Taiwan Social Trust Survey
Judicial Reform Long Overdue
Taiwan is facing many challenges, including a shortage of trust in some key institutions. CommonWealth Magazine’s “Social Trust Survey” reveals the public’s greatest concerns and provides the new government a roadmap for change.
Judicial Reform Long OverdueBy Jimmy Hsiung
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 598 )
President Tsai Ing-wen was inaugurated on May 20, carrying the high expectations of a public eager for real reform.
It was the third peaceful transfer of power from one party to another in Taiwan’s brief democratic history and not only represented another major step forward on the country’s democratic path but also symbolized the growing mutual respect and trust between people in the country.
At the same time, however, continued political wrangling among Taiwan’s main political parties, growing tensions between economic and environmental interests, and a potential crisis in relations with China all originate from a pervasive lack of trust.
To Tsai Ing-wen, having the trust of the people will be a must if she hopes to meet public expectations over the next four years. Even more importantly, to Taiwan, trust will be essential to getting through the difficulties it faces.
So exactly how much trust is there at present in Taiwanese society?
To answer that question and give the new government a picture of where the greatest social fissures are, CommonWealth Magazine completed a “Taiwan Social Trust Survey” before Tsai took office on May 20.
This large-scale telephone survey of citizens around the country provides both a snapshot of the degree of trust the public had in the new government before it took power and an updated overview of Taiwan’s march to raise the caliber of its democracy.
Trust in New Government Exceeds 50%
The survey first looked at the degree of trust Taiwan’s public has in key political figures in the new government, starting with the new president herself, who won the presidential election with over 56 percent of the votes cast. About 65 percent of the survey’s respondents expressed trust in President Tsai (Table 1).
(Table 1, Source: CW)
Tsai will rely on the Cabinet, which in Taiwan is headed by a premier, and the Legislature to put her political platform into practice, and the heads of both of those institutions also enjoyed the confidence of more than half the people. The head of the Cabinet, Premier Lin Chuan, had the trust of 53.5 percent of respondents, while Legislative Speaker Su Jia-chyuan, was trusted by 59.8 percent of respondents.
“It looks like there will be a honeymoon period that the new government should embrace and make good use of,” says National Chengchi University sociology professor Ku Chung-hwa, who was not surprised by the results.
Even more important than material capital, trust is an indispensable form of “social capital” that represents not only the bedrock of a democratic society but even the ultimate determinant of a country’s rise and fall in the 21st century.
National Taiwan University (NTU) sociology professor Chen Dung-sheng explains that in societies with high degrees of trust there is no need to waste time and money on supervising others or preventing abuses and corruption. Institutions can concentrate on doing what they should be doing and make the most of their capabilities, Chen says, and the private sector is more apt to innovate.
The survey found that Taiwan already has a healthy amount of social trust. When respondents were directly asked if they trusted “most people in society,” 68.9 percent said they did (Table 2).
Building trust generally coincides with the development of democracy, Chen says, which is why advanced Western countries commonly have relatively high degrees of social trust. For Taiwan to have a nearly 70 percent level of trust in society despite a process of democratization that started less than 30 years ago when martial law was lifted in 1987 is remarkable, Chen says, because “it’s already at a level seen in Western countries that have had 300 years of democratic development.”
A sign of that maturity was seen after the presidential election in January, according to Chen. Despite an election campaign in which many voters made their feelings clear and passions ran high, “when the election was over, everybody respected each other’s choice and went back to their daily lives. This is an amazing manifestation of trust.”
The NTU professor believes Taiwan should treasure this hard-won result rather than badmouth or belittle itself.
Doctors, Teachers Most Reliable
Though social trust may be broad-based in Taiwan, it is still sorely lacking in several quarters. The CommonWealth survey questioned respondents on their attitudes toward 10 specific professions representative of a broad swath of society (Table 2), with the following results:
1) Professionals who people often come in contact with, who often work hard without getting much credit for it, had relatively good trust ratings.
2) Elected officials and reporters were not trusted.
3) In terms of appointed officials who sometimes talk out of both sides of their mouths, the more their authority was unchecked, the less they were trusted.
Among the 10 categories, doctors came out on top, trusted by 88.4 percent of respondents. The result may surprise some, considering increasingly tense doctor-patient relationships to the point where the family of one patient pointed a smartphone at health care workers and filmed them treating their loved one.
But Chu Yuan-chung, the head of surgery at Min-Sheng General Hospital in Taoyuan, says the public still has a relatively high sense of trust in doctors. He also believes, however, that building the trust needed to maintain healthy doctor-patient relationships is the responsibility of both parties rather than just doctors.
A problem with mutual trust also exists with elementary and junior high school teachers, despite their second place finish in the survey’s rankings with a trust rating at nearly 80 percent. One teacher at a public school in Taipei surnamed Chen said the result was consistent with her experience, but felt there was an untold story behind the numbers of just how hard teachers had to work to sustain that trust.
