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2009 State of the Nation Survey

Taiwan Searches for a Clear Policy Direction


Taiwan Searches for a Clear Policy Direction


Taiwan's citizens are less confident in the future than at any time in the past 12 years, uncertain that their government's NT$500 billion stimulus package will generate jobs and unclear over where closer ties with China will lead.



Taiwan Searches for a Clear Policy Direction

By Sherry Lee
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 413 )

Taiwan ended 2008 in a state of confusion and pessimism, and the prospects for 2009 in the minds of many citizens remain unclear. 

During this time of economic turmoil, people feel as though they are stuck on a boat drifting aimlessly in a dense fog, but they still hope that the ship's captain will chart a clear course to sunny seas.

CommonWealth Magazine's latest State of the Nation survey indicates that Taiwan's people are pessimistic about the future state of the economy and skeptical about the government's performance. Society has grown further divided, with more people supporting formal independence for Taiwan than ever before.

In looking ahead at the year to come, local residents expressed serious concerns over their ability to make it through the economic downturn and maintain their livelihoods. Some 56.6 percent of respondents expressed the belief that their financial situations would worsen in 2009, the highest percentage ever recorded in the 12 years CommonWealth Magazine has been conducting the poll and 23 percentage points higher than in last year's survey. The 8.3 percent who thought they would finish the year better off financially set a new survey low. (Table 1)

Another tangible indicator of people's anxiety over their economic futures was reflected by the 68.3 percent of respondents who feared they or family members would lose their jobs in the coming year. (Table 2)

When asked whether the government would be able to revive the economy in the coming year and solve the country's pressing economic problems, 57.5 percent of respondents said they were not confident – 29 percentage points higher than those who said they were. (Table 3)

The rising unemployment rate has left many Taiwanese with a strong sense that society is unjust and the gap between rich and poor is widening. Some 62.1 percent of respondents described the income gap as a "very serious" problem, and another 23.7 percent described the problem as "serious." The total of 85.8 percent of respondents identifying the divide between rich and poor as a serious problem was the second highest since the question was first asked in 2002, trailing only the 86.9 percent who thought the problem serious at the beginning of 2007. (Table 4)

Overall, 46.6 percent of respondents were pessimistic over Taiwan's future development, while 39.8 percent were optimistic. (Table 5)

Worth noting, however, is that the ratio of those voicing optimism was 14 percentage points higher than in last year's survey, perhaps reflecting the return to power of the Chinese Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang (KMT). The KMT's decisive victories in the legislative and presidential elections ushered out the political turmoil and partisanship that characterized the final years of Chen Shui-bian's administration and brought an end to the split control of Taiwan's executive and legislative branches.

Ma Administration under the Gun

Relief over the end of the unpopular Chen Shui-bian's government has not translated into much of a honeymoon for the new Ma Ying-jeou administration.

In fact, the public remains just as vigilant in monitoring the new government, and it is not satisfied by the Ma administration's performance.

The survey found that those dissatisfied with President Ma's overall performance since taking power May 20 outnumbered those who were satisfied by 55.3 percent to 33.4 percent, a 22 percentage point margin.

Looking more closely at the numbers based on respondents' political leanings, 85.7 percent of opposition Democratic Progressive Party supporters voiced their dissatisfaction with Ma, while only 2.4 percent approved of his performance to date. KMT supporters were more forgiving, with 46.3 percent voicing satisfaction with his performance and 27.1 percent saying they were dissatisfied. (Table 6)

Respondents also were generally unhappy with the performance of Premier Liu Chao-shiuan by a 53.7 percent to 27.9 percent margin. Even KMT supporters backed his performance by a lackluster margin of 53.8 to 36 percent. (Table 7)

Enough of Ma and Liu's supporters voiced disapproval over their performance to indicate an erosion of their core support base and flash a stern warning to the Ma administration that it needs to pull itself together.

Moreover, the State of the Nation Survey found that although the new government has only been in power for about half a year, a majority of respondents (58.7 percent) were unclear about the direction in which the administration is taking the country. Only 5.2 percent said they were "very clear" about the government's course, while 21.1 percent claimed to have a clear understanding. (Table 8)

The most important publicly articulated policy of the Ma administration has been its advocacy of 12 major infrastructure projects to boost domestic demand. But one member of a Taiwanese business association in the United States told friends after listening to a presentation on the program in Taiwan that he found it "difficult to understand" and "full of empty rhetoric without a central focus."  

"All the 12 infrastructure projects and the NT$500 billion stimulus package have are numbers. They have no sense of direction, no sense of showing people where the government wants to take Taiwan," says Mon-Chi Lio, an associate professor at National Sun Yat-sen University's Department of Political Economy. Lio stresses the he does not want to hear bureaucratic rhetoric, but a vision of what the result of Taiwan's future development might look like.

