Unification, independence, SQ, and polling

The Election Study Center at National Chengchi University has released an updated version of our big three political indicators today. Let me save you some time: there isn’t much dramatic change. The 2020 numbers for the green side were inflated a bit by the successful response to the pandemic, and now they have regressed a bit toward the mean and were dragged down by the lower numbers in the summer during the outbreak. Anyway, I’m not going to talk about the 2021 data points at all in this post.

The ESC has been tracking three indicators since the early 1990s: Party ID, Taiwanese/Chinese (T/C) identity, and preferences on unification or independence (UI). Every delegation of election observers, diplomats, media workers, or academics who has been to a briefing at the ESC has seen these, and these days they are widely cited in the popular media every time we update them.

There has been some discussion about the usefulness of polling data on preferences for Taiwan’s future status, with some people arguing it is fatally misleading. I believe the UI question continues to be useful.

Let me be clear about my biases. I hold a joint appointment at the ESC and have been associated with it in one role or another since 1995. I’m not a neutral observer; this is my family.

Here are the updated versions.

Of these three, I think UI is the least important. If you want to know what is happening today or tomorrow, look at party ID. If you want to understand the longer-term trends, look at the T/C identity. The party system and all national politics are ultimately grounded in identity. T/C identity is a simple question that asks respondents who they think they are. Respondents don’t need to worry about what anyone else is saying or doing, they just need to think about what they feel. Of course, what it means to be Chinese or Taiwanese is a shifting target in a world in which the PRC looms ever larger and demands the right to define terms for everyone. Nevertheless, this is a relatively easy and readily understandable question for most respondents.

In contrast, UI is a more complex question. It requires people to think about a lot of different questions, many of which are about unknowable things in the future. What does unification/independence mean? What would that world look like? What kind of life would I have in it? Is it realistic? Is it inevitable? What is the military capacity of the USA, PRC, ROC, and all the other countries that might be relevant? How willing are those countries to use their capacity?

In general, I’m not a big fan of questions that require people to imagine the future. Imagine, for example, that back in 2018 a prescient pollster had asked people, “If there were a global pandemic and scientists developed a vaccine, would you be willing to take it?” Would those results provide an accurate picture of what unfolded in 2021? Could our 2018 respondents even fathom what the pandemic would look like, much less the way various pundits would react to it? There are a bunch of people right now trying to ask whether Taiwanese citizens would fight back if the PRC invaded. Well, it depends. On what? Well, everything. The UI question isn’t quite this extreme, but the complex considerations make it less informative than party ID or T/C identity.

Nonetheless, the UI question remains useful for understanding how Taiwanese people understand the world today and their aspirations for the future. It doesn’t provide definitive answers, but it does provide some insights.

——————————————

First, let me establish that the status quo respondents are different in important ways from respondents who tell you they want independence or unification. Pundits on both sides are eager to claim that the SQ respondents really agree with their position. As pollsters, we are responsible for asking – not telling – respondents what they think. And it turns out that you can’t just put the SQ respondents on one side or the other. They are different from both. Here are some simple crosstabs from the 2020 TEDS post-election survey.

 T/C identity  
 TaiwanesebothChinese
    
Immediate unification25.062.56.3
Eventual unification28.056.813.6
SQ now, decide later55.140.14.6
SQ forever55.937.54.0
Eventual independence88.211.00.8
Immediate independence89.09.61.5
    
all65.729.33.7

.

 Party ID   
 KMTDPPNPPTPP
     
Immediate unification62.56.30.00.0
Eventual unification49.27.60.84.5
SQ now, decide later23.421.93.58.8
SQ forever25.622.11.43.7
Eventual independence6.852.08.57.4
Immediate independence4.457.44.42.2
     
all19.232.64.56.1

.

