As the Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) administration began its second term, the Taiwan New Constitution Foundation (TNC, 台灣制憲基金會)—a nongovernmental organization founded by staunch Taiwan independence advocate Koo Kwang-Ming (辜寬敏)—has announced that it is preparing to propose a referendum to express “intention to establish a new constitution.” The referendum would reportedly include two key questions: 1) Do you agree that the president should initiate a constitutional reform [in Taiwan]? (您是否同意要求總統啟動憲法改造工程), and 2) Do you agree that the president should push for the establishment of a new constitution reflecting the reality of Taiwan? (您是否同意要求總統推動制定一部符合台灣現狀的新憲法). According to TNC Executive Director Lin Yi-cheng (林宜正), the main goal of the organization is to pursue state normalization. Additionally, he argues that “a new constitution is needed to differentiate Taiwan from China, to assert the nation’s sovereignty, and raise awareness among Taiwanese.”
Is there public support for this initiative and how do the Taiwanese people view the “reality” as well as the need for “normalization” as the TNC proposed? Why are civil society groups pushing for constitutional reform? The notion that any constitutional reform entails “changing the status quo” is an oversimplification—the status quo is, of course, constantly changing. This brief examines whether there is support for this initiative in the context of current public opinion on unification-independence preferences within Taiwan.
Taiwan’s Independence Preferences
At first glance, the fact that a majority of the Taiwanese public supports “maintaining the status quo” would seem to entail opposing any constitutional change on the sovereignty issue. According to a survey of long-term trends in public attitudes toward unification-independence by the Election Study Center (選舉研究中心) at National Chengchi University, “maintaining the status quo forever” and “decide later” combined accounted for more than 50 percent of support. However, “moving toward independence in the future” hit an all-time-high in 2019, reaching 21 percent, while “independence as soon as possible” has held steady at about 6 percent over the last decade. Based on this data, it seems as though the public does not currently support the option to “declare independence.”
Yet, these measurements leave a great deal of ambiguity for respondents. For example, the surveys do not ask people what “the status quo” means, nor do the questions specify when and how independence or unification would take place.
Notably, when presented with the statement “Taiwan is already a sovereign state with the official name of Republic of China (ROC), and there is no need to declare independence again,” over 70 percent of respondents agreed. This has been a constant trend across several waves of surveys in the past decade. This presents a puzzling question: why do people view Taiwan as independent but, at the same time, oppose declaring independence?
This paradox is, in fact, a rational calculation of Taiwanese people. According to the latest 2019 Taiwan National Security Survey—which is overseen by Professor Emerson Niou at Duke University and administered by the Election Study Center at National Chengchi University—more than 60.3 percent of the respondents opposed Taiwan independence if it would be followed by a Chinese military invasion. That number drops to 26.6 percent in a scenario where China does not use armed forces to attack following Taiwan’s declaration of independence. This explains why China insists on the necessity of using force and continues to threaten Taiwan on sovereignty issues.
Two Types of Green Supporters: What Does State Normalization Mean?
The long-standing support for the status quo may also reflect a lack of discussion on different options for the nation’s future. Within the so-called pan-green (pro-independence) camp, there are at least two different major opinions, with the fundamental difference lying in attitudes toward the Republic of China. The first school of thought—supported by traditional and fundamentalist pro-independence proponents—maintains that the Taiwanese people do not yet have their own country, and the current ROC’s rule over Taiwan is illegal (based on the argument that the ROC has no right to rule Taiwan because the Treaty of San Francisco did not specify the succession of the sovereignty of Taiwan after the end of Japanese colonial rule). Thus, the proponents of this school contend that a new constitution for a new country is needed. This group is often described as “deep green.”
The second school of thought accepts that Taiwan is already an independent country, and has been one since the ROC and PRC became two countries in 1949, when the ROC established itself in Taiwan. This school of thought argues that constitutional reforms are necessary for “normalizing” the status of this country. Such reforms could include replacing the name China (in its official name, ROC) with Taiwan and revising KMT’s historical claims over the whole of China. This “light green” camp is closer to the middle of the political spectrum.
