Written by Yitan Li.

As the new year begins, the 2016 presidential election in the Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan has entered the final leg. Polls have consistently shown that the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate Tsai Ing-wen is having a steady double-digit lead over her main rival Kuomintang (KMT) candidate Eric Chu. According to one of the most recent polls conducted by TVBS Poll Center ten days before the election, Tsai is leading Chu 43% to 25% with the remaining votes divided by the People First Party (PFP) candidate James Soong (15%) and the undecided voters (17%).  Although surprises do happen in elections, Eric Chu faces an uphill battle to sway undecided voters in his favour to win the 2016 presidential election. Regardless of who is sworn into the presidential palace, the consolidation of Taiwanese identity, especially among the younger generation, has permanently altered the political landscape in Taiwan and the prospects for future cross-strait relations.

Some very interesting observations can be made based on an online survey conducted by the Institute in Political Science at the National Sun Yat-Sen University between November 20 and December 14, 2015. The online survey asked respondents about their views regarding cross-strait relations in the context of the 2016 presidential election. It collected 824 valid responses, with 38.2% of respondents from northern Taiwan, 19.3% from central Taiwan, 30.8% from the south and 2.5% from east Taiwan. Forty point nine percent (40.9%) of the respondents were male, 59.1% female, with 35.3% of the respondents in their 20s, 26.5% in their 30s, and 17.8% in their 40s.

When asked who they think is the most suitable person to be the next president of Taiwan on a “0-100” scale, Tsai Ing-wen scored 61.67 points, Eric Chu 37.03 points, and James Soong 38.92 points. Seventy three point six percent (73.6%) of the respondents thought of themselves as Taiwanese, 24.5% as both Taiwanese and Chinese, and only 0.6% as Chinese.

The majority of respondents thought the standard of living is better in Taiwan (62.3%) than mainland China (5.8%), although a quarter believed that would be reversed in ten year’s time. Yet, Taiwanese are still not willing to be united with mainland China, as reflected in the question of what the respondents hope for cross-strait relations. Thirty eight point one percent (38.1%) of the respondents preferred maintaining the status quo for now and decide later; 23.4% preferred immediate independence; 22.2% preferred maintaining the status quo for now and independence later; 12.1% preferred maintaining the status quo indefinitely; 3.3% prefer maintaining status quo for now and unification later; and only 1% preferred immediate unification.

The majority of the respondents (64.4%) think there is one China and one Taiwan; 16.5% think there are two Chinas (People’s Republic of China -PRC vs. ROC); 12.7% think there is only one China consisting of  two parts: mainland China and Taiwan; 4.7% think there is only one China – the ROC; and 1.7% think there is only one China – the PRC.  It must be noted that 73.8% of the respondents have never been to mainland China, while only 26.2% have.

The online survey and the most recent polls suggest some very alarming trends. First, the newly formed Taiwanese identity – an identity that is different from the dominant Chinese identity on the mainland, has been consolidated in recent years. Second, after eight years of pro-mainland KMT rule, there is a clear desire among the Taiwanese public to send the opposition pro-independence DPP back into government.

Scholars such as Melissa Brown have argued that identity is not created in a social vacuum. Identity is formed and solidified on the basis of common social experience. Such common social experience could include the interaction of individuals who share the common social or cultural environment, for example shared history or political experience. When social experiences change, identity can change too. People in Taiwan have gone through several major social experience changes in the past – from the annexation by Japan in the 1890s, to the return of Taiwan to the ROC in the 1940s, through the White Terror Era following the February 28th incident in 1947. National identity in Taiwan has gone from underpinning resistance to Japanese occupation to being Chinese again after Taiwan’s return to the ROC, to the resistance to mainland Chinese after the February 28th incident. Perhaps the most recent social experience change is Taiwan’s gradual democratization process that has made the island a multiparty democracy.

The result of Taiwan’s popular elections and multiparty political system has created a unique social experience that is different from the social experience of mainland Chinese. The consequence of the formation of the democratic social experience in Taiwan is the creation of a unique Taiwanese identity that is different from the dominant Han Chinese identity in mainland China. This perhaps explains why an increasingly dominant number of people in Taiwan think of themselves as Taiwanese instead of Chinese despite the future prosperity of Taiwan being highly dependent on mainland China. Although the current KMT President Ma Ying-jeou has helped create an unprecedented level of peace and cooperation across the Taiwan Strait, including a historic direct meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on November 7th, 2015, the majority of Taiwanese voters may still choose the pro-independence DPP candidate Tsai Ing-wen as the next president.

It seems that people in Taiwan have consolidated their unique Taiwanese identity. No matter who wins the election on January 16th, policy makers in mainland China must rethink how to deal with this new Taiwanese identity as part of their overall Taiwan policy.

Yitan Li is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Seattle University.

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