 Presidentialvote  
 SoongHanTsaiDidn’t vote
     
Immediate unification0.056.312.531.3
Eventual unification8.355.319.79.8
SQ now, decide later6.327.140.715.9
SQ forever3.430.541.710.3
Eventual independence1.96.977.47.7
Immediate independence0.75.977.012.6
     
All[1]3.922.053.011.9

Ok, so respondents in the different groups think and behave differently. That isn’t the same as their UI preferences. TEDS probes a bit more deeply into the conditionality of UI attitudes, asking them to agree or disagree in four different scenarios, which I will label easy and hard independence and unification.[2]

  • Easy independence: If Taiwan could still maintain peaceful relations with the PRC after declaring independence, then Taiwan should establish a new, independent country.
  • Hard independence: Even if the PRC decides to attack Taiwan after Taiwan declares independence, Taiwan should still become a new country.
  • Easy unification: If the economic, social, and political conditions were about the same in both mainland China and Taiwan, then the two sides should unify.
  • Hard unification: Even if the gap between the economic, social, and political conditions in mainland China and Taiwan is quite large, the two sides should still unify.

(I have combined immediate and eventual unification (independence) into one category.)

 EasyindependenceHardindependence
 AgreedisagreeagreeDisagree
     
Unification42.650.720.474.1
SQ now, decide later59.534.734.157.3
SQ forever47.437.128.453.7
Independence82.515.267.927.5
     
All64.628.845.246.1
 EasyunificationHardunification
 agreedisagreeAgreeDisagree
     
Unification71.620.340.550.0
SQ now, decide later34.758.510.482.0
SQ forever19.362.98.373.1
Independence13.084.33.793.1
     
All26.066.310.081.7

I have no idea what to make of the 20.3% who say they want unification in our standard question, but they disagree with unification in the easy unification scenario. I don’t really understand the 20.4% who agree with hard independence either, though at least you can imagine some of them thinking a Chinese invasion would be the fastest way to bring about unification. Similarly, I don’t have an explanation for why 15.2% of people who want independence in the base question disagree with easy independence. These results are good reminders that every respondent has their own ideas, and they don’t always match up with the categories or logic that we think are reasonable. Every respondent is a unique soap opera.

The rest of the respondents make more sense (to me).  Many readers will wonder about the SQ respondents, and these responses make it clear that they are not actually neutral between unification and independence. Clear pluralities are willing to have easy independence, but strong majorities are not willing to accept unification even in the easiest scenario.

The SQ forever respondents are particularly interesting. Just under half of them are willing to accept easy independence. The DPP insists that SQ forever is effectively independence, so we should just lump them together with the other independence supporters. This says otherwise. A good number of them seem to mean it when they say they want to maintain the SQ forever rather than seeking formal independence. You might argue that this is splitting hairs since the only difference is a formal declaration of independence, but that’s not nothing. Many of those people in the independence category actually want – some of them demand – a formal declaration. They had the opportunity to chose SQ forever and found it not good enough for them. They want independence, dammit! These two groups are not equivalent.

Why don’t we ask these four conditional questions in every survey? Why don’t we report these results to the media as breathlessly as the standard UI question? For one thing, it takes a lot of time to ask four questions, and we don’t ask them in every survey. More importantly, these are hypothetical conditions, and people differ quite a bit on how realistic or satisfactory these scenarios are. It’s hard to say that any of these questions provides a more definitive answer to what people want than the standard question in which we let them imagine the future for themselves.

——————————————-

Let me reiterate that, while the SQ respondents are qualitatively different from the independence respondents, they are NOT halfway between unification and independence. A very large number of them are openly hostile to the idea of unification. A decade ago, my colleagues (and fellow members of the ESC family) Hsiao Yi-ching 蕭怡靖 and Yu Ching-hsin 游清鑫 published a fantastic paper using data from 2009 in which they followed up on all those SQ answers. They first asked respondents what their second choice was, and if the respondents chose the other SQ option or refused to answer, they then asked which option the respondent could least accept. This produced a new six-category classification. What starts out as a two-to-one preference for independence (with only 30% expressing an opinion) ends up as a … two-to-one preference for independence (with 60% expressing an opinion) and a two-to-one preference against unification (with 90% expressing an opinion).

