Since the election of President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) in 2016, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has been ramping up political, diplomatic, economic, and military pressure on Taiwan. In response to the island’s refusal to accept the “one country, two systems” (一國兩制) model for unification, Beijing has taken steps to influence public opinion in Taiwan through overt intimidation and covert influence tactics. Forces friendly to Beijing are suspected to have been the primary actors attempting to influence Taiwan’s local elections in 2018 and the national elections in 2020. What lessons can Taiwan draw from the previous two elections to better defend against China’s interference in its democracy?
These observable covert attempts to interfere with Taiwanese elections have primarily been categorized into four types of activities: courting of Taiwan’s media; creation of inauthentic online trends; liaison work and coordination with pro-Beijing elements based in Taiwan; and use of financial means to sponsor these local actors. These influence activities played a significant role during the 2018 local elections, leading to victories by several pro-Beijing mayors and local officials. In the 2020 national elections, these methods were identified and countermeasures were taken by Taiwan’s government, political parties, and civil society. Partially as a result of this, pro-Beijing candidates suffered a major defeat and were not successful in taking the legislative majority or the presidency.
An evaluation of Taiwan’s current ability to counter Beijing’s influences—which prominently changed Taiwan’s political landscape in 2018 and 2020—will provide insights into how Taipei can strengthen its resilience ahead of the 2022 local elections.
2018: Taiwan’s Democracy under Assault
The 2018 local elections represented a victory for the opposition Kuomintang (KMT, 國 民 黨 ) party, which won several mayorships and majorities in local legislatures. The KMT’s campaign—which centered around a conservative, pro-Beijing platform—was effective on its own. However, several mayoral candidates also received support from local actors with varying ties to Beijing.
The most significant source of influence exerted by actors tied to Beijing was the Want Want China Times Group (旺旺集團有限公司), which supported several pro-China mayoral candidates through news channels CTi TV (中天電視) and China TV (中國電視), as well as in print media via the China Times (中國時報). CTi TV’s partisan reporting—which has resorted to spreading disinformation on many occasions—along with its heavy focus on promoting the campaign of KMT mayoral candidate for Kaohsiung Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜) in 2018, led Taiwan’s National Communications Commission (NCC, 國家通訊傳播委員會) to issue fines against the network.
Simultaneously, “Chinese cyber operatives” created fake Facebook profiles and administered fan groups in support of Han Kuo-yu ahead of the 2018 election. These operatives and online trolls frequently circulated “talking points” and disinformation to harass Han’s electoral opponent.
Disinformation spread via broadcasting, print, and social media were amplified by local pro-Beijing elements in Taiwan. The Chinese Unification Promotion Party (CUPP, 中華統一促進黨), the most prominent of these elements, plays an important role in performing liaison between the PRC government and local actors in Taiwan. CUPP Members have collaborated with administrators of disinformation networks known as “content farms” as early as 2014. Beijing likely funds these actors through financial means hidden from Taiwan’s government. Chang An-lo (張安樂), founder of the Bamboo Triad (竹聯幫) and president of CUPP, allegedly accepts such funding to support his pro-Beijing political activities and to make illegal campaign contributions in Taiwan.
The combination of these influences, in addition to powerful lobbying efforts by other conservative actors in Taiwan not connected to Beijing, contributed to a major victory for the KMT at the local level in 2018. In the aftermath of the election, several of the newly elected KMT mayors acted on their promise to strengthen ties with Beijing. In particular, Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu met with CCP officials at the Hong Kong and Macau Liaison Office as well as the Taiwan Affairs Office during a visit to Hong Kong in March 2019.
Additionally, in April 2019, Taichung Mayor Lu Shiow-yen (盧秀燕) defended her decision to permit the China Council for the Promotion of Peaceful Reunification (全球華僑華人促進中國和平統一大會) to hold a panel featuring Li Yi (李毅). Li, a prominent promoter of armed annexation of Taiwan by the PRC, was deported from Taiwan following the publicity surrounding his appearance.
2020: Taiwan Democracy Stands its Ground
The 2018 election and ensuing events stirred anxiety in Taiwan, leading to responses from Taiwan’s civil society, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP, 民進黨)-led central government, and within the DPP ranks. In particular, a strong public sentiment against disinformation and organizations with ties to Beijing grew between the 2018 and 2020 elections. Financial ties between the Want Want China Times conglomerate and its connection to the PRC government from as early as 2007 were revealed and publicized in 2019. A subsequent report by the Financial Times confirmed the close level of collaboration between China Times and the PRC Taiwan Affairs office, which “called every day” and had discretion over what appeared on the front page of the print publication.
