Despite Threats, New Survey Data Reveals Few in Taiwan Pay Much Attention to China

Publication: China Brief Volume: 22 Issue: 12

Election campaign banners cover a bridge in Taipei (Source: Wikimedia)


How often do Taiwanese people think about China? Given growing evidence that Beijing could use military force against Taiwan, and with President Tsai Ing-wen stating that the threat from China grows “every day,” it would be reasonable to expect the public to be increasingly focused on their much larger neighbor (Taipei Times, June 24, 2022; Taiwan News, February 2, 2020). However, our original survey data finds that the vast majority of Taiwanese citizens rarely think about China, with only 11.56 percent stating they think of China every other day or more often. Low levels of attention may be a result of desensitization to frequent media coverage of China, or they could be due to public preoccupation with pressing domestic issues.

Media Coverage, Domestic Politics Shape Public Opinion on China

Media framing theory suggests that media focus and tone shape public beliefs. [1] During times of warmer cross-strait relations, China was able to expand its influence in the Taiwanese media. [2] In 2019, reports emerged of China paying for positive media coverage in Taiwan in an attempt to influence public opinion (South China Morning Post, August 9, 2019). A 2021 U.S. State Department report claimed that Beijing sought to pressure Taiwanese media with parent companies in China over critical content, and reports of skewed media coverage continue today (Taiwan News, March 31, 2021; Taipei Times, June 22, 2022). Taiwan’s hyper-competitive news media environment often encourages sensationalism, which would presumably magnify the threat from China. That foreign media frequently speak of Taiwan’s vulnerability, including connecting the Russian invasion of Ukraine to cross-strait relations despite many fundamental differences between the two cases, would seem to further exacerbate domestic concern over China (Taipei Times, May 28, 2022; United States Institute of Peace, March 4, 2022; New Bloom, March 2, 2022).

Conversely, desensitization theory connotes that this saturation of media coverage about China may lead Taiwanese people to view escalatory rhetoric as ignorable noise. [3] This is despite analysis from Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense and other sources that China’s increased military capabilities make an invasion possible within the next five years (Focus Taiwan, June 4, 2022). Generations of Taiwanese are familiar with China’s claims to Taiwan and are cognizant of the potential for military conflict. Meanwhile, past surveys indicate that the majority of Taiwanese citizens would prefer to maintain the current status quo in cross-strait relations, with little support for Beijing’s desired outcome of unification under its rule (National Chengchi University [NCCU] Election Study Center, January 10). Nor are Taiwanese indifferent in their views of China, with a majority of respondents citing negative views of their neighbor in surveys (Pew Research Center, May 12, 2020 ). Nevertheless, despite China’s increased capabilities and rhetoric about unification as inevitable, there has not been a major military flashpoint since the 1995-1996 missile crisis, which may have influenced many Taiwanese to pay little heed to the threat (Taiwan Insight, January 26, 2019; The National Interest, March 10, 2017).

It is widely assumed that a threatening nation will invariably attract a great deal of public attention in the neighboring countries or country that it targets. However, analysts have rarely gauged this assumption empirically and when measured, public opinion often fails to conform to conventional wisdom. For example, recent surveys of South Koreans on how often they think about North Korea, a country with a similarly long history of bellicose rhetoric and behavior, have found they simply do not pay as much attention to the threat from their northern neighbor than is often expected  (North Korea News, April 1, 2022; 38 North, November 13, 2020; The North Korea Review, Fall 2020).

If all politics are local, it is perhaps unsurprising that domestic factors weigh more heavily on the minds of Taiwanese than external threats. For example, Taiwan’s sluggish economy, coupled with increasing inflation and supply chain concerns would presumably lead to increased attention to its economic vulnerability (Taipei Times, June 24, 2022: South China Morning Post, June 14, 2022). In addition, concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic persist, despite  initial success at limiting its spread, and Taiwan has experienced an increase in cases and a record-high number of deaths over the last few months (South China Morning Post, June 11, 2022; Radio Taiwan International, June 9, 2022; Nikkei Asia, June 2, 2022). The magnified impact of the pandemic and troubled economy could lead to greater focus on more immediate livelihood concerns over the more distant threat from China.

How Often Does the Taiwanese Public think about China?

In order to gauge the level of public attention given to China, we surveyed 640 Taiwanese respondents from May 18-20, via a web survey administered by PollcracyLab at National Chengchi University’s (NCCU) Election Study Center. We asked respondents the following question: How many times have you thought about China in the past week? Respondents could answer not at all, once or twice, every other day, or every day.

As the figure below illustrates, 66.41 percent selected not at all, 22.03 percent once or twice, 2.81 percent every other day, and 8.75 percent every day. Despite the assumption that recent Chinese threats would motivate Taiwanese to devote greater attention to China, relatively few seem to think about China at all. Moreover, when responses were broken down by partisan identification, no clear cut indicators emerged that levels of public attention to China are particularly polarized. Nevertheless, supporters of the historically pro-unification Kuomintang (KMT) were more nearly twice as likely to think about China every day (11.21 percent versus 6.54 percent for DPP supporters).

Additional statistical analysis controlling for gender, age, income and education, find only a weak statistic correlation between identifying with the KMT and thinking of China, with none of the other variables statistically significant. Moreover, a measure of evaluations of Taiwan’s relations with China also failed to reach statistical significance. In other words, those who rated cross-strait relations negatively did not think about China more frequently.

Our survey data is admittedly just one point in time, conducted prior to President Biden’s statement about the U.S. coming to Taiwan’s defense against Chinese aggression. Furthermore, the public would likely quickly reengage in the event that military conflict was imminent. However, if inattention is the norm, regardless of whether it is due to desensitization or the perceived primacy of livelihood issues, this potentially creates several challenges for Taiwan. A public focused elsewhere is unlikely to support the tax increases necessary to enhance Taiwan’s defense capabilities, or conversely, to push leadership towards greater engagement with China. Inattention may also lead the public to support indefinite maintenance of the ambiguously defined status quo, despite China’s claims that the current situation is untenable and its rapid military modernization largely designed to alter this status quo.


The Tsai administration may wish to seek means to frame pressing domestic concerns such as economic growth and pandemic policies within the context of a growing Chinese threat, although remain cognizant that kneejerk efforts to focus public attention on China risk both exacerbating cross-strait tensions and appearing as a means to deflect criticism from domestic concerns.

Timothy S. Rich is a professor of political science at Western Kentucky University and director of the International Public Opinion Lab (IPOL). His research focuses on public opinion and electoral politics in East Asia.

Madelynn Einhorn is a recent alumna from Western Kentucky University, where she majored in Political Science and Economics.

Josie Coyle is an honors undergraduate researcher at Western Kentucky University, with majors in International Affairs and Chinese.


[1] For an example of how media messaging shapes public opinion, e.g. on race, see Christopher Campbell (ed.), The Routledge Companion to Media and Race, Routledge, December 10, 2019,

[2] For an examination of how warming cross-strait relations provided China with opportunities to influence Taiwan’s media landscape, see Chien-Jung Hsu, “China’s Influence on Taiwan’s Media,” Asian Survey, Vol. 54, No. 3 (May/June 2014), pp. 515-539,

[3] See for example,  Jeanne B. Funk, et al, “Violence exposure in real-life, video games, television, movies, and the internet: is there desensitization?,” Journal of Adolescence, Volume 27, Issue 1, February 2004,!