The Labor Market, Economic Insecurity, and Populism in Taiwan

Written by Wei-Ting Yen.

Image credit: 20141129-19-56-44-20141129-19-56-44-PB291714-2 by 中岑 范姜/Flickr, license CC BY-SA 2.0

In the past few years, two political outsiders in Taiwan have quickly accumulated popularity and became serious political contenders in elections. One is Ko Wen-Je, currently the mayor of Taipei. The other one is Han Kuo-Yu, the recently impeached mayor of Kaohsiung, the second-largest city in Taiwan. Their rise has prompted the island nation to widely debate whether populism has grown its roots in Taiwan because Ko and Han share similar populist traits. First, both are atypical politicians rising outside the established political system. With immediate high popularity, they both won the gubernatorial elections in 2014 and 2018, respectively. Second, they both aspire to run for president. Han already ran in the 2020 presidential election. Although he lost the election, he posed a credible and serious threat to the incumbent president Tsai Ing-wen as the opposition candidate. Ko formed his political party in 2019 and is expected to run for president in 2024. Third, they both portray themselves as “outsiders” and as representatives of “the people” against “insiders” and “corrupt elites.”

Despite their quick rise to the political stage, Han lost the presidential bid and the next mayoral recall election in 2020, and Ko’s popularity began to dwindle too. Since Taiwan’s main political cleavage does not run on the left-right ideology spectrum, some people argue that the descent of Han and Ko’s popularity indicates that populism is only a transient phenomenon. There is no ideological space for populism in Taiwan. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that both Han and Ko gathered immense fame within a short time and had significant electoral successes. Even in Kaohsiung’s recall election, Han still mobilized his core base successfully. Against this backdrop, immense curiosity prevails about whether populism has already gained traction in Taiwan and, if so, what determines populist attitudes. To answer these questions, this paper explores the demand side politics and tests the social roots of populism in Taiwan. Specifically, following the economic insecurity literature, this paper tests the economic roots of populism. It seeks to answer the following questions: Are economically insecure voters the potential constituency of populism in Taiwan? Who are the insecure voters in Taiwan? To what extent does the greater economic interdependence with China shape Taiwan’s insecure population?

To empirically examine whether economic insecurity generates the social base prone to populist ideas in Taiwan, the paper uses the Asian Barometer Survey. I rely on the 2014 wave and the 2018 wave (the latest wave) to test the economic insecurity thesis; that is, economic insecurity leads to a growing social base for populism. I first review the literature related to the economic roots of populism. I summarize three ways in which economic insecurity is conceptualized and empirically test the applicability of the economic insecurity thesis in Taiwan’s context. The first conceptualization follows the endowed factor approach, which identifies unskilled labor as the economically disadvantaged group under economic openness. The second conceptualization follows an income-based approach to measure economic insecurity as people who experience current and future income instability and deprivation. The third conceptualization approaches economic insecurity through the lens of one’s labor market position, proxied by one’s employment status. I employ all three conceptualizations to predict the support for populist attitudes. The paper finds that the income-based conceptualization is the strongest predictor of populist support in Taiwan. Income insecurity constitutes a societal base vulnerable to both left- and right-wing populism. The result indicates that populism does have its audience in Taiwan, and it is possible to combine the anti-establishment sentiment with either the left-wing or right-wing populism. As for which populism subtypes would emerge is contingent upon the supply side politics.

Next, the paper takes one step back and explore the sources of income insecurity in Taiwan and test the extent to which the China factor contributes to individual income insecurity. The empirical finding shows that income insecurity is not limited to specific industries or positions in the labor market. Instead, low-income earners, females, young people, and low educated people are associated with higher income insecurity. This indicates that the income-based conceptualization of economic insecurity is more encompassing than the position-based conceptualization. Moreover, it creates a broader social base for populism to grow in Taiwan. Moreover, the China factor is not directly related to income insecurity as people who perceive China’s impacts on Taiwan as being more negative are not associated with high-income insecurity. Holding the Chinese factor constant, income insecurity still has an independent effect on voters’ preference for populism. As such, the subjective feeling of income insecurity is beyond the impacts of the China factor and accounts for populist support separately.

Last, the paper also shows that the China factor is systematically correlated with more left-wing populist attitudes that demand better redistribution and right-wing populist attitudes that demand trade protection and less immigrant inflow. The China factor creates a second dimension along which populist candidates can mobilize voters. Populist candidates can combine their stances toward China with the traditional left- or right-wing populist rhetoric, creating the unique “Taiwan style” populism. Ko and Han’s campaigns are vivid examples of how anti-China and pro-China stance can both be portrayed as benefiting “the people.” Ko’s rise was closely related to the Sunflower movement. Many of the sunflower movement supporters shared the concerns of the negative impacts (both politically and economically) of being too close to China. Ko combined the anti-China rhetoric with social justice issues and campaigned himself as a “white force” different from existing political parties. In other words, Ko combined the anti-China rhetoric with left-wing populist ideas.

On the other hand, Han’s campaign promoted having closer economic and trade relations with China as the best way to enhance Taiwanese people’s welfare. Han also portrayed himself as the representative of the “common people” and promoted economic integration to create economic security. As such, Han combined the pro-China rhetoric also with left-wing populist ideas. So far, none of the major political candidates have explicitly combined the anti-China rhetoric with the anti-immigrant/trade protectionism in Taiwan. However, it is a possible narrative that can also mobilize insecure voters based on this paper’s findings.

To sum up, Taiwan’s populism has potential yet is somewhat different. Unlike other countries, the China factor makes Taiwan’s populist candidates deviate from the traditional left-right populist rhetoric observed in Europe and Latin America. Border closure is not necessarily the discourse used by right-wing populist. In Taiwan’s context, tightening up the border against China can have distributive impacts that left-wing populist resonate with. In contrast, closer connections with China can also have distributive impacts on Taiwanese people, which again echoes the core idea of left-wing populism. Since the rise of populism is a two-sided story, the final form of populism would be contingent upon the supply side politics, such as the rhetoric populist candidates use to mobilize voters. Electoral rules also have direct impacts on the likelihood of populist parties. Because most legislative seats are generated under the single-member district (SMD) rule, Taiwan is still dominated by the two-party system. As such, it is likely to have populist candidates in Taiwan, but the likelihood of populist parties is much smaller.

Wei-Ting Yen is an Assistant Professor at Franklin and Marshall College.

This piece is out of TSP December 2020 conference: Democracy In An Age of Globalization and Populism: Taiwan, UK and USA

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