Why Is Taiwanese Nationalism Declining?
Photo Credit: Xinhua
By Dongtao Qi

Why Is Taiwanese Nationalism Declining?

Feb. 13, 2018  |     |  0 comments

At the end of 2017 and the beginning of 2018, a series of public opinion surveys in Taiwan showed a surprising decline in Taiwanese nationalism. The percentage of people who identify themselves as Taiwanese-only went down, while that of dual-identity (self-identity of both Taiwanese and Chinese) went up. The percentage of Taiwan independence supporters dipped slightly; on the other hand, the Taiwanese public view of the mainland Chinese government and people improved significantly. The percentage of people who would like to go to mainland China for work increased and reached a four-year peak.


This trend of declining nationalism is surprising not only because it shows a reversal of the long-term trend of growing Taiwanese nationalism, but also because it has occurred during the period of increasing political confrontation between Beijing and Taipei since Tsai Ing-wen took office in May 2016.


First of all, we need to clarify that the new trend of declining nationalism has started much earlier, that is, since 2014. The surveys by the Election Study Center at National Chengchi University show that since 2014 while the Taiwanese-identity has been declining, dual-identity has been on the rise; moreover, the percentage of Taiwanese who are worried that “the mainland Chinese government will use economy to force Taiwan to compromise politically” has been decreasing since 2015.


The annual surveys by United Daily indicate that since 2013 and 2014 when the Taiwanese public’s favorable views toward the mainland Chinese government and people declined to the bottom, they have since been constantly improving. Therefore, the new trend of declining Taiwanese nationalism and the improving Taiwanese public view towards mainland China showed up in the late period of the previous Ma Ying-jeou administration has continued until now without being interrupted by the deteriorating cross-strait political relations since 2016.  


In general, it shows that since the growing Taiwanese nationalism reached a peak in 2014, it has been gradually declining. This may be caused by both domestic and mainland China factors. Nationalism is often a reactive sentiment against the perceived increasing threat to national interest and/or pride. Therefore, its rise and fall are often reactions to the rise and fall of the perceived threat. In other words, when nationalists feel the threat is diminishing, their nationalistic sentiment will be declining as well. For Taiwanese nationalism, there are two sources of threat, the pro-unification forces in Taiwan, such as the KMT, and mainland China.


In 2014 the large student-led Sunflower Movement effectively mobilized Taiwanese nationalism to the peak as it successfully revealed the significant threat to Taiwan by the Ma administration’s pro-China policies, such as trying to pass the Cross-strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA) in the Legislative Yuan without adequate discussion and consultation. The threat of the KMT administration’s pro-China policies gradually diminished when the CSSTA was blocked by the Sunflower Movement and subsequently when the KMT failed miserably in both the 2014 local elections and the 2016 presidential and legislative elections. Following the KMT’s declining threat, Taiwanese nationalism has gradually receded too since 2014.


The second factor constraining the rise of the Taiwanese nationalism may be Tsai administration’s cross-strait and domestic policies. Although the administration and the DPP legislators have promoted a series of desinicization policies in the political, economic, educational, and cultural fields since 2016, they generally followed a non-provocative line on cross-strait relations. Tsai has repeated several times that her administration would not resume the Chen Shuibian administration’s radical pro-independence policies which caused serious conflicts with not only mainland China but also the United States during 2004-08. Furthermore, she wished that the good cross-strait relations under the Ma administration, or the cross-strait “status quo” in her wording, could be maintained. This suggests to the public that she actually could accept Ma’s China policy except for the 1992 Consensus, or essentially, the one-China principle. Tsai’s moderate and pragmatic stance on cross-strait relations might have produced a moderate and pragmatic trend in Taiwanese nationalism.


A similar case happened in 2000 when Chen Shuibian promised “four noes and one without” in his inaugural speech and compromised on independence issues in the early period of his first presidency; Taiwanese identity dipped thereafter as well. Some pro-independence scholars and activists blamed Chen for his compromises having constrained Taiwanese nationalism’s growth.

As a usual strategy, Beijing uses a harder stick against Taipei and other pro-independence forces, and meanwhile, offers a sweeter carrot to reward Taiwanese who are not openly pro-independence.

