Being Taiwan: How do people on the island see the threat from mainland China?

How do people on the island see the threat from mainland China? Hsin-Hsin Pan on democracy, independence, and life between Beijing and Washington.
Andrew Haimerl
China’s foreign minister warned in April that anyone in Taiwan who rejected Beijing’s ultimate control over their country was “playing with fire.” The rhetoric accompanied large-scale Chinese military exercises in the Taiwan Strait after the island’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, met with Kevin McCarthy, then the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California.

Tensions between the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan date back to 1949, when Mao Zedong’s Communist Party took over the Chinese mainland and the nationalist Kuomintang moved its rival government to Taipei—but confrontations have been escalating since the 2016 election of Tsai, who favors greater independence from Beijing. China has meanwhile stepped up military flights into Taiwanese airspace, ramped up cyberattacks into the thousands daily against Taiwan government agencies, and is using more and more ominous language all around.

But as China’s president, Xi Jinping, continues to concentrate power and consolidate his autocratic rule, Taiwan is preparing for a presidential election in January. Having served two terms, Tsai is ineligible to run again—but her vice president, William Lai, is leading in the polls, and the race is dominated by questions about Taipei’s relationship with Beijing. So what do those questions look like for people in Taiwan?

Hsin-Hsin Pan is an assistant professor of sociology at Soochow University in Taipei. According to Pan, the majority of Taiwanese have long preferred maintaining the status quo of their ambiguous relationship with the mainland, though in recent years, more have been leaning toward independence—a shift reflected in the growing popularity of Tsai’s and Lai’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Overwhelming numbers of people in Taiwan fear a Chinese invasion—and believe that the odds of one have grown since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Despite enduring anxiety over the island’s sovereignty, Pan says, public support for democracy remains strong—even as some skepticism about it emerges among a disaffected younger generation.

This article is part of a series in partnership with the Human Rights Foundation.

Michael Bluhm: What does the debate look like right now among Taiwan’s major political parties about the country’s relationship with the People’s Republic?

Hsin-Hsin Pan: This coming presidential election is all about Taiwan’s China policy. President Tsai Ing-wen’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) resists China more forcefully, taking a harder line on defending Taiwan’s sovereignty, than the opposition Kuomintang (KMT). The other major candidates, including the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) and the independent Terry Gou, are also less aggressive than the DPP—and more flexible about potential negotiations with Beijing regarding Taiwan’s sovereignty.

Vice President William Lai, the DPP nominee now leading in national polls, is clearly pro-U.S. and anti-China, whereas the rest of the parties call for maintaining an equal distance between the two powers—making them more pro-China, relatively speaking. Economically, Lai is more in favor of decoupling from China, which is in line with the U.S. stance. The other parties and candidates are more supportive of resuming trade with China.

Where it comes to talks with Beijing, Lai and the DPP say they still support negotiating the relationship, but without any preconceived ideas about Taiwan’s status. The other parties support negotiating with Beijing, but they fundamentally accept Beijing’s position on the status of Taiwan.

So the dynamic of this election is the DPP versus everyone else—and everyone else has a lot in common. It’s a contest between a more confrontational position toward China and a less confrontational one.

Bluhm: What does Taiwanese public opinion look like on the issue?

Pan: It’s quite stable over time. For the last 30 years, the mainstream view in Taiwan has supported maintaining the status quo. Today, it’s the view of about 60 percent of the population. The extreme ends of the opinion spectrum—favoring either immediate independence from China or immediate unification with it—are marginal.

Even the DPP supports the status quo—but it supports the status quo with a pronounced tendency toward independence. Other parties support the status quo with tendencies toward more moderately pro-China policies.

Meanwhile, public support for any unification—whether that’s immediate or a gradual transition from the status quo—has been insignificant, steady decline over the past five years. It’s a trend that accelerated after 2020 on account of Beijing’s crackdown in Hong Kong. Now only about 7 or 8 percent of the population supports any form of unification at all.

The pro-independence position—whether for immediate or gradual independence from mainland China—has risen somewhat, now to between 25 to 30 percent of the population.

Bluhm: How worried do Taiwanese people tend to be about an invasion from the mainland?

Pan: In polling from the Asian Barometer Survey back in 2020, before the attack on Ukraine, a strong majority of Taiwanese people feared war, with 73.5 percent saying they worry very much or a great deal. But that survey included 16 other countries geographically close to mainland China, and the results for Taiwan were roughly in the middle of the list.

You could argue that Taiwan should be the country in Asia where the highest number of people are most worried about war—but in relative terms, it wasn’t. Even Japan had a higher ratio, with around 80 percent saying they worry about war very much or a great deal.

The other countries surveyed weren’t involved in any territorial or sovereignty issues with China, so not many of their people should be as highly worried about war. In a comparative sense, then, the number for Taiwan isn’t that high.

Still, recent polling shows 83 percent of Taiwanese people believe the threat of an invasion has increased in the past few years.

Daniel Gregoire
More from Hsin-Hsin Pan at The Signal:

Somewhere normally between 70 and 80 percent of the population in Taiwan will consistently say they’re worried about China attacking. What varies a lot isn’t this; what varies a lot are people’s views on the United States’ security commitment to Taiwan. Numbers on that question have gone down and up since the invasion of Ukraine. Before the war, the percentage of the Taiwanese population expressing confidence in the U.S. security commitment was around 70 percent. When Moscow attacked Ukraine, and the U.S. didn’t send troops, that confidence dropped by 30 percent. But after Nancy Pelosi—at the time, the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives—visited Taiwan in August 2022, it went back to the same level as before the Ukraine war. People in Taiwan are super-sensitive to current events.”

They don’t see U.S. support for Ukraine and U.S. support for Taiwan as a zero-sum proposition. … You’ll hear from certain Washington think tanks that the United States hasn’t sent any troops to Ukraine because the U.S. is reserving its military forces in East Asia to stabilize and protect Taiwan in case China attacks. Zero-sum here refers to the number of U.S. troops: It’s a fixed number. So moving troops to one place means taking them from another. But that’s not what people in Taiwan tend to think. People here tend to see the fact that the United States hasn’t sent troops to Ukraine as evidence that the U.S. might not send troops to Taiwan if they were attacked.”

In 2020 polling, about 89 percent of Taiwanese people said they believed democracy was the best form of government. It’s an overwhelming percentage. If I had to name one thing that’s detrimental to democracy in Taiwan, it would be social inequality. It’s causing a generation gap in faith in democracy. Younger Taiwanese people are suffering much greater social inequality than previous generations did—class mobility has been stuck for years, and that’s caused a substantial ratio of the younger generation to support the idea of strongman rule. … [But] democracy in Taiwan is robust. There’s no way we’re going to give it up. It’s the single, unifying political value shared across all parties; it’s a matter of dominant national consensus.”

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Categories: Geopolitics

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