The current DPP administration and President Tsai are closer to the second category, which seeks state normalization. Although it has not yet initiated constitutional reforms, the Tsai administration often stresses that Taiwan is not a part of China, as it no longer insists on sovereignty over the whole of China, nor does it set unification as a final goal for the country. Indeed, the Tsai government has not pursued changing the official name of the ROC, as some “deep green” DPP supporters, dissatisfied with the slow pace of becoming de jure independent, have argued for. In fact, the mainstream thinking among the current ruling elites is that Taiwan is already independent, although lacking recognition by the UN.
On the spectrum of views on the status of the ROC, TNC founder and Taiwan independence advocate Koo Kwang-ming is clearly representative of the “deep green” side. However, in my opinion, since the establishment of TNC in 2019, the organization has been pursuing a process of state normalization, which would seemingly be more aligned with the “light green” stance.
The Deep/Authentic Blue and Pro-Unification Camps
Similarly, there are also two basic distinctions within the pan-blue (pro-unification) camp, based on attitudes toward China’s Communist Party (CCP). First, those at the extreme end of the pro-unification spectrum argue that Taiwan should unify with China as soon as possible, as they do not perceive the CCP as a threat. Some even propose that Taiwan should be ruled by the CCP. This extreme position is held by a group that could be described as “CCP advocates” or proponents of “red-unification” (紅統).
Second, the traditional view—originating from the authoritarian KMT regime—holds that the ROC is the only legitimate China, and both Taiwan and the mainland are a part of it. In the past, the official goal of this camp was to “retake the territory by force” (反攻大陸), but it shifted in the 1980s towards working to “reunify” China in accordance with the “Three Principles” (三民主義). During the process of democratization, this ideology changed once again, now seeking to “unify all of China by democratic rule in the future” (民主統一). This anti-communist unification could be labeled as “authentic ROC blue” (正統藍).
Currently, the KMT continues to insist on “One-China” (e.g., as has former President Ma) as laid out in the “1992 Consensus,” stating that both Taiwan and the mainland are two parts of one country set to unify in the future. However, the most significant change in the pro-unification camp is that the KMT has gradually abolished its anti-CCP (or more generally, anti-communist) ideology. Regardless of their attitudes toward the PRC, both extreme blue and traditional blue believers would likely oppose any kind of constitutional reform addressing the sovereignty issue.
The Middle of the Spectrum and the Distribution of Public Opinion
In a survey conducted in July 2018 and administered by the Pollcracy Lab of the Election Study Center at National Chengchi University (政大選研中心線上調查實驗室), my colleagues and I found that both the authentic blue and deep green stances are each supported by less than 5 percent of the public, while around 6 percent support red-unification. Nearly one third (32 percent) of Taiwanese people support the process of normalization, the light green position. Still, roughly half (54 percent) of the nation’s population does not want any change to the de facto status of the ROC at this moment.
The survey finds two types of people in the middle of the spectrum. First, some people insist on using the ROC as the official name of Taiwan, a position closer to the pro-unification camp. However, this “light blue” group does not necessarily support the position that the ROC is the only authentic China. Instead, it tends to hold ambiguous attitudes toward the PRC. Second, in the opposite direction closer to the green camp, some view the ROC as equivalent to Taiwan, while viewing the PRC as another sovereign state. Our survey estimates that 29 percent of people tend to support the light blue attitude and 25 percent support the idea of two de facto independent countries across the Strait from each other (兩國論). When asked about national future, these two groups currently oppose the idea of adopting constitutional reforms to reduce any legal inconsistencies between Taiwan and ROC, as such actions may result in retaliation from China. This group is often categorized as “status-quo” ROC supporters.
Taken together, although a majority (54 percent) of Taiwanese citizens seeks no change to the current constitutional status of the country, there are diverse opinions behind the scenes. Based on survey data, those who believe that the ROC and the PRC are two separate, sovereign entities are more likely to be more supportive of constitutional reform than supporters of the light blue position.
The proponents of the referendum to initiate constitutional reform originate from civil society rather than from an official platform. While pushing for formal changes to the ROC constitution could be described by some observers as pursuing de jure independence, the goal of state normalization is in fact an attempt to make the constitution more consistent with the status quo as perceived by the majority of Taiwanese people.
The main point: The preference of unification versus independence in Taiwan is an oversimplified dichotomy. “A new constitution” is not necessarily an equivalent to “declaring independence.” Constitutional reform could help normalize the legal framework for the status quo.