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2010 State of the Nation Survey

Income Gap on People's Minds


Income Gap on People's Minds

Source:Kuo-Tai Liu

After a tumultuous 2009, what do Taiwan's people think about the state of affairs in their country? CommonWealth Magazine found many remain worried about the rich-poor divide and overdependence on China.



Income Gap on People's Minds

By Rebecca Lin
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 437 )

This past year saw a global economic crisis that profoundly affected the lives of many people in Taiwan. In its State of the Nation survey, which takes the pulse of local residents from political, economic and social perspectives, CommonWealth Magazine asked Taiwan's citizens if they expected better in 2010.

The survey found that the biggest concern among local citizens is the growing divide between rich and poor. More than 90 percent of respondents (93.4 percent) said the social problem that most worried them was the widening income gap, some 17 percentage points higher than five years ago.

In the economic sphere, 29.7 percent of respondents believed that their financial situation would improve in 2010, a 13-year high. The number of those who thought their situations would worsen plummeted to 29.8 percent, down from 56.6 percent a year ago.

Although Taiwan's unemployment rate remains high, sitting at 5.96 percent in October, the survey found that many local residents think the worst is over. The percentage of those who worried that they or their family members might lose their jobs remained high but was considerably lower than last year, while 42.4 percent of respondents were not worried about their own or their relatives' job situations, up from 29.9 percent a year ago.

White-collar Workers Feel Deprived

The survey's respondents may have rising expectations for their financial and employment situations, but those dissatisfied with the current economy (73.3 percent) far outnumber those who expressed satisfaction (20.6 percent) and concerns over the growing rich-poor divide were particularly evident, setting a record high. In 2005, 76.7 percent of respondents cited the widening income gap as a serious problem, and that number rose to 85.8 percent last year and 93.4 percent this year (see table 1) .

The widening gap between rich and poor has reached alarming proportions and must be addressed by the government. According to Ministry of the Interior figures, there are now more than 100,000 low-income households encompassing over 250,000 people, both record highs. The government has aggressively cut taxes on the wealthy, but as its finances worsen, it is not willing or able at this point to raise taxes to redistribute income. That, along with soaring real estate prices and brazen tax evasion by some of Taiwan's wealthiest citizens, have only deepened the sense of relative deprivation among salaried workers.

As to Taiwan's future, the number of pessimists and optimists both rose slightly, though pessimists (47.1 percent) still outnumbered optimists (43.4 percent). The relatively even split indicates the uncertainty Taiwan's people still feel toward the future.

In the recently concluded local government elections, the governing Kuomintang (KMT) had a worse than expected showing, and some media analysts attributed it to the controversy and concerns sparked by the administration's support for signing an economic cooperation framework agreement (ECFA) with China. 

The CommonWealth State of the Nation survey found, however, that those with a positive attitude toward the potential trade deal are not in the minority. Some 66.5 percent of respondents said they "did not understand" or "did not understand at all" the proposed ECFA, while only 30.2 percent said they "understood" or "fully understood" it, but of those who said they understood the ECFA, the majority (52.7 percent to 33.3 percent) felt the trade pact would be beneficial to Taiwan. That may be because businessmen have followed the progress of the controversial trade pact more closely than others, and many believe the agreement is necessary to overcome Taiwan's current economic plight and make further inroads into China's market.

A more detailed look at the poll's results revealed major differences in attitude toward the trade deal based on party affiliation and where one lived.

ECFA Skepticism Strongest in Central Taiwan

A huge majority (84.9 percent) of KMT supporters felt an ECFA would benefit Taiwan, compared to only 17.9 percent of opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) supporters. That low level of backing helps explain the strong emotions manifested by pro-DPP supporters against the trade deal.

Regionally, respondents from central Taiwan had the least confidence in an ECFA, with only 45.1 percent saying they believed it would benefit Taiwan, compared to higher support in northern Taiwan (55.9 percent), southern Taiwan (52.3 percent) and eastern Taiwan and the country's outlying islands (65.8 percent).

Taiwan and China's economies are intricately woven together, and many in Taiwan believe that the country can no longer return to the old path of isolating itself from China. An opportunity also seems to have emerged in the political sphere.

Nearly three-fifths of the poll's respondents (56.8 percent) favor holding political negotiations with China during President Ma Ying-jeou's current term (which lasts until May 2012) that would move the two sides toward peace, recognition of each others' existence, and mutual non-aggression. Even in the DPP's southern Taiwan stronghold, almost half of the respondents (49.3 percent) favored cross-Taiwan Strait political negotiations.

