Why Most of the Island’s People Don’t Desire a Formal Declaration
For the people of Taiwan, joining with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has never been less appealing. According to a frequently cited tracking survey by National Chengchi University, the share of Taiwanese residents who want to unify immediately with the mainland has always been minuscule, consistently less than three percent. But the percentage that think Taiwan should eventually move toward unification—that is, not necessarily with today’s Chinese regime—has fallen dramatically, from 20 percent in 1996 to five percent today. In the last two presidential elections, the historically pro-unification Kuomintang party (KMT) has suffered landslide defeats, failing to garner even 40 percent of the vote either time.
It is easy to understand why unification is so unpopular. Over the last four decades, Taiwan has transformed itself into a liberal, tolerant, pluralist democracy while China has remained a harsh autocracy, developed an intrusive surveillance state, and executed a genocide against its own population. Unifying with the PRC would mean the end of almost all of Taiwan’s hard-won political freedoms, something that was made manifest when China forcibly integrated Hong Kong into the mainland despite its promise to allow the territory to remain self-governing under a formula called “one country, two systems.” And many, or perhaps most, Taiwanese people would not want to unify with China regardless of the nature of its government. Taiwan has its own history, culture, identity, and sense of national pride.
Yet although public opinion data make it clear that the overwhelming majority of Taiwanese people have little interest in being ruled by Beijing, that does not mean they want a formal declaration of independence. Among both the general public and political elites, the country’s understanding of independence has evolved significantly over the last generation. In decades past, independence was commonly thought to require an unequivocal, formal break with any legal or professed ties to China. But today, such a move is widely seen as unnecessary. To most people, Taiwan is already a fully sovereign country, not merely a self-governing island that exists in a state of limbo. There is no need to rock the boat by formally declaring what is already the case, especially given that it is certain Beijing would have a furious response to such an action. And since Taiwanese politicians must respond to public opinion, political elites who support independence have largely come to the same conclusion as the country’s people; rather than quixotically challenging the status quo, most of them have decided that any differences between their ideal position and the status quo are minor—and not worth fighting over.
It surprises many Westerners to learn that Taiwanese independence is not merely rooted in anti-Chinese sentiments, and that it is not an idea that arose only after 1949, when Republic of China (ROC) leader Chiang Kai-shek and his million and a half followers fled to the island after losing the Chinese Civil War. The year 1895, when Beijing ceded Taiwan to Japan after being defeated by Tokyo in a war, was arguably just as pivotal as 1949. A modern sense of Taiwanese national identity began to take shape, and there were calls for Taiwanese autonomy and independence throughout the Japanese colonial era. Taiwan independence activist Su Beng pushes the timeline back even further, arguing in his seminal 1962 work, Taiwan’s 400 Year History, that Taiwan has been a distinct nation and society since large-scale Han immigration to the island began in the early 1600s. For Su, Taiwan’s history was marked by repeated colonization and exploitation by external powers as the Dutch, Spanish, claimants to the throne of the disintegrating Ming dynasty, the Qing dynasty, the Japanese, and Chiang’s Kuomintang (KMT) all set up regimes in Taiwan for their own purposes—denying the Taiwanese people control over their destiny.
Chiang’s regime in Taiwan rested on the idea that the ROC had not lost the civil war and was still the legitimate government of all China. Although the ROC positioned itself as a democracy, the KMT could not risk any open challenges to this claim, and so it declared martial law. National-level representatives were frozen in office without the need to face reelection, and the government systematically silenced political opposition. The KMT kept a firm grip on the country’s entire political edifice through its control of the state machinery, especially the military. Any Taiwan-centric appeals, especially for Taiwanese independence, were seen as a direct affront to the regime’s legitimacy and were ruthlessly suppressed. Throughout the KMT authoritarian era, then, the ROC government was the primary obstacle to Taiwanese political power and self-rule.
As a result, Taiwanese nationalists concluded that the way to set the Taiwanese people free was to slough off this entire political structure. The KMT, the ROC, and any ties to China had to go. But as Taiwan democratized in the late 1980s and early 1990s, these activists discovered that their vision had limited appeal. In 1991, the country’s geriatric officeholders were finally compelled to retire, and Taiwan was able to fully reelect a national-level representative body for the first time as every seat was at stake in the National Assembly, an institution with the power to elect the president and amend the constitution. (The body was later abolished.) The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)—the KMT’s main opposition—confidently called for replacing the Republic of China with a formally independent Republic of Taiwan. It was a disaster; the DPP won just 23 percent of the vote. The verdict of the electorate was that formal independence was just too radical, and for a generation afterward, the country’s common political wisdom was that Taiwan independence was ballot-box poison.
Taiwan has its own history, culture, identity, and sense of national pride.
At the time, of course, it still seemed possible that Taiwan would eventually unify with the mainland. For decades, the authoritarian regime had taught the population that unification was desirable and inevitable. Taiwan’s gradual democratization did not feature a sharp break with the past, so the KMT remained in power even after people could vote, and pro-unification Chinese nationalists retained outsize cultural and political influence. Meanwhile, China was experiencing the kind of rapid economic growth that Taiwan had undergone in decades past—the type of growth that had helped Taiwan democratize. Many Taiwanese people believed the mainland would surely experience similar political reforms as its economy kept expanding. Chinese nationalists in Taiwan expected that, once China changed and the two states rejoined, Taiwan would play an influential (and perhaps predominant) role in shaping their shared future. Unofficial bodies from the two sides even met in 1992 and 1993, taking the first steps toward establishing regular channels of communication. The question of sovereignty illustrated both hopes for pragmatic cooperation and how difficult compromise would be. Since hammering out a mutually acceptable written statement was impossible, the delegates informally agreed to literally talk past each other in what would later be (ironically) dubbed the 1992 Consensus. Each side orally stated its version of the “one China” principle, pretended not to hear the other side, and refused to acknowledge that there could be any other interpretation.
