A survey released by the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy on Thursday suggested the vast majority of Taiwanese prefer to maintain the status quo in their uneasy relationship with China, but they are ready to fight if China attempts to impose reunification through military force.
The headline finding of the survey was that 67.7 percent of respondents said they were “willing to go to war to defend Taiwan if China launched an armed assault on the nation to force unification.”
Taiwan’s military-age population, respondents aged 20 to 39, was actually more willing to fight than the overall average at 70.3 percent.
However, support for military action dropped steeply to 55 percent if the hypothetical conflict breaks out because Taiwan declares independence and China attacks in response.
An overwhelming 91 percent majority preferred maintaining the current status quo with China in which Taiwan is autonomous but not formally independent. A sizable portion of those status quo supporters, at 34 percent of total respondents, indicated they could change their minds in the future as events unfold.
Some aspects of the Taiwanese attitude toward China seem contradictory. Only the tiniest fraction of poll respondents felt that either reunifying with China or declaring independence immediately would be wise. On the other hand, only 27.8 percent believed the status quo can be maintained in perpetuity. 54.4 percent describe themselves as “pessimistic” about the future of Taiwanese democracy, versus 36.4 percent who expressed optimism.
Put it all together and you have a nation that believes the current situation is preferable to all of the alternatives, but they also know it cannot last. The impetus for taking the poll was China’s growing belligerence against independence-minded Taiwanese leaders and parties.
Much of the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy’s work involves studying the attitudes of young people toward independence and democratic government. The Foundation has noted that Taiwanese youth appear to support democratic principles even more fervently than young people in Western nations, and they arguably support democracy even more than older generations of Taiwanese. They are markedly more likely to oppose reunification with China than their parents were. They feel less of an emotional or historical connection to mainland China than older citizens of Taiwan.
The problem is that younger Taiwanese do not expect the saga of democracy on the island nation to end well. Perhaps because they consume so much international news from the Internet, they do not expect China to reform, they do not think China will allow Taiwan to chart its own course for much longer, and they see Beijing’s patience growing thin as Chinese President Xi Jinping’s blend of nationalism, communism, technocracy, and autocratic hero worship sweeps the mainland.
Taiwan Foundation for Democracy President Hsu Szu-chien postulated that Taiwanese youth could be more accurately described as “congenitally against unification” than “congenitally in favor of Taiwanese independence” at this point.
“If we factor in questions about whether young people support democracy, we discover that the more people support democracy, the more willing they are to defend Taiwan in the event of an invasion by China. I think it is our democratic lifestyle and values that people want to protect,” Hsu said.
If the Foundation’s analysis holds up, then Beijing’s attempt to woo Taiwanese youth with tech resources and jobs may have succeeded.
China launched a concerted effort to win the hearts and minds of young Taiwanese after the “Sunflower Movement” flourished among students in 2014. The movement was, in essence, a protest from younger Taiwanese who felt their government was too submissive to Beijing, too willing to compromise Taiwanese identity and entertain thoughts of reunification. Many in the Sunflower Movement believed older Taiwanese had simply forgotten how domineering and cruel the Chinese government can be.
The South China Morning Post’s post-mortem for the Sunflower Movement in the summer of 2017 speculated that the fiery student leaders of the movement graduated from school and found work in mainland China. This curbed their enthusiasm for Taiwanese independence, precisely as Beijing intended.
Many young Taiwanese entrepreneurs who seek opportunities on the mainland are wary of communist political manipulation and suspect offers of financial assistance come with heavy ideological strings attached, but even if they effectively resist political subversion, officials in Taipei worry about the “brain drain” from losing bright young people to the mainland.
If the process continues, it might well erode support for democracy and autonomy among the next generation of Taiwanese youth, even if they never reject democracy or accept communism. China is very good at slowly and inexorably adjusting the cost-benefit analysis of its adversaries until they cannot afford to resist Beijing’s demands.
As one young Taiwanese businesswoman who accepted Chinese financial assistance put it to Reuters in February: “On the political situation, the ordinary people still have to make a living. I also tend to say that I’m focused on my own personal life; let’s leave political matters.”