Taiwanese Election Weathers Chinese Influence Efforts

Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) lost its legislative majority in the country’s general election on Saturday, but its presidential candidate Lai Ching-te was elected with 40 percent of the vote. Chinese authorities met the news with censorship and distraction, and with rhetorical bluster that raised some eyebrows among Chinese social media users. The outcome was a success in that a fair and democratic election took place with a peaceful transfer of power and concession by the losing parties, demonstrating once more that Taiwan is a healthy, functioning democracy. But the election took place, as usual, under immense pressure from Beijing, which used a variety of tactics in an attempt to influence the results in its favor.

In Foreign Affairs last week, Kenton Thibaut described how China has spent at least tens of millions of dollars on influence campaigns designed to bolster non-DPP candidates in Taiwan’s elections since the beginning of Tsai Ing-wen’s presidency in 2016:

For the 2024 contest, the Chinese Communist Party has continued to spread misinformation. It is, in particular, using local proxies to spread partisan narratives that play on fears of rising cross-strait tensions. This anxiety is authentic to Taiwan: the KMT’s presidential candidate, Hou Yu-ih, has depicted the vote as a choice between “war and peace,” stating that the DPP’s moves to deepen ties with the United States and promote independence will lead to conflict. But to help amplify this message, the CCP has turned to Taiwanese businesses to suggest a DPP vote could lead to war. The Want-Want Group, for example, a Taiwan-based media company that receives subsidies from the Chinese government, has posted multiple videos praising the KMT and playing up the prospects of war. One proclaims, in its title, that the “DPP is ‘on the road’ to corruption, to war, and to danger.” Another accused the DPP of “quietly preparing for war” and spread a rumor that the DPP vice presidential candidate met with U.S. political operatives to discuss a Chinese-Taiwanese conflict.

[…] Beijing has, of course, had proxies in Taiwan for years. According to Puma Shen, a professor at National Taipei University and the former chair at DoubleThink, China’s Taiwan Affairs Office has paid for local Taiwanese officials and leaders to take luxurious trips to the mainland since at least 2019 as part of an effort to shift public opinion. In past election cycles, Taiwanese businesses with operations in China have taken money from sources linked to the Chinese Communist Party and then donated it to pro-China candidates. Such laundering helps China avoid easily being named and shamed, and when Beijing launders its ideas through proxies, China’s messaging is more likely to spread. In a February post to Facebook, for example, a former KMT politician and pro-Beijing influencer spread the false claim that the United States had a plan for the “destruction of Taiwan,” citing Russian state media. The claim was both picked up by Taiwanese media and amplified by Chinese government sources. [Source]

Stuart Lau from Politico reported on other Chinese attempts to influence the election, including the publication of fake presidential polls deceptively showing the Kuomintang (KMT) in the lead:

On December 21, Taiwan’s authorities arrested an online journalist called Lin Hsien-yuan, working for a fringe outlet called Fingermedia over a poll that — for the first time — showed the Beijing-friendly candidate on track to win the presidential election on January 13.

Taiwanese prosecutors zeroed in on the suspect polls under the democratic island’s new Anti-Infiltration Act — designed to counter Chinese interference — saying Lin’s findings were faked and orchestrated by Chinese Communist Party officials in Fujian province, on the mainland across the Taiwan Strait. The prosecutors said Lin “pretended to have interviewed or sampled more than 300 citizens” over eight rounds of polling. The so-called phone interviews, the prosecutors continued, “never took place, and he fabricated false popularity polls.” [Source]

Many of China’s election-interference efforts have occurred in the digital sphere. Taiwan’s DoubleThink Lab (DTL) released a Chinese-language report analyzing a coordinated influence campaign by overseas Facebook accounts that circulated disinformation about the DPP in order to influence the election. Joseph Menn, Naomi Nix, Cat Zakrzewski, and Pranshu Verma from The Washington Post also described how propagandists often distort existing controversies online to incite Taiwanese voters:

And rather than push their own messages, the propagandists have been encouraged to amplify authentic local disputes and divisions, said Tim Niven, head of research at Taiwan’s Doublethink Lab.

Propagandists have also been quick followers of local news, putting together clips from the most incendiary comments on talk shows and giving misleading summaries.

Generative artificial intelligence and other new tools are helping, Niven said.

