2007 State of the Nation Survey
Economic foreboding, social commitment, political pessimism, educational anxiety... CommonWealth’s annual survey on the state of nation reveals what is foremost in the minds of the Taiwanese.
2007 State of the Nation SurveyBy Sherry Lee and Scott Wang
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 364 )
CommonWealth's annual survey of the current social, economic, and political climate in Taiwan uncovers the antithetical trends of a weakening economy and increasing social stability.
Looking ahead at the year to come, the public also expressed an increasing level of anxiety, dissatisfaction and powerlessness when considering their personal livelihoods and the nation's economic development.
Widening Wealth Gap Largest in History
Reaching a level not seen for the last six years, 86.9% of those participating in this year's survey said they feel the wealth gap in Taiwan is worsening .
The public's perception of a widening divide between poor and rich has increased rapidly over the previous six years. While 61.3% of those surveyed in 2002 already saw the wealth gap as being more serious than before, this year's figure is over ten percent higher than that recorded in 2004.
A glance at Ministry of the Interior statistics reveals that in Taiwan both the number of low-income households and the number of low-income individuals rose to new highs in 2006, with the total number of people living in low-income households climbing to 212,000. Each year since 2000, an average of more than 13,800 have expanded the ranks of the poor in Taiwan.
Through his research of international trends, Japanese management guru Kenichi Ohmae developed his concept of an ""M society"" in which he postulates the middle class is being separated into poor and rich. The Taiwanese media has followed with a discussion of what it calls ""the vanishing middle class."" The reality is that the Taiwanese public's own awareness of the phenomenon of ""the growing poor"" is even more acute.
It is fair to say that the problem of the widening wealth divide has continued to worsen in recent years.
When the participants in our survey were asked whether their personal finances would take a turn for the better or worse in the year ahead, 26.7% said they expected things to get worse, while only 17.7% said they saw their situation improving. These figures are reflective of an uncertainty among the public regarding the general economic conditionsto come in Taiwan .
Consequently, 63.5% of the survey respondents, almost two out of every three, expressed fears that they or their relatives or friends could face unemployment in the not too distant future.
Premier Su Tseng-chang continues to stress that this year is the year to kick off the implementation of his policy of ""big investment, big warming"" and that he is confident this policy will help Taiwan achieve an economic growth rate of 4.6% and a per capita gross domestic product of US$16,886. The numbers above, however, show the public obviously lacks the confidence expressed by the government.
At the same time that Taiwanese are expressing concerns over the future of the economy, they are also becoming possessed by a feeling of powerlessness.
Our survey this year indicates that upwards of 63.1% of the public is dissatisfied with Taiwan's economic performance.
Taiwan is not the only country that has to deal with the problem of a sluggish economy. South Korea and Japan are set on getting their houses in order as well. In this globalized world, every nation must contend with the economic draw of developing economies such as China and India. And, every nation is forced to face the need for industrial upgrading and transformation.
Yet Taiwan faces its own particular set of problems which, owing to the disputed nature of cross-strait political history, has influenced the development of Taiwan's cross-strait policy.
We asked our survey subjects whether Taiwan's economy is overly reliant on China. Almost an equal percentage, around 46%, responded in the positive as in the negative . The high levels of support for these contrary views indicate that the people of Taiwan continue to possess radically different understandings concerning cross-strait economic and trade development.
Despite this divided understanding, when we asked our subjects whether they support a relaxation of restrictions in Taiwan's cross-strait policy, we received quite a one-sided response. While 55.5% supported a major relaxation of policy or absolutely no government involvement, another 20.3% said it accepted the current policy of partial opening. Only 6.7% expressed support for the tightening of restrictions .
For years now, the government's attitude towards investment in China has been ambiguous while tending towards restraint. The public on the other hand has continued to exhibit a strong enthusiasm for investing in China.
This polarized public opinion has left the government unable to formulate a clear policy. ""However, the government's job is to make tough decisions. It can't simply put issues to the side and ignore them and not engage in a dialogue with the outside world,"" says one university professor.
Increasing Social and Human Capital
Though people are deeply concerned about the economy and cross-strait issues, Taiwanese society has built up some positive energy when it comes to social empowerment.
Many people in Taiwan are choosing to stand up and work for the betterment of society. According to the survey, 34% of Taiwanese gave of their time as volunteers or participated in public welfare activities over the last year, and 40.5% expressed their willingness to do so in 2007 . With such an abundance of social capital here in Taiwan, the government would do well to put it to good use.
CommonWealth's 2007 State of the Nation Survey reveals that the tears in the fabric of Taiwanese society are hardly as severe as they are depicted by most politicians and media–namely, that opposition is intensifying as a result of the independence-unification issue. When presented with a choice of the status quo, independence, or unification for the state of Taiwan's relationship with China in the long run, 63% of those surveyed said they preferred maintaining the status quo. This marks an increase of over ten percent compared to our survey in 2002. As for the positions of independence and unification, each received only 13% support, both down 6% from 2002 . This shows that support for these opposing positions is on the decline, whereas advocacy of the middle road of sticking with the current situation is on the rise.
Uncertainty over the Future
Whether it be issues of economic empowerment or social empowerment, when it comes to Taiwan's future, were those surveyed on the whole optimistic or pessimistic? It turns out the 36.4% reporting feelings of optimism about Taiwan's prospects were slightly outnumbered by a pessimistic 41.6% .
The upsurge of pessimism is perhaps related to feelings of uncertainty over the nation's future direction.
