Beijing’s Aggression, Influence, and Disinformation Target Taiwan Election

Taiwan’s population is preparing to vote in national presidential and legislative elections on Saturday. At The New York Times, Steven Lee Myers and Chris Horton report on how Chinese aggression has significantly bolstered the chances of incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen by turning the election into a public referendum on democracy and Taiwanese self-governance. One year ago, President Tsai’s popularity had fallen drastically, clearly represented in her Democratic Progressive Party’s losses in local elections and her subsequent resignation as party leader. Since then, her favorability has been on a steady rise, aided at least in part by Beijing’s belligerence toward the island nation and approach to the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement’s ongoing protest against Chinese encroachment in the region.

“We know the responsibility we bear,” Ms. Tsai, 63, said at a rally in New Taipei City, where she pledged to a stadium full of cheering, flag-waving supporters to preserve Taiwan as “a beacon of ” in the face of efforts by China to undercut it.

“Taiwan is on the front line,” she said.

For Beijing, a second four-year term for Ms. Tsai would amount to a repudiation of the pressure tactics that it has wielded against Taiwan ever since she took power in 2016. As a policy failure, it would echo the overwhelming victory scored by the democratic opposition in Hong Kong’s district elections in November.

[…] Instead of enticing people in Taiwan to draw closer, Mr. Xi’s policies have pushed them farther away, and a recognition of that reality is already raising unusually public concerns in Beijing. An annual government survey in Taiwan found that barely 1 percent of Taiwanese favored unification “as soon as possible.”

[…] Since Ms. Tsai took office in May 2016, China has largely refused to engage with her government. Instead, Beijing has issued threats against Ms. Tsai’s aims to “split” China, and flexed its military muscle. It has also restricted economic and cultural ties, including the flow of tourists — all in the hopes of undermining her political support. […] [Source]

The upcoming election comes amid stark concerns about Beijing’s attempts to influence public opinion and sway the results through interference and campaigns. Last month, President Tsai called on parliament to resume talks on an anti-infiltration bill that her government said was essential to guard against Beijing. The bill passed last week, criminalizing political activities funded by “hostile foreign forces,” i.e., China.

Also at The New York Times, Raymond Zhong reports that in the context of Tsai’s rebounded popularity and election favorability, Beijing is ramping up Taiwan-focused disinformation campaigns:

Recently, there have been Facebook posts saying falsely that Joshua Wong, a Hong Kong democracy activist who has fans in Taiwan, had attacked an old man. There were posts about nonexistent protests outside Taiwan’s presidential house, and hoax messages warning that ballots for the opposition Kuomintang, or Chinese Nationalist Party, would be automatically invalidated.

So many rumors and falsehoods circulate on Taiwanese social media that it can be hard to tell whether they originate in Taiwan or in China, and whether they are the work of private provocateurs or of state agents.

Taiwan’s National Security Bureau in May issued a downbeat assessment of Chinese-backed disinformation on the island, urging a “‘whole of government’ and ‘whole of society’ response.”

[…] Taiwanese society has woken up to the threat. The government has strengthened laws against spreading harmful rumors. Companies including Facebook, Google and the messaging service Line have agreed to police their platforms more stringently. Government departments and civil society groups now race to debunk hoaxes as quickly as they appear.

The election will put these efforts — and the resilience of Taiwan’s democracy — to the test. […] [Source]

At The Washington Post, Anna Fifield reports on the crowd-sourced fact-checking civic groups that are attempting to disarm disinformation in the presidential campaign. In her report, she notes that previous recent examples of foreign disinformation campaigns upsetting elections (most notably, Russia’s weaponization of Facebook ahead of the 2016 U.S. election) “pale in comparison” to China’s efforts to sow discord ahead of Taiwan’s upcoming election:

“China’s influence has penetrated into every corner of this country,” said Wu Jieh-min, a sociologist at Academia Sinica, Taiwan’s national academy. “Politics, the economy, society, culture, and religion.”

Taiwan is subjected to more foreign disinformation from China and other governments than any other place, V-Dem, a research institute of Sweden’s University of Gothenburg, found in a study.

“By circulating misleading information on social media and investing in Taiwanese media outlets, China seeks to interfere in Taiwan’s domestic politics and to engineer a complete unification,” the report said.

