Defining Taiwan’s Status Quo

Underlying the pithy term status quo is a hodgepodge of perceptions and different interpretations
Timothy Rich
By

This month, Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) sent to the party’s Central Executive Committee several proposals related to the DPP charter. Arguably the most controversial includes a freeze on the party’s independence clause. While reforms to the charter are not unprecedented — eight since 1986 — this move comes at a time when the party is clearly positioning itself not only for this year’s mayoral and local elections but the 2016 presidential and legislative elections. Such a move attempts to position the party as moderate on one of Taiwan’s main electoral cleavages, the future status of Taiwan, in part to appeal to the proverbial median voter who supports the status quo. Yet appealing to the status quo itself largely sidesteps a broader issue: what does the status quo actually mean?

It is clear that a majority of Taiwanese identify with some version of the status quo and that appealing to this group therefore is in the DPP’s interest. Surveys from the Election Study Center (ESC) at National Chengchi University (NCCU) going back two decades find that roughly a third of respondents support maintaining the status quo and deciding later either on independence or unification, with another segment — roughly a fourth of the population — preferring the status quo indefinitely. In contrast, roughly a quarter support independence, either independence as soon as possible or at an unspecified later date. The ESC’s 2012 post-election survey find that while about 59% of independence supporters identify with the DPP (compared to roughly 16% identifying with the Chinese Nationalist Party, KMT), only a fraction (approximately one-fifth) of those preferring the status quo identified as supporting the DPP, compared to nearly 45% identifying with the KMT.

Yet this only tells part of the story. Underlying the pithy term status quo remains a hodgepodge of perceptions. For many the status quo is de facto independence, with formal diplomatic relations the key distinction. For others the status quo is just a game of wait and see, both in terms of what China may or may not do, but also as Taiwanese identity evolves. Still others may still be hesitant to admit their preferred outcome and risk appearing as extreme. Furthermore, support for the status quo, independence and unification may not be nearly as fixed as often presented. For example, survey work by Emerson Niou in 2004 finds that a supermajority (72%) would support independence if it did not lead to a military attack from China and nearly two-thirds (64.2%) would support unification if the political, economic, and social disparities between both sides were minimal.[1] A quarter (25.38%) would support either condition. Certainly hypothetical questions can be problematic in survey research, but these results and others like it suggest greater complexity on what is meant by both the status quo and alternatives in either direction.

The nebulously defined status quo provides challenges and opportunities. The term allows a diverse group of Taiwanese to self-identify as pragmatic moderates, but this ambiguity can also be easily used to make slippery slope arguments about their opponents. Similarly, the term risks playing into Chinese interests if defined as actions that do not provoke a negative response from China, which is rather disheartening, considering that one side of the equation is a democracy. While greater appeals in general to status quo identifiers benefit the DPP’s electoral chances, redefining the status quo — for example to focus on strengthening the quality of Taiwan’s democracy — may provide a better means to this end.

[1] Emerson Niou. 2004. “Understanding Taiwan Independence and Its Policy Implications.” Asian Survey 44(4): 555-567.

 

Timothy S. Rich is an assistant professor in political science at Western Kentucky University. His main research focuses on the impact of electoral reforms in Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan compared to similar legislative systems (e.g. Germany, New Zealand). His broader research interests include electoral politics, domestic and international politics of East Asia, and qualitative and quantitative methods.

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