When Taiwan passed legislation last year that made it easier to propose and pass referendum questions, President Tsai Ing-wen called it a "historic moment" in the self-ruling island's evolution from a military dictatorship to an open democracy.
She got more than she bargained for on Saturday, when voters were asked a record 10 questions. Their answers simultaneously undermined Taiwan's reputation as one of Asia's most progressive societies, angered many young Taiwanese and inadvertently assisted Beijing's claims that Taiwan is part of its territory.
One of the biggest issues in the election campaign — and the subject of half the referendum questions — was gay rights. Voters expressed overwhelming opposition to same-sex marriage, despite a court ruling last year that limiting marriage to heterosexual couples was unconstitutional. Voters also supported the removal of content about homosexuality from primary school textbooks.
Many in Taiwan, especially young voters, were stunned by the referendum results, including Mike Zhang, a 25-year-old project manager in Taipei.
"We thought we lived in a progressive and open country," he said, "but after seeing the disparity in this referendum we discovered we were living in a place that we didn't recognize."
While the liberal values of Ms. Tsai's Democratic Progressive Party, which has been in power since 2016, fared poorly, the referendums themselves served a larger purpose as one of the few tools Taiwan has to stave off mainland China.
Among the referendum questions, however, was the issue of what Taiwan should be called at the Olympic Games and other international sporting events. In a 1981 deal with the International Olympic Committee, Taiwan agreed to compete under the name "Chinese Taipei." But in recent years the people of Taiwan have increasingly sought to assert their identity, and a referendum question asked if the island should compete as "Taiwan" instead.
That proposal failed after a campaign warning that doing so might lead to Taiwan's being banned from Olympic competition under Chinese pressure. The referendum result could allow Beijing to argue that the people of Taiwan are quite happy to be identified as Chinese.
China's Communist Party claims Taiwan as its territory, although it has never ruled the island. The government in Taiwan, officially known as the Republic of China, is the remnant of the Kuomintang government that fled to the island in 1949 after being defeated by the Communists in China's civil war.
[The New York Times, 2018-11-26]