In the minds of Taiwan's people, however, such political consultations would have to respect the subjective will of the country's citizens. Probing further what form the political negotiations should take, the poll found that a strong majority (63.5 percent) believed a referendum should be held before talks begin. This subjective will was especially strong among respondents in the 18-29 age bracket, 77.1 percent of whom backed the idea of a referendum, and in the 30-39 age bracket (60.8 percent support for a referendum).

Chun-shan Chao, the chairman of the Foundation on Asia-Pacific Peace Studies, suggested in October that three conditions needed to be fulfilled before political negotiations with China could begin. Considering that Chao's think tank is linked to the Presidential Office's National Security Council, analysts saw it as a trial balloon to gauge public opinion. Reacting to the results of the CommonWealth survey, Chao said that while not every issue faced in governing the country should be resolved by a referendum, respondents obviously felt that the power to decide on political relations with China should be in their hands (see table 2).

Consequently, Chao suggested that "regardless of whether a referendum is held, the positives and negatives (of every political consultation) need to be clearly communicated so that people can understand it." Otherwise, it will boomerang into another political crisis for the Ma administration.

Lacking Action on Climate Change

In terms of domestic affairs, Taiwan's people have become impatient with the Ma administration's capacity to govern. Following Typhoon Morakot, which unleashed the worst flooding in Taiwan in half a century, more than three-quarters of the respondents (75.9 percent), regardless of political affiliation, felt the government has been "extremely passive" or "passive" in dealing with climate change.

Lin Wan-I, a professor in National Taiwan University's Department of Social Work, says that while most people do not understand climate change and cannot sense any immediate danger, the results show that from an environmental perspective, they still feel the government has not done enough.

As a result, Ma's satisfaction rating has fallen from 33.3 percent last year to 27.4 percent this year, while dissatisfaction with his performance has risen 10 percentage points to 65.6 percent, from 55.3 percent last year. On the other hand, Premier Wu Den-yih had a satisfaction rating of 36.5 percent, higher than his predecessor Liu Chao-shiuan's 27.9 percent.

The problems that most respondents felt the government needed to immediately address are related to their daily lives. The top priorities cited were strengthening the economy, reducing the rich-poor divide and improving public order. Also, nearly one-fifth of respondents (18.1 percent), especially those under 39 years of age, felt the quality of education needed to be improved. 

The survey's results also showed that Taiwan's people are gradually growing more open toward working or sending their children to school in China. The proportion of respondents willing to work in China has risen marginally over the past few years, from 36.4 percent in 2006 to 37.8 percent this year, as has the number of people willing to have their children educated in China (rising from 27.9 percent to 29.1 percent over the same period). Particularly noteworthy is the growing willingness of parents in the 30-39 age bracket (37.2 percent) to send their children to study in China.

On the other hand, however, Taiwan's people seem to be increasingly concerned that the country's economy is too dependent on China. Those who said they are "worried" or "extremely worried" about this have gone from 51.9 percent in 2004 to 60.95 percent this year, and the further south they live, the more citizens voice concern.

Hoping to Maintain the Status Quo

The Foundation on Asia-Pacific Peace Studies' Chao says people's concerns are understandable, considering the relative sizes of the two sides' economies. Those concerns, he added, should remind the government that when an ECFA is negotiated, it must clearly articulate the agreement's pros and cons and should not accept whatever China demands. He contends that risk control and market diversification will be especially important, because not all of Taiwan's eggs can be thrown in one basket (see table 3).

Even as cross-strait tensions have eased, the views of Taiwan's people toward the unification/independence conundrum remain decidedly middle of the road. Only 11 percent of respondents favored declaring independence as soon as possible, and only 2 percent backed rapid unification, while 78 percent wanted to maintain the status quo.

At the two ends of the spectrum on the unification/independence issue, the survey shows Taiwan's people lean toward independence. Among the 78 percent who support the status quo, 35 percent hope that the status quo will be in place permanently, 33 percent favor moving toward independence in the future and 10 percent want to move toward unification.

Economic reality, however, has triggered the rise of contradictions and tensions in Taiwan's political stance. "This is just like a man and a woman getting to understand each other and becoming friends after going out together. But Taiwan also hopes to remain an independent and self-governed entity rather than stepping on the red carpet," says Jenn-hwan Wang, the director of National Chengchi University's Center for China Studies.

The undeniable truths are that China cannot allow Taiwan to become independent, and that Taiwan is not willing to be annexed and wants to coexist with China peacefully. What does that mean for the future? "It will take time and wisdom to resolve the problem," Wang says.

