Recent changes in national identity

A month ago, I posted a story about public opinion in Taiwan as of May 2020. I looked at polling from MyFormosa, which publishes polls every month. The big takeaway was that – almost certainly because of its effective response to the Covid-19 pandemic – President Tsai, the central government, and (to a lesser extent) the DPP had all surged in popularity. Meanwhile, the KMT’s popularity had plummeted. I did not discuss the upcoming Kaohsiung recall vote in that post, but if you projected those results to Kaohsiung you should not have been surprised that the recall was successful in such a hostile partisan environment to the KMT. (Note: I was still surprised at just HOW successful the recall was.)

In that post, I issued one caveat. What I really wanted to know was whether opinions about national identity had changed, but unfortunately MyFormosa does not ask that question. I always tell people that attitudes toward national identity are the single most important indicator in Taiwan politics. If you can only know one thing, you should ask how many people think they are Chinese (to some extent) or how many people think they are only Taiwanese. Well, now I have some data on this.


Before I show you the results, let me explain why I care so much about this single indicator. In the 1940s and 1950s, American political scientists came to the understanding that voters don’t start each election with a clean slate. Instead, most people have a standing vote choice: all else equal they will usually vote for the same party they have voted for in previous elections. Different people theorized about this standing vote choice in different ways, but the field of voting behavior came to be dominated by the Michigan school, laid out in the 1960 classic The American Voter. The Michigan scholars’ theory was based in social psychology, and they pointed to what they labeled “party identification” as the single most important variable for understanding voting choices. They believed the simple question, “Are you a Democrat or a Republican?” could explain more than anything else.

Theoretically, they thought of party ID as a group identity. People think of themselves as belonging to groups, such as Catholics, union members, Red Sox fans, ethnic Italians, Texans, hunters, and so on. Some of these group identities are more fundamental to their sense of person than others. The Michigan scholars thought that party ID was one of the basic identities that most people have. I am a Democrat; people who think like I do and share my values are Democrats; this is who we are. In early works, they argued that you learned your party ID as a child on your parents’ knees and kept it until death. The only things that could change a party ID were personal or social cataclysmic events, such as getting married, converting to a different religion, the Civil War, or the Great Depression. Other than that, people tended to continue supporting the same party they had always supported. In fact, this stance tended to get stronger over time due to a mechanism called the perceptual screen. Partisans viewed the world through tinted glasses, and they could almost always interpret the news as evidence that their party and its values were correct and the other party and its lousy values were dead wrong.

In sum, they thought party ID was the most stable and basic political attitude that individuals held. Democrats might vote for Eisenhower because the respected his personal war record or Republicans might vote for Kennedy because they were Catholic, but those were short-term deviations. Party ID was stable, and most people most of the time would vote with their party.

It turned out that party ID was not quite as stable as those early scholars had believed. A famous panel survey in the early 1970s, in which the same respondents were interviewed three times at two-year intervals, showed that quite a few people changed their answers to the party ID question. The early 1970s were a turbulent time in American politics, but no one thought the USA was going through anything as cataclysmic as the Civil War. The theory had to be adjusted in face of the new evidence, and the 1970s and 1980s featured a lot of work about how people constantly update their party ID. Some even suggested that it wasn’t a group identity at all.

In the current era of highly polarized and even tribal American politics, the group identity theory of party ID looks better than it did in the 1970s. Even so, there are still a lot of Americans who don’t think much about politics and certainly don’t think that being a Democrat or a Republican is a core part of who they are.

With that background, let’s return to Taiwan. The two big parties have been building their support coalitions for decades, and the electoral returns show that they have fairly stable bases of support. There are surprises here and there, but it is certainly possible to think of these as short-term deviations from the normal patterns grounded in party ID.

However, as in the USA, there is ample evidence in Taiwan that party ID is not as stable or as fundamental to how people think about themselves as some might think. Of course, there are lots of people who always vote for the DPP and would sooner drink bleach than vote for the KMT. But there are also a lot of people who don’t have strong feelings about either one of the two big, established parties or any of the newer, smaller parties. If you look at polling data in party ID over the past three decades, there are lots of changes. Parties go up, and then they go down. Sometimes the surges and dives are quite sudden and dramatic. This isn’t to say that party ID is completely malleable and fluid; it is still one of the more stable attitudes in our surveys.