Base UI question Hsiao and Yu Revised UI battery 
    
Immediate unification0.8Immediate unification0.8
Eventual unification10.9Eventual unification18.7
SQ now, decide later32.3SQ, oppose independence9.6
SQ forever24.6SQ, oppose unification19.9
Eventual independence17.5Eventual independence30.1
Immediate independence3.9Immediate independence10.0
    
Non-response3.9Non-response10.9
n1130N1130

If you want to know more about what people think when they talk about unification or independence, there is no easy answer. They think about all sorts of different things. My colleague Cheng Su-feng 鄭夙芬 (who was the first person I met at the ESC and has been there since before we started asking any of these questions) has done a lot of focus groups over the past twenty years listening to people. She can tell you lots of stories about what people think they want. Unfortunately, the nature of this sort of qualitative research means that it is nearly impossible to summarize in one table or chart. It’s complicated; there is a person contradicting every clean narrative.

——————————————-

We are scholars, not pundits, and our primary reason for producing these data is to understand what has just happened rather than to try to predict the future or win a partisan argument. UI continues to be very useful for understanding a lot of things that we care about. As an example, let me present two very basic voting models in which I want to know who voted for the DPP candidate. The first is from the 1994 governor election, the first single-seat national election in Taiwan’s history. The second is from the just concluded 2020 presidential election. I’m just looking at T/C identity, UI preference, party ID, and ethnicity. I’m ignoring all the other standard variables (age, education, occupation, etc) because I’m lazy and this is a blog post, not a research paper. Still, look at the continuity over the past 26 years.

 1994 governor  2020 president  
 bs.e.sigBs.e.sig
       
T/C: Taiwanese.719.273**1.137.194***
T/C: Chinese-.368.414 -.543.474 
       
UI: unification.318.353 -.604.309$
UI: independence.666.335*.982.220***
       
PID: KMT-2.146.429***-2.529.240***
PID: DPP3.256.382***3.138.419***
PID: New-1.5961.070    
PID: NPP   2.189.759**
PID: TPP   -.506.273$
       
Mainlander-1.9951.066$-1.242.318***
Hakka-.212.370 -.187.272 
       
Constant-1.533.202 -.038.175 
       
N800  1328  
Model: logistic regression. Significance: $ p<.10; * p<.05; ** p<.01; *** p<.001

.

(A quick stats lesson: A positive coefficient (b) means respondents in that category were more likely to vote for the DPP candidate, and a negative coefficient means they were less likely. A zero coefficient means the variable doesn’t matter. If a coefficient is large relative to the standard error, it will be statistically significant. So powerful coefficients will be positive and significant (like Taiwanese identity) or negative and significant (like KMT party ID). These independent variables constructed from categorical variables and are compared to the missing reference category. So a person with a Taiwanese identity is significantly more likely to vote for the DPP candidate than a person with both Taiwanese and Chinese identities.)

The first conference I went to in Taiwan was in early 1995 when scholars were still figuring out how all these variables related to each other. I remember one professor (can’t remember who) saying that party ID, T/C identity, and UI preference were all “three sides of the same coin.” That is pithy and brilliant, though it overstates the correlation a bit. The three are all a bit different, so they all add a bit to the models. If, for example, I took out the party ID variables, the others would suddenly become much more powerful. The fact that they still matter even with party ID in the models illustrates their impact. The point here is that they do all matter. In fact, they arguably matter even more today than they did back when the modern party system was much younger. Since this post is about UI, let me point out that a respondent preferring either immediate or eventual independence votes differently than one who prefers one of the two SQ categories (SQ is the reference category in this model). Again, people who tell you they prefer the SQ cannot simply be lumped together with people who prefer independence or people who prefer unification. UI continues to be an important tool for understanding why things are happening the way they are.

——————————–

Questions like this that we ask again and again, year after year are extremely valuable for trying to figure out the impact of various events, telling convincing stories about what is happening, and simply identifying important trends. In recent years, the UI responses have been fairly stable and at the same time quite volatile. If we look at the results from the TEDS quarterly polls on presidential satisfaction since Tsai’s election, you can see a few peaks and valleys. For the first two years, it was pretty stable. 25% supported independence, 10% supported unification, and 60% supported the status quo. There was a sudden increase for unification in 2017, and in the three surveys from March to September 2018, unification was around 16% while independence was near 20%. Suddenly, the two were almost equal. Then 2019 reversed that trend and went even further in the opposite direction. By the early months of the pandemic, unification was down at 5% while independence soared to the high 30s. Since then, the numbers have regressed toward that original baseline, though they haven’t gone all the way back. Who changed?

