How Direct Democracy Went Nuclear in Taiwan

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How Direct Democracy Went Nuclear in Taiwan

A contentious vote on Taiwan’s nuclear future showed how the country’s public referendums went haywire.

How Direct Democracy Went Nuclear in Taiwan

Protesters march during an anti-nuclear demonstration in Taipei, Taiwan (March 11, 2018).

Credit: AP Photo/Chiang Ying-ying

It only took one month for Huang Shih-hsiu, a 31-year-old nuclear energy advocate, to upend a core energy policy of Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen. The policy, prior to its downfall, stated that Taiwan would decommission its three active nuclear power plants by 2025.

Huang’s personal journey started much earlier when, shortly after the March 2011 Fukushima disaster, Huang founded the advocacy group Nuclear Mythbusters to combat a surge of nuclear skepticism in Taiwan. But it wasn’t until September 13, 2018 that Huang approached the building of Taiwan’s Central Election Commission (CEC) – the agency responsible for managing the island’s public referendums – and announced he was staging a hunger strike after the commission rejected his proposal for a public referendum on Tsai’s nuclear phaseout. “I felt angry,” Huang recalls. “I felt very, very angry.”

Huang aimed to take advantage of sweeping 2017 reforms to Taiwan’s Referendum Act, lowering the signature threshold for a measure to appear on the ballot to 1.5 percent of the electorate and requiring 25 percent of eligible voters to vote “Yes,” while outnumbering “No” votes, for an item to pass. The law, long seen as too restrictive to enable serious direct democracy in Taiwan, had been opened to all comers. The CEC was flooded with proposals submitted by groups both for and against same-sex marriage, voters sick of Taiwan’s “Chinese Taipei” Olympic moniker, and the Kuomintang (KMT) political party, which backed three plebiscites – along with Huang’s measure, which was initially rejected after over 24,000 of its signatures were deemed invalid by the election commission.

The decision was not reversed until October 24, following an 140-hour hunger strike that landed Huang in the hospital. “The hunger strike was in our plan,” says Huang, who anticipated the signatures could be rejected. “I never thought I should give up.”

Huang, who has a background in mathematics and physics, speaks with a single-minded conviction that abandoning nuclear energy will condemn Taiwan to a future of pollution and fossil fuels. It was this bullish resilience that carried him through a series of rapid-fire TV debates with nuclear opponents, an abbreviated month-long campaign of relentless grassroots and social media organizing, and on to Taiwan’s November 24 public referendums – a chaotic process mired by long lines and ballot box confusion, causing the head of the CEC to resign the next day.

Along with nine other questions, voters were asked: “Do you agree with abolishing the first paragraph of Article 95 of the Electricity Act, which means abolishing the provision that ‘all nuclear-energy based power-generating facilities shall cease to operate by 2025?’” 59.5 of voters supported the measure – and the turnout of 5,895,560 “Yes” voters cleared the newly lowered 25 percent threshold.

However, not everyone celebrated Huang’s success. Prior to the vote, hundreds of academics had signed an open letter urging the public to vote “No,” citing concerns over waste disposal and long-term safety. And not everyone was convinced that the referendum was an accurate gauge of public opinion.

Chia-wei Chao is a postdoctoral research fellow at Taiwan’s Risk Society and Policy Research Center (RSPRC) and a volunteer member of the Green Citizen Action Alliance (GCAA), an environmentalist organization, which squared off against Nuclear Mythbusters in the pre-election TV debates. He accuses Huang’s group of citing outdated studies, making contradictory statements, and attacking the credibility of the RSPRC and GCAA. “I thought, OK, now things are becoming personal,” says Chao, recalling the first TV debate. “He just criticized everyone.”

Huang, for his part, says GCAA deputy secretary-general Hung Shen-han only “told part of the truth” during his turn at the podium, saying anti-nuclear campaigners falsely labeled him a member of the KMT and calling the group’s projections on Taiwan’s future energy mix “fake news.” (Huang once worked in a KMT think tank, but he insists he does not support any political party. Prominent KMT figures such as former president Ma Ying-jeou backed the referendum, but the party did not take an official stance on the measure.)

Anti-nuclear advocates repeatedly returned the favor, accusing Huang’s campaign of disseminating disinformation and claiming the Fukushima disaster was not caused by the earthquake and tsunami that preceded it. (A post-Fukushima inquiry report found that the disaster was “manmade,” but that the Fukushima Daiichi plant was not capable of withstanding the magnitude 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami.)

