Reading the Mood of the Taiwanese People

Two interesting articles appeared on the opinion pages of the Taipei Times this week.

Nat Bellocchi’s “Understanding the Opinion Polls” questions an interpretation of public opinion surveys that finds Taiwanese voters are against Taiwan independence. As any market researcher knows, you can get the answers you want based on a slanting of the questions, but Bellocchi goes beyond that to consider how the results are interpreted by outside observers based on a misunderstanding of the wordings of the survey questions.

In Taiwan’s case, the essential question “Do you support the status quo, independence, or unification with China” could be interpreted many ways due to the vagueness of the phrase “status quo”. The article warns foreign observers to avoid interpreting the status quo between China and Taiwan as a “do nothing” situation. If “status quo” refers to de facto independence, then the results tend to favor a self-governing political system that has nothing to do with management by a foreign power. Which happens to be the reality in Taiwan today.

Thus the typical question about status quo, independence and unification would deliver the following results, according to Bellocchi: over 50 % for the status quo, over 30% for independence, and roughly 10% for unification. But if the question is framed more directly as “are you in favor of unification?” the results against are roughly 70%. With the status quo representing de facto independence, that puts the majority of those surveyed wanting Taiwan to remain an independent country.

Bellocchi raises another issue worth noting: that looking at Taiwan through Beijing’s eyes, as an entity split off from the motherland due to a Chinese civil war that came to a head in 1949, is a dangerous frame of reference as it rewrites history that ignores previous ownership by Japan, and eventually fails to allow the free will of Taiwanese people to define their nationhood themselves. 

The representation of US policy through its wording is conveniently vague and should be carefully interpreted. The “One China” policy therefore is not an endorsement of China’s “unification” objectives; instead it is a commitment to the existence of one country called China. Yet it doesn’t prevent the existence of another independent country called Taiwan.

J. Michael Cole takes this argument even further. In his article “Six Decades of Made-Up Politics” Cole warns foreign observers to be careful about defining Taiwan as a land mass split from China, or from bundling the Taiwan population into one monolithic group that supports overly friendly overtures to China. In his summary of the demographic changes in Taiwan, Cole recounts how 1.37 million defeated Chinese Nationalist Party supporters fled to Taiwan and imposed rule on the 7.39 million people already living in Taiwan.

Since the death of Chiang Kai Shek and his offspring, the shift to democratically elected presidents, and a gradual localization of the political agenda, the emergence of a dormant Taiwanese identity has weakened any desire to unify with China, according to Cole.

Coles biggest concern is that the agenda of Taiwan’s current government, lead by the Chinese Nationalist Party president Ma Ying-jeou, seeks to draw on the old fantasies of a unified (recaptured) China, and that this objective is increasingly divergent with the basic desires of the Taiwanese people.

This conclusion is highly disturbing considering the current love-fest that Taiwan’s Chinese Nationalist Party and China’s Community Party are currently involved in. Cole warns the international media to read the situation very carefully.

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