Parents represent the biggest challenge to the trust people have in teachers, Chen says. Teachers, for example, encourage parents to get involved in their children’s learning, but when teachers offer feedback about students, an increasing number of parents have developed the habit of defending their children, she complains.
“There are times when the parent is clearly making an excuse for the child. But to preserve the teacher-student relationship, you have to handle the situation delicately,” Chen says with a tinge of helplessness.
Other professionals who earned high levels of trust exceeding 70 percent were frontline civil servants and the police.
“A rise in service awareness and the heavy workloads and long hours (of these public employees) have changed the way people view frontline civil servants and policemen,” says Yang Shu-lung, a professor with National Chung Cheng University’s Department of Criminology.
Low Tolerance for Elected Officials, Unethical Businesses
Turning to the groups that were in the bottom half of the rankings, earning the trust of fewer than 50 percent of respondents, they were (in order from high to low) business leaders, county and city councilors, government officials, national legislators, reporters and judges.
Mistrust in business people has soared in recent years, with members of the public frightened and on edge, worried that a serious problem could erupt at any time, suggests National Chengchi University’s Ku. The prevailing sense of anxiety has resulted from the actions of several unethical companies.
In the last year alone, several scandals centering on unscrupulous corporate behavior have seriously eroded trust in business leaders and confirmed Ku’s feeling that the lack of business ethics was “the biggest source of social trust risk.”
Taiwan may be caught in a global wave. There was no bigger corporate scandal than when Volkswagen admitted in September 2015 that it rigged emissions tests for 11 million diesel-fueled cars in the United States to boost sales. The admission sent VW shares plunging by more than a third in two days.
Yet just months after German publication Die Welt branded Volkswagen’s behavior as “the most expensive act of stupidity in the history of the car industry,” news emerged in April 2016 that Mitsubishi of Japan had fabricated or manipulated fuel-economy data on 600,000 cars in Japan and may have even used improper testing methods related to fuel economy for 25 years, the Wall Street Journal reported.
In Taiwan, stories of food unsafe, adulterated or misrepresented food products or false labeling pop up almost weekly, the most recent being food distributor Ocean International Co. Ltd. found selling frozen fish past its expiry date.
“The new government is saying it wants to focus on economic development, but if companies do not earn the public’s trust, then even if the economy develops it will be empty growth,” says Sinyi Realty Co. Chairman Chou Chun-chi of the mounting trust crisis businesses are facing, clearly nervous about the trend.
“Should revenue and profit growth be the highest priority? Or should it be the trust of customers? If the order of priorities is different, the results will be different,” Chou says.
Another “chaotic source” contributing to the erosion of trust in certain parts of Taiwanese society is elected officials, especially legislators. They got a vote of confidence from fewer than 40 percent of the survey’s respondents, and even lagged behind county and city councilors in the trust department by 7 percentage points.
Such sentiment was already seen in CommonWealth’s 2016 State of Nation Survey released at the beginning of the year, when 88.9 percent of respondents expressed dissatisfaction when asked: “Are you satisfied or dissatisfied with the performance of the current Legislative Yuan?”
“If the Legislature wants to earn the public’s trust, the first step is for the Legislature’s deliberations to be open and transparent,” argues NTU’s Chen.
That step has already been taken. On April 7, Legislative Speaker Su announced at a press conference that the lawmaking body would collaborate with three TV stations and 14 other media outlets to set up a dedicated TV channel offering live broadcasts of full floor deliberations and committee meetings.
“Live broadcasts are a beginning. The doors have been opened wide to welcome everyone in. The next step is showing people that the issues are being discussed seriously and that intangible ‘trust’ is being turned into concrete action,” Chen says.
Pulling up the rear in the survey’s trust rankings were two professions that should be citadels of social trust – reporters and judges. Nearly three in five respondents (58.3 percent) said they did not trust reporters and even more, 65.4 percent, expressed a lack of trust in judges.
In theory, the media should be a force for social progress and oversight, but with media companies compromising to commercial pressures, reporters are increasingly seen as production line workers given to vulgar trivialization of the news, putting an ideological spin on it, or turning it into entertainment.
Pegatron Chairman T.H. Tung, who is passionate about culture, is not quite as pessimistic as the survey results would seem to warrant.
“I don’t believe investigative journalism and exposing abuses has disappeared. There are still capable, conscientious reporters out there,” he says, though acknowledging that in such a broad market, many in the business still gravitate to sensation-seeking and appealing to the lowest common denominator.
“The value of reporters has been steadily diluted, so it’s no surprise that trust in them has eroded,” Tung says.
Most survey respondents have not had personal contact with judges but still showed little faith in them. Only 28.4 percent of respondents said they trusted judges, the lowest of any of the 10 professions looked at in the survey.
National Chung Cheng University’s Yang attributes the low trust ratings to a series of cases in recent years in which judges’ verdicts did not meet public expectations.