However, there is a better indicator. National identity fits that early conception of a group identity even better than party ID. Whether you see yourself as being at least somewhat Chinese or as only Taiwanese shapes much more of your everyday life than simply your political choices. This might affect which language you speak, how you practice your religion, what kinds of foods you eat, which school you choose, which person you fall in love with, how often you argue with your parents, and many other basic aspects of both political and non-political life.

Moreover, national identity is the foundation of the current political system. The Taiwan Voter (2017) argues that while the Michigan school identified the big three factors (party, candidate, issues, in declining importance), Taiwan has a fourth factor, national identity, that precedes and shapes those three factors.

Again, not everyone chooses to clearly define themselves as either somewhat Chinese or exclusively Taiwanese, but many do. The Election Study Center (ESC) asks the national identity question in every poll it conducts, and almost everyone can answer it. People understand this question, and they have an opinion about it. As a result, national identity tends to be the most stable attitude we measure. Of course, the lines go up and down a bit, but not nearly as much as for other variables.


The Taiwan Election and Democratization Study (TEDS) project does most of the political science survey projects in Taiwan these days. TEDS is governed by scholars from every major university and who individually hold every major political viewpoint. However, because we are scholars who care most of all about getting good data to answer our questions, there is less of an incentive to try to produce “good results” for one party or another. Moreover, since we intentionally do not release the data for three months, the media rarely reports any results. As such, this is the most reliable data that Taiwan produces. One of the projects that TEDS does are quarterly telephone surveys on satisfaction with government performance. These are conducted at the ESC, which I have been associated with for 25 years and where I currently hold a joint appointment. I can personally vouch for the integrity of these surveys. Everything we do is with the intention of getting the best possible data. We do not design questions, sampling protocols, or anything else with the intent of producing the “right outcome” for a particular political purpose.

The ESC has been asking the same question about national identity for three decades. “In our society, some people say that they are Taiwanese. There are also people who say that they are Chinese. There are also people who say that they are both. Do you consider yourself as Taiwanese, Chinese, or both?”  我們社會上,有人說自己是「臺灣人」,也有人說自己是「中國人」,也有人說都是。請問您認為自己是「臺灣人」、「中國人」,或者都是?

Every year, the ESC combines the results from every survey it has conducted over the previous year and puts out a chart showing the results of this question over time.

You can see that percentage of people calling themselves Taiwanese peaked in 2014 and then slowly drifted downward through most of Tsai’s first term. However, if you look at the longer trend and ignore the peaks and valleys, you can see that the green line has had a long and steady upward climb over the past quarter century. Research shows that generational replacement is the main driver of this long-term trend. As older people die, they are replaced in the population by younger people who are more likely to identify as only Taiwanese.

One thing that is noticeably missing in this chart are big peaks and valleys that seem to follow current political events. Can you see where the Red Shirt protests of the Chen presidency took place? Maybe, but only barely. Sure, there is a peak in Taiwanese identity in 2014 – the year of the Sunflower Movement – but it only goes from the mid-50s to just over 60, and then it drifts back down again to the mid-50s. 5% is important, but it isn’t an earthquake. Similarly, the line goes back up about 5% again in 2019, a year in which we heard constantly about events in Hong Kong. If you imagine a straight trend line drawn on top of the actual line, the actual line never gets more than 2-3% away from that straight trend line. This is about as stable as anything ever gets.


So now let me show you the most recent data from the quarterly TEDS telephone survey. Again, remember that this is from March so it is already three months old. Things might have changed by now (though there isn’t much reason to expect any major changes between May and June from the fairly stable results in the MyFormosa polls).

Since very few people say that they are only Chinese, I always combine the “Chinese” and “both” categories to get a category in which respondents consider themselves at least partially Chinese. This is the chart showing polls since Tsai’s inauguration in May 2016. Only the last data point comes after her re-election and might reflect the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

That last data point is a clear outlier. From 2016 to 2019, with the exception of the two late 2018 surveys as President Tsai’s nadir, the exclusive Taiwanese line is consistently between 55-60%. In December 2019 – right before President Tsai won re-election in a landslide – 60.9% of respondents identified as exclusively Taiwanese. Three months later in March 2020, that number skyrocketed to 70.3%. We have seen some large shifts before, but those were all changes within the historical range of outcomes. 70% is completely unprecedented. This is a big deal.