Referendums such as Taiwan’s ask voters to choose “Yes” or “No” on issues that often contain layers of complexity, such as whether an island that struggles to both implement renewable energy and dispose of nuclear waste should maintain a power source controversial due to concerns both financial and existential. In Taiwan, this coalesces with a publicly hated uptick in coal power production under the Tsai administration – although anti-nuclear campaigners insist Taiwan’s reactors would be replaceable by renewables, a sentiment Huang rejects – along with the fallout from the halted construction of a fourth nuclear power plant and a massive 2017 blackout, all in a social media-crazed society that can struggle to separate online truth from fiction.

It makes for an entangled web of policy which, ideally, a direct democracy would sort out through a patient and measured process of public debate, consultation with experts, and consensus-building to avoid polarization and finger-pointing. Everyone does seem to agree on one thing, however: This did not happen in Taiwan.

Will the World Learn From Taiwan?

Matt Qvortrup, a professor of political science at Coventry University and leading referendum expert, has watched referendums surge in popularity throughout Europe and, gradually, to corners of the world like Taiwan, whose large-scale plebiscites provided lessons for global democracies in what, or what not, to do.

Qvortrup is a believer in referendums, but with conditions. “Democracy is discussion and deliberation,” he says, and that does not happen when voters are rushed to the polls. “To have meaningful democracy,” he says, “you need to have time to debate things.” Taiwan’s CEC-sanctioned TV debates were held in a cramped three-week window – five public forums each for 10 referendum questions.

He noted that debate on the high-interest issue of same-sex marriage dominated much of Taiwan’s already congested pre-referendum discourse, drowning out interest in the intricacies of energy policy. “That’s bad, because people will be voting on things they haven’t had the opportunity to talk about,” Qvortrup says.

Chao of RSPRC agrees, saying there was far from enough time for voters to have an informed debate. Shortly after the referendum, his center published a study showing that voters were not informed on nuclear power – most were unaware of the details of Tsai’s phaseout proposal, and 44 percent believed nuclear power provides most of the island’s energy. (It produces just over 8 percent, far behind coal-fired power.)

“For democracy to work, it has to be limited to relatively few issues,” says Qvortrup. “If you have too many issues on the ballot, people just get saturated. They turn off, they can’t be bothered. You need to save up your civic reserves.”

Taiwan’s nuclear power plebiscite was not even the only energy-related measure on the ballot: Two separate measures, both successful, called for Taiwan to reduce thermal power and stop expansion of coal-fired power plants. A measure to maintain Taiwan’s ban on food imports from the Fukushima disaster area also passed, angering Japan.

The team at Cofacts, a collaborative social media fact-checking platform that monitored online discussion leading up to the referendums, says it observed a combination of disinformation and voter apathy ahead of the energy plebiscites. “In comparison to other issues, nuclear power was one of the less popular topics,” writes Rosalind, a Cofacts editor, in an open response to questions from The Diplomat. “Even when people talked about it, they were actually talking about air pollution, reducing thermal power generation plants, new alternative energy, and polluted foods.” This did not allow voters to consider the nuances of the issues, such as whether Taiwan does in fact face a looming electricity shortage, says Rosalind.

“The people wanted to be on the ‘winning’ side of these yes/no questions, even though most of them did not know the referendum topics until the day of the election,” says Cofacts founder Johnson Liang. He notes that online discussion on nuclear power paled in comparison to talk of the same-sex marriage referendums. “There were way too many topics to vote [on] within a timespan that is too short, and they did not have time to follow the television debates.”

It takes a resonant message to cut through an overload of information and mangled discourse, and Huang Shih-hsiu had one: Nuclear Mythbusters ran with the slogan “Nuclear energy is green energy,” sizing it up against a future coal-fired dystopia and dismissing the present-day viability of affordable renewables, all while cutting through the opposing stance that nuclear power is an environmental crisis waiting to happen.

This approach has always been effective, but it’s especially potent in the digital age, says Dion Curry, senior lecturer of public policy at Swansea University. Public figures with “little political power, but immense media power” – he cites Brexit’s Nigel Farage as an example – can strategically reach voters through targeted Facebook ads and participation in social media “echo chambers,” he says.

“People are simply not exposed to all sides of debates anymore,” says Curry, who has worked with a Canadian direct democratic assembly in the past and continues to study referendums. The global popularity of public plebiscites, he says, “amplifies the effects of this by introducing more opportunities for social media to have this effect.” This also leads to broader discussion of the issues being drowned out by sharpened talking points such as the slogan of Nuclear Mythbusters – a phenomenon plaintively noted by Chao, who claims social media posts launched by GCAA and allied anti-nuclear organizers generally reached no more than tens of thousands of viewers.

