Beijing’s Anti-Taiwan Propaganda Goes into Overdrive

Beijing’s Anti-Taiwan Propaganda Goes into Overdrive

Beijing’s Anti-Taiwan Propaganda Goes into Overdrive

Besides a marked uptick in activity by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) around Taiwan in recent months, Beijing has also been increasing pressure on Taipei with a new round of propaganda, which has compounded regional tensions.

In addition to reporting and editorials seeking to undermine morale among the Taiwanese and “warn” Taipei of Beijing’s ostensible preparations for a military assault (see my previous Global Taiwan Brief, “Propaganda Drives “Massive” PLA Exercises in the Taiwan Strait”), the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) now appears to be utilizing disinformation to make the case for the use of force against Taiwan.

Most recently, aircraft spotter Golf9 (the account owner limits who can view their posts) alleged on Twitter that they had uncovered tracking information, which demonstrated that a US EP-3 ARIES II reconnaissance aircraft had flown over Taiwan’s airspace, leading to speculation that the aircraft may have landed and taken off from an airbase in Taiwan. Around the same time, in an August 14 post, the South China Sea Probing Initiative (SCSPI, 南海战略态势感知计划) alleged on its Twitter account that a US Navy EP-3 had “entered Taiwan’s airspace.”

Days later, the Chinese– and English-language editions of the Global Times picked up the alleged EP-3 incursions. Citing the SCSPI discovery, the paper referred to “the abnormal path of a US Navy EP-3E reconnaissance aircraft, which was suspected of taking off from Taiwan island.” It then warned: “If the island has made arrangements of take-offs and landings of US military jets, it is crossing the Chinese mainland’s [sic] redline to safeguard national unity. This will be very serious. If the mainland has conclusive evidence, it can destroy the relevant airport in the island and the US military aircraft that land there—a war in the Taiwan Straits will thus begin.” Following this, it added:

We suggest Beijing officially declare the “airspace” over the Taiwan island as a patrol area of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The PLA’s reconnaissance aircraft and fighter jets will perform missions over Taiwan island. These military aircraft could declare sovereignty, and could check whether there are US military planes landing at Taiwan’s airports or US warships docking at the island’s ports. If the island’s military dares to fire the first shot at the PLA’s aircraft, it will mean provocation of a war, and the PLA should immediately destroy Taiwan’s military forces and achieve reunification through military means.

Days later, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense categorically denied the claims by the SCSPI and other accounts.

Although it may look legitimate, the SCSPI upon whose information the Global Times relied on to issue its threats is in reality an initiative linked to Peking University’s (PKU) Institute of Ocean Research (IOR, 北京大学海洋研究院). The director of the SCSPI is Hu Bo (胡波), who is also director of the Center for Maritime Strategy Studies and research professor at the IOR. A substantial portion of the posts on the SCSPI website and Twitter account (the latter neither indicates its affiliation with PKU nor states that it is Beijing-based) provides systematic support for Beijing’s territorial claims over the South China Sea and Taiwan, while depicting increased US military activity in the region as intrusive and destabilizing. One of the board members of the SCSPI—which was inaugurated in April 2019—is Wu Shicun (吳士存), president of the National Institute for South China Sea Studies (NISCSS, 中国南海研究院), based in Hainan Province. Like the SCSPI, the NISCSS has served as a platform to support Beijing’s territorial claims and in recent years has succeeded in attracting a number of foreign academics (including Taiwanese) who, like their Chinese counterparts, have often echoed Beijing’s official position on its territorial disputes. In recent months, various international media outlets have quoted or cited (see also here) “research” and posts by the SCSPI. (Although not all claims by the SCSPI are disingenuous, reliance on its information by international media can help to legitimize disinformation.)

In early September, social media was abuzz when claims emerged that a PLA aircraft (reportedly a Su-35) had been shot down by a Taiwanese air defense system after it intruded into the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea. Once again, the rumors compelled Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense to rebuke the claims as “fake news” and a “malicious act.” Rumors of the shoot-down spread once more, this time on open-source intelligence (OSINT) Twitter accounts in India, which has engaged in deadly military clashes with the PLA along its border this year. The origin of the initial post has yet to be conclusively ascertained.

The conjunction of such disinformation and state-sanctioned editorials in Chinese media has contributed to an escalation of tensions in the Taiwan Strait while exacerbating the Chinese ultra-nationalist view that external “provocations” must be met with force. In a highly charged atmosphere, imagery disinformation runs and fire-and-brimstone editorials contribute to an environment in which miscalculation and accidents become likelier. The harsh rhetoric also risks making de-escalation all the more complicated.

