On Saturday, the two Chinas will have a historic encounter: The top leaders of China and Taiwan, Xi Jingping and Ma Ying-jeou, respectively, will meet. That hasn’t happened since 1949, when Mao Zedong’s communists took over the mainland, and Chang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government evacuated to Taiwan.
The timing is sensitive and interesting. Last week, the United States sent a naval destroyer to the South China Sea to make clear that it rejects mainland China’s expanding claims in the area. In just two months, Taiwan will be holding presidential and legislative elections.
This meeting is a surprise to both Taiwan and the world. The Ma administration planned the meeting in secret, revealing it only on Tuesday evening.
The White House seems to welcome this meeting, because it is in the United States’ interest for the two Chinas to have peaceful relations. But does the Taiwanese public feel the same way? What do they think about these talks? What are their attitudes toward the future relations with the mainland?
National Chengchi University in Taiwan has been surveying the Taiwanese public for more than a decade on national security questions (Details can be found here and here). Here are the five most important takeaways.
1. The Taiwanese people want talks with mainland China
In the 2014 survey, when asked whether Taiwan and mainland China should hold talks, 68.5 percent of our respondents said yes, while only 22.5 percent were opposed.
That’s true even though the survey was conducted right after the ruling Nationalist, or Kuomintang (KMT), government lost local elections disastrously in late November.
2. Everyone’s in favor of talks, regardless of party
Taiwanese politics is generally split between two points of view about relations with the mainland: reunify or remain independent. The KMT believes that both China and Taiwan should be in the same state called China, acknowledging the existence of the two governments with different regime types as the historical legacy of the 1949 Communist Revolution. On the other hand, the Democratic Progressive Party, the major opposition party, which held the presidency during 2000-2008, pushes Taiwan to be an independent country, based on the current de facto status of independent sovereignty.
But Taiwanese of all parties support talks. In the 2014 survey, that’s true of a large majority of supporters of Eric Chu, the KMT presidential candidate, or 82.9 percent. It’s true also for a substantial majority of Tsai Ing-wen supporters, the DPP presidential candidate, or fully 66.3 percent.
3. Supporting talks is not the same as supporting unification
Over the past 12 years, a majority of Taiwanese people support the status quo, which means to maintain the not-quite-official separate status.
However, the number seeking official independence is on the rise. In 2014, 34.5 percent of our respondents said they wanted to “maintain the status quo now and decide what to do later”, while 29.5 percent preferred “maintaining the status quo indefinitely”.
But 17.3 percent chose “maintaining the status quo now and seeking independence later,” which is twice as many as held that point of view in 2003.
Meanwhile, support for unification is dropping. Those who agreed with “seeking unification with China quickly” and “maintaining the status quo now and seeking unification later” now total only 7.3 percent of our respondents, a significant drop from 20 percent in 2003.
4. Taiwan is looking for a way out of the impasse
While Taiwanese may say they prefer the status quo to the alternative options, that does not imply that they are satisfied with the status quo.
A series of “conditionality of preference” questionnaires suggested by Duke Political Scientist Niou (2004) reveal how Taiwanese envision the future. For the past 12 years, consistently around 80 percent of respondents said they supported Taiwan’s independence if independence would not cause mainland China to attack Taiwan (the yellow line in the figure below).
Put differently, independence is clearly the ultimate goal for a supermajority of the Taiwanese. Seeking that goal is currently restrained by the military threat from China, as was driven home when Beijing promulgated an “Anti-Secession Law” in 2005. As a result, Taiwanese continue to choose the status quo.
The figure above reveals two trends that are especially worth discussing. In 2003, 60 percent of the respondents agreed to reunify with China “If only small political, economic, and social disparities exist between mainland China and Taiwan” (the purple line). By 2014, that percentage had dropped to 28 percent. In contrast, in 2003, 27 percent supported Taiwan independence even if it meant that China would attack Taiwan. By 2014, that number had climbed to 40 percent.
In other words, the effect of China’s military threat is waning, although it’s still significant. Moreover, China’s shining economic performance and political reforms over the years have not made unification more attractive; in fact, quite the opposite. More and more Taiwanese favor independence unconditionally.
So far, the “status quo” has been a rational, yet reluctant, choice.
5. The Taiwanese worry about economic dependence on China
In the 2012 and 2014 surveys, significant majorities — 68.1 percent and 62 percent — agreed with the following item: “Some people say that mainland China will use Taiwan’s overly economic dependence as leverage to political benefit. Do you agree or disagree?”
The majority of Taiwanese are concerned about the potential problems in deeper economic integration with the mainland.
This concern was manifested in the Sunflower Movement in March 2014, in which students and activists occupied the Taiwanese parliament for 23 days with the goal of stopping the Cross-Strait Service Trade Pact (CSSTP). Even though the Ma administration promised that this agreement was purely economic and not political, more than 600 computer science and electrical engineering professors and experts warned that national security could be at risk if the trade pact opened up type II telecommunication services.
Such Trojan Horse-like services could create regulatory loopholes for China, enabling Internet monitoring that could come along with the influx of the “red capital.”
What have we learned from the survey results?
In general, the Taiwanese support talks with the mainland that which can maintain the status quo and enhance economic prosperity without giving up sovereignty, no matter which party is in power. Unification is out of the question, and independence is a difficult dream.
Which is not the same as saying that the Taiwanese trust either their own leadership or that of mainland China. In two recent surveys conducted by Taiwan’s Election and Democratization Study in March and June 2015, 74.1 percent and 67.5 percent of Taiwanese respondents said they distrusted Ma. In March 2015, 89.5 percent of Taiwanese respondents distrusted the mainland China government.
With such low level of trust, it is almost impossible for Xi Jingping and Ma Ying-jeou to take these talks far. Any sudden changes will most certainly backfire.
Austin H. Wang is a doctoral candidate in the department of political science at Duke University.
Wei-Ting Yen is a doctoral candidate in the department of political science at Ohio State University.
Jung-Feng Tsai earned a master’s degree in strategic studies and diplomacy at Australian National University.
Greg Sheen is a doctoral candidate in the department of political science at London School of Economics.
Fang-Yu Chen is a doctoral candidate in the department of political science at Michigan State University.
Jaw-Nian Huang is a doctoral candidate in the department of political science at University of California at Riverside.