Flashpoints | Society | East Asia

What Do Taiwan’s People Think About Their Relationship to China?

A new survey delves more deeply into Taiwanese public opinion toward the ROC, China, and the nation’s future.

By Fang-Yu Chen, Austin Wang, Charles K.S. Wu, and Yao-Yuan Yeh for
What Do Taiwan’s People Think About Their Relationship to China?
Credit: Office of the President, ROC (Taiwan)

Taiwan has recently received the international media spotlight due to its successful fight against COVID-19. This burgeoning democracy in East Asia, however, can be puzzling to a foreign audience. Taiwan is formally referred to as the Republic of China (ROC) and many wonder why using the name of “Taiwan” has been considered as causing trouble with China. People who know their history are aware that the name “ROC” has to do with the history across the Strait. They might even claim that Taiwan is in fact the “free China.” These are all common understandings abroad of Taiwan and its relations with China.

But how do Taiwanese citizens resolve the dilemma of national identity? In this piece, we explore how citizens in Taiwan think about the “Republic of China” name and whether it has any influence on their attitudes toward Taiwan’s relations with China.

Existing Measures of Independence and Unification

Here is what has been consistently found from previous polls exploring people’s attitudes toward unification/independence: (1) most Taiwanese citizens want to maintain the “status quo”; (2) Taiwanese citizens are far more likely to support “declaring independence” when doing so does not trigger a Chinese attack; (3) the majority of the public opposes unification with China. Also, most (over 70 percent) of the public in Taiwan consider their country to be a sovereign state with the official name of the Republic of China, so the issue of declaring de jure independence is a moot point.

Existing measurements leave several key nuances unaddressed, however. For example, current questionnaires do not tap into the specifics of the term, “status quo,” which could mean different things for pro-Taiwan citizens versus pro-China ones. Current polls also focus on the attitudinal perspectives without studying what concrete actions citizens would stand behind in pursuit of their desired cross-strait policy, be it independence or unification. To address these shortcomings, we propose a new way of measuring attitudes toward independence or unification, with the objective of capturing previously neglected differences.

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Two Types of “Green,” Two Types of “Blue,” and Two Types of Status-Quo ROC Supporters

Before we discuss the new measurement, here is some background on how supporters of the

pan-green (pro-independence) parties think of the “ROC” name. The first school, often referred to as “deep green,” repudiates any association with the term, claiming that the “Republic of China” moniker has little to no legitimacy to represent the citizens of Taiwan. To them, it is imperative for citizens in Taiwan to establish their own country with a new name that has no association with the term “China.”

Supporters of the second school (sometimes dubbed “light green”) argue that Taiwan is already an independent country. They often cite the fact that the ROC and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) have been two separate sovereign entities since the tentative end of the civil war in 1949. Though they often do not consider establishing a new country a necessity, they prioritize constitutional reforms to reduce any legal inconsistencies between Taiwan and ROC.

The light green position is the one favored by the current president of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen, and her administration. Although Tsai has not initiated any constitutional reforms, she often stresses that Taiwan is not part of China, and that Taiwan does not assert legitimacy on the mainland. However, Tsai has not pursued changing the official name of ROC. Predictably, Tsai’s moderate stance has alienated or even angered her “deep green” supporters seeking de jure independence for Taiwan.

On the opposite side of Taiwan’s political divide, the “blue” camp, there are also two distinct understandings of the ROC, based on different attitudes toward the PRC. First, the traditionalists, coming out of the authoritarian Kuomintang regime, maintain that the ROC is the only legitimate China, and both Taiwan and the mainland (China) are part of it. While proponents of this group still seek to regain the mainland, their desired tactics have morphed from conquest by force to now by democratic rule, after experiencing decades of democratization in Taiwan.

At the extreme end of the pro-unification spectrum is a fringe group that advocates unification with China as soon as possible. They do not see the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as a threat; in fact, they yearn to be willingly ruled by the CCP.