I don’t have the time or energy to do a full breakdown of these shifts, so I’m just going to look briefly how at different age groups changed in four different surveys. I use June 2016 as a baseline; September 2018 was the peak of the unification wave; March 2020 saw the peak of the independence wave; and September 2021 is the most recent survey that we have data for.

It is fairly well-known that younger people have stronger support for independence. In fact, there is a fairly sharp dividing line at around 40 years old. People under 40 look pretty similar and people over 40 look fairly similar, but those two groups are notably different from each other. This is even clearer in T/C identity, but you can see it in UI as well.

One clear age divide involves support for the status quo. Younger people are not nearly as interested in SQ as old people, and this is especially true for SQ forever. Perhaps “forever” means something different to people who are 25 and 75. However, young people are also not that interested in deciding later, even though they have plenty of time left to make that decision.

What happened with that that spike for unification in Sept 2018? It occurs in all age groups, though it is a bit smaller in the 20-29 group. It wasn’t just gullible old people or naïve youngsters; all ages were susceptible to whatever suddenly made China look more appealing. Where did all those new unification supporters come from? The over 50 groups saw huge drops in support for SQ forever. The under 40s actually saw slight increases for the two SQ categories, but they saw huge drops in support for independence. Now, young people are generally less entrenched in their beliefs and more open to new ideas, but I don’t think all those youths went straight from independence all the way across the political spectrum to unification. I think it is more likely that many young independence supporters shifted to SQ, while many SQ supporters shifted to unification. At any rate, there were different patterns among young and old respondents.

What about the surge for independence in March 2020? It was much larger among younger voters. However, those big gains for the younger voters have mostly faded. Support for independence for people in their 20s and 30s is not that much different in September 2021 from its level in the June 2016 baseline survey. March 2020 was a temporary surge for them. It looks as if they tried out some new ideas but eventually ended up back where they started. Older voters had a much smaller surge in March 2020, but those changes have persisted. I assume that it is harder to change an older voter’s mind, so it is quite dramatic to see support for independence among people in their 40s, for example, go from 16.7% in June 2016 to 28.6% in September 2021. Most media coverage about the effect of Hong Kong has focused on young people and their sense of “dried mangos” (existential national crisis), but the more powerful impact might be on older voters who were thoroughly disillusioned by China’s actions.

——————————————

One of the interesting rabbit holes I dug into while thinking about this topic was the early days of UI questions. We didn’t get it right the first time. This was back when we were still figuring out lots of things about how to do polls, and we didn’t yet have a lot of standardized questions that we asked in exactly the same form year after year. The first time I can find a UI question is 1991. (We might have asked it in 1989, but I don’t have the 1989 data on my hard drive.)

We didn’t do a national face-to-face survey after the 1991 National Assembly elections, but we did do a national post-election telephone survey. The question asked was:

有人主張要台灣獨立,有人主張要中國統一,也有人認為最好維持現狀,請問您的意見是什麼?

Some people support Taiwan independence, some people support Chinese unification, there are also people who believe it is best to maintain the status quo. What is your opinion?

1991 ESC national telephone survey%
  
Taiwan independence2.6
Chinese unification18.3
Maintain status quo62.4
Don’t care4.3
Don’t know10.2
Other non-response11.2

This is a comically disastrous polling result. More people gave a non-response than expressed a preference for unification and independence combined. These answers tell you almost nothing interesting about what people wanted. You certainly can’t use this in vote decision model.

UI wasn’t a trivial question in 1991. The DPP had treated the 1991 National Assembly election as a test case for its independence plank. The entire campaign was centered on its call for independence. The KMT, sensing the unpopularity of the DPP’s position didn’t shy away from this question. In the end, it was a catastrophic result for the DPP, which only managed to get 23.5% of the votes. The KMT won 254 of 325 seats, more than the 75% threshold needed to allow it to unilaterally amend the constitution.

