Austin Wang is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Political Science at Duke University. He is a recipient of GTI’s Taiwan Scholarship in 2017.
In democracies, public opinion matters and can affect policies. In the democratic nation of Taiwan, cross-strait relations are not an exception. To explain and perhaps predict the future of relations between China and Taiwan, it is necessary to understand how Taiwanese people think of the future of cross-Strait relations. Do Taiwanese people support (re)unification or independence? And is their preference contingent on certain conditions? From 2003 to 2017, the Program in Asian Security Studies at Duke University conducted 11 waves of National Security Studies Surveys (TNSS) in Taiwan. TNSS was designed precisely for understanding the public opinion of cross-Strait relations among Taiwanese people. With the help of National Chengchi University in Taipei, each wave of TNSS recruited at least 1,000 nationally-representative Taiwanese respondents through landline phone calls. The range of TNSS goes across the second and third presidential turnover in 2008 and 2016, respectively. There are three discernible findings based on the results of the 11 surveys: consistent preference for the “status quo”; preference for “status quo” related to China’s military threat; and pragmatism in outlook towards the future of cross-Strait relations.
First: 60 percent of Taiwanese people prefer to maintain the “status quo.”
The proportion of people supporting unification and independence may fluctuate across time, but the overall distribution has been stable over the previous 14 years. In 2003, 52.2 percent of Taiwanese preferred status quo, 13.5 percent for independence, and 20.4 percent for unification. The proportion of Taiwanese preference for status quo and independence reached their pinnacles in 2011, which was about 65.9 percent and 23.4 percent, respectively. In that same year, only 8 percent of Taiwanese preferred unification. After the third turnover, the number of status-quo and independence supporters decreased to some extent, which was about 60 percent and 16.6 percent in 2017, respectively.
Without a clear explanation, the result indicates that more Taiwanese people preferred status quo and independence under the ruling of KMT during 2008-2016, which was about 63.8 percent and 22.5 percent in average; besides, only 4.7 percent of respondents did not give an answer in this question. When DPP won the presidency before 2008, and after 2016, however, the average proportion of Taiwanese pursuing status quo and independence dropped to 57.0 percent and 19.2 percent; about 8 percent of the respondents failed to provide an answer when they were asked about their attitude toward the cross-strait relationship.
Regardless the slight fluctuation, the overall stable distribution across years is quite impressive given the significant changes in global politics and cross-Strait interactions during this period. For example, China’s anti-secession law was passed in 2005, the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) in 2011, the Sunflower Movement in 2014, the Xi-Ma meeting in 2015, and the Trump-Tsai call in late 2016. Moreover, the percentage of people who identified themselves as “Taiwanese,” rather than “Chinese” or “both,” increased from 42 percent in 2003 to 60 percent in 2017 (at the same time, 33 percent identified as “both” and 3 percent as “Chinese”). Despite an increase in acknowledgment and affinity with a “Taiwanese” identity as distinct from “Chinese,” popular opinion toward how to conduct cross-Strait relations did not change accordingly.
Second: The “status quo” majority is related to the military threat from China.
The most important feature of the TNSS survey is the inclusion of “conditional preference” as a variable. Conditional preference refers to how people may change their preference under different scenarios. Regarding cross-Strait relations, TNSS asked respondents their preference for independence “if China will not attack Taiwan.” In this scenario, over 60 percent polled support the declaration of independence across the previous 14 years. The proportion reached 73 percent when ECFA was signed in 2011, but declined to 60 percent in 2017. In contrast, less than 22 percent rejected the idea of Taiwan independence across the survey’s time horizon.
Third: Taiwanese people are pragmatic about the future of cross-Strait relations.
The previous two figures captured what Taiwanese people preferred and aspired to happen, but what do they think will happen? In the same survey, TNSS asked respondents to “estimate the probability that Taiwan will be independent successfully in the future” and to “estimate the probability that the cross-Strait will unify in the future.” The figure below shows the mean probability among respondents across time. The result reveals that respondents are pragmatic in their outlook. On average, Taiwanese people believed that the chance of cross-Strait unification is about 47 percent, and the likelihood of successful independence is nearly 36 percent. The prediction of unification reached the highest point in 2012 when Ma won the re-election, and independence peaked in 2014 when the Sunflower Movement blocked the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement.
The probability of unification in the future is 67 percent among respondents that are “pro-unification” (based on Figure 1), and the chance of independence is 25 percent. Among the respondents that are “pro-independence,” 52 percent think that Taiwan will become independent, whereas 40 percent think that unification is more likely. Hence, the pro-independence people do not underestimate the possibility of unification.
Implications from the surveys spanning 2003-2017
What can we learn from the surveys? First of all, the results clearly show that Taiwanese people are not troublemakers but rational and informative decision makers. They clearly perceived the possibility of military conflict, and they did not overestimate the chance for their dream to be realized shortly.
Second, even though the proportion of Taiwanese people that prefer unification increased in 2017, the overall distribution will not likely change dramatically. Across the surveys, even the 2005 Anti-secession Law and 2014 ECFA failed to overturn the distribution. It is understandable that many people may link their discontent to President Tsai Ing-wen and any issues Tsai and DPP support. However, the former KMT President Ma’s low approval rating also failed to cause significant shift in people’s attitude toward the cross-strait relationship.
Third, it is worth noting that the surveys were conducted through landline telephones in Taiwan. Therefore, the survey results may fail to capture two major groups: those who lived aboard (including China), and those who did not live in their home (such as the young people who only has a cellphone and work in the big cities). The bias of telephone surveys is one of the primary reasons that many survey firms failed to predict Trump’s win. According to recent studies, about 20 percent of Taiwanese people do not live in their registered residency, and about 3 percent work abroad.
In the final analysis, the survey results highlight the centrality of the “status quo” in Taiwanese public opinion. While the majority of Taiwanese people prefer the “status quo,” the reality could change given the rapid expansion of China’s military, economic, and political influence in Asia and beyond.
The main point: The TNSS results underscore a consistent preference among Taiwanese people for the “status quo”; that the preference for preserving the “status quo” is related to China’s military threat; and the people of Taiwan are pragmatic in their outlook about the future of cross-Strait relations. While the majority of Taiwanese people prefer the “status quo,” the reality may be changing given the rapid expansion of China’s influence in Asia and beyond.