We don’t know if this number will stay so high, go even higher, or drift down to more familiar territory. If it does turn out to be a lasting change, it will affect Taiwan’s political environment in profound ways. We will have to wait to see about that. For now, just be aware that the recent changes in Taiwan’s public opinion are potentially much, much more significant than President Tsai’s fantastically high but probably ephemeral approval ratings.

12 Responses to “Recent changes in national identity”

  1. Joseph Tao-yi Wang Says:

    “Democrats might vote for Eisenhower because the respected his personal war record” should be “ Democrats might vote for Eisenhower because THEY respected his personal war record”

  2. Mike Says:

    With the exception of 2004, the Pan-Green vote share in presidential elections, seem to match closely the trends of the Taiwanese identity response proportion.

  3. Pascal Says:

    Hi Nathan, many thanks for the in-depth analysis! Taiwanese politics has certainly not been boring these last few years, and your blog is a great resource to understand these shifts from afar.

    I’m interested in your take on the reasons for this sudden spike in Taiwan identity. A ten-point shift on an issue where people already held strong positions is very rare, and the coronavirus disruption looks like the most obvious candidate to have caused it. It may have further highlighted differences in governance between Taiwan and China, especially on issues like transparency and giving people the feeling that citizens and the government are both stakeholders in the response, rather than being simply ordered around. The international tributes to Taiwan’s effective response may have also strengthened confidence in domestic institutions.

    Then there’s also an explanation that is linked more to ethnic rather than national identity, and more visceral. During the crisis, we’ve seen a significant rise in sinophobia around the world, with Chinese people being portrayed as disease-carriers. That could reinforce some of the widespread stereotypes which Taiwanese people seem to hold towards their would-be compatriots (it would certainly match the complaints I heard the most often).

    What do you think has been the main reason? And how durable do you think this is going to be? I certainly agree about the long-term trend and a 70-30 split might be where we would’ve ended up in a decade even without coronavirus, but it’s still striking to see so many people literally change their perception of who they are in such a short time.

    • Joseph Says:

      This is a subjective observation, but in my experience there is a sizable portion of Taiwanese who don’t have very strong or thoroughly thought-through views on their national identity. Politically they are light-blue KMT voters, Ko Wen-je supporters, or simply apathetic/alienated. They feel some residual attachment to China as a culture because of their education, because they grew up in a deep blue community/family, or they simply think Taiwan needs a good relationship with China for practical reasons. That might be enough for them to say they’re both Chinese and Taiwanese in a neutral environment, but when China appears implacably hostile, or the DPP demonstrates that Taiwan is able to thrive on its own, they easily ditch the Chinese label and simply call themselves Taiwanese.

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  8. Jordan Says:

    Fascinating read and it’ll be interesting to see where this goes.
    I can imagine this pandemic has been a clarifying event for many people’s thinking on this identification issue. My feeling is that a lot of Taiwanese people who either never gave the issue much thought or chose a ‘middle path’ out of pragmatism towards dealing with China have had their opinion hardened in three ways:
    1) A desire not to be lumped in with China’s criminal handling of this pandemic has driven Taiwanese people to strongly assert their ‘Taiwaneseness’ as a way to differentiate themselves from China,
    2) Taiwan’s excellent handling of the pandemic (and global recognition of this fact) will have naturally been a source of pride for Taiwanese people and perhaps given them a confidence boost that, yeah, Taiwan really can stand on its own, and;
    3) the pandemic has proved beyond all doubt the kind of outcomes the people of Taiwan could expect under CCP rule. As a result I could see a lot of people saying “hell no” to any sort of rule by China and naturally asserting a stronger Taiwanese identity in response.

    Thanks for the great read!

  9. Joseph Tao-yi Wang Says:

    The ESC has just released half-year results of 2020, and they seem to be consistent with the quarterly TEDS result you describe in the post:

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