But the hopes that the two sides would gradually become more similar and inch toward a mutually agreeable political union were misplaced. As Taiwan’s democracy deepened, appeals to Chinese nationalism found a smaller and smaller receptive audience among the island’s population. At the same time, instead of democratizing as it grew wealthier and more powerful, the PRC became more rigid and domineering.
The arc of the 1992 Consensus encapsulates these failed hopes. After losing the 2000 presidential election to the DPP, KMT chair Lien Chan rebuilt his party on a vision of making Taiwan rich and ensuring peace by integrating Taiwan’s economy into China’s. To guarantee that PRC officials would be willing to engage with their Taiwanese counterparts, Lien devised a formula based on what the two sides had supposedly agreed to in 1992: “One China, each side with its own interpretation.” Ordinary Taiwanese voters were reassured that the status quo would be preserved since Taiwan’s interpretation was that “one China” meant the ROC. This formula laid the foundation for KMT politician Ma Ying-jeou’s presidency, which featured a great deal of official contact with China and economic interaction. But the PRC became increasingly insistent that the 1992 Consensus was simply that there was “one China”—the PRC—and demanded concrete progress toward unification. It never acknowledged the “each side with its own interpretation” part of the equation, and so unification would mean that the ROC ceased to exist. This not only choked the consensus to death by depriving it of any ambiguity or flexibility, it made clear that the KMT and ROC were not equal—or even unequal—partners with the Chinese Communist Party and the PRC in determining China’s future. The KMT’s dreams of creating a peaceful, prosperous, and democratic unified China were utterly discredited, and the incompatibility of the PRC’s position with the preservation of the ROC made unification the new ballot-box poison.
AS IT IS
Since its 1991 election debacle, the DPP has steadily moved away from a formal independence platform. By 2000, it took the position that Taiwan was already an independent, sovereign state named the Republic of China, and no declaration of independence was necessary. Current Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, a DPP politician, has developed the idea of Taiwanese sovereignty more fully: eschewing formal independence is not the only way in which she differs from earlier independence activists. Tsai emphasizes the Taiwanese people’s unique, shared history, including the “white terror” (the violent repression carried out by the KMT’s autocracy), military standoffs with Beijing, rapid economic growth, democratization, sporting triumphs, and natural disasters. Her vision of the Taiwanese people, however, is constructed on 70 years, not 400 years, of common experience, so it explicitly includes postwar immigrants as integral parts of the population rather than as colonizing outsiders. She has even positioned herself as a champion of the military, recasting an institution that was once the bedrock of the authoritarian regime and the archenemy of Taiwanese nationalism as the guarantor of Taiwan’s integrity and sovereignty.
Tsai’s ideas do not make traditional independence activists happy; there are many hardcore DPP supporters who dream of an independence referendum and feel slightly queasy when she poses with an ROC flag. But hers is a position that fits quite comfortably with what most Taiwanese people want. The National Chengchi University tracking poll on public attitudes toward unification and independence shows that, although support for independence has risen over time, a comfortable majority of Taiwanese people prefer the status quo. Other polls suggest that the tracking surveys might actually underestimate the depth of support for the status quo. Two postelection surveys, one from 1996 and one from 2020, asked people who preferred the status quo whether they would support unification if political, economic, and social conditions in China and Taiwan were similar (for instance, if China became a wealthy democracy), or if they would support declaring independence if doing so wouldn’t provoke retaliation from Beijing. The share of status quo supporters open to unification, even under these ideal hypothetical conditions, plummeted from 58 to 22 percent. The share of status quo supporters open to independence remained roughly stable, drifting from 57 to 54 percent.
It is clear both from the main tracking poll and from the responses of status quo supporters that fewer people today want unification. But as for the growing support for independence, it is critical to remember that ideas about the meaning of independence have changed. In fact, a 2020 study found that more than 70 percent of Taiwanese people believe that their country is already a sovereign state and that only a tiny fraction felt a need to formally sever ties with China. The increased support for independence over the past few decades, then, does not necessarily indicate that a growing number of citizens are clamoring for a declaration of independence.
This shift in opinion has not always resulted in electoral success for the DPP. During the last two local elections, the party has performed disastrously. On November 26, Tsai was compelled to step down as party chair after the DPP could only win five of 22 mayoral races. But it would be a mistake to interpret these results as a shift in public attitudes toward unification or away from independence. The local elections were all about local government issues such as road construction, welfare programs, and responses to the pandemic—not China. Most of the races are best understood as referendums on the performance of popular KMT incumbents running for reelection. Notably, sovereignty or how to deal with China have largely been absent from the DPP’s postelection discussions about the reasons for the poor outcome. Likewise, no one in the KMT is crowing that this result means it no longer has to worry about being attacked as a pro-unification party.
But although Tsai may no longer be the party chair, her grand vision for Taiwan’s future—situating Taiwan in the international community of democracies, strengthening the country’s own military and bolstering cooperation with other militaries, gradually diversifying Taiwan’s economy, pursuing progressive social welfare policies, defending Taiwan’s sovereignty, and a host of other measures—remains unchallenged inside the DPP. China will inevitably be on the ballot in the 2024 presidential and legislative elections. Unless the DPP forfeits its dominant position as the champion of the status quo by recklessly pursuing formal independence, it should once again have a clear electoral advantage.