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Taiwan: Is there a political generation gap?

Through analysing a range of survey data, we see a convergence among all age groups on attitudes towards relations with China.

Taiwan: Is there a political generation gap?
Published 9 Jun 2017 

Taiwanese media has branded the youth of Taiwan with a new collective name: ‘the naturally independent’ generation (天然獨 or 自然獨). A typical member of the ‘naturally independent’ generation would be born after 1980, identify as Taiwanese (as opposed to Chinese), and would view Taiwan as an independent democratic country to the extent that they call for Taiwan to be fully independent. The opposite of this group is, of course, the ‘naturally for reunification’ group consisting of Taiwanese born pre-1980.

But are Taiwanese attitudes to China reducible to a simple division between those born before and after 1980?

To understand Taiwanese attitudes towards unification or independence, one must first appreciate the importance of national identity. As Shelley Rigger says, national identity in Taiwan is ‘the primary cleavage shaping public opinion and driving political allegiance.’ The key drivers of this national identity are, first, whether one considers oneself Taiwanese, Chinese or both; and second, whether one supports unification with China or supports independence.

Since the start of democratisation in the late 1980s, studies indicate that there has been a rising sense of Taiwanese identity. When the Election Study Centre at the National Chengchi University first started collecting data on attitudes towards identity in 1992, the year leaders of both sides met for the first time and established the ‘1992 consensus’, only 17.6% of the population saw themselves as Taiwanese, a quarter said they were Chinese and almost half – 46.4% – said they were both Chinese and Taiwanese.

In the latest survey from the Election Study Centre, collected in December 2016, over half (58.2%) of respondents identified as Taiwanese, 34.3% saw themselves as both Chinese and Taiwanese, yet only 3.4% identified as Chinese. According to the survey, those aged 29 or younger hold an exclusively Taiwanese identity while 70% of people under 40 see themselves as Taiwanese.

Some argue that an increasing identification as Taiwanese is equivalent to support for independence. If this were true, there would be an overwhelming trend of Taiwanese youth support for independence. But although Taiwanese identity is rising, attitudes towards unification and independence have remained remarkably static over the past 12 years. Data collected by the Election Study Centre finds that over half of the population would like to see the status quo maintained, a figure that has remained fairly constant since 1994 when the question was first asked. Just under a quarter of the population would like to see independence while only 9% prefer unification. In her study, Shelley Rigger broke down these results into age groups and found the highest support for independence was among 20-29 year-olds and the elderly generation born pre-1949 (when the Kuomintang arrived).

In another survey conducted in 2016 by the Taiwan Brains Trust, 79.8% of respondents said they would like to see the status quo continue. Breaking this down into age groups, the highest support for the status quo is among those aged between 30-39 and 50-59, with 84% of these groups supporting the status quo, while 77.5% of 20-29 year olds would like to see the status quo continue.

Although a majority among all age groups support maintenance of the status quo, nevertheless 75.8% of all respondents, including supporters of both unification and independence, see Taiwan as a sovereign, independent state.

Although the younger generation is more likely to be pro-independence, identify only as Taiwanese and see Taiwan as a sovereign, independent state, this does not translate into hostility towards China. In another study, Shelley Rigger found that among the younger generation there was a belief that increasing economic ties between China and Taiwan would have economic benefits for Taiwan.

Contrary to the stereotype that the youth of Taiwan are ‘anti-China’, survey data suggests Taiwan’s younger generation are more open and rational towards China. This is a result of the fact that they have grown up in an era of normalised relations with China and during a period of frequent interactions and exposure to the people and the culture of the mainland.

At the same time, this younger generation have never experienced martial law or authoritarian rule and have ever only lived in a democratic society. They have grown up in a period where local Taiwanese culture and society is openly celebrated and have been free to embrace their unique Taiwanese identity without fear of punishment. The melding of these experiences can help explain why the youth of Taiwan simultaneously embrace their Taiwanese identity while being open to the opportunities on the mainland.

Overall, through analysing a range of survey data, we see a convergence among all age groups on attitudes towards relations with China. While the younger generation identifies solely with a unique Taiwanese identity, there is also an increasing identification with Taiwanese identity across all age groups. Likewise, there appears to be a pan-generational view of support for maintenance of the status quo. As the younger cohort becomes the next generation of future decision makers, understanding their attitudes towards China is necessary to appreciate the implications for cross-Strait relations.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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