As Elections Near in Taiwan, China’s Interference on the Rise
With the 2018 local elections less than a month away, clear evidence of China’s growing interference in Taiwan’s elections are on the rise. On November 24, voters in Taiwan will go to the polls to vote for their city mayors, councilors, magistrates, town chiefs, and other representatives. While not a national election that will directly impact the presidency or the balance of power in the island-democracy’s Legislative Yuan (i.e., Congress), the results of the local elections will provide an important signal of both the vitality of the major political parties and serve as a bellwether for the 2020 presidential and national legislature elections. With seemingly so much on the line and toss-up races in the mix, the two major political parties are going ‘pedal-to-the-metal’ in their efforts to mobilize and woo undecided supporters. Against this milieu there have been growing reports that China is directly interfering in Taiwan’s political process through the spreading of fake news (假新聞) and employing other direct measures.
In a recent interpellation before the Legislative Yuan, the director of Taiwan’s Ministry of Justice Investigation Bureau (MJIB), which is the equivalent to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), revealed that it has received 33 pieces of intelligence, which indicate that China is interfering in the island’s November 24 elections. Leu Wen-jong (呂文忠), the new head of MJIB, stated that they have evidence that China is interfering in Taiwan’s elections through vote-buying schemes, donating money to candidates’ campaigns, and inviting influential community leaders to tour China. Moreover, Leu claimed that the money from China was coming from the PRC State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office.
Taiwan is not the only democracy whose elections China is ostensibly interfering in. International concerns about China’s interference in the elections of democracies was thrown into sharp relief recently when President Donald Trump, at the UN Security Council meeting, accused China of interfering in the upcoming US midterm elections, which will be held on November 6. “Regrettably, we’ve found that China has been attempting to interfere in our upcoming 2018 election coming up in November against my administration,” President Trump said on September 26. “They do not want me—or us—to win because I am the first president ever to challenge China on trade,” he added. The president later substantiated his claims by pointing to the Chinese state-sponsored China Daily inserts in Iowa’s Des Moines Register that were railing against the Trump administration’s trade policy.
The heightened attention towards foreign election interference is occurring against the backdrop of the national security communities in multiple democracies growing concerns over China’s “sharp power.” Among the other tools in China’s “sharp power” toolkit are information operations, which include propaganda and disinformation. As the US National Security Strategy (NSS) explicitly stated: “Rival actors use propaganda and other means to try to discredit democracy. They advance anti-Western views and spread false information to create divisions among ourselves, our allies, and our partners.”
Highlighting the challenge, President Tsai underscored her administration’s determination to tackle this shared challenge of disinformation in her third National Day Speech on October 10:
For cases involving systematic dissemination of disinformation from specific countries, we will strengthen cross-border collaboration. That includes not only experience sharing, but also setting up monitoring and notification mechanisms, so that together, we can respond to any damage or negative impact that disinformation has on social stability in various countries.
Reports of China’s direct interference in Taiwan’s elections have been coupled with an increasing tide of fake news, misinformation, and even disinformation in Taiwan’s information landscape, which are disrupting public life. Some sources of such information have been attributable and traced back to “content farms” (內容農場), social media accounts, and IP addresses based in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Other more traditional albeit indirect measures taken by the Chinese government include co-opting Taiwan’s traditional media outlets, for instance, a media report supposedly citing information from MJIB stated that two major media outlets from Taiwan and an online public opinion company have received “benefits” from China and published polls and news content with favorable positions towards China.
This long-standing malaise was thrust into Taiwan’s public square during the controversial pension reforms debate last year as Taiwanese netizens and users of a popular messaging began receiving a flood of messages and were pushed to websites carrying false claims about the central government’s plans. Taiwan’s national security authorities attributed the source of the fake news to a growing number of “content farms” based in the PRC. Additionally, a more recent example threw into sharp relief how the “poison” of disinformation could have deadly consequences. Fake news that was circulated about a Taiwanese envoy’s alleged failure to assist Taiwanese tourists stranded at a Japanese airport after a Typhoon struck in September led tragically to the diplomat committing suicide. The source of this fake news was reportedly traced to an IP address in Beijing and attributed to a Chinese government task force.
