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2018 State of the Nation Survey

The DPP’s True Rival: Xi Jinping

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The DPP’s True Rival: Xi Jinping

Source:Ming-Tang Huang

CommonWealth Magazine’s latest State of the Nation Survey has revealed a slide in the younger generation’s identification with Taiwan. While it may be just a temporary blip, it also suggests that the biggest rival to the DPP’s power in Taiwan is Beijing.

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The DPP’s True Rival: Xi Jinping

By Rebecca Lin
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 639 )

A talented product of National Taiwan University’s Department of Agricultural Economics graduate program, 32-year-old Wu Chi-tsung decided to pack his bags and relocate to Shanghai in June 2017. 

“I went to China to work mainly because of the many career development opportunities and the big platform for development that exists,” says Wu, who recently returned to Taiwan from Costa Rica.

Wu works for China’s second biggest fruit store chain, Xianfeng Fruit, as a product manager responsible for planning, sales and marketing, and purchasing bananas and pineapples. His sourcing activities take him to Costa Rica, the Philippines, Malaysia and Taiwan.

Wu’s story is no longer an anomaly and in fact is becoming more and more typical.

China: The Main Rival for People’s Minds

CommonWealth Magazine’s 2018 State of the Nation Survey uncovered a truth that Taiwan must face up to – Taiwanese have become more willing to escape to China or other overseas locations because of a lack of optimism in their country’s future. Among those on the move are members of the younger generation, once seen as rock-solid supporters of Taiwan independence but whose identification with the country shows signs of weakening.     

“This is a warning the government must heed,” says Eric Chen-hua Yu, an associate research fellow at National Chengchi University’s Election Study Center.

“What you can say right now is that the trend is just getting started because of the poor employment prospects young people are facing in Taiwan. The government needs to quickly improve the overall environment and give young people hope.”

The exodus overseas reflects the new reality that the labor market for Taiwanese is no longer confined to within Taiwan. But the 2018 State of the Nation Survey has also highlighted the mixed feelings a majority of people have over their country’s future.

After the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) took power from the Kuomintang (KMT) in May 2016, there was a slight bump in confidence, but the honeymoon period has clearly come to an end.

“The DPP’s main potential rival is not the KMT but the [Chinese] Communist Party. The DPP is competing with Xi Jinping for people’s hearts and minds,” says a scholar who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Overall, the 2018 survey found that more respondents were pessimistic than optimistic about the country’s prospects, with only a third (33.3 percent) expressing optimism. That was down from 39.1 percent in the 2017 survey, the first done after the DPP’s Tsai Ing-wen assumed the presidency, and about the same (32.8 percent)  in the 2016 survey, conducted just weeks before the electorate threw the then ruling KMT out of office. (Table 1)

Yet, when respondents were asked about Taiwan’s current economic performance, dissatisfaction still outpaced satisfaction, but the percentage of those voicing satisfaction was slightly up from a year earlier. Those expecting their own financial situation in the coming year to “get better” or stay “the same as in 2017” also edged higher, especially among respondents aged 29 and under. Some 33 percent of them expected things to “get better” in 2018, the highest of any age group. (Tables 2, 3)

“They are dissatisfied with the overall situation, but have confidence in the future,” says Tsai Hsiu-chuan, a professor of political science at Soochow University, in interpreting the survey’s results.

Jason J.H. Yeh, an associate professor in the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Department of Finance, contends that the nearly 20 percent rise in the Taiwan Stock Exchange’s benchmark index in 2017 has given respondents a possibly false sense of optimism over Taiwan’s economic prospects in the coming year because of what he called short-term memory bias. But the fact that younger respondents felt things would get better was still positive news, he says.

Taiwan Unable to Stem the Brain Drain

Their confidence, however, may be rooted in places other than Taiwan.

A total of 37.5 percent of respondents said they were willing to work in China, the highest percentage since 2010. And that interest was even higher among younger age brackets, with 43.8 percent of those aged 20-29 and 42.7 percent of those aged 30-39 willing to work across the Taiwan Strait. (Table 4)

When respondents were asked about their willingness to work overseas (excluding China), 59.2 percent said they were, including 84.2 percent in the 20-29 age bracket and 71.3 percent in the 30-39 age group. Their preferred destinations were Japan, the United States and Europe in that order, followed by Southeast Asian countries. (Table 5)

“Faced with Taiwan’s perennially low wages, young people are attracted by salaries in China’s urban areas. The more that their friends and peers go there to work, the more familiar with China they become,” says National Taiwan University political science professor Wang Yeh-lih. 

