Why NGOs Are Boosting Support for Self-Defense in Taiwan

Why NGOs Are Boosting Support for Self-Defense in Taiwan

Without strong government support for these grassroots organizations, critical opportunities to prepare for a conflict with China will be missed.      

In addition to the Taiwanese government’s efforts to carry out reforms and increase the country’s defense budget, the growing threat from China has made Taiwanese society more mindful of its own security. Since last year, there have been several non-governmental endeavors to boost Taiwan’s civil defense. Among these initiatives, the Kuma Academy, or “Black Bear Academy,” has attracted the most attention. Co-founded by Puma Shen, a world-leading expert on misinformation, the academy is devoted to preparing 3 million Taiwanese citizens within three years in areas such as cognitive warfare, introductory modern warfare, wartime first aid, and evacuation drills. There are also several other NGOs running similar programs on various scales.

Since their inception, there have been heated debates within Taiwanese society about whether the academy and similar organizations will be able to increase public interest in self-defense. The Taiwan National Security Survey (TNSS) results from October 2020 and December 2022 reveal that local, civilian efforts like the Kuma Academy did indeed better prepare Taiwanese citizens for a conflict with China.

In the TNSS survey, citizens were often given an opportunity to specify the action they would take if Taiwan were to be invaded by China. In 2020, about 24 percent of respondents did not provide a response, while another 21 percent responded: “let it be.” When taken together, both accounted for nearly half of the population. However, things were very different in the most recent survey, conducted in December 2022. This time, when the same question was asked, the “no response” portion shrank considerably to around 15 percent, while the “let it be” group came in at 19 percent. Compared to the 2020 findings, around 10 percent of citizens moved away from these two categories.  

Where did the 10 percent go? In short, it moved into categories that could be interpreted as displaying a willingness to resist a Chinese invasion. In the 2022 survey, the number of respondents that said they would “serve in the military” increased from 11 percent to 13 percent. Another 15 percent said they would “resist the invasion,” and another 15 percent said that they would “support the government.” In 2020, only 10 percent indicated so. These changes made up the 10 percent shift. There were other noteworthy responses in the 2022 survey. For instance, some citizens said they would “participate in local civil defense organizations” and “provide medical assistance.” If we combine them with those that expressed a willingness to support logistics in wartime, this group increased to 2 percent, compared to 0.4 percent in 2020.

All in all, the 2022 poll revealed a number of insights. First, the Taiwanese public’s willingness to defend itself is at an all-time high, jumping from 33 percent in September 2020 to 47 percent in December 2022. This reveals that nearly half of Taiwan’s citizens are willing to defend themselves. Second, in the nearly two years between the two surveys, there have not been any systematic, concrete changes in Taiwan’s defense policy, leading the authors to believe that it was efforts by organizations like the Kuma Academy that led to the outcome observed in the 2022 poll. Additionally, actions such as “helping with logistics” and “joining civil defense groups” closely resemble what the Kuma Academy and other civil defense groups have strived to teach since last year. Indeed, these efforts started to be reflected in public opinion polls in Taiwan.

Having said the above, in the same question, some citizens said that they would “hide away,” “surrender,” or “run away.” But taken together, they represented a minority in Taiwanese society. We believe that going forward, the Taiwanese public’s willingness to engage in self-defense will continue to increase. According to a recent publication, the actions a Taiwanese citizen will take in wartime are largely dependent on what they believe others will do. When more citizens express a willingness to fight, others will follow. The same is true for the contrary, however. This tendency is especially salient for those who consider themselves to hold both Taiwanese and Chinese identities. We believe this explains the ever-increasing support for self-defense in Taiwan; citizens took cues from their peers.

This survey has a number of critical policy implications for the United States. First, as the results show that Taiwanese citizens are willing to fight for themselves, it will help clear up doubts that the Taiwanese public only wants to free-ride or even entrap the United States in a conflict with China. Second, recognizing the growing threat from China, the United States will benefit from assisting local civil defense organizations, as such training raises Taiwan’s determination for self-defense and the country’s overall preparedness for war. Specifically, while recent discussions tend to focus on bilateral training between the American and Taiwanese coast guards, it would be wise to broaden the scope to include civil and other non-governmental organizations in Taiwan, such as the Kuma Academy. These exchanges could be vital for Taiwan’s ability to defend its homeland and further deter a Chinese assault. At any rate, it will be in the interests of the relevant agencies to take the lead on these efforts (if such conversations have not taken place already). Doing so will further strengthen and develop groups like the Kuma Academy, advancing U.S. security interests. Without strong U.S. and Taiwanese government support for these grassroots organizations, critical opportunities to prepare to win a conflict with China will be missed.      

Charles K. S. Wu is an assistant professor of political science at the University of South Alabama. Find him on Twitter @wupolisciusa.

Yao-Yuan Yeh is the Fayez Sarofim – Cullen Trust for Higher Education Endowed Chair in International Studies, chair of the International Studies & Modern Languages Department, and chair of the Political Science Department at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. Find him on Twitter @yeh2sctw.

Fang-Yu Chen is an assistant professor of political science at Soochow University, Taiwan. Find him on Twitter @FangYu_80168.

Austin Horng-En Wang is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Find him on Twitter @wearytolove.

Image: JENG BO YUAN/Shutterstock.com.