“If everyone thinks (a crime) was serious, but the defendant is let off relatively easy, then mistrust will inevitably arise,” Yang says.
Cheng Chun-sheng, the director of the DPP’s polling center, says judges are not always to blame.
“Judges must hand down verdicts in accordance with the law. But when the public looks at the decision-making process, all they see is the result. They don’t look at how the law is written,” he says.
Because judges are the last line of defense, however, if they are no longer trusted and “nobody accepts the verdicts rendered, it will create social problems. That’s why the new government wants to pursue judicial reform in the future,” Cheng says.
Indeed, survey respondents were not just distrustful of judges, but of the judicial system as a whole.
The survey asked respondents to express their degree of trust in six general areas (Table 3), and the results from most trusted to least trusted were disaster response systems (57.3 percent trust), public safety (57.1 percent), the education system (40.9 percent), nuclear power safety (36.7 percent), the judicial system (25.9 percent) and food safety (16.5 percent).
(Table 3, Source: CW)
In other words, only one in four Taiwanese have faith in the judicial system, any many citizens the time has come for an overhaul.
“If you paid attention to Tsai Ing-wen’s inauguration speech, you would have noticed that when she talked about pension reform and long-term care, the crowd didn’t react much, but when she brought up judicial reform, there was thundering applause,” says National Chengchi University’s Ku.
His observation is consistent with this survey’s results and leaves no doubt that judicial reform in Taiwan is overdue.
Though reforming the judicial system will take time, society’s lack of trust in judicial processes is growing increasingly stronger, and some measures may have to be taken immediately to give the public the sense that change is on its way. Some possible quick fixes could be to develop a system for cultivating judges and prosecutors and explain major verdicts in ways that relate better to the average citizen, including using language they can understand.
Younger Generation More Trusting
The results of our Social Trust Survey also revealed differences in the trust levels of different generations.
In terms of the overall trust in society, the younger the respondent, the more faith they had. About 80 percent of respondents aged 20 to 29 said they trusted most people in society, compared to 74.1 percent in the 30-49 age bracket and 61 percent in the 50 and over age group.
Young people were also clearly more confident in President Tsai than the older generation, with 72.4 percent of respondents in the 20-29 age group saying they trusted her. That was about 7-10 percentage points higher than in the 30-49 age group (62.2 percent) and 50 and above age group (65.6 percent).
That higher level of trust among young adults also extended to judges and the police, but was actually reversed when it came to reporters and business leaders.
With the rise of the internet, the new generation has shifted its sources of news away from more traditional television and print outlets, resulting in an erosion of its trust in the journalism profession in general. Over 70 percent (70.7 percent) of respondents aged 20-29 said they did not trust reporters, considerably higher than the 62.6 percent of respondents aged 30-49 and the 50.9 percent of respondents aged 50 and above with the same view.
“There is too much news and information today, especially on TV and the internet. The impact of sensationalistic news has been particularly strong. When you look at the mix of good and bad in this job, it’s hard to even think about trust,” says 23-year-old media worker Wang Hsuan.
As for business leaders, they were distrusted by 45.7 percent of respondents in the 20-29 age bracket, compared with 40.2 percent in the 30-49 age group and 32.9 percent among those aged 50 and above.
“Many wealthy people think it’s strange, wondering why when they have such wealth, they are less respected than ever before,? says Pegatron’s Tung, who then answers the question half-jokingly, “Screw you. Do you think this is still the authoritarian era?”
When Taiwan’s economy was taking off decades ago, society worshipped hard-working, successful entrepreneurs.
But that was a time when income and wealth was fairly evenly divided across society and collusion between politicians and businessmen was less serious. Today, the rich-poor gap has widened, and the wealthy have been repeatedly exposed avoiding and evading taxes by parking their riches in tax havens. That and occasional revelations of bribery cases and unscrupulous business practices to make a buck have all contributed to damage the image of the business community.
In April, former culture minister Lung Ying-tai wrote a column in CommonWealth titled “A Rooster Can Be Mayor.” In it, she argued that the mistrust existing in authoritarian societies is hidden while in democratic societies it’s front and center in public view. She believes when mistrust has spread to every corner of society, the country must rely on institutions with high caliber officials and systems to forge ahead and make progress.
At this pivotal time, in an era that is searching for new values, the new government will have to face up to the challenge of creating a new age of trust in Taiwan if it hopes to answer the high expectations of the public.
Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier
About the Survey
The CommonWealth Magazine Social Trust Survey was conducted between May 15 and May 19, 2016 by telephone. Home phone numbers were randomly selected from a phonebook through stratified random sampling and then the final two numbers were replaced with random digits. A total of 1,052 valid responses were obtained from people living in Taiwan aged 20 or above, and the survey had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.02 percentage points. All data was adjusted to be statistically representative in terms of the respondents’ gender, age, educational background and place of residence.