This “cluster effect” has become increasingly evident. Though he’s only been in Shanghai for six months, Wu has discovered that many of his classmates have also moved to China to work, and he’s even brought graduates of his department into his team.

“Starting salaries are already higher than they are in Taiwan, and with bonuses, total incomes can be several times higher,” he says. “But the most important thing is that you have plenty of room to develop. Everybody is pursuing opportunities.”

Uptick in Support for Unification

Past surveys indicate that Taiwanese have always had “pragmatic” attitudes, as can also be seen in data spanning many years offered by Chen Lu-huei, a political science professor at National Chengchi University and a research fellow at its Election Study Center.

Polling data has shown that the 39 and under age group has been the most likely to feel on the one hand that China was applying economic pressure on Taiwan to extract concessions but advocate on the other hand the strengthening of cross-strait exchanges, leading Chen to brand this demographic as the “dancing with the wolves” generation.

Looking back to before the January 2016 presidential election, it was this age group that was most supportive of Tsai Ing-wen.

“This shows how really pragmatic they are. They feel that China poses dangers yet still want to maintain exchanges and do business there. But they also support Tsai Ing-wen, who has rejected talk of the 1992 consensus,” Chen says, referring to the political formula adhered to by Tsai’s predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou, to underpin improved ties with Beijing.

Tsai and her DPP do not accept the implication of the “consensus,” that Taiwan is a part of China, or that such a “consensus” actually emerged from talks between Taiwan and China in 1992.

But the general sentiment of the electorate seems to be undergoing a slight shift. The State of the Nation Survey found a slight uptick in support for “unification” with China for the first time in many years.

The most common response among respondents when asked what the political relationship between Taiwan and China should be in the long term remained “maintain the status quo,” followed by “Taiwan independence, but still maintaining peaceful relations with China,” though both responses saw slight falls in support from last year.  

Support for “unification as soon as possible” remained very low at 2.6 percent, but support for “unification under certain conditions” hit a 10-year high at 13.8 percent, up noticeably from 8.2 percent last year. The gains were evident across all age groups. (Tables 6, 7)

In comparison, backing for “Taiwan independence, but maintaining peaceful relations with China” and “independence as soon as possible, regardless of what China does” slipped to a combined 32 percent, down from 37.2 percent last year. The slide in support was most evident among respondents in the 30-39 age group, falling from 54.3 percent last year to 37.3 percent this year.

These results suggest that this group of “natural supporters of Taiwan independence” seems to be wavering a bit, as also seen in a question on how respondents identified themselves. In this year’s survey, 56.4 percent of all respondents described themselves as “Taiwanese” while 34.1 percent saw themselves as “both Chinese and Taiwanese,” and 6.7 called themselves “Chinese.” The percentage of those seeing themselves as “Taiwanese” was the lowest since 2010 and that of the group identifying itself as “both Chinese and Taiwanese” was the highest since then. (Table 8)

Moving Toward the Middle

The shift was especially evident among those 39 and under. In the 2017 State of the Nation Survey, 78.7 percent of those aged 20 to 29 and 66.8 percent of those aged 30 to 39 identified themselves as “Taiwanese,” but those percentages shrunk to 72.7 percent and 59 percent, respectively, in the 2018 survey. (Table 9).

Also, those 20 to 29 who identified themselves as “Chinese” rose from 1.1 percent to 4 percent, and those 30 to 39 who identified themselves as “both Chinese and Taiwanese” rose from 27.3 percent to 36.7 percent.

The figures indicate that this demographic may not be quite the solid block of “natural supporters of independence” as it is portrayed as being.

The broader trend seems to be that faced with inadequate opportunities in Taiwan, younger people are experiencing an erosion in their self-confidence.

Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Yeh stressed that the identification people have with a country or a nation can be influenced by economic and governance issues.

