The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is engaged in a concerted information operations (IO) campaign on a global scale in an attempt to influence governments and voters in democratic states. Given Taiwan’s position as one of the primary targets of Chinese influence operations, it should not be surprising that its local elections in November 2022 were not spared. The PRC’s well-documented interference in the country’s 2018 and 2020 elections underscores the growing challenge facing all democracies from authoritarian sharp power. Such measures will likely expand in the lead-up to the island democracy’s January 2024 presidential and legislative elections.
Several Taiwan-based research organizations, such as Doublethink Lab (台灣民主實驗室) and the Information Operations Research Group (IORG, 台灣資訊環境研究中心), have publicized their assessments on the PRC’s modi operandi during the local elections. A careful study of these tactics as exposed by these studies will help to inform other countries about the PRC’s evolving strategies, techniques, and procedures in disseminating propaganda and disinformation.
This article seeks to highlight the key findings of some of those research studies, specifically spotlighting the case of Zhonghua Weishi (中華微視), also known as China Micro Vision (hereafter “Micro Vision”). Micro Vision is a global Chinese media outlet whose proxy within Taiwan saw its offices searched in November by Taiwanese authorities, on grounds of deliberately amplifying PRC disinformation and propaganda in the local elections. Micro Vision has local intermediaries in other countries and should be considered a vector for Chinese information operations campaigns.
Chinese Information Operations in Taiwan’s 2022 Local Elections
According to Doublethink Lab—a leading Taiwan-based research and advocacy organization focused on Chinese information operations—there are three key findings based on their analysis of Chinese IO activities targeting the 2022 local elections: 1) influence operations were less readily visible than those observed in 2018 or 2020; 2) the method employed by the PRC was different, in that it focused on issue amplification rather than targeted support or attacks; and 3) the operations worked to undermine US credibility by focusing on issues such as semiconductors.
During a public seminar discussion hosted by the Global Taiwan Institute (GTI) in late November 2022, Poyu (Fi) Tseng (曾柏瑜), the deputy CEO of Doublethink Lab, offered several hypotheses for why there was ostensibly less Chinese influence in 2022 when compared to the previous elections. Specifically, she speculated that: 1) the 20th Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Congress may have created a delay due to “uncertainty in the chain in the command”; 2) the pandemic created less vectors for influence, as united front agents were unable to interact with local collaborators due to travel restrictions; 3) pandemic-induced economic decline may have led to lower budgets for subversive activities; and 4) there was not a stand-out preferred candidate in Taiwan to target for information operations support during the local election. Moreover, Doublethink researchers found that these information operations shared several key characteristics. There were four IO narratives covered during the local elections: 1) cultural unification; 2) attacking Taiwan government integrity; 3) attacking US credibility; and 4) the promotion of China’s interpretation of the “One-China Principle.”
Facebook fan pages (粉專) were a prominent vector for Chinese information operations during the local elections. One such page highlighted by Doublethink was “Taiwan Headlines” (兩岸頭條, @taiwanheadlines), which reported on the accidental breaking of some historical Chinese ceramic artifacts at the National Palace Museum (故宮博物院) in Taipei, an institution that contains some of the world’s most treasured Chinese artifacts. These claims were later amplified by PRC state-run media outlets as efforts by the authorities to “de-Sinicize” Taiwan.
According to IORG, the top 20 most frequently posted content on these fan pages mostly came from major local news sources, with content farms the second largest source, followed by YouTube. For instance, the content farm “Mission” (密訊), which had been exposed in 2019 as a major source of Chinese disinformation, was banned from sharing news on Facebook, but later resurfaced using a different domain name. Lin Shao-hong (林玿弘) of IORG pointed out that although news articles from content farms may not be read by many people—and had little to no influence in the 2020 local elections—they can nevertheless influence the algorithms that affect the popularity of related news items on Facebook, and thereby increase the prominence of specific issues. Researchers refer to this phenomenon as “fertilization” of related online discussions.
For the purposes of their recent study, IORG purportedly analyzed eight million Chinese-language Facebook fan posts, 6,000 news articles in Taiwan, 800,000 Weibo articles and other data, 2,000 Chinese official statements and official media articles, and 50,000 Tik Tok (抖音) videos. In doing so, they found that “war” and “epidemic” were the two main axes for information manipulation in the 2022 local elections. Notably, these operations focused heavily on the theory of the United States abandoning Taiwan.