In a bid to fight foreign-sourced, targeted advertisements used to influence Taiwanese voters via social media, DPP legislators and the Taiwan government worked with Facebook to introduce a database revealing all online ad expenditures prior to the 2020 national election. In mid-2019, Taiwan’s cabinet—led by Premier Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌)—introduced new measures and funding to empower social media managers representing government ministries to dispel disinformation within a four-hour window. Within the Ministry of Justice Investigation Bureau (MJIB, 法務部調查局), a Counter-Disinformation Center (假訊息防制中心) was also established in September 2019. DPP officials were particularly active in responding to and publicizing disinformation attacks, and frequently pointed to China as the source of these attacks. When MJIB’s Counter-Disinformation Center identified a China National Radio (中央人民廣播電台) reporter operating a viral YouTube disinformation campaign in October 2020, the DPP youth wing countered using viral memes and infographics. Outside of the Taiwan government, disinformation-fighting organizations such as CoFacts, MyGoPen, and Taiwan Factcheck Center also gained prominence by checking viral posts for disinformation, and providing real-time verification services and plug-ins for the social media app Line.
Nevertheless, pro-Beijing united front (統一戰線) work continues, as the Chinese Unification Promotion Party has worked to expand its membership within religious organizations. Although CUPP head Chang An-lo was charged with making illegal campaign contributions and funneling Chinese capital through his son’s travel firm in August 2019, CUPP members have continued to take aggressive actions towards opposition elements. This has included dousing visiting Hong Kong activist and singer Denise Ho with red paint in September 2019 and unsuccessfully attempting to hold a rally in Taipei celebrating the PRC National Day on October 1.
Unlike in 2018, when the DPP government was caught by surprise, the party took significant steps ahead of the 2020 election to counter disinformation and foreign influence within Taiwan’s government. As a result, the DPP both secured the presidency and held onto its legislative majority, decisively defeating the KMT and only losing a few seats to third party candidates. In the aftermath, Taiwan’s democracy received an upgrade in rating by The Economist Intelligence Unit, rising from a “flawed democracy” in 2019 to a “full democracy” in 2020.
Looking Ahead to 2022: Pointing Out the Risks
With the local elections coming up in 2022, Taiwan continues to face numerous risks. Although travel restrictions and changing political norms have lessened the impact of Beijing’s influence, they have not been completely eliminated. Populism, which was a powerful factor during the 2018 local election when combined with disinformation, has returned once again, as political parties have increasingly sought to use recalls and by-elections to take down opposition politicians outside of the typical election cycle. There is also less visibility into China’s influence operations at the local level.
Disinformation itself appears to be less of a direct threat, owing to a whole-of-society approach primarily headed by Digital Minister Without Portfolio Audrey Tang (唐鳳), Premier Su, DPP party officials, and Taiwan’s civil society. However, distinguishing and taking down media networks that have worked with Beijing remains difficult.
Cooperation continues between social media companies and the Taiwan government to fight disinformation and introduce regulations on targeted political ad expenditures. Notably, several of Facebook’s policies on Taiwan’s 2020 election were later adopted during the 2020 United States election. Nevertheless, much work remains necessary to combat united front work in Taiwan.
Beijing is also flexing its economic power by circumventing regulations intended to protect against influence in Taiwan’s internet marketplace, which faces a flood of Chinese investments and entry attempts by companies that are not legally permitted to operate in Taiwan. Though the Ministry of Economic Affairs has been able to block attempts by Alibaba’s Taobao and iQIYI to set up an office in Taiwan, the ministry has not been able to prevent these services from circumventing regulations by operating online.
Of China’s four categories of influence operations, Taiwan has made the most progress in curbing Chinese social media influences and limiting the courting of traditional media outlets by Beijing. United front activities and Beijing’s economic pressure, however, continue to undermine and influence Taiwan from within. To continue to effectively defend Taiwan against all four types of foreign influence, Taiwanese legislators will need to offer creative and forward-looking responses while working to redefine Taiwan’s relationship with Beijing, particularly in terms of economic ties. This will be a politically difficult task, given the outdated definitions in Taiwan’s constitution—and a high bar to modify the articles of the constitution.
With referenda voting slated to happen in December 2021, a year before the 2022 local elections, competition and mobilization among political parties have already begun. With the rise of social media use in politics, politicians are now working to perpetually mobilize their supporters, regardless of election cycles. There are several key issues that will likely be debated prior to the 2021 referendum, including the import of US pork, US-Taiwan relations, cross-Strait security and trade, Taiwan’s changing demographics, and energy security. These discussions will be a preface to the 2022 local elections. In order to safeguard these crucial elections, Taiwan’s government will need to continue to keep up its policy communications with the public, and keep a watch on any populist activism inspired by disinformation or pro-Beijing elements in Taiwan.
The main point: Taiwan rapidly adapted to countering foreign influence between the 2018 and 2020 elections, but it will have to continue to reinvent itself in order to counter illicit influences ahead of the 2022 local elections.