Still, independence must have had more than 2.6% support in the electorate. Remember that Taiwan was still only a few years removed from martial law. People were still hesitant to answer questions openly and honestly, especially when their opinions ran counter to the KMT’s positions. This continued to be a problem until about 1995. So the challenge for the ESC in the early 1990s was to rephrase this question in a way that coaxed hesitant respondents to reveal useful information about themselves while still remaining neutral.

The 1992 post-election survey tried adding a fourth category. It asked the question:

去年立委選舉,有人主張要台灣獨立,有人主張要中國統一,有人主張一中一台,也有人認為維持現狀,請問您的意見是什麼?

In last year’s legislative election, some people supported Taiwan independence, some people support Chinese unification, some people supported One China One Taiwan, and there were also people who supported maintaining the status quo. What is your opinion?

1992 ESC national post-election survey%
  
Taiwan independence3.6
Chinese unification17.1
Maintain status quo52.9
One China, One Taiwan3.4
Don’t care2.2
It depends4.1
No opinion5.8
Don’t know9.8
Refuse to answer1.1

That’s a little better, but not much. You still have 23.0% of people giving non-responses, and more than twice as many people placing themselves in the neutral SQ category as in one of the more interesting positions. You just can’t do much interesting analysis if most people either put themselves in a neutral category or refuse to answer the question.

The ESC scholars revamped the UI question for the 1993 post-election survey, producing what is more or less the modern form.

關於台灣和大陸的關係,有幾種不同的看法,請問您比較偏向那一種?

Concerning the relationship between Taiwan and the Mainland, there are several different opinions. Which one do you lean toward?

[Respondents were shown a card listing the six different options.]

1993 ESC national post-election survey%
  
Unification as soon as possible
儘快統一
4.3
Maintain status quo, later move toward unification
維持現狀,以後走向統一
23.2
Maintain status quo, judge the situation, then decide independence or unification
維持現狀,看情形再決定獨立或統一
32.4
Maintain the status quo forever
永遠維持現狀
23.1
Maintain status quo, later move toward independence
維持現狀,以後走向獨立
7.6
Independence as soon as possible
儘快獨立
2.8
  
Difficult to say2.1
No opinion3.8
Don’t know10.7
Refuse to answer1.7

This was a major improvement over previous versions. First, the percentage of non-responses was reduced significantly, dropping from 23.0% to 18.3%. Second, the enormous status quo category was cut into two smaller categories. Third and most importantly, more people were coaxed out to express a preference for independence and unification, which is what we really cared about. 17.1% expressed a preference for unification in 1992, while the 1993 wording produced 27.5% support for unification. Similarly, the 1992 survey found 3.6% for independence, while the 1993 survey found 10.4% supporting independence. To the naked eye, it looks as if respondents in the earlier surveys heard “independence” as equivalent to “immediate independence,” and the addition of a less threatening “eventual” independence category coaxed some reticent respondents to reveal a preference.

As for those two SQ categories, it wasn’t simply a matter of cutting a big category into two smaller pieces. Unlike the 2020 data I presented above, those two SQ categories were a bit different in 1993. The SQ forever respondents were a bit more likely to have a Taiwanese identity and a bit less likely to have a dual identity. On exclusively Chinese identity, the two SQ categories were clearly in the middle. Still, these two SQ categories had some subtle differences from each other. This was something scholars could chew on. (Eventually, we collectively decided it wasn’t worth the effort to focus too much on this difference, since other differences were much more powerful. Also, the distinction has faded over time. We didn’t know that in 1994, though.)

1993 ESC post-electionT/C identity  
 TaiwanesebothChinese
    
Immediate unification30.035.031.7
Eventual unification15.247.834.8
SQ now, decide later31.246.219.9
SQ forever39.735.921.8
Eventual independence36.847.213.2
Immediate independence72.525.02.5

It was somewhere around this time that the ESC made a commitment to track the three big indicators. Since the mid-1990s, we have asked these three questions in every survey we do. It doesn’t matter what the topic is. We might be commissioned to do a survey on health care or gender equality, but we will insist of having these three questions. We are more likely to agree to drop a demographic question than one of these three. To give you an idea of what an enormous investment this is, remember that you can only ask about 30-35 substantive questions in a telephone survey. These three questions are a 10% tax on the available time and space. Those three charts I showed at the beginning of this post don’t represent one survey each year. Each year combines all the surveys we did in that calendar year; each data point represents tens of thousands of respondents. We firmly believe that these are critical to understanding political events in Taiwan.