Can Expanding Domestic Demand Lower the Jobless Rate?

Taiwanese people were generally clear about how they would allocate the NT$500 billion stimulus package that will be launched in 2009 to expand domestic demand.

Respondents chose as the top three targets reducing the number of unemployed, cutting taxes and easing households' financial burdens, and helping socially disadvantaged groups by expanding spending on social welfare. (Table 9)

When analyzing the respondents' priorities based on their income levels, however, the priorities cited by individuals in higher income brackets differed somewhat from those in medium- and lower-income brackets. While agreeing that the most important goal was to reduce the jobless rate, wealthier respondents said the next priority should be to "increase investment in education and upgrade workforce quality."

Also, while 75.7 percent of respondents expressed dissatisfaction with Taiwan's current economic performance (Table 10), many (46.7 percent) rationally attributed the economic woes to the global economic downturn. Another 19.8 percent believed they were due to the Ma government's lack of an overall administrative direction, while 6.5 percent contended the Cabinet's economic team was too weak. (Table 11)

Looking for the President to Take Charge

The survey also asked who should be held responsible for not articulating the country's future course. Some 34.6 percent identified President Ma as the guilty party, while the Cabinet (21.5 percent), the ruling KMT (13.8 percent) and Premier Liu (4.4 percent) were also fingered. In all, 74.3 percent of respondents put the blame for the lack of a clear direction on those in power – the president, the Cabinet, and the ruling party. (Table 12)

The survey also asked those polled to identify the biggest crises Taiwan faces, with more than one choice permitted. The top choices were: a serious economic recession (62 percent), continued wrangling among political parties (48.8 percent), and corruption in political circles (31.9 percent). The people's biggest concern clearly centered on economic issues, with the number of respondents citing the country's economic woes 10 percentage points higher than last year, but they also remained worried about the performance of political parties and clean governance. (Table 13)

Who should take responsibility for the above-mentioned problems?

Nearly one-fifth (19.3 percent) of respondents blamed "the people themselves," reflecting the gradual maturation of Taiwan's democracy, as people have come to recognize that they are responsible for the choices they make. Significant numbers of respondents also blamed the ruling party (17.9 percent) and the president (17.5 percent). An additional 6.7 percent of the public cited the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), and 5.9 percent faulted the media. (Table 14)

Worth noting is that the Cabinet was nearly completely absolved of any responsibility for the major crises confronting Taiwan, with only 3 percent of respondents casting blame its way. Another 10 percent chose the "other" category, including 4.7 percent attributing the country's ills to former president Chen Shui-bian, likely the result of the excessive exposure given to the money laundering and corruption allegations against him and his family.

The significant number of people who hold the current president accountable for the problems cited above indicate that Taiwanese citizens have higher expectations of him than they do the Cabinet. Ma often stresses that Taiwan has a "double executive" political system, and has delegated authority for economic and domestic affairs to the Cabinet. Ma's attempt to strictly follow constitutional guidelines, however, has not mitigated expectations of him on the part of the public, who see Taiwan's constitutional form of government as a presidential system.

Chia-hung Tsai, an associate research fellow at National Chengchi University's Election Study Center, observes that because of Ma's personal charisma, he was able to separate his performance from that of the city government during his term as Taipei mayor. Even if city dwellers were dissatisfied with the way their city was being administered, they still were willing to support the mayor.

"Now that he's reached the Office of the President, however, the structure of the constituency he faces is different and the demands of the electorate more complex. Unlike during his term as Taipei mayor, Ma cannot separate himself from the performance of his Cabinet team," Tsai notes.

Majority Favors Cross-strait Status Quo

Despite Taiwan's unclear economic and political prospects, and daunting barriers waiting down the road, 79.5 percent of respondents still said they felt pride in being Taiwanese. (Table 15)

Taiwan's people affirmed the country's core values, expressing the most pride for the country's freedom and democracy (28 percent), along with the natural environment, the caliber of the people, and the culture, which all were chosen by more than 10 percent of respondents. Those polled, however, did not select affluence as one of their most admired values. These choices demonstrate that Taiwanese people clearly understand where the nation's advantages lie compared to China or other countries. (Table 16)

Growing Numbers Advocate Independence

The year 2008 has been a historic one for Taiwan, with the opening of direct cross-Taiwan Strait transportation links marking a major milestone in relations between Taiwan and China.

