support for independence, unification, and the status quo

The front page headline of the Taipei Times has an incendiary headline today.  In bold type, it screams, “Independence beats ‘status quo’ in poll.”  This headline is a lie.  Independence did not beat status quo in any meaningful sense.  I assume the headline reflects incompetence by the reporter and headline writer and not willful manipulation.  However, this sort of irresponsible journalism serves only to discredit the Taipei Times’ reputation.

Putting aside the misleading reporting, there actually is an interesting story to tell.  In fact, a more honest accounting of public opinion leads us to nearly the same conclusion that the Taipei Times’ fabrication wants us to reach.

The Taipei Times story is based on an unpublished DPP survey that another media outlet obtained and published.  Without asking anything about the methodology, the Taipei Times gleefully informed us that the poll showed 60.2% in favor of independence, 23.4% in favor of unification, and only 8.7% in favor of the status quo.  (They then furthered the impression of incompetence by asking a professor of medicine to give an expert opinion on the results.  One wonders which part of his medical school training covered public opinion survey methodology.)  Years and years of data from a variety of different survey organizations have consistently shown that status quo beats both independence and unification by large margins.  Suddenly, we are supposed to believe that society has violently shifted and half the population has suddenly changed its mind on the single most important political question facing Taiwan?  Perhaps I might believe that if the People’s Liberation Army had launched an attack and was trying to land soldiers on the Chiayi coastline, but nothing quite so monumental has happened in recent months.  So where do the survey results come from?

In every survey, the status quo always wins, and many people want to further probe what these people think.  One suspicion is that they are simply avoiding conflict by giving a neutral answer and that they must really support some concrete option.  Another suspicion is that they aren’t really neutral; they must lean at least a little to one side or the other.  A third group of (more manipulative) people simply wants to look for evidence that allows them to redefine these respondents as favoring their side in the debate.  At any rate, there have been several attempts over the years to get status quo supporters to clarify whether they “really” support unification or independence.

The most straightforward method is to simply take away the neutral category.  Instead of asking whether respondents favor independence, unification, or the status quo, they are asked whether they favor independence or unification.  Even when only given these two choices, a small number of people will insist that they favor maintaining the status quo.  This is how the DPP survey’s results were obtained.  There is nothing wrong with asking the question this way, but it is not fair to claim that independence beat the status quo based on these results.  You could claim almost anything that way.  (Q: Do you prefer totalitarianism or prison?  A: Totalitarianism 40%, prison 35%, democracy 3%.  Headline: “People prefer totalitarianism to democracy!!!)  The fact that independence beat unification 60-23 in a two-category question is interesting, but it does not imply any fundamental shift in the three-category question that we are used to seeing.

So has there actually been a decrease in support for the status quo?  We need more information.  Consider the following TVBS poll conducted about a month ago.  If you read Chinese, the original report is here.  All translations are mine.

­­­­­­­­­­­__________________________________________________________________

TVBS poll, Oct 24-28, 2013.  Sample size: n=1075.  Sorry for the strange numbering.