Citing Puerto Rico as an example, Yeh said that in the 1950s after the last armed uprising for independence, the island became a self-governing commonwealth in association with the United States. Then in referendums on the island’s status in 1967 and 1993, the commonwealth option was the top choice with 60 percent and 49 percent of the vote, respectively, defeating the option of statehood.

In 2017, however, with the island facing a financial crisis, support for becoming the 51st state of the United States had reached 60-70 percent. “I think that when talking about national identity, economic governance is critical.”

In Taiwan, the shift will have to be observed over the long term. “Coming to a conclusion now, and saying they cannot go back to where they were, would be premature. All you can say is that the trend is just beginning,” says National Chengchi University’s Yu.

Much like many Taiwanese investors in China have since become Taiwanese drifters there, young people working in China could end up disappointed or disillusioned, but their current thinking should still serve as a warning to the DPP government, Yu says.

More Middle-of-the-Road Voters

What may be an even bigger worry for the DPP is that the electorate is gradually losing confidence in political parties.

This year’s State of the Nation Survey found that support for all political parties, whether the DPP, KMT or third parties, continued to decline. (Table 10)

From 2005, when CommonWealth Magazine first surveyed political party leanings, to the present, support for the DPP peaked in the 2016 survey at 18.8 percent before slipping to 17.2 percent last year, but it slumped to 12.9 percent in the latest poll.

The two-party system of the past, when support would seesaw between the DPP and KMT, seems to have fallen out of favor as the KMT has not benefited from the DPP’s decline. Its support in this year’s survey was at 9.1 percent, down from 9.4 percent in 2017 with seemingly little chance of a rebound. It did garner 26.7 percent in 2008, just months before the KMT’s Ma was elected president for his first term with nearly 60 percent of the vote, but that support level now seems totally out of the realm of possibility.

Support for the New Power Party, which was founded less than three years ago, also fell from 3.3 percent to 1.6 percent over the past year. Though it has been seen as the political party of the younger generation, its support level among respondents 39 and under was still less than half the DPP’s.

A combined 72.8 percent either said they didn’t support any political party or didn’t lean toward a specific party. That result was consistent with data National Chengchi University’s Election Study Center collected recently, showing that 48 percent of voters had no leanings toward any political party, the highest since the center’s polling began in 1996.

“This is something we thought was very interesting,” says the center’s Chen. Most noteworthy is that unlike in the past when respondents 50 and over were the most likely group not to have political party affiliations, the younger generation is now the most likely not to have political party leanings.

Glorious Taiwan Republic vs. Powerful Chinese Dream

That reflects the growing maturity of Taiwan’s democracy, with voters deciding whether or not to support political parties based on their performances.

“The DPP has slid, but the NPP has not risen. Pan-green supporters have become independent voters because of the DPP’s weak performance,” Yu says. The impact of undecided voters has been to not cast votes rather than turning to another political party, he says.

Worth considering, however, is that when people grow disappointed with political parties, it may presage the rise of new possibilities, especially with voter intentions in flux and no longer influenced by their personal origins or families.

“The survey respondents who didn’t support any political party or don’t lean toward any political party are capable of supporting a glorious Taiwan Republic or a powerful Chinese dream,” Yeh contends, but he suggests they are more likely to care about the handling and performance of the economy.

At a time when the entire world is in flux, the government can no longer avoid the question of what kind of relationship Taiwan wants to maintain with the emerging superpower that is China, or address the economic pull China is having on a younger generation seeking more career opportunities.

Translated from the Chinese article by Luke Sabatier

About the 2018 State of the Nation Survey

This survey was conducted by the CommonWealth Magazine Survey Center from Nov. 29 to Dec. 2, 2017 using a Taiwan telephone book as the main sampling frame. The stratified random sample method was used to select home telephone numbers at random, with the last two digits of the numbers randomly substituted. A total of 1,091 valid responses were obtained from people living in Taiwan aged 20 and over. The survey has a confidence level of 95 percent and a margin of error of plus or minus 2.97 percentage points. All data was weighted and adjusted for gender, age, educational background and place of residence.


Additional Reading

‘Farewell, Taiwan’
The ’35 Generation’: Seeking Freedom, Living for the Moment
Can Xi’s ‘National Treatment’ Strategy Work?
Chronicling a 20-Year Decline

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