As election nears in Taiwan, many young voters say China isn’t their biggest concern

A campaign poster for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in Taipei, Taiwan, on Wednesday, Dec. 27, 2023.

A campaign poster for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in Taipei, Taiwan, on Wednesday, Dec. 27, 2023.An Rong Xu/Bloomberg/Getty ImagesTaipeiCNN — 

As retired Taiwanese admiral Mr. Wu looks back on his old days, he couldn’t be prouder of his decades-long service sailing around the world on a guided-missile frigate.

He once led hundreds of Taiwanese naval officers on missions thousands of miles away from home and felt a sense of honor to be representing his home nation – the Republic of China, the official name of Taiwan’s government.

“I believe I am a member of the Chinese civilization,” the navy veteran said, asking CNN not to use his full name for fears of being targeted for his views.

The issue of identity – and Taiwan’s relationship with China – has been one of the most significant political divisions on the island, and surveys show it was closely linked to voting patterns in previous elections.

But as the island democracy of 23.5 million people prepares to elect a new leader this Saturday, experts say identity could be playing less of a role in the outcome.

Wu’s loyalty to his Chinese heritage is typical of older veterans, who grew up under Taiwan’s authoritarian era, and many older generations whose families fled to Taiwan at the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949. But studies show younger generations now overwhelmingly identify as only Taiwanese.

Traditionally, political surveys showed that people who identify themselves as only Taiwanese – but not Chinese – are more likely to support the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which has a pro-independence leaning.

Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen meets the US Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California on April 5.

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Current incumbent DPP President Tsai Ing-wen has faced frequent angry warnings from Chinese officials since coming to power eight years ago – and can’t run again due to term limits.

While many young voters supported Tsai in the last presidential election, recent opinion polls have shown that many of them are now supporting a third-party candidate: Former Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je from the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP), a party he founded five years ago.

Branding himself as a “pragmatic” choice, Ko is perhaps less ideological than the other two candidates, incumbent vice president Lai Ching-te from the DPP and New Taipei Mayor Hou Yu-ih from the Kuomintang party (KMT).

Lai has said he will follow Tsai’s policy roadmap and emphasizes that Taiwan is not subordinate to Beijing. Hou has framed the election as a choice between “war and peace,” adding that only his party can reduce the risk of war with China, whose Communist rulers claim Taiwan as part of its territory despite never having controlled it and have vowed to “reunify” with the island by force, if necessary.

Meanwhile, Ko said he will continue to build up deterrence while engaging in regular dialogue with Beijing – though he hasn’t specified how he will achieve that.

Supporters cheer at an election campaign rally for Taiwan People's Party (TPP) presidential candidate Ko Wen-je in Taichung on January 6, 2024.

Supporters cheer at a campaign rally for Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) presidential candidate Ko Wen-je in Taichung on January 6, 2024.I-Hwa Cheng/AFP/Getty Images

Key issues for young people in this election

CNN recently interviewed a dozen young Taiwanese in their 20s and 30s across the political spectrum to understand their voting priorities.

While almost everyone identified as Taiwanese, not Chinese, the majority told CNN they did not view China as the most important factor in this election – because they did not think the status quo will change in the short term.

“Both [DPP and KMT] are just competing on ideologies, but for me, neither independence nor unification is realistic, and our lives haven’t really improved regardless of which side was in charge,” said Charles Shen, a 34-year-old civil servant from New Taipei city.

Monica Cheng, a 28-year-old sports coach from the southern Tainan city, traditionally a stronghold for the DPP, said she was tired of arguments over political rhetoric.

“We have always known Taiwan as a country, and we are Taiwanese,” she said. “But I don’t think there is any difference between the Republic of China and Taiwan, and I think any debate over this only leads to greater political division.”

TAICHUNG, TAIWAN - JANUARY 08: Supporters listen Kuomintang (KMT) presidential candidate, Hou Yu-ih, as he speaks, ahead of the presidential election scheduled for January 13, on the stage during a campaign rally in Taichung, Taiwan, January 8, 2024. Taiwan's leading opposition presidential candidate Hou Yu-ih emphasizes peace with Beijing and promises a 'middle way' working for dialogue with Beijing under the concept of 'One China' while defending Taiwan's democratic system. (Photo by Man Hei Leung/Anadolu via Getty Images)

Supporters listen to KMT presidential candidate, Hou Yu-ih, as he speaks at rally in Taichung, Taiwan, January 8, 2024.Man Hei Leung/Anadolu/Getty Images

Some young Taiwanese voters told CNN they believe the ongoing debate about Taiwan’s future is ideological because the only feasible option is to maintain the current status quo – an arrangement under which Taiwan remains self-ruled, with its ultimate status undetermined.

A formal declaration of independence would almost certainly trigger war, and there’s scant support for any wholesale transfer of power to Beijing.

Leon, a 34-year-old engineer from Taoyuan city who recently spent two years working in mainland China, said more emphasis should be placed on cross-strait education.