I have one more point to make. This is more about politics than polling. The DPP went through a monumental shift in the 1990s. In 1990, they adopted the Taiwan independence plank in their party platform, making the pursuit of Taiwan independence a central goal of the party. They were not referring to maintaining the status quo or just maintaining a de facto separation from China. They wanted a formal declaration of independence, a new constitution, and a change of the country’s name from Republic of China to Republic of Taiwan. They did not consider Taiwan to already be independent; independence was something that had to be pursued. As I noted, this was the core appeal in their disastrous 1991 National Assembly campaign. The 1991 election was the first national election with all seats elected, and no one quite knew what to expect. The independence activists were confident that the voters had been waiting for an opportunity to support independence. It turns out they badly misjudged the electorate. The DPP toned down their demands for formal independence in the 1992 legislative elections and did much better. The rest of the 1990s were a gradual process of distancing themselves from the Taiwan Independence Plank. In 1995, Shih Ming-teh 施明德, who was widely understood as a Taiwan independence radical, was elected DPP party chair. Upon taking office, Shih made the momentous declaration that the DPP could not and would not 不能也不會 declare independence if it came to power. As the 2000 presidential election approached and it seemed plausible that the DPP might be competitive or even win, Chen Shui-bian pushed the party to pass the Resolution on Taiwan’s Future 台灣前途決議文, which downgraded the Taiwan Independence Plank to a mere historical document. At some point, the DPP started claiming that the status quo was already independence, and the large group of people who supported maintaining the status quo forever should actually be understood as Taiwan independence supporters. The KMT spent most of the 1990s and 2000s ignoring this shift and gleefully trying to tie the DPP to formal Taiwan independence. For the first two decades of democracy, the conventional wisdom was that formal independence was ballot box poison 票方毒藥。In the Tsai era, we hear almost nothing about formal independence. The status quo is widely understood as de facto independence, and unification would require a dramatic change to the status quo. Unification is now the radical idea that is ballot box poison. It’s amazing what a dramatic shift this has been.

I don’t have any evidence for this, but I wonder if the ESC surveys played some role in this transformation. Elections showed that formal independence was not as popular as activists had thought, and the new surveys backed this up. Meanwhile, the new surveys showed that there was an enormous group in the middle of the electorate that could easily be redefined being for de facto independence. It’s never easy to abandon a cherished position, and formal independence was a cherished position. However, the new surveys might have been a slap in the face telling the DPP elites and activists why they were losing and how to stop losing. It’s possible that the “SQ forever” category has been a catalyst for the modern independence movement.


[1] Tsai didn’t actually get more than twice as many votes as Han. Post-election surveys often find too much support for the winner and not enough for the loser. And turnout wasn’t 88% either. Post-election polls aren’t perfect, and the government won’t let us do exit polls. This is the best we have.

[2] A fair number of respondents will react to these hypothetical conditions by protesting that they are impossible and refusing to answer. Not everyone imagines the same possibilities for the future.

4 Responses to “Unification, independence, SQ, and polling”

  1. Phillip Saunders Says:

    Really helpful and perfectly timed for something I am writing.

    Phil Saunders

  2. Faye Says:

    the 20.3% who say they want unification but disagree with unification in the easy unification scenario, they don’t “want” unification actually, they may want independence, but consider unification to be inevitable. So in the easy unification scenario, which means CCP is no longer a threat to Taiwan, the 20.3% would prefer independence.

  3. Wat bedoelen Taiwanezen met ‘onafhankelijkheid’ en ‘status quo’? – Sense Hofstede Says:

    […] enige orde te scheppen in de zaak. Voor de details en de data die uitleggen wat er achter zit, zie dit stuk van Nathan Batto. in drie categorieën in te delen: onafhankelijkheid, nu of later (2021: 31,1%); status […]

  4. pdt90 Says:

    Excellent description of how the perception of the status quo has changed over time. In a lot of ways, the DPP’s position landed essentially in the place LDH was trying to take the KMT in the 90s.

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