2017 State of the Nation Survey
Fissure Point Identified at 39 Years Old
The subtle shift in public opinion with 39 years of age as a point of demarcation reflects the reality of divides and frictions developing between the generations on issues large and small. How should Taiwan proceed in the face of this generational divide?
Fissure Point Identified at 39 Years OldBy Rebecca Lin
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 614 )
Now that 2016 has come and gone, what are the most memorable legacies from this year in Taiwan’s history?
Other than the presidential election resulting in the third peaceful transition of ruling parties in the country’s history, 2016 was full of setbacks and conflicts. Still, amidst constant tensions running through society, the 2017 CommonWealth State of the Nation Survey found that, despite sharing similar views on the country’s development, a clear break has emerged in how two different generations envision their nation.
This year’s State of the Nation Survey uses cross-analysis of popular opinion on three aspects, including the country’s future, generational differences, and government performance. With respect to the outlook for the nation and government performance, pessimism remains in many areas following the presidential election in spite of a trend toward growing confidence on the prospects for the future. Meanwhile, clear divides have emerged between generations in attitude and outlook, with 39 years of age in particular marking a major demarcation point in the population.
With respect to their outlook for the country, the people remain extremely uncertain about the economic outlook, with the majority dubious about Taiwan’s future development. When asked “are you satisfied with Taiwan’s current economic performance?”, 74.8 percent expressed dissatisfaction, compared to just 18.6 percent noting satisfaction. Moreover, these trends held constant across both sexes and different generations (Table 5).
Upon being asked, “Generally speaking, are you optimistic or pessimistic about Taiwan’s future development,” pessimists (54.2 percent) outnumbered optimists (39.1 percent) by a 15 percent margin (Table 6). Compared with the same period of President Ma Ying-jeou’s first term, when optimists occupied a similar 39.8 percent, the number of pessimists has grown considerably.
Generationally speaking, the 20- to 29-year-old age group is the most optimistic, with nearly 54 percent responding that they are very optimistic or somewhat optimistic. In contrast, pessimism clouded the 40-49 age group’s outlook at 66 percent, the highest among all age groups.
“People form their outlook on future development based on their overall perspective, with most people’s generally pessimistic view largely due to economic impact,” says Dr. Yen Chien-fa, associate professor at the Chien Hsin University of Science and Technology Department of Business Administration. Yen argues that those people take a dim view on economic prospects also tend to be more pessimistic about overall national development. However, comparing the statistics on both topics, one finds that the Taiwanese public clearly finds room for optimism when economic factors are excluded.
The impact of cross-strait relations is unavoidable in any economic discussion, and most people do not see the future direction favorably. As for the question “Will cross-strait relations get better or worse next year,” a plurality of around 40.7 percent of respondents predict the situation will be “about the same as 2016.” Meanwhile, a fairly significant proportion of respondents, or 35.2 percent, indicated that they expect cross-strait relations to worsen (Table 3).
“In 2016 cross-strait relations have already cooled off, and the deeper meaning behind those choosing the response ‘same as 2016” is the belief that things are ‘not good,’” says Yen, who also formerly served as director of the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) China Affairs Department.
Youth Favor Independence
Regarding the issue of Taiwanese independence versus unification with China, a subject that touches upon personal beliefs, clear generational differences are apparent (Table 1).
In response to the question regarding “the best scenario for cross-strait political relations between Taiwan and China in the future,” the majority opted for “maintaining the status quo.” This was followed by “Taiwanese independence, but maintaining peaceful relations with China,” with “unification under certain conditions” running third.
There were no appreciable differences in overall ratio this year compared to last year. However, compared to 2009, support for “Taiwanese independence, but maintaining peaceful relations with China,” has risen by 13 percentage points.
Further cross-analysis shows that 49.3 percent of respondents aged 30 to 39 advocate “Taiwanese independence, but maintaining peaceful relations with China,” outnumbering those favoring the status quo by more than 10 percent. Among the 20-29 age group, 43.1 percent selected this answer. Generally more assertive about their views, these two age groups’ vision for “the country” contrasts starkly with respondents aged 40 and over.
“The 39 and under age group favors independence to a greater degree than supporting the status quo,” says Tsai Hsiu-chuan, associate professor of political science at Soochow University. Perhaps the highest proportion of respondents favors maintaining the status quo as a pragmatic option, Tsao further analyzes, but judging from the survey results, this generation of young people shares an increasingly consistent national identity.
This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of the lifting of martial law in Taiwan. People under 30 were born in a Taiwan transitioning toward democratization, while for those aged 30 to 39, this period began when they started going to primary school. In contrast to the previous generation, they have lived their entire lives in a more democratic era.
Corroborated with the “natural independence” phenomenon of the 20- to 29-year-old age group, this is an even clearer trend. Asked the question, “Do you see yourself as Taiwanese or Chinese?”, 61.6 percent chose “Taiwanese,” versus 28.2 percent opting for “both,” and around 6.9 percent calling themselves “Chinese” (Table 2).
Age was the most important variable in national identity, as 77 percent of those aged 20 to 29 view themselves as Taiwanese, showing continued growth over the previous year’s 74 percent. Among the 30-39 age group, 67 percent view themselves as exclusively “Taiwanese”, far exceeding the mean average.
The new generation’s sense of the term “Taiwan” is getting clearer.
“I call myself Taiwanese because I live in Taiwan. I believe that China and Taiwan are different,” says Wu Chao-ju, 29, a graduate student in sociology at National Chengchi University. “There is always a big fuss about using the name ‘Taiwan’ or ‘Chinese Taipei’ at every international competition, and we’re not allowed to join any international organizations, like a bullied, ostracized child. Over time, people have gotten tired of this sort of multiple choice question,” says Wu.
KMT’s New Crisis
It is worth noting that, in addition to differences in national identity across different generations, this year with respect to political party preference, among those favoring the Kuomintang, the proportion of respondents viewing themselves as “Taiwanese” was higher than “both” (Chinese and Taiwanese) for the first time, at 40.5 percent and 38.1, respectively (Table 2).
“Judging from historical data, a growing proportion of KMT supporters view themselves as Taiwanese, indicating a clear decoupling of the correlation between national identity and political party preference,” says Professor Tsai, cautioning that divisions are growing within the KMT over certain issues.
Surveying the past, in light of the disruption wrought by social change, in which areas do citizens believe Taiwan has performed best? Respondents ranked “Healthcare and Health Insurance,” “Tolerance of Cultural Diversity,” and “Access to Education” from first to third with little variance in ranking among age groups. However, the 20-29 age group selected “civil movements” as its top pick (Table 7).
“The Sunflower Movement is part of this age group’s shared memory,” says Yen. The impact of this movement, whether in terms of scope, reach and meaning, exceeds that of the Wild Lily Movement (of the previous generation of Taiwanese youths in the early 1990s), not only reverberating through the Legislative Yuan and cross-strait relations, but indirectly paving the way for political newcomer Ko Wen-je to ride what he calls “the power of white” straight into City Hall as mayor of Taipei.
Taiwan’s health insurance system is recognized around the world for its excellence, and is the area local citizens selected as the best performer. Tolerance of cultural diversity was picked due to the public’s perceived tolerance and understanding of other ethnic groups as the number of immigrants and migrant workers to Taiwan grows. Still, behind both areas lies an extended period of “learning” for both the nation and individuals, and plenty of dues paid.
Translated from the Chinese by David Toman