Jan 10, 2024 - World

Ahead of key election, Taiwan's identity politics shapes views on China

Photo illustration of several interviewed Taiwanese voters surrounded by abstract lines and shapes.

Photo illustration: Axios Visuals. Photo: Sebastian Kjeldtoft

Voters in Taiwan say cross-strait relations is a top consideration as they cast their votes in Taiwan's presidential election this Saturday.

Why it matters: Taiwan's residents increasingly identify as "Taiwanese" rather than "Chinese," and surveys have also found a rise in the number of people who support moving the country closer to independence.

  • The three candidates are the ruling Democratic Progressive Party's (DPP) William Lai, the more Beijing-friendly Kuomintang's (KMT) Hou You-yi, and the recently founded Taiwan People's Party's (TPP) Ko Wen-je, whose cross-strait views lie somewhere in between.

By the numbers: In 1992, the proportion of Taiwan residents who identified as "Taiwanese only" was just under 18%, according to survey data by National Chengchi University (NCCU). By 2023, that had risen to 63%.

  • In 1992, the proportion of Taiwan residents identifying as "Chinese only" (中國人) was just over 25%. By 2023, that had fallen to less than 3%.
  • Those identifying as both Taiwanese and Chinese were 46% in 1992 and just over 30% in 2023.
  • Meanwhile, between 1994 and 2023, the percentage of people wanting to "maintain the status quo, move toward independence" trended upward, while the percentage of people wanting to "maintain the status quo, move toward unification" trended downward, according to different survey data from NCCU.

Zoom in: Axios spent a day interviewing voters in Taipei about who they plan to vote for, why and if they identify as Taiwanese, Chinese or both.

Zhou, who only gave his surname and said he is in his 70s, said he preferred Ko Wen-je but was probably going to vote for the KMT because Ko had little chance of winning. "If Lai Ching-de wins, China might attack," said Zhou, who said he identifies as Taiwanese only.

Another voter, He, who said he is in his 50s and also only gave his surname, said he is voting for the KMT because the DPP has "made a huge mess of everything."

  • Cross-strait relations is the most important issue to him, and he thinks the KMT does a better job managing relations with Beijing. "The world should have peace," he said. He said he is "deep blue," meaning a strong KMT supporter.
  • When asked if he identifies as Taiwanese or Chinese or both, he said he identifies as "ethnic Chinese"(華人) and said that only Taiwan's Indigenous peoples are truly Taiwanese.

Zhen Yujie, who is 30 years old and works in finance, said he is voting DPP because "I am gay, and the DPP's LGBT policies are better."

  • This year, concern about China isn't affecting his vote, he says. He isn't worried about the risk of an invasion because "other East Asian countries like Japan and South Korea would oppose it if China invaded Taiwan."
  • Zhen identifies as Taiwanese only.

One 77-year-old voter, who declined to give her name, said she is voting for William Lai because he is "honest."

  • She voted for the DPP in the election four years ago and said Tsai Ing-wen has been a very "trustworthy" president.
  • Cross-strait relations is the most important issue for her in this election. "Lai Ching-de can protect Taiwan," she told Axios. The other candidates are "closer to China" and she doesn't trust them, she said.
  • She identifies as Taiwanese only — "Taiwan born and raised," she said.

Sheila Liou, who works in marketing, told Axios she will vote for the DPP because "in the past four years, they have managed things really well," including LGBT issues and international politics.

  • The 34-year-old voter said the relationship between Taiwan and China is the most important issue to her and she worries the KMT might give up too much to China.
  • She identifies as Taiwanese only.

What to watch: The DPP's Lai is the front-runner for the presidential race, but legislative elections are also slated for this weekend, and the KMT and TPP together may hold a majority in the legislature — meaning a divided government could make it harder for Lai to make progress on his agenda.

Go deeper: China looms large in Taiwan's presidential election

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