Another distinctive feature of Chinese IOs during the local elections found by researchers was that there did not appear to have been any particular favored candidate that such campaigns supported. This represented a notable departure from the 2018 and 2020 elections, when Chinese IO campaigns boosted the candidacy of Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜). Instead, the 2022 operations focused on attacking the ruling government and the United States’ credibility by focusing on COVID-19 and the Taiwanese semiconductor giant TSMC (台積電) through a series of propaganda and disinformation campaigns issued by CCP-affiliated organizations and Chinese state-run media outlets. The attacks argued that the ruling Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP, 民主進步黨) COVID-19 policy had failed and that it was selling out TSMC to the United States. These narratives were reportedly being promoted by the Communist Youth League (中國共產主義青年團), the United Front Work Department (中共中央統一戰線工作部), CCTV (中國中央電視台), the Global Times newspaper (環球時報), and Weibo writers.
In one case thoroughly investigated by Taiwanese authorities, several social media fan pages were found to be amplifying news that included the tragic drowning of people in the southern metropolis of Kaohsiung, suggesting that the situation in Taiwan was chaotic and hopeless. Taiwanese investigators found that at least one local company was being used as a proxy of China- and Hong Kong-based media companies, with possible ties to the Chinese government. Indeed, one Taiwan-based company was suspected by Taiwanese investigators of amplifying fake news on Facebook fan pages such as “Zhonghua Weishi” (中華微視, @Chinavtv) and “Taiwan Headlines,” which the Ministry of Justice Investigation Bureau (MJIB, 法務部調查局) has identified as receiving funding from the PRC government.
The Case of Micro Vision and its Global Footprint
In a particularly telling case of the PRC’s sophisticated propaganda and disinformation operations, MJIB investigators have alleged that the Taiwan-registered China VTV Co., Ltd. (中華微視股份有限公司) and its owners Tsai Yue-ting (蔡岳廷) and Chang Chiao-lin (張巧琳) were instructed by Chinese partners to establish the media company in Taiwan in 2017 to promote audio-visual content from the China- and Hong Kong-based companies. These Chinese partners also assisted in the operation and management of the Facebook fan pages of “China Micro Vision” (中華微視), as well as its YouTube channel.
According to a public release issued by the MJIB, the Taiwan-registered company signed a “strategic cooperation agreement” with the China-based “Micro Vision Network Technology Jiangsu Co., Ltd.” (大陸微視網絡科技江蘇有限公司) and the Hong Kong-based China VTV Holding Co., Ltd. (香港中華微視有限公司). Taiwanese investigators uncovered that the agreement between the Taiwan-based China VTV Co., Ltd. obligated the companies in China and Hong Kong to provide 3 million RMB (roughly USD $434,000) in exchange for a 67 percent share in the Taiwan-registered company. The Taiwanese company also allegedly received 500,000 RMB (roughly USD $72,000) in 2017 from the PRC companies.
Standing at the nexus of this sprawling web of Zhonghua Weishi media organizations is Song Tijin (宋體金). Song is a Chinese media magnate who Taiwanese investigators claim had ties to the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA). According to public records, Song joined the PLA in 1981 and began work in the media after retirement—although any further involvement and ties with the PLA could not be independently verified at the moment.
Taiwanese authorities further determined that the Taiwan-based China VTV Ltd. was attempting to incite public alarm by spreading fake news, as exemplified by one article entitled “Japan readying evacuation of its citizens from Taiwan due to an emergency in the Taiwan Strait.” While media co-optation is already a well-known tactic employed by the PRC, more troubling is the fact that the amplification of this propaganda and disinformation was facilitated by a paid local intermediary of PRC companies that attempted to conceal its ties with the Chinese companies by setting up several shell companies to evade disclosure requirements. The owner of the Taiwan-based company reportedly confessed to the alleged crimes.
Interestingly, according to publicly available information, the media companies owned and operated by Song, such as the Hong Kong-based China VTV Holding Co., Ltd., have branches or local intermediaries in mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, the United States, Malaysia, and Australia. In fact, one was even listed as an over-the-counter (OTC) security (i.e., a security that is not listed on a major exchange, but rather traded via a broker-dealer network) in the United States (under symbol CVTV) as recently as 2019. Although the company is listed as a Hong Kong entity, the locus of its activities appears to be in Xuzhou in Jiangsu Province, where Micro Vision Network Technology Jiangsu Co., Ltd. is headquartered.
