Analysts of China’s political warfare and propaganda operations targeting Taiwan have sought to quantify the real impact that such nebulous activities have on perceptions and political preferences among the Taiwanese public. While some such operations no doubt have succeeded in shaping the information environment in Beijing’s favor, the substantial investment by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)—both in terms of financial expenditure and human capital—has hardly created conditions that are conducive to achieving the regime’s ultimate end vis-a-vis Taiwan—“peaceful unification.” This apparent contradiction raises interesting questions about the principal target and intended audiences of CCP’s “sharp power” operations against Taiwan.
Despite the plethora of united front activities, support for unification among the Taiwanese has continued to drop while self-identification as Taiwanese, along with a desire to maintain Taiwan’s liberal-democratic institutions and way of life, has risen steadily. Those views no doubt have been exacerbated by recent developments in Hong Kong, where the shortcomings of the “one country, two systems” formula—with Beijing as first among equals—have become all the more salient. In fact, in several instances, Chinese “sharp power” activities appear to have been counterproductive, alienating the Taiwanese public rather than “brainwashing” them or breaking their will to resist; in other occasions, Taiwanese have merely shrugged off those efforts, if not ridiculed them altogether.
The question analysts need to ask themselves, therefore, is why, after several years of deploying such tactics against Taiwan, the CCP still persists in utilizing such instruments against Taiwan if the return on the investment appears to be so little?
Part of the answer lies in the angle from which analysts look at CCP influence operations in the context of Taiwan as well as in other countries. Studies of Chinese “sharp power” against Taiwanese society and government institutions have overwhelmingly looked at this phenomenon from the perspective of CCP efforts to undermine Taiwan’s defenses and thereby engineer conditions that are favorable to the end goal of unification/annexation. The fact that such studies have focused on the interference aspects of such activities is perfectly understandable, and no doubt such objectives act as a key motivator for their continuation and refinement over time. Elite capture, co-optation, corrosive capital, dis/misinformation, the fragmentation of society, triads, and financial support for politicians and candidates who are amenable to Beijing’s intentions, all have had some success in eroding the democratic firewall that has long helped defend Taiwan against the CCP’s hostile intentions.
Beijing, for example, has scored major successes in shaping a large share of Taiwan’s media environment, finding in those conglomerates willing partners in a strategy of censorship, dis/misinformation, and propaganda aimed at promoting unification and improving the odds of preferred politicians. Beijing has also used the size of its market and its capital to compel Taiwanese businesses and several members of the entertainment industry, PR firms, and film distributors, to self-censor or to regurgitate CCP propaganda on Taiwan. Taiwan’s intelligence and law enforcement agencies, which are charged with identifying and monitoring such hostile activities, chief among them the National Security Bureau (NSB, 國家安全局) and the Ministry of Justice Investigation Bureau (MJIB, 法務部調查局), are also overwhelmed, suffering from lack of investment and recruitment of operatives that was not proportional to the size of the threat. This became particularly an issue during the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration (2008-2016), when his efforts at rapprochement opened up various sectors of Taiwan’s society to Chinese investment, an opportunity that the CCP undoubtedly did not fail to exploit.
The degree to which such activities have been successful in fundamentally altering the balance of perceptions in the Taiwan Strait, however, is much in doubt. While buffeted by such hostile efforts, Taiwanese society has proven to be surprisingly resilient. When necessary, the government has intervened or implemented new regulations to counter CCP political warfare. Additionally, when the government failed to take appropriate action, such as in 2011/12 amid efforts by suspected Beijing proxies to acquire media outlets in Taiwan (e.g., Youth Alliance Against Media Monster, 反媒體巨獸青年聯盟), or in 2014 over a controversial Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement (Sunflower Movement, 太陽花學運), Taiwan’s civil society stepped in to compel the government to change its policy. In some cases, such as the Sunflower Movement, the actions of civil society had a direct impact on the careers of uncooperative participants and created dynamics that influenced future elections.
Beijing’s insistence on perpetuating United Front Work efforts against Taiwan regardless of their outcome—poor results or even, on some occasions, counterproductive—can be attributed to a combination of factors, among them an inability to comprehend the dynamics of a democratic society, resistance to change, as well as opportunism on the part of the institutions in China that benefit financially from the campaign against Taiwan (the same can be said of the People’s Liberation Army, or PLA, which no doubt has used the unresolved conflict over Taiwan as a key argument for obtaining larger budgets and the development/acquisition of modern combat capabilities).