In the midst of the ongoing US-China trade war, the United States and Taiwan signed an agreement for the latter to import soybeans from the United States, then reports raising health concerns over GMO soybeans from the United States began circulating in Taiwan’s social media. While the claims about their adverse, if not catastrophic, health effects have been debunked by civil society and the government, it has not yet been determined whether the Chinese government was behind the disinformation campaign. Nevertheless, it is worth pointing out that CCP propaganda has also been directed against America’s soybean farmers with the focus of weakening domestic support for Trump’s trade policy.
Taiwan’s diplomacy is also being complicated by Chinese disinformation. According to Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu, a widespread but false media report that one of Taiwan’s diplomatic ally was about to switch ties in May was traced back to a social media account based in the PRC’s Hebei province. The Foreign Minister added that a real-time news clarification webpage set up by the government, which had to respond to 820 suspected fake news reports in 2018 alone, represented only the “tip of the iceberg” of the problem. The Foreign Minister admitted that “with the advent of new technology, disinformation and falsehoods are spreading faster than ever—in many cases faster than we can clarify.”
In related news, an article published by Mirror Media (鏡週刊) referenced a “Critical Report” (關鍵報告)—the veracity of which has been corroborated by another source—based on intelligence shared with the Taiwan government by like-minded countries. The Report pointed out that an external power is attempting to shape public opinion in Taiwan through information operations, with the aim to weaken the ruling party in the two years leading up to 2020 presidential election. The objective of the information operation is reportedly to undermine the trust between the Tsai government and the people as well as the military. The article also revealed that this external power will or has formed an “information warfare unit” (信息戰部隊) with the goal of supporting a pro-Beijing regime in Taiwan in 2020, and the local elections will be training ground for this disinformation war.
The United States and Taiwan are strengthening cooperation to combat fake news and disinformation. On October 18-19, US State Department Deputy Assistant Secretary Scott Busby attended an international workshop held in Taipei co-organized by the American Institute in Taiwan and the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office under the auspices of the Global Cooperation and Training Framework (GCTF). In his keynote address, Secretary Busby noted:
Taiwan also knows all too well how a determined external actor with hostile intentions can place enormous strain on democratic institutions through various influence tactics, including disinformation. As our Vice President noted recently: “The Chinese Communist Party shapes the information environment by rewarding or coercing American businesses, movie studios, universities, think tanks, scholars, journalists, and local, state, and federal officials.”
The main point: As elections near in Taiwan and the United States, China’s interference is on the rise. The United States and Taiwan are working together to combat fake news and disinformation.
Update: Since the publication of this article, the veracity of the “Critical Report” referenced by Mirror Media has been corroborated by another source.
Yushan Forum: A Platform to Showcase the “Taiwan Model”
On October 11-12, politicians, community leaders, academics, and social entrepreneurs from across the Indo-Pacific region and the world gathered in Taipei for the 2018 Yushan Forum (玉山論壇) organized by the newly established Taiwan-Asia Exchange Foundation (臺灣亞洲交流基金會). The Forum included eight panels focused on a wide range of issues from talent cultivation, industrial innovation, regional agriculture, medical and public health cooperation, civil society, think tanks, youth leaders and cultural institutions.
The 2018 Yushan Forum, which was attended by more than 1,000 participants over the course of two days, featured 51 representatives from 17 countries, including international leaders such as Nobel Peace Prize laureates Frederik Willem de Klerk and Kailash Satyarthi. Modeled in form after the Shangri-La Dialogue, the Asia-Pacific Roundtable, and the Raisina Dialogue, the Yushan Forum, according to the conference organizer, is intended to become an international platform focused on enhancing social connectivity and progress and to help bolster Taiwan’s “New Southbound Policy.”
Under the banner of “Working Together for Regional Prosperity,” President Tsai Ing-wen highlighted in her opening keynote at the Forum that, “coupled with the growing demand for inclusive growth and sustainable development in the world, we need more cooperation between Indo-Pacific societies, to take collective actions and shape our future together.”
