The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Beijing wants Taiwanese to identify as Chinese. But how do Taiwanese really feel?

In a photo released by Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense, a Taiwanese air force fighter aircraft, left, flies near a Chinese H6-K bomber that reportedly flew over the Luzon Strait south of Taiwan during an exercise in May. (Taiwan Ministry of National Defense/AP)

What’s behind the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) recent escalation of military and political pressure on the government of Taiwan? The PRC has flown H-6 bombers around the island and encouraged two countries to cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan, officially known as the Republic of China.

One motive may be Beijing’s concern that it is losing the battle for the “hearts and minds” of the Taiwanese people: If more and more people in Taiwan self-identify as Taiwanese instead of Chinese, this could lead to greater support in Taiwan for a declaration of formal independence. This is an outcome the PRC is determined to prevent.

Measuring identity: Past surveys may be inaccurate

In a 1992 survey by the Election Studies Center of National Chengchi University in Taiwan, 20 percent of respondents self-identified as “Taiwanese only.” By 2017, the same multiyear survey showed this figure was nearly 60 percent. This trend suggests three decades of growing cross-strait social and economic ties have not encouraged greater identification with “Chineseness.”

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The conclusions about Taiwanese identity, however, depend on how identity is measured. To test this, we carried out a unique survey in Taiwan earlier this year. Our results suggest Beijing’s concerns about Taiwanese identity trends may be excessive.

Heres what our survey found

Traditionally, surveys in Taiwan require respondents to choose among three options — Taiwanese only, Chinese only or “Both.” Taeku Lee, a political scientist at the University of California at Berkeley, developed an alternative method for measuring identity in the United States.

Lee suspected that survey questions in the United States about race and ethnicity undercounted those who believed they were ethnic minorities. Lee instead asked respondents to allocate 10 points across different identity categories. This allocation method gives people more choice in determining their identity, capturing better how people actually think about the complexity of their own identities.

To see if standard measurement methods affect the conventional wisdom about identity trends in Taiwan, we ran a survey experiment in January 2018 on a random sample of 1,410 respondents, in collaboration with Taiwan’s Formosa newspaper and Taiwanese pollster Li-An Tai.

The survey used random digital dialing to reach landlines, and randomized respondents into two groups. One group heard the conventional fixed choice between three categories (“Taiwanese,” “Chinese” or “Both”). The other group was asked to allocate 10 points across two identity categories.

If someone allocated all 10 points to “Taiwanese” identity, we labeled the respondent “Taiwanese only.” If all 10 points were allocated to “Chinese” identity, we labeled the respondent “Chinese only.” For respondents who allocated some points to both identities, we labeled them “Both.”

The figure below shows the results. The fixed-choice method’s findings were similar to other surveys — a majority of respondents (64 percent) chose “Taiwanese only.” In contrast, the allocation method found that “Taiwanese only” are a minority (46 percent), while a majority of respondents (52 percent) believe they are “both” Taiwanese and Chinese.

Those who identify as “both” Taiwanese and Chinese tend to be more moderate

 This matters because in our survey the “Both” category has systematically different preferences and attitudes compared with the “Taiwanese only” group. For example, only 36 percent of the “Both” respondents prioritized defending Taiwan’s sovereignty over developing cross-strait economic relations, compared with 65 percent of the “Taiwanese only” respondents.

Compared with the “Taiwanese only” group, those who identified as “Both” also had significantly more positive views of the people of China — and more moderate views of cross-strait relations — than those who identify as Taiwanese-only. 

One objection to the allocation method is that it lumps into the “Both” category people who believe they are predominantly Taiwanese and people who believe they are predominantly Chinese. This means there could be less identity and attitudinal cohesiveness within this category, compared with the other two categories.

‘Chineseness’ affects attitudes toward cross-strait relations

However, that a portion of the respondents who see themselves as overwhelmingly Taiwanese still choose to acknowledge some sense of Chinese identity means that this “Chineseness” matters to them. Even small allocations to Chinese identity may be associated with different preferences and attitudes, compared with those who consider themselves Taiwanese only.

To test this possibility, we recoded the “Both” category into three groups (those who allocated 1 to 3 points to Taiwanese identity, 4 to 6 points, and 7 to 9 points, respectively). The results were interesting: Even those who believe they are primarily Taiwanese (7 to 9 points) are less likely than “Taiwanese-only” to prioritize defending sovereignty over developing economic ties in cross-strait relations. This subgroup split fairly evenly between those who prioritize defending Taiwan’s sovereignty (52 percent) and those who believe in improving cross-strait economic ties (48 percent). In contrast, among the Taiwanese-only respondents the figures are 65 percent versus 35 percent.

The Taiwanese see themselves as Taiwanese, not as Chinese

Even those who allocated nine points to being Taiwanese and only one point to Chinese (the 9/1s), may still differ from “Taiwanese-only” on some issues. For example, the 9/1s are less likely to prioritize defending sovereignty (56 percent) compared with the Taiwanese-only group (65 percent) and more likely to prioritize developing cross-strait economic ties (44 percent to 35 percent). While these differences are not significant statistically (due to a small subsample), they suggest expressing even a small amount of Chinese identity may have a moderating effect on one’s policy preferences.

Yes, how you measure identity matters 

What does this mean for assessing identity trends in Taiwan? We believe that how surveys ask Taiwanese to identify themselves matters a great deal. The conventional method, with just three fixed options, captures neither the diversity of identity nor how that diversity may be relevant to different policy preferences. The allocation method may come closer to how people actually understand and live their identities on a daily basis. If so, Beijing can afford to be more relaxed about identity in Taiwan.

Alastair Iain Johnston is a professor of government at Harvard University. 

George Yin is a U.S. Foreign Policy and International Security Fellow at Dartmouths John Sloane Dickey Center for International Understanding. 

The authors wish to thank Li-An Tai, Cho-Shui Lin and Pamela Wu for comments on our survey.