Michael Hsiao, the executive director of Academia Sinica's Center for Asia-Pacific Area Studies, argues that the big majority in favor of maintaining the status quo and the fact that more than 80 percent of respondents opted for non-unification options indicate that the fear of China has not been expunged. The people prefer to wait for an opportune moment to act, he believes, and at a time like this, the government's role becomes even more important.

The government must carefully deal with cross-strait relations and, even more importantly, it cannot ignore major problems at home. The recession and widening income gap, wrangling among political parties, and corruption in political circles have been cited as the top three concerns of the survey's respondents over the past three years. Though Taiwan's relations with China may have gone from tense to conciliatory, the fear that Taiwan will be marginalized internationally rose to fourth on the list of concerns this year, cited by 17 percent of respondents compared to 12 percent last year.

Holding the President Accountable

Who should take responsibility for the problems cited above? Over one-fifth (21 percent) felt it was Taiwan's people themselves, while 20 percent pointed the finger at President Ma Ying-jeou. The governing KMT, which Ma now also formally heads, finished third among those being held accountable, revealing that voters, who gave Ma and the KMT complete control of the government with their ballots in 2008, hope the president and the party he leads shoulder complete responsibility in tackling local issues.

After Ma was elected KMT chairman, he courageously dealt with widespread speculation of vote buying in the party's Central Standing Committee election by ordering the election to be held a second time. But in the Dec. 5 local government elections, reports of vote buying remained common, and the people's dismay was directly reflected in the survey's results (see table 4).

Sixty percent of respondents felt that Chairman Ma's anti-corruption reforms within the party were ineffective, in contrast to fewer than one-fifth (18 percent) who felt his measures were effective. Not only did most DPP supporters (81 percent) see his reforms as ineffective, but even 44 percent of KMT supporters felt that way.

As to whether Tsai Ing-wen, the chairwoman of the DPP who brought the party out from under former President Chen Shui-bian's shadow in the recent elections, could give the DPP a clear vision, there was considerable skepticism. More than two-fifths of those surveyed (43 percent) believed Tsai was not capable of presenting a vision, while 33 percent believed that she could.

When asked to assess the performance of Taiwan's two main political parties over the past year, respondents gave both the KMT and DPP failing grades. On a scale of 10, the KMT edged out the DPP 4.76 to 4.67. The results were more closely correlated to party identification than region, but while there is considerable dissatisfaction with both parties, a third party that has earned the trust of voters has yet to emerge.

Despite the disappointment with political parties, disenchanted DPP supporters seem to be gradually returning to the fold, with 12 percent identifying themselves as DPP backers this year compared to 4 percent a year earlier.

In last year's CommonWealth State of the Nation survey, when former President Chen's corruption scandal exploded, confidence in the party sank to a historical low, but this year, that confidence returned to 2005 levels, possibly because of the momentum created by the DPP's showing in the Dec. 5 elections, which local media widely described as a victory.

 "I'm Taiwanese"

Perhaps more worthy of note is how the survey's respondents identified themselves. Asked if they felt they were Chinese or Taiwanese, 62 percent of those surveyed said they were Taiwanese, 22 percent said they were both Chinese and Taiwanese, and only 8 percent said they were Chinese. The younger respondents were, the more likely they were to describe themselves as Taiwanese.

The Foundation on Asia-Pacific Peace Studies' Chao says that in the past, those identifying themselves as both Taiwanese and Chinese were in the majority, reflecting their emotional ties to Chinese culture and ethnicity. But today, most local residents associate "China" with the People's Republic of China, strengthening their feelings for Taiwan as their native land, he observes.

Generally speaking, the views of Taiwan's citizens toward dealing with China appear rational and pragmatic. They are willing to expand contacts, strengthen mutual understanding, and find consensus from among the two sides' differences, but "just like making friends, people get to know themselves better through others," National Chengchi University's Wang cautions (see table 5).

The more Taiwan's people know themselves and the more clearly they perceive the differences between the two sides, their subjective consciousness and self-identification will grow stronger, Wang says, but he feels it would be too soon to discuss unification or independence in the short term.  

Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier

About the Survey

The CommonWealth Magazine 2010 State of the Nation Survey was conducted by telephone by the CommonWealth Survey Research Center between Dec. 6 and Dec. 8, 2009. The survey received 1,090 valid responses from Taiwanese citizens 18 years of age or older, chosen via a stratified random sampling. It has a confidence level of 95 percent and a margin of error of plus/minus 3 percent.

The survey's results were examined for sample representativeness based on respondents' gender, place of residence, age, education background and other factors, and adjusted accordingly.