Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen was re-elected in a landslide in January on a platform of protecting national sovereignty and democracy. Her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) rejects the “1992 Consensus” that claims both sides of the Taiwan Strait believe there is only one China but disagree on its rightful government. President Tsai expanded upon this further, stating that “We don’t have a need to declare ourselves an independent state. We are an independent country already and we call ourselves the Republic of China (Taiwan).”
In light of the recent boost to Taiwan’s international reputation given its successful handling of the coronavirus and China’s increased aggression in East Asia, we at Redfield & Wilton Strategies asked the Taiwanese public its views on the future of Taiwan’s governance. We found that about a third of respondents (32%) wishes Taiwan to be fully recognized as independent. Meanwhile, 57% preferred the status quo, de facto independence, and only 4% desires unification with China.
Even though it is a minority, our poll shows a new notably high figure of Taiwanese supporting formal independence, continuing the trend of moving away from status quo to support full independence. This trend matches our findings that the Taiwanese public feel that Taiwan is culturally distinct from China and increasingly personally identify as Taiwanese only, not Chinese. Formalizing Taiwan’s status as an independent state would reinforce the notion that Taiwanese identity is distinct from being Chinese.
A striking 51% of respondents aged 25 to 34 support full independence, implying that younger generations are taking stock of their identity and destiny and suggesting that the general direction of change will be towards more of Taiwan’s population backing de jure independence in the future.
There is a significant partisan divide to our results. Nearly half (49%) of those who voted for Tsai in the 2020 presidential election support formal independence, while only 14% of Han Kuo-yu voters desire the same. In contrast, 75% of Han voters support the status quo, compared to 48% of Tsai voters. Han Kuo-yu’s Kuomintang Party (KMT) has traditionally preferred stronger ties with China, given the party’s historical roots to Chinese republicans who fled to Taiwan during the civil war in the 1940s.
Under the current situation, Taiwan maintains its own government as the ‘Republic of China’ and its daily life is that of an independent country – hence Tsai’s comments that Taiwan is already independent. Declaring further recognition would anger the People’s Republic of China, which has already threatened military action. A fear of the Chinese threat and sense of practicality may encourage the majority of Taiwanese to continue to support the status quo.
Meanwhile, those who support outright unification with the PRC form a tiny minority. In May, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang implied that China is considering reunification through military means, as he changed China’s tone and phrasing, removing “peaceful reunification” from the country’s traditional rhetoric. It seems that China itself recognizes that it may not be possible to unite with Taiwan in a peaceful manner when its residents are unwilling to do so.
Many Taiwanese agree with President Tsai’s statement that Taiwan is already independent as the ‘Republic of China’, and indeed, some wish to go further. We found that roughly a third (32%) of respondents support a name change formalizing this arrangement, to ‘Republic of Taiwan.’ A further 32% would neither support nor oppose this change, implying that they already recognize Taiwan’s independence and see a name change as merely symbolic.
As a sense of Taiwanese identity increases among the public overall, the island may soon be called the ‘Republic of Taiwan.’ Yet in 2018, a referendum to change the name of its teams in international sporting events from “Chinese Taipei” to “Taiwan” failed to pass. Voters preferred the status quo, concerned that the name would cause the Olympics to prevent Taiwan’s athletes from participating, under pressure from China. Although the proposal failed, a significant minority, 45%, voted in favour of the name change. In the intervening years, the name change movement has continued to gain steam. Just this week, legislators passed resolutions to change the national airline, China Airlines and the national passport to highlight Taiwan. The references to the ‘Republic of China’ caused confusion with the PRC, so changing the name and addition of Taiwanese symbols will reflect its distinct identity.
Our figures again show a significant political divide. Half of Tsai voters support the name ‘Republic of Taiwan,’ with only 14% opposing. In contrast, Han voters hold the opposite opinion, with only 17% supporting the change while 54% oppose it. It is possible that Han voters are concerned about China’s reaction to such a change, which would certainly be negative and potentially dangerous. In addition, supporters of the KMT may be disproportionately descended from Chinese immigrants to Taiwan in 1949, after the Chinese Civil War. Hence, they may have stronger ties to Chinese identity and appreciate the name ‘Republic of China.’
One significant motivator for the desire to change names is, interestingly, the coronavirus pandemic. Taiwan’s extraordinarily successful handling of the coronavirus has created a positive international spotlight on the island. Yet due to pressure from China, Taiwan cannot attend World Health Organization meetings to share strategies. Should Taiwan change its name and seek to be formally recognized internationally, however, it could become eligible to participate in organizations like the World Health Organisation and the United Nations as full members. We found that a significant majority (64%) of respondents believe that it is important for Taiwan to be admitted as a member in international institutions.
Prior to 2016, Taiwan held observer status in the WHO, but after Tsai was elected for her first term, Beijing blocked Taiwan’s participation, believing that a distinct WHO seat would encourage Taiwanese independence. Indeed, it seems that many Taiwanese do wish to be recognized on the world stage as a state distinct from China. Joining international organizations might be a first step to gaining diplomatic ties to the global community as only fifteen nations currently recognize Taiwan officially.
While the majority of Taiwanese still prefer the status quo over official independence, this option may not last long. In December, Chinese President Xi Jinping proposed a plan for Taiwan’s future under “One Country, Two Systems,” the model used in Hong Kong. But China’s new security law and Hong Kong’s massive protests have made it a cautionary tale rather than a success story. As Taiwan considers bringing asylum seekers from Hong Kong, many Taiwanese may be reflecting upon their own future. In response to the security law, President Tsai stated, “We are very disappointed that China is not able to carry out its promises. It proves that ‘one country, two systems’ is not feasible.” The status of the “1992 Consensus” is now ambiguous, and even the KMT is reconsidering its support. Hence, the proportion of Taiwanese that desires formal independence and even a name change to make its status official, may continue to increase.