Written by Don Rodgers.

The People’s Republic of China officially views Taiwan as a “sacred and inseparable part of China’s territory.” Yet, Taiwan is currently a de facto independent country with its own territory, economy, democratic government, and military. This obviously causes the leaders in Beijing no small degree of heartburn. To make matters more troubling for Beijing, the people of Taiwan express an increasing sense of Taiwanese identity and a dramatically declining interest in any form of unification with China. The Taiwanese value their sovereignty, their democracy, and their lifestyles, and they see any move toward China as a threat to all of those.

Beijing has responded to this reality with a combination of sticks and carrots. The most recognized sticks are the 2005 Anti-Secession Law and the thousands of missiles pointed at Taiwan. The carrots include Beijing’s “benevolent” promise to help their Taiwan compatriots achieve a better quality of life through economic integration, and their offer of the One Country, Two Systems (一國兩制) model. Recent political events on Taiwan have made it abundantly clear that neither of these proposals is attractive to the Taiwanese. In spite of the complexity of the issue, the reasons for the Taiwanese attitudes are quite simple. First, they do not believe that greater economic integration will deliver positive benefits to the majority of the population. Second, they do not perceive themselves to be of “one country” with China, so the concept of one country, two systems is nonsensical to them.

In advancing the concept of “One country, Two systems” Deng Xiaoping stated, “so long as Taiwan returns to the embrace of the motherland, we will respect the realities and the existing system there.” In 1981 Ye Jianying, Chairman of the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress, argued that, “the national government will not intervene in the local affairs of Taiwan. Taiwan’s current social and economic systems will remain unchanged, its way of life will not change, and its economic and cultural ties with foreign countries will not change.”[i] The problem with the PRC’s proposal is evident: It is impossible to argue that the Taiwanese people’s way of life will not change under this system, because in fact the most central and salient aspect of the Taiwanese way of life is that they believe they are Taiwanese, not Chinese, and they view their country as Taiwan, not China.  Taiwan, not China, is the motherland. Any alteration of that is an existential threat to everything the people of Taiwan value.

It is well known that surveys in Taiwan indicate a consistent trend of increasing Taiwanese identity and declining support for unification. But most survey results on independence versus unification leave room for ambiguity in responses and interpretation. More specifically, many survey respondents indicate a preference for maintaining a vague “status quo” without indicating what that status quo means or their true preference for Taiwan’s future.

To address this issue and better determine preferences for the future I conducted a survey of 941 college students from 14 different universities in Taiwan in 2010. Although these data are a bit dated, recent trends in public opinion make it likely that the responses are still valid. In addition to a wide range of questions about identity and political attitudes, the survey included five possible future scenarios on Taiwan’s relations with China and asked students to respond to a series of questions to indicate their level of satisfaction with each possible scenario. The possibility of Taiwan as a Special Administrative Region of China under the One country, Two systems model was included in the survey. The results of this survey show that respondents do not support any form of integration or unification, including a One Country, Two Systems model. I address a few of the most relevant responses below.

First, it is clear that the students do not believe that Taiwan is part of China. Over 80% of the respondents disagreed with the statement, “Although China and Taiwan have different governments they are still part of the same country.” Additionally, nearly 70% of the respondents agree with the statement, “Taiwan and China are so different that it doesn’t make any sense to discuss unification.” Even students who claimed a dual Taiwanese-Chinese identity made it clear that this does not mean they support unification. More specifically, 91% of the students who expressed this dual identity agreed with the statement, “to say that I am Chinese does not mean that I want to be part of the country of China.” All of these responses provide a very clear indication of the students’ primary identity and attitudes toward unification.

Second, in addressing the content of Taiwanese identity, it became clear that a significant number of the students believe theirs is more a civic than an ethnic identity. Their connection to each other and to Taiwan is based on a belief that they possess a distinct history and political culture in which democracy and human rights are central. For example, 81% of the students agreed with the statement, “the 228 Incident (二二八事件) and the (1979) Meilidao Incident (美麗島事件) have great influence on Taiwanese identity.” Additionally, 76% of the respondents agreed with the statement, “More Taiwanese history should be taught in high school.” These positions point to the strength of the sense of a unique local identity.

