
For the record, it was 23%. That’s right. Only 23% of the registered voters bothered to show up at the polling stations on election day, while 77% stayed home. Fewer than one in four cast their ballots.
Why didn’t Bowring inform IHT readers that “the low turnout” was an absurdly unrepresentative 23%, from which it was utterly unrealistic to draw any definitive conclusions? Was it lack of space?
Don’t make me laugh. How much space do a pair of brackets ( ) and the figure “23%” take up?
Why didn’t Bowring go ahead and include it? Because Bowring was hoping readers would assume that “the low turnout” meant 60%, 50%, or 40%, not 23%.
So much for journalistic integrity.
The Non-choice Choice
The results of the National Assembly Election do not mean what Philip Bowring wants readers to think they mean, for two reasons.
One. Voters didn’t understand what they were being asked to vote on.
A TVBS Poll conducted on May 4, ten days before the election, showed that although 75% of the public knew a National Assembly Election was coming up, 71% didn’t understand what they were being asked to vote on.
A second TVBS Poll conducted on May 10, a mere four days before the election, showed that although 91% of the public knew a National Assembly Election was coming up, 61% still didn’t understand what they were being asked to vote on!
Two. Voters who did understand what they were being asked to vote on were deeply offended by the phony “choice” they were offered.
A wide range of important but unrelated issues were “packaged dealed” into a single yea or nay vote. If voters wanted certain items they approved of, they had to accept other items they disapproved of. Adding insult to injury, this yea or nay vote wasn’t even cast directly by the voter himself, but indirectly, by one of 12 competing political parties, who would in turn vote for or against the package.
This ludicrous “Rube Goldberg” arrangement denied voters the right to choose the policies they actually wanted, and left them in a quandary. “How,” they wondered, “am I going to get what I want? In the end many of them concluded “I can’t.” In the end many of them decided “To hell with this. Why should I even bother voting? It doesn’t make any difference anyway.”
Monsoon rains, complete with streets flooded to knee level, especially in the Pan Blue dominated northern half of the island, gave Pan Blue voters all the extra reason they needed to blow the whole affair off.
Pan Blues, not Pan Greens Punished the PFP
Bowring’s patently dishonest spin control is typical of Taiwan independence fellow travelers’ relentless efforts to use the slightest excuse, however flimsy, to poormouth Chinese reunification. For example, Bowring attributes the People First Party’s deservedly catastrophic showing to PFP Chairman James Soong’s pro-reunification political stance.
Soong’s poor showing could be seen as especially significant. The mainland-born populist and longtime presidential aspirant had just returned from a meeting with President Hu Jintao of China. The two claimed to have brokered a new deal using the catchphrase “Two Sides, One China,” with an agenda for direct transport links and a free-trade deal between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait. They backed a return to the so-called 1992 consensus on acceptance of the One China principle, the interpretation of which is more important than the phrase itself. Chen was quick to reject this so-called “breakthrough.”
On his visit to the mainland, Soong had been more effusive than Lien in emphasizing the ethnic brotherhood across the strait. This may also have reminded voters that most of them are descended from people who migrated (illegally) from the mainland generations ago and did not retain the same ties as those who arrived when the Kuomintang was defeated on the mainland in 1949…
Lien and Soong may have to note that playing to the mainland and international galleries is not a big vote winner at home. However much a majority favors trade, peace and the status quo, the concept of Taiwanese identity (not necessarily synonymous with independence) runs as strongly through local veins as their mainland birth runs through those of Lien and Soong.
Prior to the December 2004 Legislative Election, PFP Chairman James Soong promised Pan Blue voters the PFP would reunite with the KMT in February 2005. Soong didn’t just renege on his promise. He did much worse. He went over to the enemy camp. He formed an unholy alliance with Chen Shui-bian and the DPP. Pan Blue voters, Deep Blue voters in particular, were furious. They severely punished the PFP for destroying the hard-won Pan Blue majority within the ROC legislature.
Soong’s more or less successful “Bridge-building Mission” to the mainland was a totally unrelated issue. Bowring’s attempt to link Soong’s trip with the PFP’s subsequent election defeat is either ignorant or dishonest. I’m not sure which is worse.
The 23% who voted on May 14 were Deep Green and Deep Blue. Deep Greens slightly outnumber Deep Blues. Pale Blues, on the other hand, significantly outnumber Pale Greens.
Overall, Pan Blues far outnumber Pan Greens, but Pan Blues include a higher percentage of spoiled upper middle-class Pale Blue yuppies, who are often cavalier about going to the polls unless they perceive a Clear and Present Danger.
Pan Greens on the other hand, include a higher percentage of lower middle-class Deep Green “rednecks,” who can be counted on to show up at the polls to vent their anger, come hell or high water. The so-called “Pan Green victory” in the National Assembly Election reflects this demographic skewing, not larger political currents such as “Mainland Fever.”
A Little Honesty – For a Change
By contrast, New York Times reporter Keith Bradsher demonstrated infinitely more integrity and professionalism in his May 16, 2005 article “Taiwan vote hard to read, analysts say.”
Elections in Taiwan for delegates to an obscure constitutional assembly drew such a low turnout that they provide little clues to how the general public on the island feels about a month of breakthroughs in relations with China, political analysts said Sunday. Only 23.4 percent of eligible voters cast ballots on Saturday, compared with a turnout of 57.6 percent in legislative elections last December and 82 percent in presidential elections in March 2004. Political parties were able to get their strongest supporters to vote, but most of the public responded with a shrug.
The low turnout makes it very hard to use the vote to gauge public sentiment about visits to Beijing in the past three weeks by two opposition leaders: Lien Chan, the chairman of the Nationalist Party, and James Soong, the chairman of the smaller People First Party.
“Any explanation of the outcome is very shaky,” said Chu Yun-han, a professor of political science at National Taiwan University. “The people who turned out to vote are not the typical voters – they are basically highly disciplined party regulars.”
While a few politicians tried to turn the vote on Saturday into an informal test of public support for a rapprochement with mainland China, the main issue facing the constitutional assembly is really quite different: whether to cut the Legislature, a separate body, to 113 members instead of 225 and elect these members from single-seat districts instead of through the current system of proportional representation in multi-seat districts.
If Philip Bowring actually believes he is witnessing the end of “Mainland Fever,” he’s got another think coming.
We are not witnessing the end of “Mainland Fever.” We are witnessing the beginning of China’s reunification.