Yet there is a split in public opinion over whether the fast pace of development of this relationship is to Taiwan's benefit. While 38.3 percent of respondents said China policy was on the right course, 35.1 percent disagreed. (Table 17)

In terms of relations with China, this year's survey exposed a paradoxical trend.

The State of the Nation survey first began analyzing the inclinations of Taiwan's people toward independence from and unification with China in 1994. The latest numbers reveal that 23.5 percent of respondents want formal independence for Taiwan (whether as quickly as possible or as a long-term goal), the highest percentage in the history of the poll and far higher than during the pro-independence Chen Shui-bian's eight years in power.

In contrast, only 6.5 percent of respondents hoped for unification with China (either quickly or eventually under certain conditions) – the lowest percentage ever. Some 7.6 percent of those surveyed favored unification in last year's poll, down dramatically from the 13 to 18 percent who backed unification in the poll's earlier years.

The majority of Taiwanese (57.8 percent) still favored maintaining the status quo.

In the more than six months that Ma has been in power, the number of people advocating independence has risen. National Sun Yat-sen University's Lio suggests the trend reflects concern that while relations between Taiwan and China have advanced at a rapid clip over the past few months, the government has ignored the divergence that still exists domestically over Taiwan's international identity.

Lio cited the violence seen during the visit by Chinese negotiator Chen Yunlin in early November and the rise of a student movement criticizing police crackdowns of protests during the visit as indicative of the government's tone deafness on the issue.

With the opening of direct transportation links with China, respondents believed the areas the government must pay greatest attention to are economic prosperity (24.7 percent), national sovereignty (19.4 percent), and cross-strait peace (16.8 percent). (Table 19)

The poll suggests that Taiwan's people are most concerned about whether the direct links will provide momentum for positive economic growth in Taiwan.

New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman recently wrote that China's culture encourages saving, not spending, meaning that China cannot replace America's over-extended consumers in providing the next wave of consumerism. The article clearly implies that China's domestic market will not serve as an engine for growth.

Whether Taiwan can put its hopes on export gains with the launch of the direct links to drive economic expansion will be worth observing.

In the past, transportation ties with China had always been fancifully seen by politicians and businessmen as a potent prescription for Taiwan's economic ills. But it will take time to determine whether the opening of the direct links will actually benefit or hurt the country.

Unimpressed with Judicial Efficacy and Corruption Clean-up

Aside from putting the development of the economy and relations with China under a microscope, Taiwanese are also split over the Ma administration's efforts in achieving its professed goals of cleaning up government and reforming the judicial system.

Some 41.2 percent of respondents felt that justice in Taiwan has taken a step backwards since the Ma government took power, compared to 28.3 percent who believed it had improved. (Table 20)

This split is particularly evident across partisan lines, with DPP supporters by and large (76.8 percent) believing that the judicial system is unfair and plagued by human rights infringements and targeted prosecutions. A narrow majority of KMT backers (50.3 percent), on the other hand, feel the judicial system has improved since the KMT government took office.

The results indicate that how the public judges the judicial system and whether it trusts it is closely correlated to their political leanings. Their views may also be closely related to how Taiwan's partisan media slant developments in high-profile legal cases on a daily basis.

Respondents were also split on whether the new administration has mitigated corruption in government, with 38.3 percent saying the situation has improved, and 36.1 percent saying it has not. The finding does not reflect well on Ma, who made clean governance one of his main campaign planks. (Tabler 21)

Party Loyalty on the Decline

Another point worth noting is that Taiwanese people's affinity for political parties is on the decline, especially among those willing to publicly declare themselves DPP supporters. Only 3.9 percent called themselves DPP backers in this year's survey, down from 9.6 percent at the beginning of 2008. The number of those proclaiming loyalty to the KMT fell to 19 percent, from 20.8 percent a year ago. In contrast, the majority claiming they did not support any political party grew from 55 percent last year to 63.3 percent in this year's survey. (Table 22)

The figures reflect the major crisis currently faced by the DPP in a climate where political parties are giving supporters little to feel proud about. With its support base clearly dwindling, the DPP must offer a clear policy platform to reverse the negative trend.

With confidence in the government and political parties on the wane, and uncertainty over the country's economic future at an all-time high, 2009 will be a critical year for the country's people, its society and its government to come together and help Taiwan confront and overcome an unprecedented set of threats and challenges.

Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier

About the Survey

The CommonWealth Magazine 2009 State of the Nation Survey was conducted by telephone by the CommonWealth Survey Research Center between Dec. 17 and Dec. 21, 2008. The survey received 1,087 valid responses from Taiwanese citizens 18 years of age or older, and has a confidence interval 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.

Chinese Version: 迷霧中,人民期待清楚的方向