China Power | Politics | East Asia

Election Aside, Taiwan’s Generation Gap Will Shape Relations With China

Whatever the result of the election on Saturday, the surge in Taiwanese identity among young people is here to stay.

By Jeremy Huai-Che Chiang for
Election Aside, Taiwan’s Generation Gap Will Shape Relations With China
Credit: Office of the President, ROC (Taiwan)

Taiwan’s 2020 presidential elections are now just days away, with the final polls giving incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) a 16 percent lead over main opposition Nationalist Party (KMT) candidate Han Kuo-yu. Factors such as Han’s campaign blunders, the Hong Kong protests, and a ramped up media strategy have culminated in Tsai’s impressive comeback from clear unpopularity just one year ago. Tsai seems set to win re-election on January 11, and many are already starting to analyze the potential implications for Taiwan’s relations with China.

But while it is tempting to infer the trajectory of cross-strait relations through the lens of one election, an increasingly apparent generation gap in Taiwanese identity politics provides a better vantage point to understand Taiwan’s future relations with China.

Taiwanese Youth Ready to Fight to Preserve Autonomy

If we disaggregate Tsai’s support, we find that her relative lead is especially pronounced among the young. She leads Han by 39 percentage points among 20-29 year-olds and 35 percentage points among 30-39 year-olds in polls. In contrast, she leads Han by only 6 percentage points among those aged 50-59, an age group in which Han had been ahead earlier last year. The results of this poll, however, should not be interpreted as reflecting only Tsai’s particular likability among the youth and Han’s failure to connect. A rising Taiwanese identity and alienation toward unification with China are the fundamental reasons behind this generation gap, and Han’s perceived China-friendly image has cost him dearly.

Another survey by the renowned Commonwealth Magazine gives us a further sense of this trend: when asked whether they considered themselves as Chinese, Taiwanese or both, 82.4 percent of 20-29 year-olds considered themselves as Taiwanese only. For people aged 40-49, 50-59, and 60-plus, that number was between 55-58 percent in all three groups. And when asked about the future of Taiwan’s relations with the mainland, 49.4 percent of 20-29 year-olds and 33.5 percent of 30-39 year-olds wanted independence for Taiwan if peace with China was possible (italics added by author). The status quo was the leading result in all age categories except for 20-29 year-olds. However, as the popular impression in Taiwan is that independence will result in war with China, other polls suggest that while the youth have stronger Taiwanese nationalism, their status quo tendency is actually more apparent than other age groups. It is not provocative independence that Taiwanese youth are after, but an insistence on anti-unification and caution toward China.

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One other popular impression — that Taiwanese youth are willing to talk independence but not willing to fight for it — has also been debunked by new polls. A survey conducted by the Election Study Center of National Chengchi University in early 2018 showed that when asked if they would fight for Taiwan if China attempted to achieve reunification through military force, 71.6 percent in the 20-39 age group said “yes.” Another question asked respondents whether they would fight for Taiwan if Taiwan formally announced independence, resulting in China resorting to force — 64.5 percent in the 20-39 age group said yes, 7.8 percentage points higher than the percentage for all respondents. Other results from this survey also show the youth’s deep appreciation for the country’s democratic system.

All in all, the abovementioned polls indicate that the younger generation has a deep attachment toward Taiwan’s autonomy and are willing to fight to defend it, no less (or even more) than their elders.

Winners and Losers

How are major parties in Taiwan and the Chinese government responding to these political trends? We can see that the DPP has cashed in by actively encouraging this identity formation, incubating youth support for their cause. 2014 Sunflower Movement leader Lin Fei-fan joined the DPP as deputy secretary-general in mid-July 2019, shocking Taiwan’s political landscape, while a stream of young candidates for the legislative race have become the new face of the DPP in this 2020 election, many whom openly discuss China’s threat to Taiwan’s democracy and support for national defense in their policy platforms. The DPP seems set to benefit from this political shift in the long run.

The KMT, however, has been struggling in this regard. Their proposed party-list candidates for the legislature race was on average much older and some candidates were widely perceived as China-friendly, which was met with widespread criticism and possibly affected Han’s polls. Many progressive young policy professionals trained during former President Ma Ying-jeou’s tenure fell out of grace under the current KMT leadership, with some joining Terry Guo’s team during his KMT party primary contest against Han. Guo left the party after his defeat and is now actively campaigning for other third-party candidates. All in all, the KMT is still struggling to redefine itself after its 2016 electoral defeat, trying to understand whether it should double down on China-friendly discourse and the Republic of China discursive framework or further the party’s Taiwanization process, embarked on since the 1980s under Chiang Ching-kuo’s rule.

The Chinese government, on the other hand, has been redoubling its efforts to attract Taiwan’s youth in recent years. Policies include setting up over 50 start-up incubators in China designed especially for young Taiwanese entrepreneurs, while in July 2018 China’s Ministry of Education asked universities to relax entrance requirements for Taiwanese students. The “26 measures” announced by Beijing in November 2019 also call for the construction of more youth employment and entrepreneurship hub demonstration sites targeting Taiwanese youth. Sponsored-education trips to China have also been a vehicle for Beijing to influence Taiwan’s young; according to the Taiwan Affairs Office of the Chinese State Council, over 3,000 Taiwanese youth participated these activities in 2018. Some of these efforts, however, have increasingly been met with resistance and boycotts by Taiwanese students. Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council has also recently reminded that students and universities should be cautious of these activities.

While it seems from the abovementioned trends that the DPP might be poised to enjoy long-term dominance in Taiwanese politics, the increasing number of nonpartisans, as discussed by a recent academic study poses an additional layer of complexity. Many Taiwanese are increasingly tired of established parties; they are willing to vote for third parties and might potentially support populist candidates. This has led to the rise of Taipei City Mayor Ko Wen-je, whose Taiwan People’s Party enjoys a comfortable third-place position in the legislative party-list race and is set to win seats, according to recent polls. Ko has been willing to deal with China, and Beijing is watching closely to understand his views on cross-strait relations, carefully preparing itself should the KMT gradually disintegrate due to infighting in recent years.

A recent survey of 11,369 students by the National Student’s Union of Taiwan also shows that while the DPP enjoys 25.78 percent support, third parties such as the New Power Party (26.86 percent), State-Building Party (24.21 percent), and Taiwan People’s Party (11.87 percent) are also performing quite well among young university students.

The combined implications of these trends mean that the youth in Taiwan are gradually influencing the structure of Taiwanese politics, which will hold huge implications for cross-strait relations in the coming decades. The Chinese government might have to seriously deal with non-KMT parties as major dialogue counterparts in the future, while also working out a new formula to appeal to Taiwanese. While it may be tempting for Beijing to think it should resort to force, since winning hearts and minds to pursue unification is increasingly impossible, it’s important to point out that this is not the most viable solution. China might not even win the resulting war.

As I wrote in another piece, China’s stubborn refusal to engage with the Democratic Progressive Party is undermining its own stated goal of peaceful unification and encouraging independence tendencies in Taiwan. Beijing should adjust these antiquated approaches and try to understand the emerging identity of Taiwanese youth as it is. Forcing Taiwanese pop stars and actors to apologize over their nationality will only backfire, as the Chou Tzu-yu incident before the 2016 elections clearly proved. Taiwan’s political parties need to adapt to this new landscape, just as much as Beijing needs to rethink its Taiwan policy.

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Jeremy Huai-Che Chiang is a Non-Resident Research Associate at the Taiwan-Asia Exchange Foundation and MPhil Candidate at the University of Cambridge, U.K. His work has been featured in the National Interest, The Diplomat, East Asia Forum and other international outlets.