A recent survey shows that nearly 70 percent of Taiwanese would take action to defend their democratic way of life if China attacked their country, even as a majority of them are pessimistic about the state of their democracy. We look at the numbers, and respond to critics from the blue camp.
A new survey by the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy (TFD), a government-sponsored NGO, revealed that nearly 70 percent of Taiwanese would be willing to fight to defend their nation’s democratic way of life if China attempted to annex it by force.
In the survey, conducted on behalf of TFD by National Chengchi University’s Elections Study Center, 67.7 percent of respondents said they were willing to defend Taiwan against Chinese aggression. Among people aged 20 to 39, that number rose to 70.3 percent. Willingness to fight dropped to 55 percent if military action resulted from a declaration of de jure independence by Taiwan.
The survey also showed that 91.1 percent of Taiwanese support maintaining the “status quo” — in other words, the continued existence of Taiwan as a de facto independent state. Support for immediate unification with China stood at 1.5 percent, for immediate de jure independence at 2.4 percent, while 34 percent said they would adopt a wait-and-see attitude and decide later whether to seek unification or de jure independence (27.8 percent said they wanted the “status quo” in perpetuity).
TFD described support for the “status quo” as “natural independence” — “anti unification” in nature rather than nationalistic, with a strong commitment to Taiwan’s democratic values.
TFD described support for the “status quo” as “natural independence” — especially among Taiwan’s youth (20-29) — “anti unification” in nature rather than nationalistic, with a strong commitment to Taiwan’s democratic values.
Meanwhile, 58.2 percent said they were dissatisfied with Taiwanese democracy, and 54.4 percent felt “pessimistic” about the future of Taiwan’s politics under its democratic system, with 36.4 percent feeling optimistic. (Almost 75 percent of respondents felt dissatisfied with the state of democracy in Taiwan in 2014, the year of the Sunflower Movement.) Despite the dissatisfaction, 94 percent of respondents said living in a democratic society is “important,” and 65.8 percent said it is “very important.” Close to 70 percent agreed with the statement that “There exist some problems in democracy, but it is still the best political system” (that number rose to 86.2 percent in the 20-39 age category, up from 75.9 percent in 2011).
The findings of the survey were first unveiled during an event in Washington, D.C., on April 3, and were presented to Taiwanese media yesterday (April 19). TFD has commissioned surveys on Taiwanese attitudes toward democracy since 2011.
Critics and democratic discontent
The survey, and its release in the U.S., has attracted some criticism from the blue camp and blue media, with some commentators claiming it was democratic Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) propaganda, part of a “pro-independence agenda” or that it was meant to “deceive” a foreign audience. Others argued it proved the claim that President Tsai Ing-wen favors “conflict” with China.
What those critics fail to mention is that the surveys were also conducted during the last four of the eight years of Kuomintang (KMT) rule, when a KMT-appointed president headed TFD, and that attitudes found in those surveys were very much in-line with those unveiled in the latest opinion poll. Furthermore, the NCCU Elections Study Center can hardly be said to be “green,” or a pro-DPP institution, and has a solid reputation for conducting reliable polling (other polls, such as one carried out by Academia Sinica, show similar results).
Even stranger is the fact that members of the blue camp and media are attacking the poll for arguing that (1) most Taiwanese support the “status quo” and (2) that they are willing to fight to defend their democratic way of life. In other words, the blue camp is on the offensive over a poll that…supports the very ideas the KMT said it was defending when it was in power. It is rather odd that the opposition party would take exception to a survey which demonstrates that the people of Taiwan are ready to defend their democracy should it be threatened by its authoritarian neighbor — unless, of course, one equates supporting democracy with seeking de jure independence. The alternative, of course, if passivity and defeatism.
Would satisfaction with, and optimism over, the current trajectory of CCP rule be any higher if Chinese respondents across China were given a chance to freely express their views?
As to the seemingly high levels of dissatisfaction with and pessimism over Taiwan’s democracy: the beauty of a democratic system is that respondents have the freedom to openly state their views on how their country is governed, without fear of retribution or censorship. No government is perfect, nor is any system of governance. Slow policy implementation, delayed delivery on policy promises, gridlock, clownishness and occasional fights in the legislature, not to mention the “losers” in any system where the choice of who governs the country is arrived at via elections, all contribute to substantial dissatisfaction with the way the country is being governed. And yet, notwithstanding all this, respondents to the TFD poll overwhelmingly state that democracy remains the best political system (or the “least bad,” as Winston Churchill put it in 1947).
While that pessimism may not be completely unrelated to the massive propaganda campaign launched by regimes such as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) which purport to offer a better, and more efficient, alternative to democracy — the “meritocratic” China Model proposed by Daniel Bell, for example, has won some adherents in recent years, even in Taiwan — one important question remains to be asked: where can one find reliable survey data on satisfaction with governance in countries like China, where, without one iota of consultation with the public, “amendments” were recently passed that make it possible for the current leader to remain in power in perpetuity? Where thousands, tens of thousands, of people are force-evicted and displaced at the whim of the authorities? Where criticism of the leadership, or even mocking the national anthem, is a punishable offense? Would satisfaction with, and optimism over, the current trajectory of CCP rule be any higher if Chinese respondents across China (not to mention in Xinjiang, which is quickly turning into one gigantic prison, and Tibet) were given a chance to freely express their views? Moreover, for all its faults, democracy gives discontents the ability to remove leaders, parties — entire governments, even — on a regular basis, via elections.
Dissatisfaction is in fact healthy: it means the public expects more of the people and institutions that govern them, and promises retribution, in the form of elections, should they fail to meet their end of the contract. No such means exist in authoritarian countries. Consequently, citizens there either (1) submit to the authorities no matter what or (2) remove those in power via extraconstitutional means — and that usually means bloodshed and coups d’état.
Democracy is highly imperfect, as is any human activity. But unlike the alternatives, which are each responsible for so much misery throughout history, it gives us alternatives. It even allows us to criticize it as we cherish its potential and ideals. And yes, it is worth fighting for.
Top photo: J. Michael Cole/Taiwan Sentinel