Taiwan identity and China: 1987-2007

Hsin-Huang Michael Hsiao
19 March 2008


On the eve of the 2004 presidential election in Taiwan, I wrote an article for openDemocracy in which I argued that the election had a dual character: sustaining the new democracy in Taiwan and advocating its national identity (see Hsin-Huang Michael Hsiao, “Taiwan's dual election: democracy and national identity”, 19 March 2004). On the eve of the successor election on 22 March 2008, Taiwan citizens’ are again preparing to make a decision that will reflect their judgment of how best to deepen democracy and good governance as well as protect Taiwan’s national identity.

In this perspective, the 2008 election can again be considered an election framed by the questions of democracy and national identity in Taiwan - though with somewhat different expectations and visions than in 2004, given the evolution of society and attitudes since that time.

The two main contending candidates in the presidential election represent the Kuomintang (KMT) and the Democratic People’s Party of incumbent president, Chen Shui-bian (first elected in 2000, re-elected in 2004, and now coming to the end of his two-term presidency). If the KMT candidate (Ma Ying-jeou) - standing for the formerly authoritarian party which ruled Taiwan for more than forty years after the second world war - wins the election, it will mean that the public’s dissatisfaction with the DPP’s capacity for democratic governance outweighs its reliance on the DPP to defend and affirm Taiwan’s national identity vis-à-vis the threat to it posed by the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

Hsin-Huang Michael Hsiao is executive director of the Center for Asia-Pacific Area Studies (CAPAS) at the Academia Sinica, Taipei, and professor in the department of sociology at National Taiwan University

Also by Hsin-Huang Michael Hsiaoin openDemocracy:

Taiwan's dual election: democracy and national identity
(19 March 2004)

If the DPP candidate (Frank Hsieh) wins this election, that will indicate that the Taiwanese public wishes to give the DPP another chance both to practice good governance and to continue to defend Taiwan’s national interest against China’s increasing pressure.

A factor that may work in the DPP’s favour is the worry that a KMT victory - following the landslide victory of the KMT in the Yuan (legislative) election of January 2008 - might tempt a return to its period of authoritarian one-party dominance. The concern to protect checks and balances and to maintain a balanced two-party system in Taiwan’s still-new democracy may become a decisive public concern when the ballots are cast. 

In broad terms, the voters’ decision will be influenced by two fundamental factors: the parties’ and candidates’ ability in democratic governance and consolidation, and their stand and strategy in dealing with the sensitive issue of Taiwan-China relations. What and how the Taiwanese public thinks about Taiwanese identity today, and what impressions they have of the People’s Republic of China, are the important background elements in voters’ choice of their favoured candidate.

A two-decade shift

In what follows, I will trace the significant changes in the minds of the Taiwanese public on these two factors over the past twenty years. The chosen period is appropriate, since 2 November 1987 marked the opening of cross-strait visits by Taiwan residents to mainland China (which started with military veterans exiled after the second world war). After this breakthrough, the increasing investment made by Taiwanese businessman (small, medium and big) gradually became the dominant trend in the cross-strait nexus. Alongside and following these commercialised exchanges there developed significant social and cultural intercourse between the two sides: tourism, popular culture, sports and journalism, as well as cross-border marriages.

The political dimension gradually became another significant part of this new phenomenon. The KMT, after its two consecutive defeats in the presidential elections of 2000 and 2004, began the ambitious move of conducting landmark visits by its high officials to China. An emerging political alliance between the KMT and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) - two historical arch-enemies - was in effect forged in order to derail the DPP’s agenda.

In short, there have been many profound yet complex changes in Taiwan-China relations during these twenty years: integrative economic and trade connections, social links, and bold yet uncertain and often contentious political exchanges.   

How have the Taiwanese people reacted to these changes? In answering this question, the findings of a series of nationwide surveys provide valuable data. These surveys have been conducted by such bodies as the Academia Sinica, the Mainland Affairs Council, and the Straits Exchange Foundation; they focus on a number on related issues - the Taiwan public’s national identity, actual contacts with and visits to China, subjective social distance toward the Chinese, attitudes toward the economic and political futures of Taiwan and the PRC, positions on Taiwan’s political future (independence or unification), and reaction to the phenomenon of “China’s rise”.

In citing a few of this rich array of findings, this essay sketches elements both of change and continuity in Taiwanese identity in relation to its impressions of China over the past twenty years.

A Taiwanese identity

One of the most significant transformations in Taiwan during this period has been the rise of a new national identity centred on Taiwan proper, and founded on the political experiences shared by citizens in Taiwan. Taiwanese increasingly identify Taiwan as their own country, while considering Chinese cultures to be their origins and roots.

The various surveys conducted by the Mainland Affairs Council, for example, find (in the last decade especially) a surge in this direction: the number identifying as Taiwanese has increased steadily from 40% in 1997, to 55% in 2004, to more than 60% in 2006-07. The number identifying as Chinese-only has declined from 16% in 1998 to only 5.5% in 2007.