  1. President Ma stated that people on both sides of the straits belong to the Chinese nation.* Do you agree with this statement? [兩岸人民同屬中華民族, could also be translated as “people on both sides of the strait are ethnically Chinese”]
    1. Agree:                44
    2. Disagree:            42
    3. Non response:    14
  1. 2. President Ma stated that the cross-strait relationship is not an international relationship.  Do you agree?
    1. Agree:            20
    2. Disagree:        66
    3. NR                   14
  2. 3. If there is an opportunity, do you favor President Ma meeting with mainland President Xi?
    1. Favor:              54
    2. Oppose:           32
    3. NR                   15
  1. 4. Do you understand the contents of the cross-straits trade services agreement that Taiwan and the mainland signed?
    1. Understand:            16
    2. Don’t understand:   85
  1. 5. Generally speaking, do you support or oppose the cross-straits trade services agreement that Taiwan and the mainland signed?
    1. Support:           32
    2. Oppose:           43
    3. NR:                  26
  1. 6. Generally speaking, are you satisfied with the policies and methods the government is using to handle cross-straits relations?
3.27.2012 10.17.2012 6.5.2013 10.28.2013
Satisfied 29 26 25 24
Dissatisfied 55 54 48 64
NR 16 21 26 12
  1. 7. Looking at the situation now, do you think the relationship between the mainland and us is friendly or antagonistic?
    1. Friendly:          40
    2. Antagonistic:   37
    3. NR                   14
  1. 8. When the two sides negotiate and sign cross-strait agreements, do you have confidence that the government will protect Taiwan’s interests?
1.28.2011 3.27.2012 10.17.2012 8.30.2013 10.28.2013
Confident 39 34 27 25 21
Not confident 53 57 62 64 71
NR 8 9 12 11 7
  1. 9. Some people say that the Ma government’s cross-straits policies lean too strongly toward mainland China.  Do you agree?
8.26.2008 5.21.2009 12.17.2009 3.27.2012 10.28.2013
Agree 42 43 52 59 62
Disagree 44 40 33 31 27
NR 14 18 15 9 11
  1. 10. Concerning the relationship between Taiwan and mainland China, do you favor independence, unification, or maintaining the status quo?
    1. Independence         24
    2. Unification              7
    3. Status quo               64
    4. NR                           5
  1.  11. If you can only choose one, would you prefer for Taiwan to become an independent country or for Taiwan to unify with the mainland?
    1. Independence         71
    2. Unification              18
    3. NR                           11
  1.  12. In our society, some people say they are Chinese, and some people say they are Taiwanese.  Do you think that you are Taiwanese or Chinese?
    1. Taiwanese               78
    2. Chinese                   13
    3. NR                           9
  1.  13. In our society, some people say they are Chinese, some people say they are Taiwanese, and some people think they are both Taiwanese and Chinese.  Do you think that you are Taiwanese, Chinese, or both?
    1. Taiwanese               55
    2. Chinese                   3
    3. Both                         38
    4. NR                           4

­­­­­­­­­­­__________________________________________________________________

Questions 10 and 11 ask the independence/unification question in two ways, allowing and disallowing status quo.  When status quo is provided as one of the three answers, it easily beats the other two categories with 64%.  Independence beats unification 24-7%, but both percentages are fairly low.  This is the result we are all familiar with.  When only two answer categories are allowed, the results look much different, with independence beating unification 71-18%.  This result is roughly similar to that of the DPP poll.  (The TVBS methodology is more radical than the DPP’s.  TVBS won’t allow respondents to insist that they support the status quo.  Interviewers will keep pushing them until they pick one side or the other.  If a respondent absolutely refuses to pick a side, he or she is coded as a non-response.)  Maybe the Taipei Times should have run a story on this survey, claiming that independence beat the status quo by 71-0%!

TVBS did a similar thing for the familiar ethnic identity question (Q12, 13).  When they forced the people who thought of themselves as both Taiwanese and Chinese to pick only one, suddenly Taiwanese identity beats Chinese identity by 78-13%.

Philosophically, are the two-category results better than the three-category results?  This is a subjective question.  I tend to believe that it is intellectually more honest to simply categorize them as neutral.  You can force me to have an opinion on whether people should take multivitamins or not, but I really don’t care.  If you eventually force an answer out of me, you probably shouldn’t use that as evidence that public opinion is against taking multivitamins.  If people are conflicted, confused, or genuinely want to put the decision of unification or independence off until further developments, we observers probably should respect that stance.  If you only report one result, I think it should be the three-category result.

That said, there is value in probing what lies under neutrality.  Consider a person who favors the status quo in Q10 but independence in Q11.  This person is not really an independence supporter, but he or she is closer to the independence side than to the unification side.  A slight to moderate change might be enough to push this person out of the status quo category and into the independence category.  However, it would probably require a major shift to push this person into the unification category.  What Q11 implies is that there are a lot more status quo supporters who might eventually shift to the independence camp than who might shift into the unification camp.

