The ‘Status Quo’: the Reality of Taiwan Beyond Elections

María Fe Celi Reina, Orinoco Tribune, January 31, 2024 —

The elections for the leadership of the province of Taiwan took place on January 13. The winner of the presidential election was Lai Ching-te of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), and of the most radical wing of the party that promotes separation from China. In this way, the custom of alternation of parties in presidential power every eight years was broken, and the DPP will remain in power for 12 years.

The Western press presented the result as a “blow to Beijing” and a demonstration of the will of the Taiwanese population to be an independent country. The truth is that no matter how much the separatists insist, Taiwan cannot function without the Chinese mainland and is closer to reunification than is said in the West.

To begin with, the election results prove it. The electoral preferences were divided across three parties. First, for the DPP. Second, for the historical party Kuomintang (KMT) whose candidate was Hou Yu-ih. Third, for the new People’s Party of Taiwan (PPT) whose candidate was Ko Wen-je, former mayor of Taipei.

While Lai promotes “independence,” Hou and Ko advocate for a better relationship with Beijing. Even within the KMT, there are sectors that promote negotiated reunification. During the campaign, the KMT and the PPT were in negotiations to form an alliance but it did not happen.

In the end, Lai took 40% of the votes, Hou, 33.5%, and Ko 26.5%. If the opposition alliance had been finalized, they would have won the elections on January 13. If there were provisions for a second round, the DPP would not remain in power.

This shows that close to 60% of the electorate not only does not want more of the DPP, which has had an inefficient government plagued by corruption scandals, but also understands that Taiwan’s well-being depends on having better relations with the Chinese mainland.

Regarding legislative results, it is still not possible to predict what the trend will be in the next four years. The KMT took 52 seats, the DPP, 51, the PPT, 8, and the remaining two were won by independents. No party could reach the 57 seats to control the legislature, and everything will depend on the decisions made by the PPT and the two independents.

What the Taiwanese want: the ‘status quo’
Since 1994, the Election Study Center at National Chengchi University (Taipei) has conducted an annual opinion survey on reunification and independence. Surveys are snapshots of the moment, while long-term studies give a more complete idea of opinion trends.

In the 19 editions of the study, the same pattern has continued. The two minority groups have been those who want independence or immediate reunification, while the two largest groups have been those who want “‘status quo’ and then decide” and those who want “‘status quo’ indefinitely.”

In addition, there are those who want “‘status quo’ towards reunification,” which peaked in the mid-1990s and then declined below 10%. On the other hand, there are those who want “’status quo’ towards independence,” which had its peak at the beginning of this decade, but is already on a downward trend.

In total, almost 88% of the population wants some form of “status quo,” and of these, 61% want an “indefinite status quo” or postpone their decision for an indefinite future.

What does the ‘status quo’ mean?
To understand what the “status quo” means, it is necessary to know a little about the reality of the relationship between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait.

Economically, around 38% of Taiwan’s exports are destined for the Chinese mainland and Hong Kong. Despite the DPP’s attempts to “diversify” its buyers, the island remains dependent on the Chinese mainland.

In 2021, the trade volume between the two sides was $328.34 billion. Taiwanese investments in the Chinese mainland reached a total value of $71.34 billion by the end of 2021.

However, what is most important and least reported is the interconnection between the people.

It is not known exactly how many Taiwanese live on the Chinese mainland, but it is estimated that there are between two and three million, that is, around 10% of the Taiwanese population.

It is difficult to know the exact number because they have the right to apply for the “Taiwanese compatriot document,” which is equivalent to the identity document of any Chinese born on the mainland.

With this document, the Taiwanese people in the mainland have exactly the same rights as mainlanders and can move freely. It is estimated that many of them are students and businesspeople. The first go to the mainland to study with the aim of graduating and getting a job in the mainland, while the latter divide their time between two sides of the Strait.

The only accurate data is for those who have registered as residents on the Chinese mainland and have left Taiwan permanently. According to the 2020 census, there are 158,000 such people. In the previous census, in 2010, there were only 12,000. The number has multiplied exponentially in 10 years and the trend is towards continued growth.

This exponential increase has happened because, for a few years now, Taiwan has experienced the largest brain drain in the world. Thousands of young and middle-aged adults are leaving to look for a better future elsewhere due to worsening working conditions on the island.

Most come to the Chinese mainland where salaries can grow two or three times as much. Moreover, there are programs from private companies and local governments to attract them. If they decide to settle on the mainland, they also receive support from the government for installation costs.

The brain drain reached such a level that, in 2021, the Taiwanese regional government prohibited the advertising of jobs in companies on the mainland, as well as Chinese subsidiaries of Taiwanese or foreign companies. The penalties were much greater if they advertised jobs in the semiconductor industry.

In the mid-1990s, Taiwanese separatism began a process of “de-sinifying” (removal of anything related to China) the island’s inhabitants by altering the school curriculum. They disassociated the history of China and taught an entire generation that they were different. Therefore, most young people identify as Taiwanese and not as Chinese.

However, the Taiwanese authorities did not care about the people’s material conditions and ended up pushing them towards the mainland.

The “status quo” is supported by two pillars. The first, a distrust of Beijing that has historical roots. The second, convenience. The Taiwanese can say to the side that they are not Chinese, but at the same time, enjoy the advantages of the mainland and the special policies aimed at their integration into China.

It is in this interaction that many discover that what they were told about the mainland is a lie, and the young generations realize that their Taiwanese identity is not exclusive of their Chinese identity.

The image of the West
In the West, the image of China is promoted as a country of “evil communists” who do not allow a small island to live “in freedom.” Nothing is further from reality.

Taiwan is the last remnant of the civil war that never ended. It is an open wound from a very painful period for the Chinese. Beijing talks about “peaceful reunification” because the last thing it wants is for the Chinese to kill each other again.

The interconnection between the two sides of the strait is breaking down barriers. Mass migration to the mainland will have effects on the next generation. Taiwanese may feel like foreigners in their own country today, but their children, born and/or raised in the Chinese mainland, will not be.

Resorting to weapons is the last resort, but the slow process of reunification that began decades ago and has accelerated with recent migration is always being threatened by separatists hand in hand with the United States.

The red line is the independence referendum. When DPP leaders are asked if they would do it, they always respond that it is not necessary because they are already a sovereign country. They know that it is not true. Without the economy of the mainland they cannot survive, and Taiwan’s inhabitants are leaving in droves.

Furthermore, Taiwan’s official name is still the Republic of China, and it is only recognized by 12 countries in the world, the majority being island nations with very small populations.

Therefore, Taiwanese authorities will not do an independence referendum, but they will seek to play with the limits to cause Beijing to set aside the peaceful reunification plan and decide to take the island by force.

This is a scenario we have seen before in many parts of the world, but patience is an inherent quality in Chinese culture and its economy is much more important than that of the US itself.

Time and material conditions are in favor of reunification. In the process, we will live in constant tension over a potential war in the Pacific.

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