With Election on the Horizon, Taiwan Fights Back Against Beijing’s Influence

With the presidential election in Taiwan—a de facto independent nation that the CCP regards as a “renegade province”—just over a month away, there have been many recent reports of Beijing’s attempts to influence public opinion and election results in 2020. China has a history of successful election interference in Taiwan, and has steadily been courting Taipei’s few remaining allies to pledge to Beijing in recent years. At NPR, Emily Feng and Greg Dixon report that Beijing’s influence and ambitions are weighing heavy on Taiwanese voters’ minds:

Voters are preparing to elect Taiwan’s next president and legislature on Jan. 11. While the leading opposition candidate sympathizes with Beijing, President Tsai Ing-wen’s Democratic Progressive Party calls China the “enemy of democracy.”

Many Taiwanese are also closely watching what is happening in Hong Kong, where more than five months of sometimes violent protests are pushing back against mainland China’s control. Taiwan largely wants to avoid becoming another Hong Kong, which could tip the election in favor of President Tsai, who is running for reelection and has a widening lead in opinion polls.

[…] “Hong Kong is on the verge of chaos due to the failure of ‘one country, two systems,’ ” President Tsai said on Taiwan’s National Day in October. “The overwhelming consensus among Taiwan’s 23 million people is our rejection of ‘one country, two systems,’ regardless of party affiliation or political position.”

“When China unifies Taiwan either violently or peacefully, do you want military rule or one country, two systems? The latter is still the best way for Taiwan,” Chang [An-lo, a “gangster turned politician” and head of the Unification Promotion Party, which is backing all pro-Beijing Kuomintang candidates] says. “How could an economy of 1.4 billion people be bad for Taiwan? And what’s wrong with returning to China, as we are all Chinese?”

Taiwanese mostly disagree. The latest polls on identity show the island’s residents feel increasingly Taiwanese, not Chinese. […] [Source]

Despite reports a year ago of that President Tsai Ing-wen’s popularity had drastically fallen—starkly represented in DPP losses in local elections and her subsequent resignation as party leader—her favorability has been on a steady rise over the past year. Her criticism of the lack of freedom in the mainland in her Lunar New Year address in February, continued defense of Taiwan’s sovereignty and democracy in response to Beijing’s threats, and steady support of the ongoing Hong Kong pro-democracy protests have all contributed to her rebounding popularity ahead of the upcoming election. Last month, Tsai announced former premier William Lai as her running mate in the 2020 election. In 2018, while still premier, Lai severely angered Beijing by publicly stating that he was a “Taiwan independence worker” and declaring Taiwan a sovereign, independent country. Beijing issued a sharp rebuke and the Global Times called for his arrest.

At CNBC, Huileng Tan looks at the carrots and sticks approach Beijing has adopted to curry favor in Taiwan ahead of the election:

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s government recently announced a package of incentives in a bid to further open Chinese markets access to Taiwanese companies. Beijing also offered to help train Taiwanese athletes in China, among other moves aimed at showing that mainland Chinese and Taiwanese were treated equally.

Taiwan’s Presidential Office rebuffed the package, saying it is a ploy to divide the Taiwanese, the official Central News Agency reported.

[…] Last week, China said its first domestically-built aircraft carrier sailed through the Taiwan Strait in a move Taipei said was an act of intimidation.

The “highly visible” measures such as the package of incentives and the sailing of the aircraft carrier through the waterway are a combination of “soft-hard measures” that are “consistent with Beijing’s pattern of behavior towards Taiwan,” said Global Taiwan Institute’s Hsiao. […] [Source]

Reuters’ Ben Blanchard reports further on traditional hard and soft influence attempts, also noting a new method: the leveraging of soft power through Chinese-language media, which Taiwanese officials’ are directly acknowledging and countering:

Commenting on the 26 measures [to further open the mainland economy to investors from Taiwan], Hai Xia, one of the highest-profile news presenters on Chinese state television, appealed for Taiwan to return “home”.

[…] “I am a Hakka from Guangdong, I’d like first here to say hello to folks in Taiwan,” said [Zhu Fenglian, a new spokeswoman for China’s policy-making Taiwan Affairs Office, who voiced warm greetings in Mandarin and Hakka languages at her first news conference], referring to the southern Chinese province while speaking in Hokkien, generally known in Taiwan as Taiwanese.