Fake news videos, with AI-generated hosts and voice-overs, have circulated on YouTube, Instagram and X, according to a Taiwanese national security official’s accounts to local media in Taipei. [Source]

Domestic politics have complicated Taiwanese authorities’ attempts to neutralize these threats. As Brian Hioe explained at New Bloom, “taking action against Chinese election interference is difficult when advocacy for unification is an acceptable view in the political spectrum, and this can be framed as election interference.” Nick Aspinwall wrote at Foreign Policy that Taiwanese government officials under the DPP have thus adapted their strategies for combatting disinformation

“If you want to curb disinformation by legal measures, it’s difficult and dangerous,” said Yachi Chiang, a professor at National Taiwan Ocean University specializing in intellectual property and tech law. It “opens a pathway for the government to control speech.”

[…By contrast, Taiwan’s successful communication during the COVID-19 pandemic] helped politicians realize that “you can’t count on laws to tackle disinformation,” Chiang said. “You need to create your own information.”

“Free speech is not the cost but the key to counteract disinformation,” said [Tzu-wei Hung, a scholar at Taiwan’s Academia Sinica,] who noted that in 2022, Freedom House found that countries that protect free expression and have robust civic society groups do a better job at mitigating false information.

[…] Lai’s win on Saturday is not an outright victory against disinformation itself—both Chinese and domestic actors will surely continue to create confusion and distrust whenever they can. It did, however, show that Taiwanese voters can’t easily be swayed, as long as public officials do their part to communicate rapidly, positively, and honestly. [Source]

Aside from using disinformation, the Chinese government has also sought to weaponize Taiwan’s economic ties to China amid the election campaign. The Atlantic Council produced a report last November that outlined some of Taiwan’s economic vulnerabilities. Earlier last year, the Global Taiwan Institute published an issue on China’s economic coercion against Taiwan, which includes “a combination of targeted bans of select goods, broadened import restrictions, arbitrary regulatory enforcements, and sanctions of individuals and organizations” that is meant to pressure Taiwanese voters. Erin Hale at Al Jazeera described how Beijing used economic coercion just before the election:

These efforts have continued in the lead-up to Taiwan’s presidential and legislative elections on January 13. As campaign season kicked off last April, Beijing announced a major investigation into Taiwanese trade practices, ruling last month that Taiwan had unfairly imposed “trade barriers” on more than 2,000 Chinese products.

“This timeline aligns perfectly with Taiwan’s presidential election. There seems to be a clear correlation indicating China’s intention to leverage trade issues as bargaining chips to influence Taiwan’s voters’ distrust in the DPP’s governance and decrease their credibility in handling cross-Strait trade conflicts,” wrote Chun-wei Ma, an assistant professor for international affairs at Tamkan University, in a recent report on the issue.

[…] Taiwan’s government has also accused Beijing of election interference through economic coercion, such as when it ended tariff cuts on a dozen Taiwanese petrochemical imports in late December – just as voters were starting to make their final decisions.

Similar allegations were made when Beijing targeted Apple supplier Foxconn with a surprise tax investigation in November in what was widely seen as a rebuke of founder Terry Gou’s decision to run for president. [Source]

Following the election, Party journal Qiushi republished a 2022 speech by Xi Jinping that called on the CCP to do a better job of winning the hearts and minds of the Taiwanese people, stating it must “develop and strengthen the patriotic, pro-unification forces in Taiwan, oppose the separatist acts of ‘Taiwan independence,’ and promote the complete reunification of the motherland.” As Thomas des Garets Geddes highlighted in his Sinification newsletter, Zheng Yongnian, a well-known returnee political scientist and founding director of the Institute for International Affairs at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, published a commentary articulating how to promote “national reunification”

“If Lai were also to remain in power for eight years [like Tsai], the sense of alienation between the people living on either side of the Taiwan Strait would probably become even more acute.” [如果赖清德也执政8年,那么两岸人民的疏离感很可能会变得更加严重。]

[…] “To promote the resolution of the Taiwan issue in the new era, we must pay attention to innovative cross-Strait communication platforms, with a focus on the use of new media platforms, such as [China’s Instagram-like] Xiaohongshu and Douyin [TikTok], to circulate and change the identity of young people in Taiwan [流转、改变台湾年轻人的认同].” [Source]

Perhaps partly as a result of Beijing’s constant threats against Taiwan and resolve to interfere in its democracy, Western media have largely framed the election outcome through a China-centric lens, potentially reinforcing China’s role in Taiwan’s processes of self-determination, at least in the eyes of Western readers:

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