A survey released earlier this year shows strong opposition to unification and a firm commitment to defending the nation against external aggression. But an image problem with the armed forces has undermined recruitment efforts. Alison Hsiao analyzes the situation.
A new survey shows that young Taiwanese are committed to democratic values and defending Taiwan, findings that fly in the face of trends in democratic discontent in the West and a long-held belief that Taiwanese either expect the U.S. to fight for them or have no will to stand up to Chinese military aggression.
The survey, conducted by the Election Study Center at National Chengchi University, was commissioned by the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy (TFD). TFD has been studying attitudes on democracy and democratic governance among Taiwanese for years, which makes comparisons across time and between age cohorts possible.
This year, TFD took the initiative a step forward by gauging Taiwanese people’s leanings on cross-Strait relations and their willingness to defend Taiwan when encountering a military threat from authoritarian China, both of which have consequential implications for the persistence of Taiwan’s democratic institutions.
According to the TFD surveys across the years, Taiwanese have always shown strong support for democratic institutions, with more than 70 percent respondents agreeing with the statement that democracy is the best political system despite its apparent problems. Support was as high as 86.4 percent in 2016, the year of the first presidential election after the Sunflower Movement in 2014, which saw the nadir in democratic support, satisfaction, and optimism. (See Graph 1, 2, and 3)
The confidence in a democratic system borne by Taiwanese, especially Taiwanese youth, stands in stark contrast with their young counterparts in the U.S. and Europe, as shown in Foa and Mounk’s study (see Graph 4).
Independence vs. unification: It’s more complicated than that
There is little doubt that Taiwanese youth’s support for their democratic way of life is a major factor in their support for maintaining the cross-Strait “status quo” of keeping Taiwan’s de facto independence. 65.5 percent of those under the age of 39 favor the “status quo” when given the option of “(de jure) independence,” which 23.5 percent of respondents in that age category are in favor of.
However, against the perception that the younger Taiwanese are the more likely they are to be “naturally (de jure) independence-leaning” (天然獨，tien-ran-du), the survey found that when it comes to favoring the “status quo,” the difference between those who belong to the 20 to 29 age group and those between 30 and 39 is not statistically significant. So is the difference between the two groups that favor de jure independence.
The (statistically ground and found) truth is that rather than being “naturally (de jure) independence-leaning,” the younger generation display clear (statistically significant) “anti-unification” sentiment, with only 7.5 percent in the 20-29 group choosing unification, compared to — with a statistically significant difference — 12.5 percent of their counterparts in the 30-39 age group and 20.1 percent for those above 40.
To further support this argument, another question set shows that while more than 50 percent of those under 39 (50.9 %) said they disagree with the idea that Taiwan should claim (de jure) independence, if such a claim would not result in a war, as many as 73.3 percent of the same age cohort said they also disagree that if China democratizes the two sides should unify.
The question set, factoring in pre-conditions, could classify the surveyed into four categories: Taiwanese nationalism, Chinese nationalism, pragmatism and “status quo” recognition, following Nai-teh Wu’s lead (2005). In the context of Wu’s classifications, statistically significantly more people in the 20-29 age group favor the “status quo” (44.3%) than in the 30-39 age cohort (35%). The younger age cohort is neither more attached to Taiwanese nationalism (32.5%) than those aged between 30 and 39 (33.8%).
Some might label young Taiwanese’s (or Taiwanese in general) overwhelming preference for the “status quo” as lacking determination of any kind. But with the People’s Republic of China’s growing assertiveness and its intimidation of Taiwan militarily, politically and in everyday-life matters, added to Beijing’s contention that the Taiwan “problem” “cannot be postponed forever,” it can be argued that Taiwanese are not unaware of the fact that the “status quo” is de facto independence which cannot be tolerated by Beijing all the same.
68.1 percent of respondents in the survey said they would fight for Taiwan if China uses force to impose unification. The number is slightly lower but no less a majority (56.7 percent) if a formal declaration of de jure independence incurs a military attack by China.
How does this overwhelming willingness to defend Taiwan square with the low recruit rate for volunteer military service? One might ask.
Wu, currently an adjunct research fellow at Academia Sinica’s Institute of Sociology, pointed out at the press conference held by TFD on April 19 that the institute’s China Effect Team has also been following how China affects Taiwan’s politics, economy and society since 2012 and found the same trend of Taiwanese people’s willingness to defend Taiwan should China attack.
The team has also been following Taiwanese attitudes toward reinstating military conscription. To the surprise of many, the 2018 survey showed that as many as 86.7 percent of respondents agrees that the draft should be brought back, a new high compared with 86.3 percent in 2017, 83.4 percent in 2016 and 60.2 percent in 2015. These numbers suggest that low recruitment rates are not due to a lack of awareness of the need for self-defense among the Taiwanese.
Rather, what has been turning off young people to the military is arguably its negative image. Many young people who have done service in the armed forces mock the laxity of training, an impression that has caught on with the reduced period of mandatory service and thereby the diminished appearance of professionalism, which has been further exacerbated by the institution of the so-called Alternative Military Service (conscripts working in sundry government bodies or even private enterprises just to serve out their time). Compounding all this is the frequent stories of abuse in the closed environment, which erupted in August 2013 following the death of army corporal Hung Chung-chiu (which in turn catalyzed major military reforms).
Since her inauguration in May 2016, President Tsai Ing-wen has vowed to upgrade Taiwan’s defense capabilities and pledged to increase the defense budget every year. But not the least (if not the most) important part of her task has been turning around the military’s image. Her Facebook and Instagram posts often show her observing military exercises, dining with members of the armed forces and demonstrating great respect for fallen and injured servicemen. There are also efforts to revamp the military’s marketing campaigns, which are essential given the public does not have a high opinion of the profession, and necessary after the country shifted to an all-volunteer military this year.
Feature image credit: Presidential Office Official Website