With less than a year before Taiwan’s general elections, the threat of possible Chinese interference in the nation’s democratic mechanisms has raised serious concerns among officials and civil society. Early analyses of such meddling in the lead-up to the November 24 nine-in-one local elections, in which the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) lost much ground to the opposition Nationalist Party (Kuomintang, KMT), suggest that China has used those elections as a “trial run” and will adjust its tactics so as to maximize the impact of its influence operations in the January 2020 elections and thereby ensure a favorable outcome.
That, at least, is the narrative. Since the November elections, various meetings between Taiwanese officials and academics and their foreign counterparts have been held to discuss the growing problem of Chinese interference in Taiwan’s affairs, a challenge that includes a variety of tools such as disinformation (“fake news”), co-optation, corruption, psychological warfare, organized crime (e.g., underground gambling), and cyber attacks. Researchers share the view that China has learned important lessons from Russia’s influence efforts in the 2016 elections in the United States, the Brexit fiasco, as well as French politics. Already in November, Taiwan’s law-enforcement authorities indicated that they were investigating dozens of cases in various municipalities around Taiwan where Chinese influence appeared to be at play.
Since then, however, the public has heard precious little about whether Chinese interference indeed influenced the outcome of the elections, and if so, how and to what extent. Moreover, various foreign delegations that have visited Taiwan seeking advice on how to protect their countries against similar activities have discovered that, rather than give solutions, Taiwan is, like many other countries, in the early stages of identifying, tracking, and properly countering this threat. The idea that exposure to what likely is a pervasive threat was in and of itself sufficient to equip Taiwan to deal with the challenge has led to premature expectations on the examples and solutions it can provide to its international partners.
Part of the problem that Taiwan is facing regarding this issue is one of coordination, which remains in its preliminary stage. At the moment, a handful of government agencies, including the National Security Council (NSC), have small working groups that are studying the matter. But a whole-of-nation strategy has yet to be implemented, which likely has led to duplication of efforts. Even more serious is the lack of appropriate funding to ensure that manpower is commensurate with the nature and scope of the threat. Agencies and civil society organizations that have been given the difficult task of pinpointing and tracking Chinese influence, or that are developing smartphone applications that can flag and counter “fake news,” are seriously underfunded. In most cases, their staff can be counted on the fingers of one hand. An apparent lack of resolve, as well as strict government regulations on how much the state can compensate consultants, are two of the principal reasons that explain the state of affairs. Either the government will have to update such rules, or alternative sources of funding will have to be found, perhaps from partners abroad who recognize the contributions that Taiwan can make to the study of this now-global threat.
Taiwan has less than a year to prepare for the expected wave of Chinese influence targeting the general elections. Besides remedying the funding and staffing shortcomings identified above, the Tsai Ing-wen administration can also do a number of things to help immunize society against such external influences, or at a minimum to mitigate their effects on the nation’s democratic practices. Chief among them is education—a proper campaign aimed at the Taiwanese public that raises awareness about the threat posed by foreign interference, the means by which such interference is wielded, and what can be done to protect against their nefarious effects. While revelations by the Ministry of Justice Investigation Bureau (MJIB) in the days prior to the November 24 elections were an uncharacteristically stark warning, the paucity of details since has left many to wonder whether the threat was real to begin with, and if so, to what extent it may have influenced the outcome of the elections.
As 2020 approaches, the administration will have to make sufficient data points accessible to the public to make a compelling case about the threat posed by Chinese interference and why it is detrimental to electoral processes. In other words, at some point in the near future government agencies will have to share some of the intelligence they have collected in the course of their investigations, and package that information in a way that is comprehensible to the public. A public report, with sufficient evidence, will be necessary. The recycling of a handful of known cases and IP addresses located in China is insufficient; what is needed is proof that such efforts are directed, coordinated, and systematic. Such an endeavor also calls for cooperation with civil society and, possibly, foreign partners, from which Taiwan can learn important lessons. The paucity of details made public to date has encouraged the spread of rumors, but also skepticism and accusations by members of the blue camp (meaning pro-KMT people) that the Tsai administration and the DPP have sought to blame their poor showing in the November elections on external specters rather than more traditional causes. The reality is, the November elections were a combination of various factors, with Chinese interference ostensibly reinforcing existing trends and contradictions rather than engineering outcomes. (The interplay between local conditions and how those can be exploited by foreign actors is what needs to be identified; ignoring either of those two variables will only result in an incomplete set of measures to counter the threat).
Another area that will warrant closer attention is that of disinformation, particularly the symbiotic relationship between “content farms”—as many as 22 websites have been identified to date, a list that will certainly grow over time—and pro-Beijing traditional media whose involvement provides the “legitimization” that is necessary for “fake news” to enter Taiwan’s news bloodstream. A number of media organizations have already been identified as complicit in the spreading of disinformation, which can be damaging to the nation’s democracy and, just as important, drains precious government resources by compelling agencies to respond to and counter every instance of disinformation. This battle is inherently asymmetrical, as “fake news” require little resources and time to be disseminated, whereas governments are, by their nature, slow and beholden to various protocols, chains of command, approvals, and so on. State institutions like the National Communications Commission (NCC) will have to perform their regulatory role and intervene when necessary, such as by imposing fines, and the Legislative Yuan will have to give serious consideration to enacting new laws—crucially in a bipartisan spirit—that can protect against the corrosive effects of “fake news.” At the same time, every effort must be made to avoid a legal slippery-slope that over time can result in abuse, overreach, and censorship, which would undermine democracy and hand Beijing another victory.
Finally, the administration will need to call upon the owners of major social media platforms, including but not limited to Facebook and Line, in a manner similar to the hearings held by the US Congress after the 2016 elections. Collaboration between those tech giants and government is indispensable, both from a regulatory standpoint (enforcement) and the safeguards that those companies can be compelled to implement. On this, too, the Taiwanese government should seek to partner with like-minded countries, as the problem is not limited to Taiwan, but is an increasingly global one.
Taiwan cannot afford to remain passive in its efforts to counter Chinese interference in its affairs. Better coordination of its response strategy is essential, appropriate funding must be secured, and government agencies, as well as partners within civil society, should launch a campaign to educate the public on the nature of the threat, to make it clear that the threat is real and detrimental to the good functioning of the institutions and practices they cherish. Moreover, Taiwan cannot do it alone and must reach out to the international community, both to share its experiences with other concerned parties and to learn from their own experiences. This threat cannot be fought in isolation; authoritarian countries—China, Russia, Iran, and others—are learning from one another, perfecting techniques, and exacerbating fatigue among many democracies. The response to this challenge depends on collaboration among democracies and a reinvigorated commitment in defending the values and practices that define us.
The main point: With the 2020 general elections approaching, the Taiwanese government must launch a vigorous campaign to educate the public on the threat posed by Chinese interference and be much more proactive in how it funds, coordinates, and implements its strategy.