Understanding Taiwan’s opinion polls requires insight and knowledge, not only of the nation’s political history, but also of the political leaning of the polling organizations. In the old days, pro-government publications and government organizations simply tried to elicit praise and support for the authorities.
Democratization in the late 1980s and early 1990s changed all that, although the partisanship in some publications remains, while many people remain wary of answering queries from government agencies for fear of retribution, a leftover from the old days.
It is thus refreshing that some organizations, like the Global Views Survey Research Center and National Chengchi University’s Election Study Center, have been able to develop professional and objective polling techniques, which give a much better insight into the views of the public.
A common refrain from foreign observers is that the majority of Taiwanese are for the “status quo.” This is often used by those aiming to prove that the Taiwanese do not want to “rock the boat” by moving toward either unification or independence.
Indeed, if the question is phrased: “What do you prefer: status quo, independence or unification?” some 50-plus percent of the respondents will opt for the status quo, about a third for independence, while less than 10 percent are for unification.
However, in a July survey, Global Views asked whether the respondents were in favor of independence or not, 49.1 percent said they were supportive of ultimate independence, while 34.4 percent were not. The same question on unification prompted 15.6 percent to support unification, while 69.9 percent voiced opposition.
The conclusion is that, if given a free choice, Taiwanese would opt for their country to be recognized as a full member of the international community.
At present the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is preventing such a choice, but it is also important to realize that often the world seems to have accepted the Chinese discourse on Taiwan. I would argue that we should not look at the matter through Beijing’s glasses all the time, but take a more objective look.
The PRC presents the case that Taiwan “split off” from China in 1949, and that it should be reunified, by force if necessary. The reality is that Taiwan was a Japanese colony until 1945 and was then occupied by the losers in the Chinese Civil War.
Confusion is also generated by the way the US phrases its “one China” policy. All too often this is interpreted to mean that the US considers Taiwan to be part of China. This is not the case. “One China” means that the US recognizes only one government as the government of China. In 1972, the US “acknowledged” the Chinese position, but did not take that as its own. In the Taiwan Relations Act and other statements the US emphasized that its policy was that the future of Taiwan should be determined peacefully and with the assent of the people of Tawain. That is what democracy and freedom are all about.
We could also have a more meaningful discussion on possible solutions if we move away from proxy debates on whether Taiwan is a state or not. By the most basic definition under international law, the 1933 Montevideo Convention, Taiwan is a nation state (it has territory, a stable population, a government and the capacity to enter into relations with the other states).
The question is rather, “as what” does it seek recognition? The old Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) sought recognition as the government of all of China. In 1991, under then-president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝), it restricted its claims to Taiwan and surrounding islands. This stance was continued under the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) administration, although many in the DPP wanted to move toward international recognition as “Taiwan.”
Which route is taken depends on the democratic dynamics in Taiwan itself. The international community needs to ensure that Taiwanese can make their decisions freely, without coercion by Beijing.
Nat Bellocchi is a former chairman of the American Institute in Taiwan and a special adviser to the Liberty Times Group. The views expressed in this article are his own.
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