Moreover, there is a particularly poignant mood of disappointment when considering the two major political parties that set Taiwan's headings and the political stars that will contend for leadership of the nation in 2008.
For one, those participating in our survey gave both the ruling and opposition parties poor marks for their respective performances in 2006. On a scale of one to ten, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) received a score of just 3.8 points, while the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) fared less than one point better with a score of 4.7 points.
A common sentiment for many members of the middle class is that Taiwan's partisan politics is based on negative competition, with both major political parties harping on the negative aspects of the other.
When asked what the greatest crisis facing Taiwan at the moment is, 50% of those surveyed responded ""fighting between political parties and their willingness to resort to any means necessary."" The second most common answer (43.3%)was ""sluggish economic development and widening wealth gap"" .
The public generally feels the ruling party should assume ultimate responsibility for the uncertainty surrounding Taiwan's current political and economic situation.
The survey indicates 33.8% of the public holds the ruling party responsible, while an additional 18.7% places the blame directly on President Chen Shui-bian. Only 1.2% says Taiwan's current crises are the fault of the Executive Yuan, even though it is the body coming directly under pressure when troubles arise with the governing of the country. Altogether, this means that over half of Taiwan's population considers the ruling party as a whole liable for the nation's current predicament .
Dark Future Expected for Next Generation
Of even greater concern is the lack of confidence expressed regarding the prospects of the next generation.
Our survey reveals that almost 70% of respondents feel Taiwan's current education system will not allow the next generation to achieve upward mobility and better lives. Fifty-five percent also take a negative view of the future prospects of the coming generation compared to those of the current generation.
There is a major discrepancy between the thinking of the government and the public concerning the most hotly debated education issue these days – whether a single unified series of textbooks should be used in all primary and middle schools around the island. On this survey, a convincing 75.5% said they supported using the same textbooks. This suggests that the government's ""multiple-textbook policy,"" which allows schools greater freedom in selecting teaching materials, has actually created a great deal of trouble for students and their parents.
Rather than helping to promote diversity and reduce pressure as originally intended, the ""multiple-textbook policy"" has instead had the opposite effect of greatly increasing the pressure students must face.
The low level of confidence voiced by the public concerning the prospects of the next generation does not reflect an outright lack of confidence in Taiwan's educational system as a whole; rather, it stems from feelings of anxiety over specific educational policies and the nation's global competitiveness. Sixty-five percent of the subjects in this survey declared they would not consider permitting the next generation to go to China to pursue an education, but 25.6% said they would.
2008 Presidential Hopefuls Seen As Lacking
As for the politicians currently leading on Taiwan's political stage, the ones that are most likely to represent their parties in the 2008 presidential election, namely, Ma Ying-jeou, Wang Jin-pyng, Lien Chan, Su Tseng-chang, Frank Hsieh, Annette Lu and Yu Shyi-kun, is the Taiwanese public satisfied with their performances? Does it think they possess the abilities to pull Taiwan out of its present morass?
In this survey, Ma Ying-jeou received the highest support rating, with 65 points out of a possible 100, while Su Tseng-chang's 57.2 points earned him a second-place ranking. The two were followed by Frank Hsieh and Wang Jin-pyng, who scored 54.3 and 54.2 points respectively. Though these four politicians are all in the leaders' circle, none of their overall individual scores are particularly impressive .
Though Ma Ying-jeou's overall score is the highest, his lead is not large. However, in five out of six categories – ""clean governance,"" ""global perspective,"" ""understands and shows concern for the lives of the public,"" ""possesses clear goals and direction for governing the nation,"" and ""leadership ability"" – Ma did receive scores higher than those of the other potential candidates. Su Tseng-chang claimed the highest score for ""resolve in implementation of policy."" His ""Go, Go, Go"" approach to administration has evidently made a deep impression on the people of Taiwan, allowing him to outshine Ma, who is known for his ""moderate and yielding"" image, in this category .
Moreover, in the categories ofdirection for governing the nation,leadership ability, and policy implementation, not one of these political heavyweights received a score of over fifteen percent.
Altogether, those hoping to usher a new party into power in the 2008 presidential election comprise 51% of those surveyed . This appears to imply that a majority of the public believes changing governments is part of the game rules for democratic governance and that excessive power can lead to deeper corruption. However, 23% of Taiwanese also consider the quality each candidate displays to be the factor that will most influence how they vote. This shows that, in the coming election, the individual quality of the candidates will be the most crucial element. We are certain to witness some intense campaigning, and it is doubtful we will see any one candidate win by a landslide.
That politicians from the two major parties are considered to be weak with regards to policy implementation and leadership ability goes a long way in explaining and reflecting the pessimism of the Taiwanese people concerning the present situation and the future.
This year's State of the Nation Survey reflects the potential strengths of the Taiwanese people and their society. However, it has highlighted as well that the country's current and future political leaders have failed to create a brighter economic future and life for the people. The ruling party for its part must work more diligently over the coming year in order to win back the confidence of the citizenry, whereas the politicians from the two major parties that will vie for the presidency in 2008 will need to propose more specific policy directions for the future of the nation.
About the Survey
The CommonWealth 2007 State of the Nation Survey focused on Taiwanese citizens aged 18 years and over, chosen via a stratified random sampling method and interviewed by telephone. The survey was conducted between December 27, 2006 and January 9, 2007 and received 1,070 valid responses. The survey attained a confidence level of 95 percent, with a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points.
Survey conducted by: Hsu Kui-rong, Lee Kun-sheng, and Yu Bing-hong
Translated from the Chinese by Stan Blewett