Tempest Over Taiwan
Asian Wall Street Journal, Monday, 9 July, 2001
A new controversy has thrown Taiwan back on the front page of late. But this time it is not about U.S. weapons sales to the island republic or even some loose-lipped PLA general bragging about how his comrades will flatten Taipei. Rather, if one is to take the front page of the International Herald-Tribune seriously, "Taiwan [is] torn by mood to unite with China," as the headline on its lead story claimed Monday.
At the center of the rhubarb are interpretations of recent poll numbers that purport to show growing Taiwanese support for increased interaction, and even reunification, with the mainland. Last week, Agence France-Presse reported that a June 25-27 poll conducted by the United Daily News (UDN) showed 33% of Taiwanese support a "one-country, two-systems" framework - supposedly like that in Hong Kong and Macau - to bring Taiwan and the mainland back together.
Really? That surprising figure is 10 percentage points higher than it was in the same poll taken 18 months earlier, and more than double what another reputable poll found a few months ago. Further reinforcing the sense that this was a fluky, unrepresentative result, 24% of those surveyed by UDN were people who said they actually wanted to move to the mainland.
One of the first questions that needs to be asked about any poll is what motivates the poll-taker, since a partisan interrogator can subtly skew the questions to raise the frequency of a desired answer. UDN has long been a partisan of the mainlander wing of the formerly ruling Kuomintang, and indeed some of the questions in this poll were vaguely worded. For example, the survey question did not explain whether a "one-country, two-systems" arrangement would be dominated by Beijing or Taipei - and many Taiwanese assume that any reunification would be based only on mainland acceptance of freedom and democracy as they are known on the island. The confusion of the respondents is evident by the fact that 52% said they believed that such a framework would not mean the end of the R.O.C.
More at fault for this poll becoming a major news story seems to be the mishandling of the data by the Western media. For example, AFP reported that 80% of Taiwanese were dissatisfied with Chen Shui-bian's government. In fact, the UDN poll only revealed that 80% said they were unhappy with the economy and 70% with the political climate - but those numbers do not by themselves translate into dissatisfaction with Mr. Chen. For one thing, they don't elucidate how much blame the public might place on the opposition KMT in the legislature.
What is beyond doubt, however, is that there are some new political trends developing. The Washington Post reports that the Kuomintang is fielding a proposal that Taiwan and China defuse the reunification issue by forming a confederation. This idea has long been tossed around by individuals at many points along Taiwan's political spectrum, but it's significant that a major party may now adopt it as part of its platform. This makes the UDN poll appear part of a coordinated effort to boost the chances of a rapprochement with Beijing.
Meanwhile an anti-reunification axis is forming between the Democratic Progressive Party and a wing of the KMT controlled by former President Lee Teng-hui. In June Mr. Lee shocked the KMT by coming out in support of the DPP's President Chen. Now everybody is speculating about his motivation and intentions. Does he now back the DPP's pro-independence stance? Does this signal the end of the KMT? Most likely, Mr. Lee's move was one of political pragmatism. Mr. Lee does share some political beliefs in common with the new president; he has fallen out with his successor at the KMT and like many retired politicians he probably misses being at the center of the fray. He definitely still has the capacity to lead public opinion.
All in all, the idea of a tidal wave of pro-unification sentiment storming Taiwan is a tempest in a teapot. One poll number both the IHT and Agence France-Presse neglected to report was that 55% of Taiwanese consistently say they want neither independence nor reunification but prefer the status quo. It's easy to see why this was overlooked - support for the status quo doesn't make for much of a headline.