One of the issues related to public opinion in Taiwan most closely gauged by the international community is the attitude of the island’s population towards independence from—or unification with—China. The reason for this interest is obvious given the possible consequences of a decision by the government in Taiwan to move in either direction. While President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) has been widely recognized by Washington and the international community for her steady approach to maintaining cross-Strait stability despite Beijing’s increasing belligerence and growing domestic pressure, there are concerns that the United States should refrain from taking steps toward “strategic clarity” in terms of an explicit commitment to defend Taiwan against a Chinese invasion. This is due in part to concerns about the future of Taiwan politics—namely, that a future president of Taiwan would break from Tsai’s approach and radically alter the status quo.
Despite apprehensions over the possibility of a radical change in Taipei, such concerns are—at least in the near to medium term—not supported by a preliminary analysis about trendlines in public opinion within Taiwan. Indeed, the latest poll by the National Chengchi University’s Election Study Center (國立政治大學 選舉研究中心) released on July 20, 2021 shows that an overwhelming 87.4 percent of the respondents continue to support maintaining some form of the current status quo across the Taiwan Strait, with only small fractions of the population preferring to declare independence or unification as soon as possible (5.6 percent and 1.5 percent, respectively).
Some experts concerned by a possible US move towards “strategic clarity” point to the pro-independence proclivities of the current vice president of Taiwan and the risk that the United States could be pulled into an military conflict with China should Taiwan’s ruling party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP, 民進黨), win another presidential election. Yet, such concerns tend to ignore the fact that any explicit commitment is never unconditional. Moreover, observed trends of public opinion within the country since at least the 2000s (when Taiwan had its first peaceful transfer of political power) have demonstrated that any elected leader, even the president, would be very unlikely to radically change the balance of public opinion within Taiwan.
For instance, at the beginning of President Chen Shui-bian’s (陳水扁) first term in 2000, the first DPP president was widely seen as pro-independence and took notable steps in that direction. At the time, the majority of Taiwan’s population preferred some form of the status quo at 77.7 percent—whereas only 3.1 percent and 2.0 percent preferred independence or unification as soon as possible, respectively. At the end of his term in 2008, 82 percent still indicated they preferred some form of the status quo—with those preferring independence as soon as possible at only 7.1 percent, and supporters of unification at 1.5 percent. This level of support for these particular preferences remained relatively stable during President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) term from 2008 to 2016. President Ma, on the other hand, was seen as pro-unification and accordingly took steps toward more closely integrating the two economies. In other words, the impact of the elected leader—despite that person’s perceived preference for independence or unification—had little significant impact on public opinion and arguably, when the public determined that they veered too far in one direction, they were voted out of office. This happened in 2008 and again in 2016.
There are, however, interesting indicators of some subtle shifts in the attitudes among Taiwan’s population on specific preferences regarding the status quo. Indeed, the status quo itself is not monolith or static. Although it is consistently clear that a majority of voters prefer some form of the status quo, the NCCU poll gives the respondents the option to decide whether they would prefer the status quo, with four amplifying options: (1) decide Taiwan’s status later; (2) maintain the status quo indefinitely; (3) move towards independence; or (4) move towards unification. From these choices, there are four observable directions in the public’s preference for the status quo that bear highlighting. Since 2016 to 2021, beginning with the year that President Tsai Ing-wen was elected into office, the percentages among people who prefer the status quo have changed as follows:
- Those who would prefer to “decide later” decreased from 33.3 percent to 28.2 percent;
- Those preferring to move towards independence increased from 18.3 percent to 25.8 percent (most notably, the percentage dropped from 2016 to 2018 but then spiked considerably from 15.1 in 2018 to 25.8);
- Those who would like to move towards unification dropped from 8.5 percent to 5.9 percent;
- And those preferring to maintain the status quo indefinitely remained at relatively the same level, rising from 26.1 percent to 27.5 percent.