Many politicians in Taiwan, a rambunctious , have responded vigorously to China’s gestures.

[…] Beijing should focus on “giving its own people a bit more freedom”, Taiwan Foreign Minister Joseph Wu said on Twitter in response to China’s 26 measures, writing in the simplified Chinese characters used in China and not Taiwan.

“Thank you for your concern; the people of Taiwan are already in their own home,” independent legislator Hung Tzu-yung wrote on her Facebook page. […] [Source]

An unnamed Chinese official reportedly admitted that Russian success in using to influence the 2016 U.S. election results inspired Beijing to examine whether similar tactics could be used against regional rivals, including Taiwan. At the South China Morning Post, Lawrence Chung quotes Brent Christensen, the U.S.’ senior diplomat to Taiwan, who includes disinformation as a major piece of Beijing’s campaign to influence the Taiwan vote:

“We are aware that China is attempting to apply pressure through various means on Taiwan,” the head of the American Institute in Taipei said on Friday.

“Certainly, these attempts to influence Taiwan’s democratic process are of concern.”

He continued: “We believe malign actors are using disinformation campaigns to make people lose faith in democratic institutions.”

[…] “The US and Taiwan are working very closely to combat these disinformation efforts,” he said. [Source]

Last month in a Council on Foreign Relations brief on China’s tactics to interfere in Taiwan’s election, Joshua Kurlantzick notes that “China has a long history of meddling in Taiwan,” and describes the three main disinformation tactics it is employing and the goals behind those tactics:

  • Hackers and bots spread disinformation through social media platforms such as Facebook, microblogging services such as Weibo, and popular chat apps such as Line. For instance, Chinese media outlets disseminated a false story in 2018 claiming that Su Chii-cherng, a Taiwanese diplomat in Japan, failed to help Taiwanese people trapped during a typhoon. The stories were widely shared in Taiwan, and Su later took his own life, noting in a letter that he had been troubled by the viral posts.
  • Beijing is increasing its control over Taiwanese media as pro-China tycoons buy media outlets there. Earlier this year, Taiwan’s National Security Bureau divulged that several Taiwanese media outlets collaborate with the Chinese Communist Party. Some of these outlets, including the powerful Want Want China Times Media Group, also coordinate with the Chinese government’s Taiwan Affairs Office, the Financial Timesreported. Other Taiwanese websites appear to publish Chinese .
  • Additionally, China reportedly launches tens of millions of cyberattacks per month in Taiwan.

Taiwanese citizens will vote on January 11 for either President Tsai of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) or Han Kuo-yu of the opposition Kuomintang (KMT). There is no doubt that China prefers the opposition, as it appears to be spreading disinformation in Han’s favor.

The KMT historically has been willing to accept that Taiwan and China are part of the same country. Han, the mayor of Kaohsiung, Taiwan’s second-most-populous city, has supported stronger cross-strait relations and has held meetings in China with Communist Party officials in recent months. [Source]

Taipei and some Taiwanese citizens have been proactive in combating disinformation efforts. Taiwan’s Fair Trade Commission is currently investigating allegations that China is paying for businesses and restaurants to lock their television sets on networks that favor Beijing’s viewpoints ahead of the election; citizens have reacted with a campaign to map the offending businesses and restaurants, allowing for customer boycotts. In April, Taiwan’s plan to ban Chinese-owned video streaming services over fears that they could be used for political influence was reported, sparking debate from some that this was out of line with Taiwan’s commitment to free expression. In August, a Reuters report that at least five Taiwanese media companies were found to have been paid by Chinese authorities to publish CCP publicity department copy in the guise of straight news noted: “the Taiwanese government said it was aware of Beijing’s efforts and that such partnerships were subject to a fine of up to T$500,000 (US$16,000) for violating regulations on Chinese advertisements.”