The mainstream stance of the current major opposition party in Taiwan, the KMT, is somewhere in the middle of these two, and is predicated on the “one China principle,” which holds that both Taiwan and the mainland are part of China and the two parts shall unify. Most KMT members have given up on the anti-CCP and anti-communist ideology of their Cold War-era predecessors. That trend goes back to as early as 2005, when former KMT chairman Lien Chan visited China, followed by another eight years of close socioeconomic exchanges across the strait under the Ma Ying-jeou administration.

Outside the pan-blue and pan-green camps, a significant portion of the Taiwanese public supports a moderate version of the light green and traditional blue position, in which they recognize Taiwan is already an independent country. This group of people can be further differentiated by whether they recognize that the ROC and PRC have been two separate sovereign entities. The common characteristic is that they oppose the idea of adopting constitutional reforms to reduce any legal inconsistencies between Taiwan and the ROC, as such moves may antagonize China. This group is often categorized as pro-status quo, with strong support for the existing de facto state, the Republic of China.

Results From a New Survey

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To better capture the reality of public opinion, we design a new questionnaire and fielded it in Taiwan with the assistance of the Pollcracy Lab at National Chengchi University between July 6 and 9, 2018. The survey, which includes over 1,000 subjects, and probed respondents’ understanding of the political status of Taiwan with the following question: “With respect to Taiwan’s political and formal status, which of the following is closet to your understanding?” Here are the results:

In accordance with conventional wisdom, both the deep green position (Taiwanese do not have their own country) and the pro-CCP position (the PRC is the only legitimate China, and both Taiwan and the mainland are part of it) had meager support of less than 10 percent. The traditionalist position of the KMT (the ROC is the only legitimate China, and both Taiwan and the mainland are part of it), did not fare much better, with support of around 13 percent. Last, the current position of the Tsai administration (Taiwan is already an independent country, and the ROC and PRC have been two countries since 1949) was endorsed by 71.1 percent of the respondents.

When subjects were randomly given one of two questions asking whether they considered either Taiwan or the ROC, respectively, as a sovereign state, both options revived nearly 90 percent support, offering additional evidence that the public considers Taiwan, as a synonym to the ROC, to be a sovereign state.

The survey also tapped into questions about what to do with the political status of Taiwan. Once again, fringe positions such as the deep green view (3.4 percent) and one China traditionalists (3.2 percent) each received little support. Another 6.7 percent of the public support the extreme pan-blue position, that the two sides of the Straits should be unified as soon as possible.

What is notable are the options corresponding to the status quo. Tsai’s position (Taiwan is an independent country already, while pursuing state normalization) received around 31.9 percent support as the ideal option for Taiwan’s political future. It shows a strong base of light green supporters in Taiwan. But another 53.9 percent of the public choose to maintain the status quo as the ROC at this moment – 25 percent support the idea of two de facto independent countries across the strait, while 29 percent tend to support the light blue attitude, not recognizing the PRC as a separate country. Both considered it unnecessary to either declare independence or “fight back” and unify the mainland.

Conclusion

Taken together, the survey has added to our understandings of the Taiwanese public in a few ways. It shows that even when the majority supports the status quo, they will not necessarily back the same options for dealing with the political status of Taiwan. We also find that citizens who believe in the status quo and are DPP supporters are more likely to back Tsai’s vision of gradually making Taiwan an independent country. However, an equal number of the public considers that the name “ROC,” rather than “Taiwan,” better reflects the legitimacy of the government in Taiwan. Supporters of this particular version of the status quo should be more likely to support the KMT.

In a nutshell, our poll reveals a more complicated story than the one provided by existing measures of attitudes toward independence and unification. Such nuances are important, as Taiwan has gradually become an integral part in the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy. Knowing what the Taiwanese think of themselves and their country’s relations with China is a key step to forming a robust relationship.

Fang-Yu Chen (@FangYu_80168 on Twitter) is a Ph.D. in Political Science at Michigan State University.

Austin Wang (@wearytolove) is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Charles K.S. Wu (@kuanshengtwn) is a PhD candidate of Political Science at Purdue University.

Yao-Yuan Yeh (@yeh2sctw) is an Assistant Professor of International Studies and Assistant Coordinator of the Taiwan & East Asia Studies Program in the Center for International Studies at the University of St. Thomas, Houston.