Just over half of mainland Chinese support a full-scale war to take control of Taiwan, according to a new survey that offers a rare insight into public opinion as Beijing takes an increasingly assertive stance towards the island.
The survey of 1,824 people found mixed public attitudes, with 55% in favour of "launching a unification war to take back Taiwan entirely", with a third opposing it and the remainder saying they were unsure.
The study, by academics Adam Y. Liu, from the National University of Singapore, and Xiaojun Li, from NYU Shanghai, was published in the Journal of Contemporary China on Monday.
Even though authoritarian leaders do not come to power through competitive elections, they still have incentives to ensure their policies align with prevailing public opinion to avoid an internal backlash, the authors wrote.
"This is particularly true for China, where nationalism serves as a key pillar of regime legitimacy, especially on issues of sovereignty and territorial integrity," they added.
However, analysts said the authorities could use "sophisticated means" to shape public opinion, potentially calming down more extreme voices.
The nationwide survey was conducted in late 2020 and early 2021, when respondents were asked a series of questions about their attitudes towards Taiwan and their favoured options as things currently stand.
Apart from the 55% supporting a full-scale war, just 1% favoured the most extreme option of not trying other options first.
Other options designed to coerce Taiwan into agreeing to unification also won majority support. These included "initiating limited military campaigns on the outskirts of Taiwan" (58%), "using economic sanctions" (57%) and "maintaining status quo to increase economic and military power" until unification (55%).
Given the extreme sensitivities around the issue, it was perhaps surprising that some 22% of respondents said they were fine with the two sides keeping separate political systems "with unification not necessarily being the end game", compared with 71% who said this was unacceptable.
Addressing the political taboos around this issue on the mainland, the authors said: "This basically amounts to agreeing to de facto Taiwan independence, a term we refrained from using to ensure survey feasibility in the Chinese context and to avoid inducing social desirability bias.
"Thus, it is possible that the estimated support for this policy option is only the lower bound. Regardless, this finding challenges the prevailing narrative that getting Taiwan back is the collective will of almost everyone in mainland China."
The survey was conducted using an online opt-in panel - making it more representative of the views of internet users than the general population.
Statistical sampling was used to ensure the demographic make-up of the panel reflected official figures, but those taking part were better educated than the population as a whole with most having college degrees.
The researchers also tried to gauge respondents' degree of nationalism by asking five questions about their national pride and sense of belonging.
They concluded that a higher degree of nationalism combined with peer pressure created an "amplifying effect" that drove people to support more aggressive options and pressured more moderate voices to conform.
However, they also found that the appeal of the aggressive options was dampened by concerns about the economic, human and reputational costs of a forceful takeover and the likelihood of the United States intervening.
Although earlier studies have concluded that younger Chinese tend to be more nationalistic and hawkish, this poll found that in fact older respondents tended to favour more aggressive policy choices such as full-scale war or military coercion.
"Perhaps the older Chinese have now become more impatient and are more willing to see the Taiwan issue resolved, presumably during their lifetime, one way or the other, rather than wait indefinitely," the authors explained.
The release of the survey comes at a time when tensions over the Taiwan Strait have increasingly become a key stage for the bitter rivalry between China and the United States.
"The government's rhetoric on Taiwan has been tougher than in the [former president] Hu [Jintao] and Jiang [Zemin] eras, for various reasons like the more recalcitrant Democratic Progressive Party government in Taiwan, China-US rivalry and President Xi [Jinping]'s own ambition," said Liu.
But recent signs, including a recent speech by the Communist Party's fourth ranking official Wang Huning where he emphasised the importance of cross-strait ties, show that Beijing is "trying to walk back from [its] tough rhetoric," Liu added.
"[Beijing] shall not feel compelled to take a tougher stance on Taipei as milder policy options are also acceptable in the eyes of the Chinese public," he said.
The survey could also indicate that armed unification is not Beijing's only choice, Liu said, so the US "should also not design its China policies as if the reunification clock is really ticking".
Beijing regards Taiwan as a breakaway province that must be reunited with the mainland - by force if necessary - and has steadily ramped up military pressure on the self-ruled island.
When then US House speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in August, Beijing launched an unprecedented series of military drills that effectively blockaded the island. A meeting in California last month between Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and Pelosi's successor Kevin McCarthy prompted another series of large-scale exercises.
This increasingly aggressive stance has also prompted concerns that Beijing might try to speed up its timetable for reunification, with Philip Davidson, the former head of the US Indo-Pacific Command, warning in 2021 that it might make its move "within the next six years".
The US, in common with most countries, does not officially recognise Taiwan as a sovereign state, but it opposes any attempt to change the status quo by force and is legally bound to help the island defend itself.
A majority of Americans, especially Democrats, support the US defending Taiwan, according to a public poll conducted by Global Taiwan Institute, a Washington-based non-profit.
Beijing has also become concerned as more countries argue that the future of Taiwan, a key producer of semiconductors, is a "global" one, despite its insistence that the matter is purely an internal affair.
Amanda Hsiao, a senior China analyst with the International Crisis Group said there appears to be "growing pessimism" about the prospects of a peaceful resolution and warned that high levels of nationalism in China could narrow the range of seemingly acceptable options.
"Public opinion can shape what Chinese elites perceive to be the politically correct parameters of the discussion on Taiwan," she explained.
But she said China had "sophisticated means" of shaping public opinion the way it wanted, adding: "If policymakers wanted to tamp down on public calls for more extreme responses to Taiwan in order to give themselves more political space to manoeuvre, they can."
Sung Wen-Ti, a political scientist with Australian National University, said the Chinese public only had limited influence over policymaking - especially with regard to sensitive issues such as Taiwan - due to the focus on the core leadership of Xi and the party.
"That can mean that Beijing's continued preference for peaceful unification still has staying power regardless of shifts in public opinion," he said.