The centrality of the civic identity and the importance of democracy are indicated by the fact that 95.5% of the respondents agreed with the statement, “Protecting Taiwan’s democracy and human rights is essential to Taiwan’s future.” Now a statement supporting democracy and human rights might appear unenlightening, but its significance becomes apparent when paired with the students’ responses to possible future scenarios. That is, in every case where a future scenario involved some form of integration or unification with China, including becoming a SAR of China under a one country, two systems model, the students perceived a great threat to Taiwan’s democracy and human rights. Again, this can be seen then as an existential threat to a central political value in Taiwan.

The Special Administrative Region scenario in the survey was based on the model proposed by Beijing.  Respondents were asked to read the scenario and then answer a series of questions.  The first set of questions asked for their emotional response to the possible future.  Nearly 80% of the students said they would be angry, while only about 5% said they would be pleased.  The overwhelming majority also said they would be afraid and nervous with this scenario while almost none said they would be excited or enthusiastic.

The results were no more positive when addressing perceptions of specific costs or benefits of the model. The majority, approximately 70%, disagreed with the statement that becoming a SAR would improve the job situation for the Taiwanese, and about the same number disagreed with the statement that their quality of life would improve under the system. Approximately 60% believed that violence would increase in the society. 85% of respondents disagreed with the statement that the views of all political groups would be respected. And almost 90% disagreed with the statement that democracy and human rights would be protected. This is crucial given the stated importance of protecting Taiwan’s democracy and human rights addressed above. Finally, over 60% of the students responded that they would protest against the government in this scenario. In short, all of these responses indicate that the students see no positive benefit to the One Country, Two Systems proposal.

China’s claim that Taiwan is part of its territory and its position that One Country, Two Systems is appropriate for Taiwan is based on two premises. First, that Taiwan is an essential part of China based on the shared bloodline of the Chinese and their Taiwanese compatriots. Second, that integration or unification with China will offer the Taiwanese tangible material benefit that they cannot acquire independently.  Neither is persuasive to the Taiwanese. Many people in Taiwan acknowledge their Chinese heritage, but basing nationality or citizenship on blood is an outdated concept and is certainly not appealing to the Taiwanese, who clearly focus on a Taiwanese civic identity and who clearly indicate that their Chinese heritage is not related to their citizenship. In fact, most people find the concept illogical because as one friend so simply but eloquently stated, “to make that work, wouldn’t we have to be one country to start with?”  I would add to that, “and wouldn’t we have to want to be one country?”

What Beijing puts forth as practical or pragmatic appeals to the Taiwanese including greater economic opportunity and quality of life are also falling on deaf ears. The students who participated in my survey see no benefit to the proposal. They believe that in addition to sacrificing their sovereignty and identity, they would also be sacrificing their material quality of life. The protest activities of and the broad range of support for the Sunflower Movement only serve to confirm the existence of these fears in Taiwan. The Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong only serves to exacerbate the fears.

In the end then we are left with a proposal from Beijing based on the Chinese dream of what they want the Taiwanese to believe. The policy statement on One Country, Two Systems on the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs Website includes the following statement, “Li Denghui (Lee Teng-hui, 李登輝) and a small number of people in Taiwan who betray the principle of one China and advocate the creation of “two Chinas” or “one China, one Taiwan” in an attempt to split China are doomed to failure as they will surely run into the firm opposition of the entire Chinese people including the people of Taiwan” (emphasis mine)[ii]. This statement is simply and obviously wrong.

It is highly unlikely that the leaders in Beijing believe their own propaganda about public opinion in Taiwan. Thus, if Beijing is sincere in its desire to maintain peaceful relations across the Strait, it must find a way to base its policy proposals on a realistic understanding of the beliefs and desires of the Taiwanese people. Otherwise unrealistic proposals, including the One Country, Two Systems Model, are doomed to failure and will only serve to increase tensions.

Donald Rodgers is Associate Professor of Political Science at Austin College. Image Credit: CC by shawn chen/Flickr.

Notes:

[i] The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China. “A Policy of One Country, Two Systems on Taiwan.” http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/ziliao_665539/3602_665543/3604_665547/t18027.shtml

[ii] ibid.