This is the first part of a two-part series on PRC media infiltration in Taiwan. Part one covers the sources and symptoms of Chinese media influence, while part two will delve into the innovative ways that Taiwan’s civil society is fighting back.
It will likely come as no surprise that Taiwan sits on the frontline against efforts by the People’s Republic of China (PRC, 中華人民共和國) to manipulate global media. In fact, both Freedom House and the Taiwan-based Doublethink Lab (台灣民主實驗室) place it at the top of their respective Beijing media influence indexes. Taiwan’s relatively unregulated media environment has opened avenues for ”united front work” (統一戰線工作), which quietly (and, sometimes, not-so-quietly) leverages China’s economic advantages to shape coverage. The Taiwanese government, meanwhile, struggles with bureaucracy and political indecision. In its place, third-party actors have a unique opportunity to step in, regulate, and help preserve journalistic integrity.
Proliferation and Conglomeration
After decades of strict control by the ruling Kuomintang (KMT, 國民黨), independent media in Taiwan experienced an explosion in the 1990s. The number of newspapers in circulation ballooned from 31 in 1987 to over 2000 in 2006, while legislation in 1993 allowed hundreds of local, regional, and international television channels to reach audiences across Taiwan. By the early 2000s, Taiwan had become one of the most media-friendly societies in the world, boasting around 80 percent cable penetration.
But as the media industry erupted, it quickly became evident that its proliferation was largely one-dimensional. Rather than representing a diverse set of companies with different backgrounds and motivations, Taiwan’s media landscape had been divided into several large blocs, which were frequently traded between conglomerates. This process accelerated in 2005, when the KMT sold large chunks of media stock in response to new government policies. Their cache included controlling stakes in the Chinese Television Company (CTV, 中國電視公司), Broadcasting Corporation of China (BCC, 中國廣播公司), Central Daily News (CDN, 中央日報), and Central Motion Pictures Corporation (CMPC, 中央電影事業股份有線公司). Together, these comprise some of the oldest and most influential media companies in Taiwan. Instead of selling to various parties, however, the KMT transferred the vast majority of shares to the China Times Group (中國時報集團). This trend has continued through the modern day: Taiwanese media groups rarely trade small amounts of stock, but rather swap chunks of market share.
The (Sort-of) Invisible Hand
Taiwan’s overall economic dependence on China has left its media vulnerable to exploitation. A survey from the mid-2000s found that over 90 percent of Taiwanese media companies did business in China, a figure that has likely grown—and 30 percent of the businesses that had not expanded into China expressed an expectation to do so in the near future. Further, most media enterprises are owned wholly or in part by multinational corporations with significant business interests in China. This largely aligns with broader economic trends, as China and Hong Kong combine to command 22 and 42 percent of Taiwan’s import and export markets. This reliance has encouraged many Taiwanese media companies to engage in self-censorship, lest they damage business relations across the strait. A 2019 survey of 149 journalists found that 29 percent had self-censored, while almost 50 percent reported having been ordered by a higher-up to reduce coverage of sensitive issues.
In addition to self-censorship, Taiwan’s media landscape is littered with under-the-table deals that allow for direct PRC narrative control. Content produced by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP, 中國共產黨) regularly finds its way into local media through paid advertorials, co-production deals, or content-sharing agreements. This content may give no indication of origin, and has generally been vetted and edited by Taiwanese journalists to appear native. The aforementioned 2019 survey found that 20 percent of respondents had worked on illegal advertising projects, while one editor reported that a Kaohsiung-based newspaper was publishing Chinese state-produced media on a daily basis.
The most acute economic vulnerability, however, comes not from the media companies themselves, but from their sibling businesses. Formosa Plastics Group (臺塑企業)—which claims to be the largest conglomerate headquartered in Taiwan —has its own media company, and in 2021 saw USD $11.8 billion in revenue from its companies in China. Meanwhile, China Network Systems (CNS, 中嘉網路), the largest cable provider in Taiwan, is controlled by Ting Hsin International Group (頂新國際集團). The largest subsidiary of Tsin Hsin is Master Kong (康師博), which dominates the instant noodle and beverage markets in China while performing 99 percent of its business there. The hugely popular TVBS is owned by Cher Wang (王雪紅), whose HTC Corporation (宏達電) primarily manufactures in China and partners with Chinese state-owned businesses.
These firms are cognizant of the dangers associated with any actions that may offend the Chinese government. In November 2021, they watched as the Taiwanese conglomerate Far Eastern Group (FEG, 遠東集團) received a USD $74.4 million fine from Beijing, and its chairman was compelled to publish an article emphasizing the organization’s anti-independence stance. The fine was widely seen as retaliation for FEG’s contributions to the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP, 民進黨).