A trend assessment

The rapid rise of China’s economic power and the country’s increasing international influence have also had an impact on Taiwanese perceptions of China. Between 2002 and 2004, about 70%- 75% of Taiwanese respondents held optimistic views about China’s future economic prospects, but only 30%-35% felt positive about Taiwan’s own economic future. A similar attitude was found in Taiwanese public attitudes toward future political prospects: around 38%-40% of the Taiwan public was then optimistic about China’s political future, while only 20%-26% felt the same way about Taiwan’s political prospects. Here, however, a qualification is needed: there is an important difference between the tough challenges faced by Taiwan’s democratic consolidation and authoritarian China’s superficial relaxation of its control over citizens’ social life.

That distinction would help to explain why - although 67%-70% of Taiwan respondents believed that China could become more politically open - 57% of Taiwanese did not believe China could outperform Taiwan on its democratic record in the near future. Moreover, as many as 62% doubted that the quality of people’s lives in China could e become better than those of Taiwanese. For most people in Taiwan, China’s rise is real and its economic prosperity in some developed regions genuine, but this is not automatically associated with movement towards political democracy and a better quality of life. 

The Taiwan-China relationship

The majority of Taiwan’s public, in a view that reflects the growth of a Taiwanese national identity, would prefer to maintain the political status quo and to reject the PRC’s “one country, two systems” formula for unification. A Mainland Affairs Council survey in 2007 found that 72% rejected this formula. The Academia Sinica’s surveys between 1998 and 2004 also found that support for “conditional unification with all aspects equal between the two sides” dropped (from 55% to 37%) and support for “conditional independence without confronting the risk of war” also fell (from 62% to 47%). Instead, more and more Taiwanese seemed rather to adopt a flexible, “wait-and-see” attitude.

Also in openDemocracy on Taiwan and China:

Isabel Hilton,
China’s freedom test
(7 September 2005)

Lung Ying-tai,
A question of civility: an open letter to Hu Jintao
(15 February 2006)

Christopher R Hughes,
Chinese nationalism in the global era
(18 April 2006)

Kerry Brown,
China’s party congress: getting serious
(5 October 2007)

Li Datong,
China’s modernisation: a unique path?
(28 November 2007)

Jeffrey N Wasserstrom,
One, two or many Chinas?
(15 February 2008)

Andrew Mueller,
Taiwan in a Chinese overture
(8 May 2005)

Kerry Brown,
Beijing’s political tightrope-walk
(13 March 2007)

In the surveys conducted by the Mainland Affairs Council in 2007, as many as 70%-80% of the Taiwanese public supported the option of maintaining the status quo in a broad sense. Yet 69%-77% of the public supported the view that “Taiwan is an independent sovereignty country”; and 80% that the people of Taiwan alone should decide Taiwan’s future. A referendum (to be held alongside the presidential election) is being seen by the majority of Taiwanese public as a legitimate test of Taiwan citizens’ desire to determine their nation’s destiny and their intention to join the United Nations.

In relation to the current situation, 78% of the public argued that it is best if Taiwan and China keep their relations on a state-to-state basis; 74% of the public believed that China’s “anti-separation law” of 2005 was a hostile action toward the government and the people of Taiwan, and as many as 81% disagreed with China’s line that legally “Taiwan is a part of China” (and that as a result, “Taiwan and Mainland China must unify”). A clear majority of Taiwanese, 66%, argued that China should abolish the “anti-separation law” for the sake of peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region as a whole.

In findings related to these general sentiments, 59%-67% of the Taiwanese public believed that the government of China is unfriendly to the government of Taiwan; and 40%-51% of the public felt that the government of China is not friendly to the people of Taiwan either. The 2007 surveys demonstrated that 50%-70% of the public held a negative impression of China’s government, and that more than 50% of the public did not have a positive impression of the Chinese people either.

The election and after

The change in Taiwan’s national identity and in its impressions of China have been dialectically linked parts of a complex evolution in the twenty years since cross-straits exchanges began. The rise of Taiwan national identity and the rise of China’s economic power have been in tension with each other, though these processes have not prevented economic and other connections from developing.

In facing China’s rise, Taiwan’s public has also become more pragmatic in taking its positions toward their country’s future path without any unnecessary haste. Simultaneously, China has been forced to realise the hard fact that Taiwan today is no longer the Taiwan of the past; it is obliged to learn seriously about the real Taiwan, especially the mindset of its democratic citizenry.

In conclusion, a public ethos has developed in Taiwan with three most significant elements in relation to China: an insistence on Taiwanese idenitity, caution in facing China's threat, and suspicion of China's intentions. The evidence suggests that these factors are likely to endure independently of the result of the 22 March 2008 election.

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