Beijing’s threatening posture also became more belligerent on September 18 and 19, with several intrusions by PLAAF aircraft into Taiwan’s ADIZ and several crossings into the tacit median line in the Taiwan Strait. During one encounter between a ROCAF pilot and a Chinese challenger, the latter told over radio that “there is no median line in the Taiwan Strait.” The incidents coincided with a visit to Taiwan by Keith Krach, the Under Secretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment. After years of “respecting” the center line—with the exception of an intrusion in late March 2019—Beijing, though its actions, now appears to have obviated a tool which, though unofficial, reduced the risks of collisions and miscommunication in the Taiwan Strait. If sustained in future, such intrusions could be used to exacerbate Taiwan’s sense of embattlement while helping to create the impression that the Tsai administration is incapable of preventing the PLA violating Taiwan’s territory.

Beijing has not limited its propaganda campaign to efforts to compound the psychological effects of its increased military activity near Taiwan. Commenting on plans by the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) to send former Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng (王金平) as the lead representative to the Straits Forum (海峽論壇) in Xiamen, China—scheduled for September 19—state-run broadcaster CCTV in a current affairs show  Soon after the segment aired, the KMT said it was considering boycotting the forum unless CCTV apologized. Describing the segment as “unacceptable,” KMT Chairman Johnny Chiang (江啟臣) stated his party’s desire for dialogue with Beijing should not be construed as “suing for peace.” As no apology was received from CCTV, the KMT cancelled the Wang delegation. Plans for KMT officials to attend the forum as “private citizens,” including former interim party chairman Lin Rong-te (林榮德), were also scuttled. Pro-unification New Party Chairman Wu Cherng-dean (吳成典) and People First Party adviser Li Jian-nan (黎建南) attended the forum, as well as representatives from the business sector. In a news report, state-run Xinhua claimed that “nearly 2,000 compatriots” were attending this year’s forum, a number that is likely overinflated.

While the gambit has backfired in Taiwan and resulted in the cancellation of Wang’s visit, for a domestic audience in China it may have served to demonstrate that the CCP’s coercive strategy has proven beneficial and that Taipei is now begging to negotiate. The same could be said of the ostensible online reaction of Chinese netizens to the aforementioned comment by a PLA pilot that “there is no median line.” The CCTV “incident” may therefore also have been intended as a means to put pressure on Chiang, who is regarded by many elder KMT stalwarts and Beijing as too moderate, and too keen on reforming the party, for their liking. The KMT’s decision to boycott the forum could mean that more conservative forces within the blue camp—including the Huang Fu Hsing (黃復興) faction, which recently expelled one of its members, reportedly for remarking that it was “treasonous” for the faction’s top chief to say that he would rather Taiwan be taken over by the CCP than for the DPP to be re-elected in 2024—could conspire to sabotage Chiang’s chances of securing his hold on the party chairmanship next year. Optimally for Beijing, a more pliable party chairman who is more amenable to working with the CCP would replace Chiang next year. Among the potential candidates for party leadership is former presidential candidate Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜), who has received the solid backing of the Huang Fu Hsing and other conservative factions within the blue camp.

Besides causing frictions within the KMT and potentially undermining Chiang’s ability to control his party, the CCTV incident could also aim to increase polarization within Taiwanese society by depicting the Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) administration’s supposed refusal to engage in dialogue with Beijing (due to its “obstinacy” in not recognizing the so-called “1992 Consensus”) as the principal reason for heightened tensions in the Taiwan Strait. On September 13, Xavier Chang (張惇涵), a spokesman for the Presidential Office, urged the KMT to “uphold national dignity” and refrain from participating in the forum in Xiamen.

Photo courtesy of the Straits Forum

In its 12th year, the Straits Forum is widely understood to serve as a platform for United Front and political warfare elements, aimed at bringing together various individuals and organizations from the Chinese and Taiwanese side. The KMT’s refusal to participate could be construed as further evidence that the party is no longer a partner for the CCP in its efforts to secure unification. Besides causing pressures to replace Chiang with a more amenable chairman, this turn of events will likely compel the CCP to work more closely with smaller parties, independent candidates, civic organizations and the business sector. The “loss” of the KMT as a willing partner may also embolden those in China who argue that “peaceful unification” is now impossible and that use of force is the only way to bring the Taiwanese to heel.

The main point: Beijing is ramping up its propaganda on the military and political fronts to create an atmosphere of crisis while trying to further polarize Taiwanese society. Besides the usual victims, the current KMT chairman could also be a target of the CCP.