Written by Chih-Jou Jay Chen.

The core dilemma that the Taiwanese are confronted with in regard to cross-strait relations is the choice between national sovereignty and economic interests. Trade-offs between the two have long been the top concern for Taiwanese people. China is Taiwan’s crucial trade partner, but in the process of talks over economic and social issues between the two sides, Taiwan has frequently compromised its national sovereignty. For Taiwan, this is an ongoing “love-or-bread” dilemma. Taiwanese attitudes on the issue naturally influence the policies and strategies of both governments on both sides of the Strait.

Drawing data from island-wide telephone surveys, this post examines how Taiwanese attitudes towards economic interests and national sovereignty have changed from 2011 to 2015. The study also explores pertinent factors that have affected these attitudes. The survey question asked: “In cross-strait negotiations, what do you think is most important, Taiwan’s economic interests or Taiwan’s national sovereignty?” Overall, support for economic interests outweighed support for national sovereignty. In 2010, 2012, 2013, the percentages of those choosing economic interests as a more important factor than national sovereignty were 54%, 51%, and 55% respectively, while the percentages of those choosing national sovereignty were 32%, 35%, and 39% respectively. It seemed for a while, from 2010 to 2013, the majority of Taiwanese maintained a position of welcoming economic interests at the expense of national sovereignty.

However, this changed in 2015 when the percentage of those regarding economic interests as a more important factor for the first time dropped to 49%, below the majority. Meanwhile, despite being a minority, those who regarded national sovereignty as more important than economic interests had seen their ranks growing year by year. They accounted for 32%, 35%, 39%, and 42% from 2010 to 2015. The gap between economic interests and national sovereignty had increased from 12% in 2010, to 14% in 2011, and to 16% in 2013, but abruptly narrowed down to 7% in 2015, when 49% supported economic interests and 42% national sovereignty. The trend suggests that there is no common meeting ground on this issue in Taiwan. In the foreseeable future, this issue could be the focus of persistent internal disputes in Taiwanese society.

Several relevant factors play a role in people’s attitudes on cross-strait issues. Regarding party identification, data from various public opinion polls have show a downward trend from a peak in support for the KMT in 2008 when Ma Ying-jeou took office, while support for the DPP slightly increased, and the number of independent voters increased significantly from 2012 to 2015. This study finds that, between 2011 and 2013, the support ratio of pan-blue (KMT dominated) parties was between about 32% and 38%. But in 2015, probably as a result of the Sunflower Movement, the support for pan-blue parties has fallen to as low as 27%, or 11% lower than the year before. At the same time, support for the pan-green parties has not seen a significant increase either. The eroding of pan-blue support led to an increase in independent voters, from 38% in 2013 to 48% in 2015.

When people were asked, “Do you agree that Taiwan should declare its independence if there was no threat of military repercussions upon its declaration of independence?” the number of people agreeing generally outweighed the number of those disagreeing. In the four-year period from 2011 to 2015, the approval accounted for 47%, 54%, 51%, and 53% successively; disapproval accounted for 40%, 40%, 47%, and 45% conterminously.

In terms of the assessment of China’s political development, our survey shows that from 2013 to early 2015, Taiwanese continued to have an unfavorable impression of the Chinese government, with no significant change in the meantime. The proportion of positive to negative evaluations of the Chinese government during 2013 and 2015 was 34% to 56% and 33% to 55% respectively.

In comparison, the Taiwanese people’s evaluation of China’s economic development was more positive and optimistic than their evaluation of the Chinese government. Between 2011 and 2015, the proportion of people agreeing to the statement “the Chinese economy will maintain its rapid development” had been higher than of those who disagree. When in 2013, the gap between those who agreed and those disagree reached its maximum, the rate was 61% to 37%; but in 2015 the proportion of those who agreed declined for the first time and reached only 54% while the percentage of those who disagreed increased to 44%. Basically, the Taiwanese are still optimistic about the sustained and rapid development of the Chinese economy. But the gap between optimistic and pessimistic attitudes is gradually narrowing down.

Basically, the majority of Taiwanese agreed to close economic integration of the two sides, and believed that the long-term impacts of cross-strait economic integration on Taiwan’s economic development would be positive. In general, those considering the impact to be positive far outnumbered those who considered it to be negative. In those four surveys their ratios were 57% to 24% (2011), 60% to 31% (2012), 58% to 36% (2013), and 57% to 38% (2015) successively.

However, most people in Taiwan also believed that cross-strait economic integration was having a negative impact on social development in Taiwan; the percentages of people who believed cross-strait economic development would widen the gap between the rich and the poor in Taiwan reached 68% (2011, 2012) and 77% (2013, 2015), while only about 15% of the public believed that it would be reduced.

To examine the effects of various factors on attitudes towards economic interests and national sovereignty, binary logistic regression models were used to analyze the survey data in 2013 and 2015. The results found that an individual’s economic status and personal economic interest do not produce a significant impact on this policy issue. In other words, low-income earners and people worried about unemployment are not more inclined than others to choose economic interests over national sovereignty. Individuals with only very little bread, actually do not choose bread when it comes to cross-strait political issues. On the other hand, the individual party identification and Taiwanese nationalist sentiment have significant impacts in regard to this issue; individuals’ expressive identity prompts them to choose love over bread on cross-strait issues.

Other factors influencing Taiwanese choices on this issue include their assessments of the political and economic development of China, and the impact of cross-strait economic integration on Taiwan’s economy. A high opinion of the Chinese government, the belief that the Chinese economy will continue to grow, and the idea that cross-strait economic development will promote Taiwan’s economy, all prompt people to choose economic interests over national sovereignty in cross-strait negotiations. But in recent years, there have been slight changes in the public’s evaluation of the Chinese government; the optimism towards China’s sustained and rapid economic development is slowly seeing a reverse that would impact on cross-strait economic interests. This scenario makes for less than usual optimism towards China. These subjective assessments will clearly continue to be affected by changes in the objective situation, which in turn will affect Taiwanese people’s choices between economic interests and national sovereignty in cross-strait issues.

In other words, if in the eyes of the Taiwanese the Chinese government is no longer seen in glowing terms and China’s soaring economic growth comes to an end, and if cross-strait trade does not benefit Taiwan’s economy as before, then the attitude of the Taiwanese will change accordingly. In cross-strait affairs, those who choose the bread of economic interests will diminish, while those who select the love of national sovereignty will increase. In the future, the direction of the pendulum of people’s attitudes toward cross-strait negotiations will turn its back on bread and move towards love.

Chih-Jou Jay Chen is an Associate Research Fellow at the Institute of Sociology at Academia Sinica, Taiwan.