Touting the success of her administration’s “New Southbound Policy,” which aims to increase economic and people-to-people engagement with 18 countries in South Asia, Southeast Asia, and Australasia, Tsai noted that over 41,000 students from New Southbound countries went to study in Taiwan in the first half of 2018 with the government aiming to attract 48,000 students in 2019. At the same time, the number of Taiwanese students studying in target countries increased by nearly 20 percent. Also, more than four million tourists from New Southbound countries went to Taiwan in the last two years. On the economic and trade front, the government and private firms signed a total of 69 MOUs and letters of intent for cooperation with the New Southbound countries. In 2017, bilateral trade between Taiwan and New Southbound countries grew by around 15 percent year-on-year. Taiwan investment in those countries also rose by 54 percent, while approved investment by partner countries into Taiwan also increased by around 15 percent.
While the Forum was mostly focused on economic and other practical areas of cooperation, speakers did not shy away from pointing out the importance of Taiwan’s democratic model. As former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Thailand, the Honorable Kasit Piromya, stated, Taiwan is “second to none” for its dual developments as a full-fledged democratic country and as an advanced, economically developed entity. He implored Taiwan to not be “shy” that it is an open and democratic society, while China is trying to convince its neighbors that it is better to have an authoritarian government for social and economic development. To be sure, the “China Model,” which attributes China’s economic growth to an exceptional model of social and economic development, is not simply an economic model but encompasses politics and the global balance of power—and at the center of it includes a powerful one-party state and a massive state sector.
The former Thai foreign minister was not the first to point out that China is promoting its system abroad. As journalist Richard Mcgregor also observed:
Increasingly, China is promoting its system as an alternative to Western democracy, something that was rare even five years ago. Mr. Xi now talks about the “China solution” for a world facing political and financial turmoil. In place of such uncertainties, which Beijing blames on the West, Mr. Xi lauds China’s “wisdom” of global governance. [… ]What Mr. Xi is really promoting is something else: the idea that authoritarian political systems are not only legitimate but can outperform Western democracies.
The rise of revisionist authoritarian states’ is leading to a competition of models in economic, social, and political developments in the world. China’s “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) initiative, which was launched in 2013 with the stated aim to connect major Eurasian economies through infrastructure, trade, and investments worth an estimated $1 trillion over 10-15 years, is, as Nadège Rolland assesses, “to build a Sinocentric Eurasian order in which Beijing’s influence and power have significantly expanded, authoritarian regimes have been consolidated, and liberal norms have receded.” The New Southbound Policy and the Yushan Forum present a stark contrast to the PRC’s OBOR initiative, and the United States sees Taiwan as a partner in the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy. As noted at the Yushan Forum by US Ambassador Atul Keshap:
Ample opportunity exists for Taiwan-South Asian cooperation in the areas of entrepreneurship, public health and women’s empowerment. For example, Taiwan can collaborate with Bangladesh to expand into electronics manufacturing, or partner with Sri Lanka develop its Information Technology sector, or collaborate with India to develop high value/high trust supply chains. The US can be a partner in these efforts through the Global Cooperation and Training Framework and there are no doubt many more avenues for mutually beneficial cooperation. Such efforts will forge additional Indo-Pacific linkages, boost prosperity and trade, enhance security, and help the aspirational people of South Asia taste even more of the prosperity of the modern world. For this vision to become a reality, it is absolutely vital and essential that all of us strive to ensure a Free and Open Indo-Pacific for the next 70 years and beyond.
The competition in the Indo-Pacific region and around the world is between “models” of social, economic, and political developments. How emerging nations develop will help shape the narrative of the world’s future. As a forum for enhancing social connectivity within the region, the Yushan Forum has the potential to become the international platform to showcase the free and open model for social and economic development: a ‘Taiwan Model.’ The United States, Taiwan, and like-minded partners should use all tools to counter the authoritarian model and narrative for development. In the process, as President Tsai stated at the end of her speech: “Taiwan can help Asia, and Asia can help Taiwan.”
The main point: The Yushan Forum provides a good platform to showcase the ‘Taiwan Model’ that can complement the model given by other countries to provide an alternative to the China Model of development.