In all of the PRC influence-peddling across Taiwan’s corporate domain, nothing is so blatant as that of Want Want Holdings (旺旺集團) and its outspoken chairman Tsai Eng-meng (蔡衍明). The former richest man in Taiwan is infamous for speeding around in his bright red corporate jet, and declaring his excitement for the inevitable unification of Taiwan and China. His snack behemoth is focused on China (as Tsai has reportedly remarked, a snack company “needs mouths”), and his media empire includes CTV, Chung T’ien Television (CTiTV, 中天電視公司), and the newspaper China Times (中國時報).
Image: Want Want Holdings Chairman Tsai Eng-meng appearing at a May 2012 hearing held by the National Communications Commission about his acquisition bid for multiple cable television channels. Want Want has since become one of the largest media conglomerates in Taiwan, with its outlets pushing pro-PRC messaging. (Image source: Taipei Times)
Upon entering the Want Want family, all three outlets took a sharp pro-CCP turn. Academic analysis found that in the five years after being acquired, China Times—one of the largest newspapers in the country—reduced its coverage of human rights issues in China by over two-thirds. Even when the paper speaks on controversial topics, it often takes cues from the CCP: a 2015 paper found that 100 percent of China Times reports on Xinjiang were based on Chinese state media. Editors have learned to stay quiet: one former senior editor remembers threatening calls from an official at China’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO, 国务院台湾事务办公室), while another was fired after allowing criticism of a Chinese official to reach publication. Multiple sources, including the Financial Times, have also reported that employees at Want Want Media receive direct instructions from the TAO. While Tsai has repeatedly raised defamation claims to suppress such reporting, he has always either lost or withdrawn the suit. Perhaps most damning of all, the PRC spy-turned-defector Wang Liqiang (王立強) named Tsai specifically as a close co-conspirator in CCP attempts to sway Taiwanese mainstream opinion.
The Politics of Regulation
Government attempts to control the media’s rapid consolidation have been marred by weak enforcement and partisan accusations. President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) landmark Anti-Infiltration Act (反滲透法) contains some powerful counters to foreign interference, but only within the realm of political campaigns; it cannot be used to combat the broader issue. As a supplement, the DPP drafted a foreign influence transparency act that would help cover activities outside campaigns by requiring certain actors to disclose their funding sources. However, the KMT blocked this effort by parliamentary procedure, citing language within the bill that referred to “the government of Taiwan,” a legally problematic phrase in a nation whose constitution defines it as the Republic of China. The bill has also been criticized as an invasion of privacy and an infringement on the free market. It remains sidelined.
Two more Tsai Administration initiatives aimed at throttling disinformation were derailed by KMT-led public backlash. One would have fined internet platforms (social media, online publications) for failing to remove “harmful” content, and the other would have allowed the government to impose jail time on spreaders of disinformation. Both measures would have left the definition of disinformation to government agencies, a dynamic perceived by the opposition as a serious threat to free speech and healthy disagreement.
The National Communications Commission (NCC, 國家通訊傳播委員會) was established in 2006 as an ostensibly non-partisan regulatory body. It has had some success, most notably in blocking Want Want’s attempted acquisition of China Network Systems (CNS, 中嘉網路) on monopolistic grounds. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the NCC also shut down CTiTV for repeatedly broadcasting vaccine disinformation. (CTiTV still runs a highly successful YouTube channel).
Since its inception, however, the NCC’s effectiveness has been continuously impaired by partisan conflict in the Legislative Yuan. Representatives from both parties routinely criticize the organization for perceived impartiality, its every action scrutinized for potential political implications. This leaves the NCC handicapped, only able to take the most meager of steps in either direction. Take its efforts to draft a generalized anti-monopoly act, for instance. Pressure from the left necessitated the act’s genesis, while protests on the right dulled its edge. The product was a proposed bill that blocked satellite TV mergers resulting in average ratings reaching 15 percent or more. Ratings for any single channel in Taiwan rarely break 12 percent, leaving many unconvinced that the bill would block any merger deals. As a result, the KMT opposed the bill’s existence, while the DPP was unmotivated by its toothless nature. The proposal was left to gather dust in the Legislative Yuan.
Some obstacles in the fight against PRC media control are purely political. This is to be expected in a democracy as vibrant and competitive as that of Taiwan. There are, however, some legitimate issues underpinning the conflict. The proper response to monopolistic entities is a high-level question with genuine arguments on each side. Restricting the ability of individuals to control a diversified set of businesses (say, a snack company and the China Times) is a dangerous political line. A government definition of “harmful information” certainly has ominous undertones. All of this is to say that Taiwan‘s government must tread carefully, and is unlikely to make substantial progress on this issue anytime soon. Thus, the onus has increasingly fallen on the civilian sphere. In the next article in this series, we will uncover how non-governmental organizations have become the defenders of a free media in Taiwan, and what they have to teach the world.
The main point: Taiwan’s economic vulnerabilities and politicization of media regulation have left it exposed to PRC infiltration. Conglomerates with major business interests in China control large proportions of the media landscape, while a combination of legitimate debate and partisan bickering has kept the government sidelined. To protect journalistic integrity, Taiwan must rely on its robust civil society.