Taiwan’s national security apparatus recently confirmed that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is adjusting its strategy for cognitive warfare against Taiwan, with an increasing focus on creating a new front by cultivating internet celebrities (網紅). In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has at least temporarily interrupted traditional channels for cross-Strait exchanges—long the primary conduit for United Front work–Chinese officials are apparently turning to the training of online celebrities and internet broadcasters, ostensibly in a bid to woo Taiwanese youths for propaganda and influence operations.
National security officials on the island have reportedly noted that Beijing was unhappy with the results of Taiwan’s 2020 national election, in which incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP, 民進黨) resoundingly won re-election. The international community has become increasingly critical of the PRC for concealing the original outbreak of the COVID-19 virus, and highly complimentary of the Taiwanese government’s pandemic prevention; this, coupled with the continued deepening of US-Taiwan relations, has compelled Beijing to adjust its approach of cognitive warfare against Taiwan.
This shift is most apparent in the recent modification in China’s use of “agents” ( 代理人) of influence to support its targeting of Taiwanese businessmen, compatriots, youths, and spouses of PRC citizens (陸配). This new approach reportedly emphasizes individuals living in the PRC in order to reduce political sensitivity, with the goal of winning the attention of Taiwanese people. Seemingly hoping to exploit the acceleration in the development of the internet economy caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Beijing appears to be taking advantage of its vast e-commerce market to lure Taiwanese social influencers and subsequently utilize them in the United Front strategy to promote unification with Taiwan.
The cultivation of Taiwanese internet celebrities is aimed primarily at influencing public opinion within Taiwan. To this end, China has started to use “Taiwanese amateur influencers” (台灣素人楷模) as propaganda tools by having them promote China’s narratives. By encouraging these individuals to “speak good words for China,” Beijing hopes to use Taiwanese people to influence their peers, ultimately reducing the population’s resistance to cognitive warfare.
This new push by Beijing to win the hearts and minds of Taiwanese youth is likely intended to counter the growing trend of Taiwanese citizens identifying as “Taiwanese”—a group which represented 64.3 percent of the population in 2020. This phenomenon has been especially pronounced among younger Taiwanese, who make up a significant segment of the electorate. According to Academia Sinica researcher Nathan Batto, approximately 74 percent of the age 20-29 cohort voted in the 2020 elections for Tsai Ing-wen. Notably, this demographic came out in droves in 2020, markedly increasing its turnout from the 2016 elections.
There are several channels for this new propaganda effort. One notable channel is being spearheaded by United Front-affiliated entitites such as the All-China Federation of Taiwan Compatriots (AFCTC, 中華全國台灣同胞聯誼會). A Party-affiliated group that is part of the CCP’s United Front system and focuses on Taiwanese living in the PRC, the AFCTC has been headed by Huang Zhixian (黄志贤) since 2017. Previously, the group was led by Wang Yifu (汪毅夫), Xi Jinping’s (習近平) deputy when he served as governor of Fujian province. Wang now heads the National Society of Taiwan Studies (全國台灣研究會), a prominent academic United Front outfit. Huang previously served as the vice chairman of—and remains a member of—the Taiwan Democratic Self-Government League (台灣民主自治同盟), a United Front political party.
The “Cross-Strait Youth Internet Celebrity Anchor Competition” (海峽兩岸青年網紅主播大賽)—an event targeting influencers held in August 2020—was jointly hosted by the Fujian All-China Federation of Taiwan Compatriots (福建省台灣同胞聯誼會), the Xiamen All-China Federation of Taiwan Compatriots (廈門市台灣同胞聯誼會), the Xiamen Daily Newspaper (廈門日報社), the Xiamen Association of Taiwan Compatriots Investment Enterprises (廈門市台商投資企業協會), and the China Construction Bank Xiamen Branch (中國建設銀行廈門分行). The AFCTC, the Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO, 國務院台灣事務辦公室), and the Chinese military’s General Political Department/ Liasion Departent (GPD/LD, 總政治部聯絡部)—which has been folded into the Central Military Commission—have cooperated on Taiwan-related propaganda efforts since 2002.
Another channel for this new propaganda approach is found directly through the local Taiwan business associations in the PRC. For instance, the Hangzhou Association of Taiwan Investment Enterprises (杭州市台灣同胞投資企業協會) based in Zhejiang Province is promoting the “Training Thousands of Taiwan Youth Anchors” (千名台青主播培養), a program that is planned to run from August 2020 to 2022. The initiative is aimed at recruiting Taiwanese youth, college students, and entertainers located in both the PRC and Taiwan, and hosts 10 sessions with a goal of attracting 100 attendees for each session. Each training period is five months long and comprises a total of 24 online courses, which reportedly include tutorials on developing short videos, producing live shows, attaining online celebrity status, and live broadcasting and line delivery, among other courses. The program is complemented by the “Young Internet Celebrity Anchor Training Camp” (青年網紅主播達人研習營), which will reportedly provide professional training for youth participants, as well as guidance on employment and entrepreneurship to attract more Taiwanese youth to participate in related activities.
These programs are also being organized by local Taiwan business associations, possibly to help attract more Taiwanese participants. These associations—according to their own charters—are required to abide by the “‘One-China Principle’ and support national unification” (遵守一個中國原則，擁護國家統一). It is also worth noting that the National Association of Taiwan Investment Enterprises on the Mainland (ATIEM, 大陸全國台胞投資企業聯誼會) serves as a lobbying group for Taiwanese businesses both in China and in Taiwan. ATIEM unsuccessfully tried to lobby the Taiwanese government to change a law that barred citizens from taking positions in state or party bodies in China, such as the Chinese People’s Political Consultive Conference (CPPCC, 中國人民政治協商會議).
National security officials in Taiwan have also recently warned the public about the use of a popular app that could allow China’s spy agencies to harvest biometric information from users. The Chinese app Quyan (去演), which is becoming increasingly popular among Taiwanese youths, uses a photograph uploaded by the user to edit their face onto actors in popular television dramas. Quyan was developed by Shenzhen Xinguodu Intelligence Co. (深圳新國度智能有限公司), also known as Nexgo, which creates hardware and software for processing electronic payments, including biometric services. According to a national security official cited by the local media, the app poses a “grave security threat.”
While this new line of efforts seems designed mainly for propaganda purposes, the CCP’s use of the internet and other digital technologies for malign purposes—such as for the spreading of disinformaton and other covert activities—have also been increasingly publicized in recent years. Taiwan has long been ground zero for testing out many of these tactics—including those that may seemingly be benign, but in fact possess ulterior motives. It is undeniably worthwhile for other countries to pay attention, since these operations may also be applied to influence their own populations.
The main point: As the COVID-19 pandemic has grounded traditional channels for cross-Strait exchanges, Chinese officials are cultivating online celebrities in a bid to woo Taiwanese youths for propaganda and influence operations against the Taiwanese government.