The shifts in the population’s particular preferences regarding the status quo are obviously affected by developments in cross-Strait relations. Since 2016, cross-Strait relations have deteriorated significantly as Beijing resumed its diplomatic offensive to isolate Taiwan, and significantly ramped up its coercive pressure campaign in the military, political, and economic domains. Beijing and some observers attribute this decline in relations to Tsai’s unwillingness to endorse by name the so-called “1992 Consensus” (九二共識) and to express, in Beijing’s view, a credible commitment to the “One-China Principle” (一中原則). Others have noted, however, that Tsai’s position as spelled out in her 2016 inauguration speech and restrained actions since taking office reflect a type of “One-China Policy” (一中政策). But even such explanations fail to grasp the full picture of the subtle shifts in public opinion within Taiwan and largely ignore the impact of external events—most notably, how the ongoing crisis in Hong Kong is shaping how Taiwanese people see their potential future with the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
The most noticeable shift from the latest NCCU poll has been the significant increase since 2018 in the percentage of people who prefer the status quo now, but want to move towards independence later: from 15.1 percent to 25.8 percent in 2021. This spike, which started in 2018, coincides with growing protests in Hong Kong and Beijing’s heavy-handed crackdown, as well as Beijing’s increasing military coercion directed at Taiwan. The demonstration effects are in plain view and the connection has been clearly drawn by senior officials in the United States as well. In response to a question from Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) concerning a hypothetical change in US policy towards adopting an explicit commitment to defend Taiwan, and whether it might precipitate further separation from China, the Biden Administration’s Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told the Senate Armed Services Committee in late April: “I would say that already Taiwan is hardening to some extent towards independence as they’re watching, essentially, what happened in Hong Kong, and I think that is an increasing challenge.”
According to polling data released by the Mainland Affairs Council (MAC), which is Taiwan’s cabinet-level government agency in charge of implementing cross-Strait policies, public opinion polling on Chinese Communist Party (CCP) General Secretary Xi Jinping’s speech celebrating the centenary of the Party’s establishment found that a majority of the population expressed disapproval of China’s approach to Hong Kong and Taiwan.
While a move towards unification appears farther out of reach than perhaps at any point in the last 40 years, a sudden shift towards independence is also equally unlikely in the near to medium term. Indeed, a dramatic shift in any direction is very unlikely at this point, even if local and national elections move the country incrementally in a direction that may either be closer or further from the goals of the parties involved. There are no solid indicators that a radical change would take place, even if current Vice President Lai Ching-te (賴淸德) became the DPP candidate for president in the 2024 election and won. The latest NCCU poll shows that an overwhelming 87.4 percent of respondents continue to support maintaining some form of the current status quo across the Taiwan Strait, with only small fractions of the population preferring to immediately declare independence or unification. The candidates who will run in the 2024 election will need to keep this in mind when formulating campaign platforms and policies.
To be sure, however, demographic changes within Taiwan and increasingly hardened views towards China will make it more difficult for the opposition Nationalist Party (Kuomintang or KMT) to return to its traditional and more conciliatory approach to China. Further, actions that will likely be taken by Beijing will make a return to the 2008-2016 period even harder as the CCP uses more sticks in its attempt to rein in Taipei. As noted in the 2021 Annual Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence:
Beijing will press Taiwan authorities to move toward unification and will condemn what it views as increased US-Taiwan engagement. We expect that friction will grow as Beijing steps up attempts to portray Taipei as internationally isolated and dependent on the mainland for economic prosperity, and as China continues to increase military activity around the island.
In 2021, the percentage of respondents in Taiwan who prefer independence as soon as possible stands only at 5.6 percent of the population (the same as it was in 1997), whereas those preferring unification as soon as possible stand at 1.5 percent. Barring major policy changes in Beijing and Washington over the legal status of Taiwan, these indicators are unlikely to change drastically in the near term—even if the debate over “strategic ambiguity” moves clearly in favor of clarity. This is in part because strategic clarity does not require taking a position on Taiwan’s legal status—it only indicates that if military force were used to change the status quo, then Washington would respond. Regardless of the outcome of this debate, public opinion in Taiwan will remain an important bulwark against any unilateral radical changes.
The main point: The latest NCCU poll shows that an overwhelming 87.4 percent of Taiwanese continue to support maintaining some form of the status quo across the Taiwan Strait. These indicators are unlikely to change drastically in the near term—even if the debate over “strategic ambiguity” in the United States moves clearly in favor of clarity.