One other possibility for Beijing’s continued reliance on “sharp power,” which has not received as much attention but could certainly account for its perpetuation—notwithstanding the poor and counterproductive results—is the fact that the principal target of such operations, or a secondary target just as important as the primary one, is not in fact Taiwan, but rather the Chinese public, the CCP, and its affiliated institutions. In other words, to truly comprehend the rationale behind CCP political warfare, it is essential that analysts look at such efforts for their value as an instrument of propaganda aimed at a domestic audience.
Although every Chinese leader and CCP general secretary since Mao Zedong (毛澤東) has made it a “core principle” to annex Taiwan, no leader has made this achievement such a cornerstone of his ideology as has Xi Jinping (習近平). In fact, Xi has staked his credibility (and survival as a political figure) on his ability to “rejuvenate the Chinese nation” and to secure China’s “rightful position” within the community of nations. Unifying Taiwan, an objective that, in his view, his predecessors have failed to give sufficient importance, lies at the center of his ambitions, even if recent developments, such as the crisis in Hong Kong and the trade war with the United States, have gotten in his way. Xi’s ambitions have furthermore been accompanied by a renewed emphasis on ideology, which while helpful in mobilizing the masses also creates higher expectations of the CCP’s ability to deliver on its promises.
One consequence of this dynamic is that Xi and his CCP henchmen have painted themselves into a corner when it comes to China’s plans for Taiwan: hubris and unbridled nationalism. These characteristics of Xi’s worldview and key pillars of his legitimacy have created false expectations on the issue of unification, blinding the CCP leadership, and much of the Chinese population, to the fact that Beijing’s plans have been failing miserably. No combination of sticks and carrots by Beijing, from incentive programs to military coercion, has succeeded in arresting, let alone overturning, the trends in Taiwanese society which militate against a takeover by their authoritarian neighbor. Having oversold his ability to resolve a “core issue” that his predecessors had neglected, Xi now finds himself in an uncomfortable position. Sweeteners and punitive action, the full array of Chinese “sharp power,” aren’t working. The problem with dictators—especially dictators who are feared rather than loved by those around them, as is arguably the case with Xi—is that they cannot admit that they are wrong, or that their entire policy platform has been a mistake. Given the high pitch of CCP ideology concerning Taiwan and the repeated references to the historical inevitability of unification, no CCP leader could ever turn around to face his counterparts and state that they were wrong, that efforts to annex Taiwan have been fruitless.
The only alternative to admitting defeat, therefore, is to engage in deception, to use propaganda to maintain the illusion that things are moving in the right direction. This explains why incidents in which famous Taiwanese politicians or members of the entertainment industry publicly state their allegiance to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and their ethnicity as Chinese receive so much attention in Chinese media and social media, when in fact the impact on Taiwanese society is negligible and quite possibly counterproductive. That is perhaps why the CCP continues to insist that only a small number of Taiwanese from the reviled Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), along with malicious foreign forces, stand in the way of eventual “peaceful” unification. And this also explains why the Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) and other CCP organs have repeatedly inflated statistics concerning the number of Taiwanese who have chosen to take advantage of the 31 and 26 incentive programs offered by China—the aim here being to demonstrate to the Chinese public that the Taiwanese cannot wait to reap the benefits of work in China, which of course in the CCP playbook is tantamount to support for “rejoining the Motherland.” With information in China under strict control and heavily censored, the general Chinese public is led to believe that the situation in the Taiwan Strait indeed is moving in the “right” direction and that the Taiwanese are fully embracing China. The alternative, of course, is unacceptable to the CCP, and the Chinese cannot become cognizant of this inconvenient fact.
Another—and not unrelated—element that helps explain why political warfare is such an important instrument of propaganda for domestic consumption is the possibility that Xi remains convinced that the ultimate option to resolve the “Taiwan issue”—the use of force by the PLA—is too premature or would have catastrophic consequences for his grand ambitions. Propaganda, this time aimed at the PLA and other agencies in the national security establishment, therefore becomes necessary to quiet those voices calling for a more drastic course of action against Taiwan. Only progress, or in this case the illusion that things are progressing, can help counter forces that, if they prevailed against the current narrative, would in the process demonstrate that Xi’s entire Taiwan policy since 2012 has been a failure.
The main point: While Chinese political warfare aims to corrode democratic institutions in Taiwan and create opportunities which can be exploited to help realize Beijing’s ambitions on unification, much of its raison d’être is also attributable to the need for the Chinese Communist Party to convince the Chinese public that things are moving in the right direction—despite all the evidence to the contrary.