What do Taiwanese want for their future?
This is a simple question that is being discussed increasingly in Taiwan itself, and it is also the topic of many a seminar in Washington and elsewhere.
The question is generally framed as a choice between maintaining the present “status quo,” going in the direction of a free and independent Taiwan or unification with China.
As I wrote in December last year (“The ‘status quo’ is not good enough,” Dec. 7, 2012, page 8), while the present “status quo” represents a measure of stability at the current time, it is unsatisfactory for two reasons: it continues to relegate Taiwan to a state of diplomatic isolation, while at the same time China is changing the dynamics of the region — and thereby the “status quo” — by its aggressive military expansion.
So, aside from the non-answer that they favor a nondescript “status quo,” what do Taiwanese really want for their future?
An interesting insight was recently presented by Emerson Niou (牛銘實), a professor at Duke University, who analyzed data collected by the Election Study Center of National Chengchi University in October last year.
At a panel discussion on US-Taiwan-China relations organized by the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Brookings Institution in Washington, Niou confirmed earlier polls indicating that during the past few years, support for independence has actually gained popularity in Taiwan and support for unification with China has fallen.
The data showed that, provided there was no gun pointed at the head of Taiwanese, support for independence grew from 65.5 percent in 2008 to 70.3 percent last year. If a move toward independence might lead to an attack by China, then the appetite for independence dropped to a lower, but still significant level of 28.7 percent.
On the other hand, support for unification with China dropped from 11.5 percent in 2008 to 9.1 percent last year.
These figures reflect the views of those who favor unification, even if political, economic and social conditions are significantly different on each side of the Taiwan Strait.
The main conclusion from this presentation was that a sizable majority of Taiwanese prefer independence over unification and that this sentiment is growing, in spite of the more China-friendly policies of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九).
However, the matter becomes even more interesting in a follow-up question presented by Niou. In the survey, respondents were also asked whether they expected that Taiwan and China would move toward unification or independence.
The surprising answer was that 52.7 percent expected unification, while 31.6 percent expected independence.
This discrepancy between preference (“what we want”) and expectation (“what we expect is going to happen”) is an issue that requires more in-depth analysis.
Do Taiwanese see a rising China that will eventually overwhelm the nation and absorb it into its fold? Do they feel they can do little about it because China is so big and important, and Taiwan is so small and insignificant, and the US is far away and does not care enough?
The answers to these questions are important, as they go to the heart of US policy toward Taiwan, which has always emphasized that a decision on Taiwan’s future needs to be made peacefully and in accordance with the democratic wishes of Taiwanese.