Taiwan By The Numbers

How many people were at the September 15th rally in Taipei?

The reporting of this number is a litmus test of the political position of a newspaper.  It should come as no surprise that Taipei Times said "tens of thousands" while People's Daily said "more than one million."

According to Taipei Times:

So there you have it: "Tens of thousands."  The advertised "One Million Person Campaign" ends with only "tens of thousands" attendees.  It was a bust.  Time to move on.

Oh, wait, if you actually bothered to read the rest of the Taipei Times article, you will find: "At 10pm last night the Taipei City Police Department estimated that 320,000 people attended the march, including 3,500 who were staying in the Taipei Railway Station."  To help you to interpret this number, you are also informed: "Taipei's Rapid Transit System Department said that more than 1.18 million people had taken the MRT by 9pm yesterday, 180,000 more than by same time last Friday."

Taipei Times probably has an early deadline.  In the sister Chinese-language newspaper Liberty Times, there is also the midnight Taipei City Police Department press conference in which the count was estimated to be 360,000 by 10pm.  This is the third-largest march in Taipei City after the March 13 and March 27 events in 2004.  Also Liberty Times reported that as of 11pm, the MRT had 1.4 million people already and if the number of returning passengers before 1am is added, the total number may surpass the single-day record of 1.56 million set last year.

Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, the newspaper front page news all said "One Million":


How did they come up with that count?  They took it from the organizers, who had claimed 750,000 and as many as 1 million.  The Hong Kong newspapers all took the upper bound because it was a much better headline for them.  If a reader only glances at the headline, the impression would be 1 million people showed up.  If the reader is careful and actually read the accompanying text, then the 1 million figure does not belong to the realm of scientific and objective data.  However, these Hong Kong newspapers probably had no choice because they know that their competitors will run with the 1 million figure.  This is how things are today -- if you want 'fair and balanced' media, you are going to have to fight for it.

Here is the long story about the number of marchers at United Daily News:

[in translation]

30,000; 120,000; 150,000; 200,000; 250,000; 320,000 ... the number of people in the siege kept jumping up madly until the Taipei City Police Department came up with 360,000, to the surprise of the police officers in charge of maintaining order.  The dump-Bian headquarters announced that more than 750,000 were present, nearing 1 million.

... "This is scary.  I have been a police officer for so long but I have never seen a crowd of this size.  They have been marching for two to three hours and the end of the column has not gone past this intersection yet.  If they want to break through the line of the military police, they could not be stopped," said a police commander ...

This police commander also said that the column was very long with people coming in from every direction.  But the people only yelled slogans, made hand signs, followed one another and did not create trouble.  Some people got emotionally worked up when they saw the Presidential Office Building, but other people next to them stopped them immediately.  The police did not have to do anything.

According to a police officer assigned to collecting intelligence, he has observed many "brothers" (namely, gangsters) in the crowd and followed them.  But the "brothers" just walked with the rest of the crowd without causing trouble.  "What evidence am I collecting then?"

... At just past 4pm, it was raining sporadically in Taipei City.  The police estimated that there were about 7,000 people at the Ketagalan Boulevard and this was well under control.

At 6pm, when the marchers set out, the number had increased to 30,000.

In another hour's time, the 7pm police report from the scene said that the number had increased sharply to 120,000.

The police command center asked the Taipei City police in surprise, "How did the number increased so rapidly?"  The police at the scene replied that they did not know.  They only knew that every road was packed with people and they were just using the crowd density and progress pace to come up with the number.

At 720pm, the latest reported number was 150,000.  The police command center became concerned that if the crowd does not thin out and continue to proceed to the Taipei train station, then there would be totally traffic paralysis.

At 8pm, the number jumped sharply to 200,000.

At 815pm, the number was increased to 250,000.

At 930pm, the number was 320,000.

According to the police commanders, the police has a standard system for estimating crowd size, and it is basically relatively conservative.

Here is the explanation of the methodology (United Daily News via Yahoo! News):

[in translation]

The police had learned from experience on how to count the number of marchers, including having sent their people overseas to observe how this is done in other countries.  The most standard method is to employ an estimate of 4 to 6 persons per square meter.  The "areal method" consist of estimating the number of people within an areal unit and then replicating this unit through the entire area.  For example, if an areal unit of 10 square meters has 40 to 60 people, then each replicated areal unit will have the same number.  Adding up all the areal units leads to an estimate of the total number of people present.

But the organizers said that according to the police method, the column was 5.5 kilometers long on a road that was 20 meters wide.  In other words, the total area was 110,000 square meters.  In addition, there were many people who stood on the side or came later.  Therefore, the number of people was at least 750,000, or even 1 million.

But according to an experienced police officer who was accustomed to handling crowds, the scene last night was unprecedented.  The police announced a total of 360,000, but the crowd came spontaneously, some of them joining at the last minute.  The police is usually relatively conservative in crowd estimates, so the number of people was at least 750,000 last night.

P.S. United Daily News: The total number of passengers in the MRT was 1,516,664, or 433,328 more than the 1,183,336 last Friday.  The number is second only to the New Year's Eve number last year of 1.56 million, which is on a different basis (24-hour operation).  In the history of Taipei City police estimates, 915's 360,000 is third behind the 468,000 on March 27, 2004 after the Presidential election and the 450,000 on March 13, 2004 right before the Presidential election.  The MRT figures for those two occasions were 1,125,354 and 1,141,562 respectively.

What about the English-language media?

Addtional readingAnalysis: In crowd estimate game, political pressures loom.  By Ko Shu-ling, Taipei Times.  September 18, 2006.