The Status Quo is Independence

Obscuring independence sentiment is more effective than suppressing it

Typhoon clouds obscure Taiwan

Imagine if you could make a majority political position disappear at the stroke of a pen. Imagine if you could make reality disappear, so that journalists and scholars not only failed to see it, but quoted your re-defining of it with approving nods. There’s no need to use your imagination: it’s happened right in front of our noses. Welcome to the widely cited independence and unification tracking poll from the Election Study Center at National Chengchi University (NCCU), a propaganda relic of a bygone age, now well into its third decade of making Taiwan independence sentiment disappear by cutting it into a welter of confusing, useless categories.

Election Study Center, N.C.C.U., important political attitude trend distribution

A typical example of the poll, from 2017, is shown in the image above. It chops up the people of Taiwan into six categories:

  • unification as soon as possible
  • maintain status quo & move toward unification
  • maintain status quo indefinitely
  • maintain status quo & move toward independence
  • maintain status quo & decide at a later date
  • independence as soon as possible.

This poll thus creates the illusion of support for the “status quo” which is widely cited, naturally by NCCU scholars themselves. For example, this piece from an NCCU Election Studies Center scholar hosted at Brookings says:

The long-term survey results provided by the Election Study Center of National Chengchi University have shown that neither unification with China nor Taiwan’s independence is the most favored choice for people on the island. Instead, maintaining the status quo, an ambiguous stance toward cross-Strait relations, has maintained the majority position, as demonstrated in Figure 1.[2] It is clear that most Taiwan citizens are preoccupied by a combination of maintaining the status quo, and do not prefer to unify with China, nor declare Taiwan independence.

Former Premier in the Ma Administration, Jiang Yi-huah, similarly uses the poll to argue in an academic work:

Nevertheless, as all opinion polls show, more than 60 percent of Taiwanese want to maintain the status quo; and only about 24 percent favor an independence policy …

The poll thus has a clear pro-China, anti-independence slant: it is constantly used to show that in Taiwan, most people support “the status quo”, and that independence has only minority support. Intentional or not, it’s pretty convenient if your goal is to pretend that Taiwanese are middle-of-the-roaders who don’t support independence (we’ll come back to that in a moment).

Of course, as anyone who follows polls in Taiwan knows, when Taiwanese are given the choice of independence or annexation, they invariably support independence, as they did here and here. Polls also show that a large majority are willing to fight if China invades, and 55% are willing to fight off an invasion even if Taiwan declares independence.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs Marie Royce meets President Tsai Ing-Wen

This highlights a second issue: the shifting nature of categories like “status quo”, “independence”, and “unification” over time and from election to election. For former President Ma Ying-jeou of the Kuomintang (KMT), “status quo” meant acknowledging that Taiwan was part of China but currently separated, a position unpopular with the public. Ma thus violated the Taiwanese idea of the status quo by moving too close to China. By contrast, Tsai maintains the status quo by maintaining distance from and refusing to acknowledge that Taiwan is a part of China, a position with wide support in Taiwan. Not acknowledging Taiwan is part of China is just another way to say “Taiwan independence”.

The popularity of Tsai’s position on the fictional 1992 Consensus shows what “status quo” means to the majority of Taiwanese: Taiwan is not part of China. The categories the NCCU poll uses cut up the Taiwanese into these tiny categories in order to obscure this simple observation: the status quo is a form of independence. The NCCU poll simply renames it to hide the strength of independence sentiment. If you lump the maintain status quo indefinitely, maintain status quo & move toward independence, maintain status quo & decide at a later date, and independence as soon as possible groups into one group, you get a large majority.

Underpinning this idea of “Taiwanese support the status quo, not independence” is China’s threat to maim and murder Taiwanese if they choose the path of independent democracy. Imagine a world in which China said “Ok, Taiwan, do what you like, we don’t care.” Obviously the majority of the “maintain status quo indefinitely” and “maintain status quo, decide later” groups would instantly support independence (does anyone seriously imagine that there are “status quo” protesters out there asking to maintain the status quo indefinitely?). The claim that “Taiwanese support the status quo” thus exploits China’s promise of violence to help blind observers to the existence of powerful pro-independence sentiment in Taiwan.

Chinese DF-21D ballistic missiles are displayed in a military parade through Tiananmen Square in Beijing on September 3, 2015. Photo credit: Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images

Of course, many people have observed that the status quo has support precisely because it is the only form of independence available to Taiwanese at the moment. Yet none has remarked on another important effect of the poll: it locates the moderates at the extremes of the spectrum, thus turning them into people on the fringes who can be dismissed as “extremists”.

In reality, the pro-independence people form the moderate center supporting the status quo because it is a weak form of independence. Nor are the Deep Blue minority who want annexation immediately advocating violence — they want it to happen peacefully (though the end result of annexing Taiwan to China will be the kind of violence one currently sees in Tibet and Xinjiang, directed by the government of China). The real extremists are those in the PRC who want to violently annex Taiwan, and the now-extinct advocates of the ROC violently returning to China.

Scholars and journalists should cease referring to the NCC tracking poll with its creation of a fantasy “status quo” majority. Its apparent purpose was to help pro-China types deny the long-term existence of a pro-independence majority on Taiwan. As one of the most famous scholars of China put it:

The Chinese on Taiwan deserve an opportunity for self-determination, to join the mainland or remain free of it as they wish. There is little doubt today that they would seek freedom from the mainland.

That was John King Fairbank.

Writing in 1957.

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