The TVBS/DPP two-category question is one way of seeing this.  I prefer a different set of questions developed by Yu Ching-hsin 游清鑫 and Hsiao Yi-ching 蕭怡靖.  In a paper published in the Taiwanese Political Science Review in 2011, Yu and Hsiao asked the normal six category question (immediate unification, eventual unification, immediate independence, eventual independence, decide later, status quo forever).  As usual, most people chose one of the two neutral categories.  (11.7% for the two unification categories, 27.5% for the two independence categories, and 56.9% for the two neutral categories.)  They then asked, “If that option is not possible, what would you prefer?”  This question teased out a few more answers.  Finally they asked, “Which option is least acceptable to you?”  This gave very interesting results.  59.9% were most strongly against unification, and 21.4% were most strongly against independence.  Using these answers, they put together a 7 category classification:

Conception of U or I

Yu & Hsiao

narrow

moderate

Broad

Immediate unification

0.8

0.8

19.5

29.1

Status quo, eventual unification

18.7

88.3

Status quo, oppose independence

9.6

40.4

Unclassified

10.9

10.9

Status quo, oppose unification

19.9

60.9

Status quo, eventual independence

30.1

41.0

Immediate independence

10.9

10.9

Total

100.0

(This poll was conducted from April 30 to May 3, 2011, by the Election Study Center at NCCU.  Sample size: 1130.)

What this does it to look at different levels of intensity for unification and independence.  If you think of pro-independence or pro-unification as being something you want right now, then 88% of the population is for the status quo and almost no one is for unification.  If you think of them as something that people want to obtain eventually, then only 40% favor the status quo, and independence beats unification by about 2-1.  If you take the broadest definition, by defining the two sides as including people who don’t want the other side, then only 10% are for the status quo, and independence still beats unification by about 2-1.

To me, this is much more interesting and honest than simply screaming that people support independence in the most sensational manner possible.  The real story is that, at every level of intensity that we have measured, more people prefer independence to unification by quite a large margin.  At the current juncture, it is probably somewhere close to 2-1 for independence, for all measures except the narrowest conception of independence and unification.

There is another interesting lesson from the TVBS data.  On all the abstract questions, President Ma is losing badly.  On Taiwanese/Chinese identity and on unification/independence, Ma’s side is clearly outnumbered.  Moreover, these numbers are trending against him.  Similarly, on all the vague questions about cross-straits negotiations, Ma is also losing badly.  66% disagree with Ma that the cross-strait relationship is not an international one.  64% are dissatisfied with the policies and methods the government is using to handle cross-straits relations.  62% agree that the Ma government’s cross-straits policies lean too strongly toward mainland China.  71% is not confident that the government will protect Taiwan’s interests.  Moreover, Ma is doing worse and worse over time on these questions.  In the very general and abstract, the Taiwanese public seems to have completely rejected Ma and his China policy.

However, when we look at the more concrete questions, the picture looks a bit different.  54% favor a meeting between Ma and Xi.  The cross-straits services trade agreement has 32% in favor.  While this is less than the 43% opposed, the gap is much smaller than those for the more abstract questions.  Ma is doing much, much better on these more specific questions.

What this suggests to me is that while Ma’s China policy may be built on an ideological foundation, it is tenable because it appeals to pragmatism.  Ma is clearly and decisively losing the ideological battle about identity.  However, he has found some space to operate in the more practical questions of how exactly Taiwan and China should interact.  All sides in Taiwan agree that Taiwan needs a prosperous economy and that, in an interconnected world, Taiwan and China have to have some sorts of economic interactions.  Even those people who don’t want to be part of China and don’t trust the Ma administration at all will concede that Taiwan’s government has to have some relations with China.  Doing nothing is not a very good choice.  There are a lot of people who are willing to look past their ideological differences with the Ma government and will consider individual policies for their economic impact.  To put it another way, the unification side is losing (badly) the battle for Taiwanese hearts and minds.  The revised strategy for unification rests on Taiwanese wallets.

4 Responses to “support for independence, unification, and the status quo”

  1. hoopjunkie Says:

    Dear author,

    Thank you for pointing out my incompetence in the story and the irresponsible journalism of my newspaper. I was not the one who wrote the headline, however, and the main focus of the story was about the national symbols. And it’s a pity that you described the story was a fabrication.

    As for the professor from TMU, he was a former official under the DPP administration and a well-respected cross-strait relation experts, in particularly on the CCP.

    The numbers on support of the status quo was indeed surprising, which was pointed out by Lo Chih-cheng. Like you said, I’ve never seen that kind of numbers in recent surveys. Perhaps it had to do with how the question was asked. I had trouble getting the original questionnaire.

