Fortnightly Review

Fortnightly Review

Fortnightly Review

Polls: DPP Party Identification Surges Amid China’s Intensifying Pressure

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been pulling out all the stops in recent years to pressure Taiwan and isolate the government currently led by President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP, 民進黨). Amid the CCP’s intensifying campaign against the island-democracy, party identification with the ruling DPP—which traditionally supports a more defiant approach to dealing with Beijing—is surging, especially over the past two years. According to the latest polling data released by the National Chengchi University’s Election Study Center (政治大學選舉研究中心), the percentage of Taiwan’s population that identifies with the DPP increased sharply over the past two years, rising 16.7 percent (from 20.1 percent in 2018 to 36.8 percent in 2020). Meanwhile, party identification with the opposition Nationalist Party (Kuomintang or KMT, 國民黨)—which has traditionally favored a more conciliatory approach toward Beijing—experienced a sharp decline of 9.6 percent, from 25.4 percent in 2018 (which was at the time higher than party identification with the DPP) to 15.8 percent in 2020. During the same two-year period, the percentage of independent respondents or those without a response decreased from 49.1 percent to 37.8 percent—a decline of 12.7 percent.  The polling also accounted for identification with the smaller parties, such as the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) with 5.3 percent, the New Power Party (NPP) with 3.3 percent, and the People’s First Party (PFP) with 0.6 percent.

Photo courtesy of National Chengchi University’s Election Study Center.

The results of this poll from the Election Study Center—which has been tracking party identification within Taiwan since 1992—shows party identification with the DPP at its highest point since the poll started, a remarkable shift since its lowest point in 1992, when it registered at a mere 3.3 percent. Simultaneously, party identification with the KMT is currently near its lowest point, only slightly higher than its nadir of 14.8 percent, which was registered in 2001 following the first transfer of political power from the KMT to the DPP in the 2000 presidential election. Notably, the KMT still retained a majority in the Legislative Yuan after that the 2001 election, a luxury it does not enjoy today.

It is worth pointing out that party identification in Taiwan tends to shift between the two major political parties, with both the KMT and DPP experiencing regular increases and decreases in support. For instance, the recent surge in identification with the DPP comes on the heels of a precipitous decline, which began at 31.2 percent in 2015 (immediately after the 2014 Sunflower Movement) and dropped for three consecutive years to 20.1 percent in 2018. In the past, party identification has tended to ebb and flow depending on the health of the economy and in response to significant political events, such as the Sunflower Movement in 2014. However, the recent surge in party identification in favor of the DPP during a period of a relatively underperforming economy and in the absence of any major political shocks raise the question of whether what we’re seeing right now in terms of public sentiment in Taiwan is a transition to something more permanent.

Indeed, China’s aggressive poaching of Taiwan’s diplomatic partners, increased military exercises, and its hardening rhetoric towards Taiwan over the past several years—especially since 2016—could be having generational effects on Taiwan, as the KMT and DPP have been traditionally seen to represent starkly different approaches to China. According to the recently released polling data from Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council (大陸委員會), the cabinet agency in charge of cross-Strait policy, 75.4 percent of the respondents believed that China was unfriendly towards the Taiwan government and 60.5 percent believed that it was unfriendly toward the Taiwanese people. The views of younger generations toward Beijing offer an even starker contrast. According to a 2018 survey conducted by the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy (TFD), when asked specifically “would you fight for Taiwan if mainland China uses force against Taiwan for unification?,” 70.3 percent of the respondents under the age of 39 said “yes” and only 26.5 percent said “no.” According to the same poll, 86.2 percent of 20-39 year-olds agreed that democracy is the best political system.

While the poll from the Election Study Center on party identification is not broken down in terms of age groups, it stands to reason—by inference from the country’s 2020 presidential election—that a sizeable portion of the youth identifies with the DPP. The youth vote was widely recognized as a determining factor in the 2020 presidential election. In fact, the Institute of Sociology at Academia Sinica found that 72 percent of voters below the age of 40 had cast their ballot for Tsai Ing-wen in that election, while more than 60 percent of college graduates had also chosen to re-elect the president.

The poll administered by the Election Study Center, which is an academic institution and is considered non-partisan, is consistent with the findings of other polls that are more aligned with either of the two ruling parties. For instance, a poll conducted by the DPP-leaning Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation (台灣民意基金會), which asked respondents which political party they support, revealed that among Taiwanese adults over the age of 20, 28.2 percent support the DPP, 16.2 percent support the KMT, 10.7 percent support the TPP, 10.6 percent support the NPP, 4 percent support the Taiwan Statebuilding Party, and 25.6 percent did not support any specific party. Moreover, according to polling data released in June by the KMT-affiliated National Policy Foundation (國家政策研究基金會), the DPP’s party support is as high as 32.9 percent, compared to the KMT at 13.7 percent, the TPP at 6.6 percent, the NPP at 5.9 percent, the Taiwan Statebuilding Party at 0.8 percent, and the PFP at 0.2 percent. Whether Beijing’s hardening stance against Taiwan is having generational effects remains to be seen, but the correlation between surging party identification with the DPP and Beijing’s increasing belligerence cannot be easily ignored.

The main point: Amid China’s intensifying pressure against Taiwan, party identification with the ruling Democratic Progressive Party is surging and has reached a new high, according to a recent academic poll.