“I feel like ‘resisting China’ is just a political slogan for the ruling party, and many people in Taiwan have little understanding of China,” said Leon, who asked to be identified only by his first name as he may work in China again in the future.

“Instead of blindly opposing anything China-related… I think we should foster exchanges, so that people from both sides understand how different we are from each other,” he added.

KAOHSIUNG, TAIWAN - JANUARY 11: Taiwan's armed forces hold two days of routine drills to show combat readiness ahead of Lunar New Year holidays at a military base on January 11, 2023 in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. The self-ruled island of Taiwan continues to hold defensive drills, as tensions remain high in the Taiwan straits. (Photo by Annabelle Chih/Getty Images)

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Beijing cut official communication with Taiwan’s government following Tsai’s first term election win in 2016 and has steadily increased economic, diplomatic and military pressure on the island, hampering exchanges between the two sides.

Austin Wang, an assistant professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas who specializes in Taiwanese politics, said livelihood issues are taking more of a center stage in this election because many Taiwanese do not think the election will fundamentally change Taipei’s relationship with Beijing in the short term.

“In the eyes of many Taiwanese people, they don’t think they need to choose a side because they think the status quo will not be changed immediately,” he said. “So, if the status quo will always be there, maybe we can consider some other issues, just like social justice, high housing prices, and things like that.”

Bread-and-butter issues

The majority of young voters interviewed by CNN highlighted concerns about their economic well-being, especially issues about stagnant wages and lack of public housing.

In 2023, Taiwan’s export-dependent economy was estimated to have expanded by just 1.61% compared with the previous year, its slowest pace in eight years due to weakening global demand for its technology products, according to estimates from the government’s statistics bureau.

And while Taiwan has an undisputed role as a global leader in the supply of cutting-edge semiconductor chips, income levels for other workers have remained largely stagnant for the past two decades.

People use mobile phones in Taipei City, Taiwan, 27 July 2020.

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According to the latest official statistics, the monthly median wage in Taiwan was $1,386 in 2022, which was substantially lower than other high-growth economies in the so-called “Four Asian Tigers,” including South Korea ($1,919), Hong Kong ($2,444) and Singapore ($3,776).

At the same time, public housing is not readily available in Taiwan. As of November 2023, public housing only constituted 0.2% of all housing units in Taiwan, which was significantly lower than many other developed economies, according to statistics from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

“I think housing justice is one of the most important issues in the future,” said Luo Chen-hsien, a 22-year-old student from the southern Chiayi city and a first-time voter, who added that both major parties had been “too passive” in curbing house prices.

Some young voters told CNN that they believed Ko could deliver better economic equity, because he was perceived to have a better understanding of the challenges facing the younger generation.

Other young voters raised doubts as to whether Ko can address these bread-and-butter issues, especially since his nascent party has never had any experience managing the economy beyond the local level.

“I think it remains to be seen how many campaign promises his party can truly accomplish,” said Johnny Huang, a 27-year-old financial adviser from Kinmen county who supports the opposition KMT. “Reform is more than just chanting slogans, and I prefer supporting a candidate who can bring steady changes to Taiwan.”

Pedestrians walk down a shopping street in Taipei, Taiwan, on Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023. Taiwan's consumer prices rose more than economists expected in November. Photographer: Lam Yik Fei/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The cost of living and house prices are important issues for young voters in the 2024 presidential election.Lam Yik Fei/Bloomberg/Getty Images

A Taiwanese identity

Still, an emphasis on domestic livelihood issues in this election does not mean Taiwan’s young generation is ignorant to the threat from Beijing.

Wang, the political scholar, said there is a clear consensus in Taiwanese society that unification with mainland China is simply not an acceptable option.

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According to the latest survey conducted by Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council in October 2023, more than 60% of respondents supported maintaining the status quo for an indefinite future, while only 6.8% supported an immediate or eventual unification with mainland China.

Some young voters also highlighted the importance of defending Taiwan’s hard-earned democracy, and showing the international community that Taiwan is determined to safeguard its freedoms and remains worthy of support.

Beijing’s crackdown on political freedoms in Hong Kong only deepened fears among many that Taiwan’s uniquely vibrant, democratic culture would not last long under China’s Communist leaders.

“The goal of annexing Taiwan is a long-standing policy of the Chinese Communist Party, and it is not something that any Taiwanese president will be able to change,” said Alice Yan, a 27-year-old lawyer who supports the ruling DPP.

“We must show to the world that we are uncompromising on our sovereignty,” she added. “If we elect a president who is too friendly to China, then other countries may be reluctant to intervene on our behalf if something does happen over the Taiwan Strait – because they will think it’s our own doing.”

“I think voting decisions are primarily driven by which issues people care about the most,” said Carrie Wang, a 26-year-old student from Taipei. “For me, I think it is most important to choose a president who can best move our country forward in the international world.”

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