Notably, in 2019 Song also legally became the executive officer of the US-registered China Microvision (美國中華微視) operating under the name of China VTV Limited. According to a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the company was incorporated in Nevada in 2015 and was formerly known as T-Bamm. As a holding company, the company has not carried out substantive business operations within the United States, although the website’s YouTube page indicates that it has a technical research and development platform located in Los Angeles, as well as business development agreements with other companies. Song became the head of the US-registered company through a reverse merger with the Hong Kong-based China VTV Ltd., which became a wholly owned subsidiary of the US-based China VTV Limited. Song, as chairman of the parent board, was then appointed as the principal and CEO of the parent company. Wang Yatao (王雅韜) and Meng Liqiang (孟立強), the co-founders of the Hong Kong-based China Micro Vision, then joined the board of directors of China VTV in the United States.
Based on data from 2019, China VTV is the first Chinese online and television media company listed as an OTC security in the United States. Across its various platforms, the media company boasts a worldwide audience of 3.5 million. With the help of the US-based CVTV, the company appears to be using the US entity and its access to international capital to help financially support its global operations and enhance its credibility with international partners. According to public reporting, China Micro Vision is focused on the internet TV user market in Chinese communities outside the PRC and in countries along the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI, formerly known as One Belt, One Road, 一帶一路).
Front row, left to right: Li Tai-yi (李泰毅) [second from left], Chin Yan-I (金宴儀) [third from left], Song Tijin (宋體金) [fourth from left], Wang Yatao (王雅韜) [second from right], Meng Liqian (孟立強) [first from right] in Xuzhou, Jiangsu Province. (Image source: Line)
While there did not appear to be a substantively new method of Chinese IO deployed in Taiwan’s 2022 local election—most of the observable activity followed similar models observed in the past—the case of Micro Vision reveals a more subtle and difficult to detect vector of IOs that is worthy of further analysis. This particular method exposes the growing sophistication of China’s information operations network, since the organizations’ ties to the central government or Chinese Communist Party (CCP) are less discernable. Combating these new tactics will require not only looking at national- and state-level actors, but also provincial actors and their local intermediaries in the target country.
As noted by Doublethink, the methods deployed in the local elections involved what researchers there described as the “Pink Mode,” in which IOs were largely controlled at the local government level and disseminated through marketing agencies with highly specific target audiences—often using social media outlets such as Weibo, Wechat, livestreaming platforms, YouTube, and Facebook. In terms of capital flows, they were characterized as small, decoupled, and mostly online.
It should be noted that the leadership of the Jiangsu- and Hong Kong-based media outlets in question—Micro Vision Network Technology Jiangsu Co., Ltd. and China VTV Holding Co., Ltd.—are highly inter-related. In particular, Song serves as vice chairman of the former and is the principal executive officer of the latter, whereas Meng serves on the board of directors of the former. These relationships underscore the expansive infrastructure and resources available for Chinese information operations. Indeed, the company had used the US-registered company to purchase additional media companies in Taiwan—ostensibly in an effort to heighten its credibility, as well as obfuscate connections with its original mainland precursors and bankroll its foreign influence operations. While the local Taiwan branch, China VTV Co., Ltd., has been shut down for having undeclared financial support from China and conducting a disinformation campaign to create social division and mistrust in Taiwan’s government, this is likely only the tip of a larger iceberg. It is possible that the China-based company will work to cultivate ties with other Taiwanese businesses, allowing it to reestablish a presence on the island.
Taiwanese investigators concluded that the owners of the Taiwan-based China VTV Co., Ltd., had taken instruction from company executives in China to establish and operate programming for social media produced by outlets in Beijing and Hong Kong in what MJIB described as “propaganda efforts.” It is plausible then to expect that the company’s operations in the United States and other countries may also be conducting similar activities. Moreover, with the acquisition by Hong Kong-based China VTV of the US-based China VTV, the method it is using to target Taiwan may also be used to target the Chinese diaspora in the United States and elsewhere.
The main point: China is expanding its global media footprint and utilizing a sophisticated web of companies with relationships with local media intermediaries, in order to spread disinformation and propaganda into local markets.