Taiwan is also fighting back against harder influence tactics. Last week, Taiwan detained two Hong Kong-based executives on allegations of working for Chinese intelligence agencies to undermine democracy in Hong Kong and Taiwan. At The New York Times, Steven Lee Myers and Chris Horton reported last week:

Taiwan’s justice ministry ordered the two executives, Xiang Xin and Kung Ching, to remain in Taiwan while investigators looked into the assertions of a would-be defector in Australia that their company, China Innovation Investment Limited, acted on behalf of Chinese intelligence.

The defector, Wang Liqiang, said he worked for the company and took part in — or knew of — covert intelligence operations that included buying media coverage, creating thousands of social media accounts to attack Taiwan’s governing party and funneling donations to favored candidates of the opposition party, the Kuomintang.

[…] The Taipei district prosecutors office is investigating Mr. Xiang and Mr. Kung under suspicion of violating Taiwan’s National Security Act.

“At present, the two individuals are barred from leaving Taiwan,” a spokeswoman for the office, Chen Yu-ping, said in a phone interview. “They have both been willing to cooperate with our investigation.”

If charged, the two men could face up to five years in prison. […] [Source]

In a pre-election opinion essay published at The New York Times, former Australian diplomat Natasha Kassam writes that the upsurge in Chinese intimidation and influence efforts reflect Beijing’s knowledge that it has little public sympathy on the island, while also sparking more official Taiwanese defense against Chinese political infiltration:

[In regards to Taiwan’s foreign minister’s tweet: “#PRC intends to intervene in #Taiwan’s elections. Voters won’t be intimidated! They’ll say NO to #China at the ballot box.”] The Chinese government also seems to suspect as much: Even as it holds fast to its usual (ineffectual) strong-arm tactics, it is employing new measures as well. It no longer is simply supporting candidates from the Kuomintang, a party that now favors closer ties with Beijing. It is also trying to undermine Taiwan’s democratic process itself and sow social divisions on the island.

It seems clear by now that even Beijing-friendly candidates cannot deliver Taiwan to China. Only about one in 10 Taiwanese people support unification with China, whether sooner or later, according to a survey by the Election Study Center of National Chengchi University in October. Given public opinion, presidential candidates are likely to hurt their chances if they are perceived as being too close to the Chinese government.

Beijing, by flexing its muscle, seems to have succeeded only in pushing the Taiwanese away. […]

[…] By some accounts, a disinformation campaign conducted by a professional cybergroup from China, which was traced back to the publicity department of the Chinese Communist Party, helped the pro-China Han Kuo-yu get elected mayor of the southern city of Kaohsiung: One (false) story claimed that during a debate, Mr. Han’s opponent wore an earpiece feeding him talking points. China is trying to erode Taiwan’s body politic from within.

But Taiwan is pushing back. Legislators have recently accelerated efforts to pass a law against foreign infiltration and political interference before the election. An adviser to a presidential candidate told me this summer in Taipei, “The question for voters this election is: Do you want a quick death or a slow one?” Is it, though? Despite Beijing’s efforts at sabotage, Taiwan’s democracy is proving well and truly alive. [Source]

At Wired, Carl Miller looks at Taiwan’s thriving “civic hacker” movement to argue that Taiwan’s democracy is not only proving well and truly alive, but is evolving to meet the new challenges that democracies around the world are facing in the social media era.

Civic hackers thought that elections were simply not enough. Two-way votes held years apart didn’t allow information to flow easily from citizens to government. Likewise, not enough information flowed out of government about what they actually were doing and why. Direct democracy didn’t work either: referendums often split society, and simply showed a government that the country was divided. Something different was needed.

Civic hackers thought the internet could be part of the solution, but in Taiwan – like everywhere else – it seemed to be part of the problem. Online politics was polarised. It made people angry and bombarded political leaders with lobbying and abuse. The internet created only heat and noise, and gave citizens no way to express preferences the government could act on.

Their answer to the government’s request was to create a new kind of political process. They wanted to allow citizens to not only vote on questions posed by the government, but also control what questions were asked in the first place. And they wanted these questions to be based on attitudes held in common across Taiwanese society rather than on its divisions. They called the process vTaiwan.

[…] In countries such as the UK, democracy has fossilised in a particular form. In Taiwan, a young democracy that doesn’t carry the same weighty legacy, it is being upgraded. It might stand a better chance of adapting. [Source]

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