Taiwan’s democratic politics are saturated with opinion polls. There are countless polls published on a monthly basis. Distinguishing between the signals they represent and noise can be difficult even for social scientists. Two recent polls, however, warrant special attention and analysis. Both polls were released in late March. One by Formosa Media (FM, 美麗島電子報) was entitled “National Politics in March 2017,” and the other, by the Cross-Strait Policy Association (CSPA, 兩岸政策協會), was entitled “Cross-Strait and Current Issues.” Both organizations’ political leanings fall within the same range on the political spectrum (between pro-green and bi-partisan), so an institutional bias against the current administration is not likely a factor. On balance, the two polls show that the Taiwanese public remains critical of the DPP government’s performance, but still has faith and confidence in President Tsai’s ability to govern.
Low Approval Ratings
In particular, the CSPA poll revealed that 42.5 percent of the people are satisfied with Tsai and 54.1 percent are dissatisfied. In the same poll, 48.5 percent expressed confidence in Tsai, whereas 48.1 percent stated that they lacked confidence in her. The FM poll reflected a more negative picture, with only 29.5 percent satisfied and 58 percent unsatisfied with Tsai. More than half of the people polled expressed their dissatisfaction toward President Tsai’s overall performance, and between 45 percent and 50 percent were not confident in her governing ability. In the FM poll, about 12.5 percent and 14.5 percent chose not to disclose their attitudes either on satisfaction or confidence.
There are no signs as to whether or not President Tsai government’s rating will bounce back in the polls, and should serve as warning signals to both the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and Tsai administration. The two polls underscore a trend over the past 10 months that the public’s different political affiliations increasingly determine their assessment of President Tsai’s governance and performance. Indeed, a sign of polarization has been emerging and that is certainly not a welcome social ethos.
The two polls touched upon quite a few cross-Strait issues. The findings are telling with respect to how President Tsai’s China policy has been performing in the public’s eye. In the FM poll, more than half (51.2 percent) of the people polled felt that cross-Strait relations have worsened since President Tsai came into power, but 36.8 percent thought they have remained the same. Not surprisingly, these perceptions divide along party lines. More than half of the DPP supporters and pan-green respondents tended to view that Taiwan-China relations have not changed much between the governments of Tsai and Ma, while more than 80 percent of KMT supporters and the pan-blue camp were more sensitive about the worsening Taiwan-China relations. Among those who believed that cross-Strait relations have worsened, pan-blue and KMT supporters tend to hold the Taiwanese government responsible for the situation, while pan-green and DPP supporters put more blame on the PRC government for making relations worse.
Significantly, the FM poll also discovered once again that 54 percent of the Taiwanese citizens do not accept the so-called “One-China constitution of the Republic of China” that considers mainland China to be part of the ROC, though still close to one third (32.6 percent) accept such a statement. On the other hand, a high 72.5 percent clearly reject China’s claim that Taiwan is a part of the PRC, with 14.2 percent expressing their agreement with the statement. The public’s party lines also contribute to the contradictory assertions above. Ironically, KMT party members and the pan-blue camp tend to be more inclined to accept both the ROC’s “One-China constitution” and the PRC’s “One-China” principle at the same time, in contrast to those DPP and pan-green supporters who tend to reject both.
The CSPA survey also shows that the majority of respondents (77.2 percent) pointed out that since DPP came to power, the PRC has been unfriendly and even hostile toward Taiwan. The Taiwanese citizens polled seem to be fully aware that, from the very beginning, China had no intention to negotiate with Taiwan’s DPP government on an equal footing. Equally important is that close to two-thirds (74 percent) of the people polled have expressed their support of President Tsai’s “maintaining the status quo” approach to dealing with China, and, as a result, nearly 70 percent (69.2 percent) approved of her overall cross-Strait policy. President Tsai and her government have made public that Taiwan’s cross-Strait policy is to forge a relationship with Beijing that is “consistent, predictable, and sustainable.” Interestingly, the poll revealed that 43.3 percent of the people said that President Tsai has demonstrated “just the right amount” of goodwill toward Beijing, followed by 38.1 percent who consider her to be showing “too little” goodwill. 8.5 percent believe she has already shown “too much,” and the remaining 10.1 percent declined to answer.
Significantly, 67.8 percent of the respondents considered Beijing’s insistence on the so-called “1992 Consensus” as a non-negotiable precondition for cross-Strait exchange and dialogue to be unacceptable, while 25.3 percent felt otherwise. Though the above findings have revealed an overwhelmingly positive tendency of the public to back President Tsai’s cross-Strait policy performance, the party line divisions still clearly affect the Taiwanese public’s attitudes toward China and their stance on the government’s China policy. More crucial, however, is that the age and generational differences have been rising significantly. Those under age 40 demonstrated much stronger negative attitudes toward China. If the younger “generation with independence by nature” (天然獨世代) is singled out, their pro-independence, anti-unification, and critical sentiments toward China are even more evident.
There is an obvious contrast between the overall low approval ratings of President Tsai’s performance and the high degree of support for her cross-Strait policy. It may be inferred from these polls that President Tsai’s cross-Strait policy and the current stalemate across the Taiwan Strait are not holding back President Tsai’s public approval ratings. Rather, it is her government’s effectiveness and achievements on domestic policy that have contributed to her low approval rating in the public mind.
The Tsai administration has tried to keep her campaign promises by taking on difficult reforms such as pension reform, action on ill-gotten party assets, transitional justice, high school textbook guideline reform, and judicial reform. Yet, reforms take time to produce social good and beneficial results, inevitably generating public debates and even social conflicts. The rising collective impatience and resentment from the adversaries have produced a general sense of public confusion and even frustration toward President Tsai’s and Premier Lin Chuan’s effective and strong leadership in guiding and achieving reforms. The public supports the DPP administration’s good intentions, but they question if the government has demonstrated the ability and skills to realize all of the necessary reforms. This public uncertainty has, in turn, resulted in the low level of President Tsai’s overall approval rate.
The main point: Two recent polls show that Tsai’s cross-Strait policy and the current stalemate across the Taiwan Strait are not what appear to be contributing to Tsai’s low approval ratings. Rather, it is her government’s effectiveness and achievements on domestic policy that have contributed toward her low approval rating in the public mind.