After Taiwan’s November 24 election day, which also saw the opposition KMT sweep the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) from power in several key municipalities, the island was awash in fear that unscrupulous actors, especially those based in China, could use social media disinformation campaigns to influence voters. While foreign actors did attempt to sway the vote – including U.S. Christian conservatives opposed to Taiwan’s drive to legalize marriage equality – experts concur that the large majority of online mis- and disinformation in Taiwan is domestic in origin.

Qvortrup notes that the so-called “hypodermic needle theory” – that a message or political position can be injected by media into a voter’s veins – is hard to prove. Far more dangerous than influence operatives, he says, is a lack of issue literacy caused by an overabundance of plebiscites.

“If you see the question for the first time when you’re in the polling booth, you might be swayed by the argument,” he says, urging that referendums only be used to decide a few especially important issues per ballot.

The Debate Remains Polarized

But nobody is about to tell Huang Shih-hsiu that blocking a phaseout of nuclear power is unimportant.

For now, as Taiwan’s cabinet gets a post-election facelift, Huang says he is giving the DPP “some space and time to think about” how to eliminate the phaseout and respect the referendum result, which ex-Premier William Lai reluctantly committed to doing in December. But Huang wants the administration to go one step further and restart construction on Taiwan’s fourth nuclear power plant, halted in 2014 amid massive opposition.

“In the next year, if they don’t face the problem [of the fourth nuclear power plant], I will do a second referendum to restart the reactor,” he says. “I don’t want to do more referendums. Not everything needs a referendum. But if we need it, I will do it.”

Huang also says he will consider initiating a referendum on what to do with Taiwan’s nuclear waste, which is currently stored in a facility on Orchid Island that is unpopular with locals. During one TV debate, Huang proposed that every Taiwanese resident keep a small canister of nuclear waste in their home, ostensibly to prove its safety while solving the problem of its storage.

That proposal, and other claims made by Nuclear Mythbusters, were often mocked by online and media critics. The mild-mannered Chao, without raising his voice an iota, says pro-nuclear campaigners spread “propaganda” by making dubious claims about the cost and emissions of renewable energy and the safety of nuclear power plants from earthquakes and tsunamis – something that is still debated among experts.

When asked what voters should know before voting, Huang is adamant: They don’t have to be experts themselves. “There is some basic knowledge that people should know to vote, but you can’t draw a line” and define it, he says. “You have to know, if you want a nuclear phaseout, what future you will face,” he continues, citing air pollution and an over-reliance on fossil fuels.

“If you don’t care,” he says, “you have the freedom not to vote.”

Huang admits a voter watching the TV debates, laden with competing claims and accusations, may have left “more confused” rather than gaining clarity by tuning in. “But that is normal,” he says. “People always get confused when they make choices in their lives.”

Chao, speaking from the referendum’s losing side, wishes the two parties had more time to talk it out. “Both sides should have some self-discipline to discuss the issues,” he says, adding that people saw the topic as “highly technical and complex” and hard to decide upon.

After observing Taiwan’s uneven experiment with direct democracy, Curry points to Ireland’s Citizen’s Assembly, which preceded its successful 2017 referendum to legalize abortion. Ninety-nine selected voters gathered at 10 weekend meetings to listen to expert testimony, participate in Q&A sessions and roundtable discussions, and take inquiries from the general public, who were able to tune in via livestream. The assembly, which commenced seven months before the public vote and issued its report one month prior, was able to “frame the debate before it happened,” says Curry. He also promotes multistaged referendums, which the United Kingdom may experience – albeit not exactly by design – should it hold a second Brexit plebiscite.

At any rate, he says his recent research has shown Brexit voters cared the most not about the process or their voice within the process, but about a good outcome. “But that’s exactly what these direct democratic approaches don’t guarantee,” he says – they can guarantee the first two things, but “they can’t guarantee good outcomes.”

Taiwan, says Qvortrup, is “learning as it goes along, but I think the trajectory is the right one.” He notes that Taiwan has a turnout requirement, which is not a universal facet of referendums. “Direct democracy allows supply-side politics, allows people to raise issues,” he says before paraphrasing a Chinese proverb: Three cobblers with their wits combined exceed that of the mastermind.

“The wise man may know a lot of things,” he says, “but there are always little details those stupid shoemakers might get right.”

When asked for final impressions of his initial foray into direct democracy, Huang says the two sides should simply stay the course and “put more information on the table so people can see the difference. Information from one of the sides will be more reliably sourced, will be more convincing,” he says.

“But people still don’t have enough time to know all about [the nuclear power] issue, or other issues such as gay marriage,” he says. “That’s democracy, these are the choices in life. You choose your career, your partner, your school. You never have enough information.”

If you do not feel that you know enough to vote, Huang says, “Just try. That is life.”