There is no question that the Tsai presidency has its share of problems and blind spots. But the pro-Beijing cherry-picking of facts and viewpoints by international media paints a falsely negative picture of her administration.
The Los Angeles Times on July 8 ran an article by its special correspondent in Taiwan titled “Taiwan’s President is now Less Popular than Trump. Here’s Why.” Among other things, the article stated that President Tsai Ing-wen’s approval rating — 33 percent in June — had fallen below that of U.S. President Donald Trump’s, that there had been a cutback in Chinese group tourism to Taiwan, that dissatisfaction with Tsai’s presidency ran high, and that Tsai’s cross-Strait approach was to blame for her polling woes.
Regrettably, the piece involved statistical cherry-picking, omitted key facts, and took data out of context.
The article, like many by other writers on the topic of Taiwan, tourism, and Tsai’s presidency, selectively made hay of the fact that Chinese tourism to Taiwan has decreased, while omitting the fact that tourism from other countries has grown significantly. The number of Japanese tourists who visited Taiwan in 2016, for instance, increased 16 percent from 2015, while the number of Vietnamese tourists who visited Taiwan in the first quarter of this year represented a 22-percent increase from the same period in the previous year. The number of tourist arrivals from the Philippines, South Korea, and Thailand jumped by a steep 23, 34 and 57 percent year-on-year respectively. Indeed, Taiwan hit an all-time record high of 10.69 million tourist arrivals last year. The Taiwanese tourism sector, far from suffering under the Tsai administration, has instead seen solid growth. Media coverage that focuses on decreased Chinese tourism to Taiwan, while ignoring the boom in tourist arrivals from other countries, pushes a negatively distorted narrative about the Tsai administration.
With regards to public polling, the article plays up the fact that Tsai’s 33-percent approval rating stands lower than Trump’s (37 percent, according to Gallup polling in May). The author blames Tsai’s China-wary approach for her low ratings. What his methodology overlooks, however, is that former president Ma Ying-jeou, who espoused policies far more amenable to Beijing than Tsai, suffered, at one point, far lower approval ratings than Tsai — 9 percent in September 2013 — and remained deeply unpopular until the day he left office. If China-wary Tsai’s 33 percent is lower than Trump’s 37 percent, then China-friendly Ma’s 9-percent ratings were, by the same yardstick, that much lower than Trump’s. It strains credulity, then, to believe that a more China-appeasing policy would lift Tsai’s popularity when it sank Ma’s.
It strains credulity, then, to believe that a more China-appeasing policy would lift Tsai’s popularity when it sank Ma’s.
The article also fails to account for the recent historical pattern whereby Taiwanese presidents see their approval ratings plummet soon after taking office. This phenomenon is not new: Chen Shui-bian’s approval ratings tumbled by 40 percent in just six months after taking office in 2000 (from 79 percent in June that year to 39 percent in December.) Ma’s approval ratings dropped 37 percent in 16 months (from 66 percent in May 2008 after taking office, to 29 percent after Typhoon Morakot). Tsai’s approval ratings have fallen 37 percent in 14 months, from 70 percent after taking office last May (as noted by the same journalist last year) to 33 percent last month. Tsai’s post-election tumble in approval rating, therefore, is little different from the experience of her predecessors at similar time points into their presidencies. To present Tsai’s fall in approval rating as representing an anomaly takes the data out of context and distorts the narrative.
The author also takes two different things — the approval ratings of presidents Tsai and Trump — and compares them as if they are apples to apples. This takes polling data out of its political context. Taiwan is less polarized than the U.S. in certain ways. For instance, rock-bottom presidential approval ratings are more common in contemporary Taiwanese politics than in the United States. As noted earlier, Ma’s approval rating once sank to 9 percent; Chen’s once fell below 6 percent. Approval ratings of such drastic lows (unthinkable for a modern U.S. president of any Democratic or Republican stripe) often denote a less-polarized electorate, showing that many pan-blue constituents are willing to disapprove of one of their own (a KMT president) and many pan-green constituents are equally willing to disapprove of one of their own (a DPP president.)
In contrast to the 6 and 9 percent ratings for Chen and Ma, no U.S. president from Truman to George W. Bush ever suffered Gallup approval ratings lower than 20 percent — a timeframe spanning events such as the Vietnam War, the OPEC oil embargo, Watergate, Stagflation, the Iranian hostage crisis, the Iraq wars, Hurricane Katrina and numerous economic recessions. Richard Nixon in his final days of Watergate still commanded an approval rating over three times higher than Chen’s lowest polling. Barack Obama’s Gallup approval rating never fell below 40 percent during his presidency, and Trump’s Gallup approval rating to date has yet to dip below 35 percent. In today’s hyperpolarized United States, the diehard faction within the Democratic Party will almost always support a sitting Democratic president no matter what and the diehard faction within the Republican Party will almost always support a sitting Republican president no matter what. This support base of tribalism all but guarantees today that even a deeply unpopular U.S. president will retain an approval rating of 20 percent at the very minimum.
That same floor of unconditional support does not exist in Taiwanese politics, at least not at the presidential level. The Taiwanese electorate tends to grade its presidents more severely than the U.S. electorate grades theirs. Comparing Tsai’s approval rating to Trump’s therefore puts apples to oranges. Put another way, Trump’s approval rating, while at 37 percent, would likely be considerably lower if subject to Taiwanese standard. Tsai’s approval rating of 33 percent in Taiwan, on the other hand, would likely be considerably higher if she were critiqued by an American public. It is therefore unfair to Tsai to compare her approval ratings to Trump’s. This indicates also, among other things, that Tsai at 33 percent still retains a healthy approval margin compared to the 6 and 9 percent lows of her two most recent Taiwanese predecessors.
Tsai at 33 percent still retains a healthy approval margin compared to the 6 and 9 percent lows of her two most recent Taiwanese predecessors.
With regards to low presidential approval, the article offers no viable alternative. The piece posits that Tsai’s China policy is to blame for her low approval rating. But the March 2014 Sunflower protests and Ma’s deep unpopularity during his second term indicate that a more pro-China policy would hardly help Tsai’s approval ratings. Quite to the contrary, moving closer to Beijing’s demands would most likely sink Tsai’s — or any other president’s — approval rating lower yet.
There is no question that the Tsai presidency has its share of problems and blind spots. The issues facing Taiwan’s future are immense and there is no indication that the road ahead will become less rocky anytime soon. But the pro-Beijing cherry-picking of facts and viewpoints by international media paints a falsely negative picture of the Tsai administration. Unfortunately, as the saying goes, a falsehood can travel halfway around the world before the truth has put on its shoes.
Top photo courtesy of the official Tsai Ing-wen Facebook page.