Former Japanese Prime Minister’s Tribute Visit Underscores Tokyo’s Delicate but Affirmative Approach to Cross-Strait Relations

All countries that maintain relations with both Taipei and Beijing have to balance their contacts with Taiwan due to Beijing’s sensitivities toward official and even semi-official interactions between other governments and the island-democracy. Certain countries like the United States and Japan—despite not having formal diplomatic relations with Taipei—maintain strong and extensive economic, people-to-people, and even security ties with the country. The relative depths of these ties were on clear display this week, as US Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar and former Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori both arrived in Taiwan at around the same time—albeit for different purposes.

While the two delegations had different missions, both demonstrated similar motivations. As countries begin to realize that China’s rise on the international stage comes part and parcel with grave political and military implications, capitals across the region and the world have been recalibrating their relations with Taipei and Beijing. In this regard, Tokyo is no exception. While Washington has been actively supporting Taiwan vis-à-vis China and has even raised the level of contact with Taiwan in recent years with the current visit by Secretary Azar—the highest-ranking US cabinet official to visit since 1979—the first de facto official foreign delegation to pay tribute to the late Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) was led by former Prime Minister Mori. The respectful nature of the visit underscores Tokyo’s delicate but affirmative approach to cross-Strait relations.

Mori, the prime minister of Japan from 2000 to 2001, is the highest-ranking non-governmental official with a history of relations with former President Lee. The former prime minister, and a senior member of current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s political faction, acknowledged Abe’s role in helping to arrange the delegation’s one-day visit to Taiwan. Although, as noted by some in the media, Mori was not designated as a “special envoy” of the Japanese government or of Prime Minister Abe—due to the absence of diplomatic ties—he is widely seen as the de facto surrogate for Prime Minister Abe at this official event. Mori “effectively acted on behalf of the prime minister,” a lawmaker from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) stated. The former prime minister himself alluded to this arrangement in his formal response to the media. Mori is famously known in Taiwan for allowing Lee to visit Japan after he stepped down as president, despite strong objections from within the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the People’s Republic of China.

Compared to the United States’ visible and strong act of support for Taiwan in light of China’s tightening squeeze of Taiwan’s diplomatic space, the approach taken by the Japanese government has been subtler but also increasingly more affirmative. This is reflected in part by Tokyo’s decision to join the Global Cooperation and Training Framework as a full partner in 2019. Governmental acts have been reinforced by the growing people-to-people ties between the two East Asian democracies. There appears to be a stronger and arguably deeper public awareness about Taiwan among the Japanese public. According to a public opinion survey of Japanese attitudes toward Taiwan conducted by Japan’s Central Research Services, Inc. (一般社団法人中央調査社) in late 2019, which was commissioned by the Taiwan representative office in Japan, revealed that more than 78 percent of the respondents felt “familiar” with Taiwan, 74.9 percent felt that the Taiwan-Japan relationship was “good,” and more than 63.1 percent answered that Taiwan was “trustworthy.” Also, according to the survey results, 55 percent said that Taiwan is the most familiar place in the Asian region. When asked why they feel that Taiwan was familiar, 78.1 percent answered that they feel “friendly” to Taiwan, and the reason that “Taiwanese people are kind and friendly” was the most common at 77.6 percent, followed by the “long historical relations” between the two nations at 46 percent, and “because of the assistance provided by Taiwan to Japan during the Great East Japan Earthquake” in 2011 was 36.2 percent. On the issue of trust, the reasons for the high-level of trust was “because they [Taiwanese people] are friendly to Japan” was the most common at 66.6 percent, followed by “having a sense of (shared) values ​​such as freedom and democracy” at 53.7 percent. Regarding the future of Taiwan-Japan relations, 57.8 percent said that the relationship will become more “developed.”

One plausible explanation for the seeming disconnect between the favorable public opinion towards Taiwan and relatively measured government action from Japan could be because, as RAND analyst Jeffrey Hornung wrote in a Brookings study in 2018, “Despite a trend of strengthening ties between Japan and Taiwan, Japan’s relationship with the PRC will continue to dictate how fast and how far any Japanese administration can push bilateral ties with Taiwan.” Hornung added, “In practice, this has meant that when reaching out to Taipei, Tokyo maintains a constant focus on Beijing’s response. While unspoken, this has given China an indirect role in Japan-Taiwan relations and sets real limitations on how fast and how far Japan’s relationship with Taiwan can progress.” The same logic by and large seems to still hold true today.

The momentous breakthroughs of the past week are occurring against the backdrop of deepening people-to-people ties between Taiwan and Japan, as evidenced by the 2019 survey. While Secretary Azar’s visit represents the highest-level US government representative to visit Taiwan since 1979, it is also worth noting that Japan has also taken steps to elevate its contact with Taiwan in recent years. In March 2017, in the highest-level Japanese government representative official visit to Taiwan since 1972, Vice Minister of Japan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications Jiro Akama attended a tourism event in his official capacity.

Purposefully planned to be the first foreign delegation to pay tribute to the late Taiwanese president, Prime Minister Mori’s visit is indicative of Japan’s subtle approach to deepening people-to-people relations with Taiwan. While progress in relations between Taiwan and Japan at the governmental level have improved in recent years, the steps have generally been sparse despite the fact that Prime Minister Abe is considered one of Japan’s most pro-Taiwan prime ministers. It remains far from certain whether and to what extent Tokyo will advocate for further deepening of its ties with Taipei—especially after the Abe administration. In any case, the strong people-to-people relations between Taiwan and Japan should act as a buffer against any radical shift in the opposite direction.

The main point: Incremental improvements in governmental relations between Taiwan and Japan are reinforced by growing people-to-people ties between the two East Asian democracies.