When Surveys Become Instruments of Pro-Beijing Propaganda

A recent poll shows unusually high self-identification as Chinese among Taiwanese respondents. Here’s why the results should not be taken seriously
J. Michael Cole

Forget the more-than-a-decade-long trend, supported by various polls, of rising identification among Taiwanese as “ethnically Taiwanese” and the attendant drop in identification as “Chinese.” A new poll released this week clearly demonstrates that those were all lies. Taiwanese and Chinese regard themselves as one big, happy, Chinese family.

The Taiwan Competitiveness Forum (TCF, 台灣競爭力論壇) poll, whose results the state-run Central News Agency (CNA) reported, both in Chinese and English, shows that 87% of respondents considered themselves “of Chinese ethnicity.” More extraordinarily, the share of respondents who identify as “Chinese,” it said, rose to 53%. Based on those results, the polling firm concluded that the Sunflower Movement had failed and that the government should “seize on the growing amity toward China and continue its push to improve two-way ties” by signing the trade-in-services deal and a subsequent trade-in-goods agreement with China.

Before supporters of a free, democratic Taiwan throw in the towel, there’s a few things they should know. First and foremost, the TCF is a strongly pro-unification think tank that is closely associated with no less a pro-Beijing media empire than Tsai Eng-meng’s (蔡衍明) Want Want China Times Group (旺旺中時集團). Moreover, if previous polls discussed by the Forum are any indication, the firm that conducted the polling on their behalf was Apollo Survey and Research Co Ltd, a subsidiary of … Mr. Tsai’s China Times Group. The same polling firm conducted a survey in March and found that 55% of Taiwanese identified as Chinese. Fifty-seven percent did so in 2013, it claimed (one wonders: if the numbers are stable, how can pollsters conclude that there is “growing amity toward China”?).

Given the fact that Mr. Tsai’s media outlets have a long and highly deplorable tradition of showing flexibility when it comes to the facts, added to the complete absence of information as to the polling methods used in the survey, there is good reason to be skeptical about those results. For one thing — and people who don’t understand Chinese will probably miss the nuance — “Chinese ethnicity” is extremely vague. The term, Zhonghua minzu (中華民族) is about as relevant as, say, asking a white American whether he or she identifies as Caucasian.

More problematic is the “finding” that more than half of Taiwanese identify as Chinese, or Zhongguo ren (中國人), as the poll claims. Besides the fact that this bucks almost every other survey held in Taiwan since the 1990s, which show dropping self-identification as Chinese, we are in the dark as to the actual question(s). Before we can actually conclude that more than half of Taiwanese regard themselves as Chinese, which would have implications for future relations with China, we need to know whether the respondents said only Chinese or, as is often stated in other, more refined polls, Chinese first and Taiwanese second, Taiwanese first and Chinese second, or both. Those are not negligible differences, and one suspects that the polling firm rolled all of them into one in order to meet its agenda.

While the methodology may be opaque, the TCF’s aims are rather transparent: to give the impression abroad that Taiwanese and Chinese societies are analogous and, above all, compatible. After all, if the Taiwanese public sees itself as Chinese, what is the government to do but to adopt policies that reflect those preferences? Conveniently, the TCF panelists had a few suggestions for the government and the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (which must “garner support from locals who believe they are ethnically Chinese”). This including signing the controversial Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA), which sparked the Sunflower occupation, and a subsequent trade-in-goods agreement with China. Of course, if you want to take those comments seriously, you’d have to ignore the huge conflict of interest that stems from this advice, given that Mr. Tsai’s empire is one of those conglomerates that stands to benefit immensely from those agreements. (In another poll released last week also carried by CNA, the TCF argued that the DPP had to freeze its independence clause to “stabilize” cross-strait relations.)

And as if the aims of the TCF weren’t obvious enough, the TCF panel discussion on Sept. 4 included former KMT legislator Chiu Yi (邱毅), a board member of the Taiwan Institute of Economic Research (TIER, 台灣經濟研究院). As many will remember, Chiu, who also has a tendency to masquerade fabrication as fact, was a very vocal critic of the Sunflower Movement during the occupation (including appearances on China’s CCTV, where he made a fool of himself by failing to tell a difference between sunflowers and bananas). Chiu’s efforts to discredit the Sunflower Movement went further in May, when he accused the activists of being responsible for the May 21 MRT stabbings by “twisting social values” and creating an environment that was conducive to violence.

This isn’t polling. This is the use of numbers reinterpreted to meet specific political (and financial) objectives — in its latest iteration, to push highly problematic cross-strait agreements, corner the DPP, and discredit civil society. This is propaganda, pure and simple. This is the perversion of democratic instruments to undermine democratic principles, a practice that the Chinese Communist Party, which regards democracy as anathema, and its sycophants in the pro-unification camp have refined to an art.

Although people in Taiwan will quickly see through the charade, the danger is that decisionmakers, academics, and journalists overseas, who have neither the granular knowledge nor the language abilities to dig deeper into the matter, will not.


J. Michael Cole is editor in chief of Thinking Taiwan, a senior non-resident fellow at the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham, and an Associate researcher at the French Center for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC) in Taipei.

One Response to “When Surveys Become Instruments of Pro-Beijing Propaganda”

September 05, 2014 at 5:49 pm, mike said:

The worst thing about this is not the likely “massaged” polling figures (that is to be expected of such people), but the apparent notion that all questions of administrative policy should be decided on the – and there really is no other word for this – stupid binary of collective identity.

Policy questions should be decided on consideration of both ethical principles and consequences. That is what is important. Collective identity politics on the other hand is at best the intellectual equivalent of a fart joke, and yet as actually practiced, it is a crude “divide-and-rule” mechanism for professional politicians in a semi-rigged electoral market.


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