  2. frozengarlic Says:

    My post was an indictment of the entire Taipei Times organization. TT ran a story on its front page giving readers the impression that a massive shift in public opinion had taken place. If true, this story would have had important repercussions on just about everything associated with Taiwan, including the ability of the Ma government to negotiate with China, the likelihood that the USA would be pulled into armed conflict with China, the stability of the financial system, and an inevitable DPP takeover of the government in 2016. In that sense, the front page of yesterday’s TT was a fabrication.

    I don’t know how TT’s internal procedures work, so it is hard to say who bears the most responsibility. From the outside, my guess is that something like the following occurred. The author wrote a story about national symbols. At the end of that story, he tacked on a note about independence/unification. The survey showed surprisingly support for the status quo, compared with what we are used to seeing. There was no explanation of how this result was obtained, but there is a quote from Lo Chih-cheng, which vaguely says that the number seems a bit low. Perhaps Lo was mentally comparing it to previous surveys with that question wording, and perhaps the number had gone down by one or two percent. At any rate, this was all buried at the end of an article that was really about national symbols. The headline writer changed that by claiming that independence had “beaten” status quo and adding that this “contradicts” previous survey results. It is the headline writer’s job to sell newspapers, and he/she took the most sensational aspect of the story, made a few unwarranted assumptions about the comparability of those results to previous results, and constructed a thoroughly misleading headline. At that point, the article ceased to be about national symbols. The overall editors then took this story and placed it on the front page. At some point, someone (ie: the editor-in-chief) should have asked, “We are claiming that a massive shift in public opinion has taken place. Is that credible, reasonable, or likely?” Of course it is not. If such a momentous change had occurred in the central question of Taiwanese politics, we wouldn’t need an unpublished internal poll to tell us. For one thing, the DPP would make damn sure everyone knew about it. For another, if society had actually changed that much, we would see signs of it everywhere (demonstrations, massive upheavals, Chinese soldiers on the coastlines, lots of KMT politicians defecting to the green camp) and there would be lots of polls documenting the change. But apparently the people in charge at TT either didn’t stop to ask that question or, worse, they did and went ahead with the story anyway. The latter is the sort of decision I expect from media outlets that care more about scoring political points than faithfully reporting the news, such as Fox, the Wang Wang group, and Xinhua. TT should be ashamed to be putting itself anywhere near that group, even if only for a single day.

    I should say that I am a subscriber to TT. TT wins numerous awards and deserves them. Those of us who have been around long enough to remember when Taiwan’s English media consisted of the China Post and China News can appreciate what a tremendous upgrade TT is. The author of this particular story also usually does good work. But yesterday was a bad, bad day for the Taipei Times.

  3. Jenna Cody Says:

    Even I – a foreigner who is strongly pro-eventual-independence – agree that Taiwan and China must have some economic interaction.

    But it is possible to agree with that in theory and support steps to make that happen to Taiwan’s benefit, and *still* feel that the Ma administration’s efforts to create economic links have mostly been bad ideas, if not outright failures. That’s basically how I feel – we need some economic links, but ECFA and Fu-mao are not the ways to accomplish that.

    As for poll results, seems to me that both sets of poll results are interesting. It’s important to respect people’s neutrality if they are truly neutral, or if their pragmatic desire for “peace, now” outweighs what they’d eventually like to see happen for Taiwan. However, it’s also important to see underneath “neutrality” to suss out trends in opinion that might otherwise be buried by pragmatic concerns.

    Another example for this – many Americans’ views on our budget deficit. Americans like me generally are in favor of cutting the deficit, but with the American economy still roiling, generally speaking we’re not in favor of cutting it *right now*, because that spending is needed to bolster the economy (so the theories say anyway, and I tend to agree). That doesn’t mean the fact that we’d support reducing it *eventually* isn’t important – both sets of data are worth analyzing.

    And the same for independence vs. the status quo: it’s interesting to look at both what people want “right now” and underlying trends for what they’d want if the nation came to a crossroads.

  4. frozengarlic Says:

    I didn’t mean to imply that Ma’s economic policies are definitely beneficial. People have different ideas about that. I merely meant that more people are open to his arguments on these concrete policies than on his identity appeals. Some of the people who listen to the economic arguments will be persuaded; some will not.

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