[…] “Observers report many examples of Chinese disinformation campaigns. For instance, China provides funds to media that adopt a more pro-Beijing line in their reports,” the Swedish report said.  [Source]

At NPR, Emily Feng reports that the urgency that the upcoming election has over Taiwan’s future has prompted thousands of overseas Taiwanese to register to vote–and, fly back to Taiwan to do so, as the country does not allow absentee voting:

Saturday’s presidential and legislative elections feel particularly urgent for many citizens both on the island and abroad. China’s leaders have repeatedly vowed to annex self-ruled Taiwan. The vote has become a tense referendum on how forcefully Taiwanese authorities should counter the Communist Party in Beijing. While Taiwanese President and her Democratic Progressive Party have taken a firm stance against Beijing, some of their opponents advocate for closer ties.

“For a lot of people overseas, when they’re coming back, and when they’re voting, it’s about securing Taiwan. It’s about defending democracy,” says Wei-Ting Yen, an assistant professor at Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania. She says she extended a recent visit with family in Taiwan so she could vote.

A total of 5,328 overseas Taiwanese have applied to vote in the upcoming elections, more than twice the number in 2016, according to Taiwan’s cabinet-level Overseas Community Affairs Council. Of this year’s total, 5,100 ultimately qualified to vote. (Many other Taiwanese abroad spend enough time visiting the island that they don’t need to register as overseas voters.) [Source]

At TIME, Charlie Campbell reports on what is at stake for Taiwan in the election, and outlines the campaigns of President Tsai and her main opposition, populist Kuomintang candidate Han Kuo-yu:

Taiwan democratized in the early 1990s and enjoyed an export-driven boom. The island’s economy ranks 21st in the world with a GDP per capita about three times that of the mainland. It has switched from low-end manufacturing to advanced design and production for semi-conductors, AI and biotech. Still, like fellow “tiger economies” Japan and South Korea, in recent years Taiwan has fallen victim to the middle-income trap with sluggish growth and stagnant wages.

But it is relations with China that have dominated the election campaign. Last January, Xi suggested Taiwan would enjoy the same system of semi-autonomy, known as “one country, two systems,” under which Hong Kong has been ruled since its 1997 takeover by Beijing. However, ferocious and increasingly violent pro-democracy protests in the freewheeling former British colony have galvanized opposition to any such arrangement.

[…] Recent surveys show some 80% of Taiwan’s people reject political union with China. Most back the island’s current status of de facto independence, given Beijing has vowed formal secession would draw a military response. There’s also a fear that conflict with Taiwan might become an easy distraction for Beijing if its slowing economy sparks popular unrest. “That’s probably the biggest threat to Taiwan right now,” says Shelley Rigger, an East Asia expert at Davidson College in North Carolina and author of Why Taiwan Matters. […] [Source]

At Taiwan News, George Liao quotes an international relations expert on the reasons behind Tsai’s surge in popularity ahead of the upcoming vote–something that seemed nearly impossible a year ago–and notes the three options that face Beijing if Tsai wins on Saturday:

Kharis Templeman, an adviser for the Project on Taiwan at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, authored a report titled “Taiwan’s January 2020 elections: Prospects and implications for China and the United States.”

[…] Templeman attributed Tsai’s improved electoral position to the months-long protests in Hong Kong, steady economic growth in Taiwan, continuous pressure from Beijing, missteps by the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) party, potential independent rivals, and tense relations between the U.S. and China.

[…] He pointed out that China has been engaging in pressure campaign against the Tsai administration over the last four years, not only suppressing Taiwan’s international participation and ratcheting up military exercises and behind-the-scenes influence operations “but also selectively engaging with China-friendly elements of Taiwanese politics and society as well as expanding the array of benefits available to Taiwanese on the mainland.”

If Tsai wins the election, it means the failure of Beijing to achieve the strategy’s objective, Templeman said, adding that in this case, Beijing is left with a hard choice: “double down, recalibrate, or fundamentally reassess its Taiwan policy.” [Source]

See also a recent feature from Bloomberg Businessweek, where Matthew Campbell and Debby Wu outline Taiwan’s history, structure of government, historical relations with China (both nationally, and specific to the DPP and KMT parties), and warn that Taiwan’s galvanized pro-independence camp could prove to be China’s next major crisis.

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