The Tsai administration’s controversial domestic policies might have also helped to reduce the public’s nationalistic zeal. The author’s research finds that democracy is one of the most important concerns for the Taiwanese nationalists. Those satisfied with Taiwan’s democracy are more likely to be Taiwanese nationalists. In other words, dissatisfaction with Taiwan’s democracy will make people less likely to be nationalists. The DPP has long been viewed by the public as not only being more pro-independence but also more democratic with stronger connections with the masses than the KMT.


However, the Tsai administration’s several influential policies are highly controversial and have ignited waves of large scale social protests by not only KMT supporters but also DPP supporters such as youth and worker groups. As a result, the approval rate for Tsai and her administration have been declining almost constantly. Therefore, it is reasonable to suspect that the public have become more dissatisfied with not only the Tsai administration but also Taiwan’s democracy in general, which has indirectly and negatively influenced their nationalistic sentiment.


The largest threat to Taiwanese nationalism is mainland China. The history of cross-strait relations has repeatedly shown that provocative actions from Beijing and mainland Chinese nationalists could stimulate the Taiwanese nationalism to rise quickly, because the Taiwanese see these actions as serious threats to Taiwan’s national interests and pride. For example, following China’s large-scale military exercise in 1996 and the passing of the Anti-Secession Law in 2005, Taiwanese identity rose greatly to its highest levels. It is interesting to note that since 2016 while Beijing has been increasing pressure on Taipei, such pressure did not stimulate Taiwanese nationalism to rise. Why?


First of all, Beijing’s unilateral actions against Taipei do not seem entirely illegitimate, even from the Taiwanese public’s perspective. For both sides of the Strait, it is a fact that the good cross-strait relations during 2008-16 were based on the 1992 Consensus, or more essentially, the one-China principle insisted by Beijing and accepted by the Ma administration with a different interpretation. Therefore, Beijing is right in saying that the one-China principle is not only the political foundation for maintaining good cross-strait relations but also an important part of the cross-strait status quo.


Therefore, because Tsai has not openly accepted the one-China principle as her predecessor Ma did, she has broken the so-called status quo that she wants to maintain. If it is Tsai who first broke the status quo, Beijing has no obligation to maintain it. Consequently, Beijing’s unilateral actions in trying to create a new cross-strait status quo in favor of its long term pro-unification goal are not only rational but also justifiable. Moreover, Washington’s support for Ma’s acceptance of the one-China principle and cross-strait relations during 2008-16 may be cited to further legitimize Beijing’s argument.


Even if Beijing’s pressure on Taipei is somewhat legitimate, the old dilemma of how to punish the pro-independence forces without triggering Taiwanese society’s nationalistic backlash is still there. Beijing seems to have found some effective strategies to address the dilemma. Firstly, as a usual strategy, Beijing uses a harder stick against Taipei and other pro-independence forces, and meanwhile, offers a sweeter carrot to reward Taiwanese who are not openly pro-independence. For example, the Chinese central and local governments have been further improving policies to solicit more Taiwanese capital and talent, especially young Taiwanese, to mainland China for investment, work, study, tours, and so on. It seems that an increasing number of Taiwanese back from mainland China have started talking about China favorably and criticizing Taiwan for its economic backwardness compared to China.


Secondly, since Tsai took office in 2016, when Beijing imposed pressure on Taipei, its actions were usually politically sensitive but socially non-sensitive. In other words, these actions punished Taipei politically with significant political implications, but have had no or very limited impact on Taiwanese society. As a result, although Taipei criticized Beijing fiercely and adopted some countermeasures, Taiwanese society remained mostly silent.


An example is Beijing’s diplomatic war against Taipei. Two of Taiwan’s ally countries have switched diplomatic ties from Taiwan to China, and Taiwan was prevented from attending the United Nations affiliated international organizations’ meetings. These diplomatic frustrations have important political implications for Taipei but very limited impact on Taiwanese society except for some radical pro-independence activists and scholars whose research have been following Taiwan’s international status closely. Taiwan’s general public might be angry with Beijing’s diplomatic war temporarily, but without mobilization by the organized political force their anger could not be sustained and transformed into stable nationalistic sentiments. The Chinese air force’s “island encirclement” patrols and the unilateral establishment of the M503 flight route are two similar cases.


In mainland China, the public’s militant voice for taking over Taiwan with military force has also gradually subsided under the Chinese government’s careful online management. Declining nationalism in both Taiwan and mainland China are conducive to cross-strait political negotiations in the future. Hopefully, this trend will continue.

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