Lessons from Taiwan: Enduring PRC Media Infiltration – Part Two: The Civil Shield

Lessons from Taiwan: Enduring PRC Media Infiltration – Part Two: The Civil Shield

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Lessons from Taiwan: Enduring PRC Media Infiltration – Part Two: The Civil Shield

Editor’s Note: This is the second article in a two-part series on PRC media infiltration in Taiwan. Part one (“Assessing Taiwan’s Media Landscape and PRC Influence, Part One: The Dangers of Deregulation”) appeared in our July 12, 2023 issue, and covered the means by which the Chinese government has sought to exercise influence over Taiwan’s media institutions. This second installment delves into the innovative ways that Taiwan’s civil society is fighting back.

As a primary target of influence operations by the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Taiwan’s media industry constantly contends with unsanctioned deals and unfaithful actors. As described in part one of this series, the country’s economic dependencies and regulatory troubles have left its media ecosystem acutely vulnerable to PRC influence. Over 90 percent of Taiwanese media companies currently do business in China, and even more are controlled by conglomerates with interests in the Chinese market. Critical coverage of China and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP, 中國共產黨) is thus severely limited by potential economic retribution.

Yet, Taiwan remains resilient. As evidenced by an exemplary handling of misinformation during the COVID-19 pandemic, public awareness has helped to cultivate an array of innovative non-governmental organizations (NGOs) able to both work with the government and offset its deficiencies. Taiwan’s media landscape remains treacherous, but the island now boasts some of the globe’s most experienced veterans in defending against cognitive warfare. In an era of increasingly unconventional conflict, wherein Beijing continues to expand its influence, Taiwan offers a wealth of experience from which to learn.

Overreach and the Development of Public Awareness

Wielding its vast influence over Taiwanese news media, China chooses critical moments to ramp up the offensive. Perhaps the most prominent example of this occurred during Taiwan’s 2020 presidential election, in the course of which the CCP channeled media support toward the Kuomintang (KMT, 中國國民黨) candidate—Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜)—while simultaneously fueling false rumors about incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文). A report by Doublethink Lab (台灣民主實驗室) found that CCP-connected news outlets spent disproportionate amounts of time covering Han, while others used unvetted content from CCP-connected social media accounts. After the election, a different report found that 80 percent of voters had heard the unsubstantiated claim that Tsai had plagiarized her doctoral dissertation, among other similar rumors.

Another notable flex of PRC media muscle took place as COVID-19 peaked in Taiwan. Major TV news channels repeatedly broadcasted falsehoods about public safety measures, vaccines, and Democratic Progressive Party (DPP, 民主進步黨) governance. Foremost among these was Chung T’ien (CTiTV, 中天電視), a large network with well-documented ties to the Chinese state. The campaign was meant to have a destabilizing effect by forcing Taiwan’s government to simultaneously battle to contain two contagions: the virus itself, and the outbreak of disinformation surrounding it.

Spikes in Chinese manipulation, however, have a history of backfiring. Instead of achieving their apparent goals—whether that might be a certain election outcome, or decreased faith in the democratic system—they can end up raising public awareness and solidifying Taiwanese resolve. President Tsai won the 2020 election in an unprecedented landslide, while the PRC’s efforts to support Han Kuo-yu were widely publicized. Han returned to Kaohsiung and faced Taiwan’s first-ever mayoral recall, wherein 97.4 percent of voters chose to remove him. (Han’s recall was not entirely due to his ties with China, but they certainly played a role.) Similarly, during the COVID-19 crisis, destabilizing coverage by Beijing-backed actors was reported on extensively by both domestic and international outlets. Meanwhile, Taiwan was universally commended for its successful pandemic response. Both occasions generated a swarm of media attention. More importantly, however, they—along with a suite of other incidents—expanded the Taiwanese lexicon, normalizing phrases such as cuojia xunxi (錯假訊息, “mis- and dis-information”) and hongse meiti (紅色媒體, “red media”).

Instances of overreach by China’s influence actors throughout the past decade—paired with the steady consolidation of Taiwan’s media industry—have resulted in a Taiwanese populace primed to recognize biases and fight disinformation. Awareness of PRC operations is extremely high, and almost three out of four Taiwanese people believe that news media should be regulated to address CCP propaganda, according to a 2021 poll.

Engaged Citizens, Inventive Solutions

With such an engaged population, innovation is inevitable. In the past decade, Taiwan’s vibrant civil society has produced droves of high-quality NGOs that participate in every stage of the media dissemination process. Together, these organizations compose a formidable, multi-layered shield against foreign influence. [1]

Protecting society from willfully biased journalism begins with, predictably, the journalists. To this end, The Foundation for Excellent Journalism Award (FEJA, 卓越新聞獎基金會) aims to “set a benchmark for ethics and professionalism in journalism.” [2] FEJA holds an annual forum on journalism in Asia, hosting journalists from all over the Mandarin-speaking world. Notably, the 2023 meeting was titled “News Coverage amid US-China Geopolitical Rivalry,” and featured events with titles such such as “How to avoid influence of certain narratives.” Along with the Association for Quality Journalism (優質新聞發展協會) and Taiwan FactCheck Center (臺灣事實查核中心), FEJA also hosts an annual workshop on fact-checking and investigative reporting, the 2020 theme of which was Beijing’s information warfare. These organizations provide a prestige incentive to produce quality journalism—as well as spaces for journalists to learn, hold each other accountable, and establish a shared system of values.

Other organizations have also emerged to counter China’s ever-present financial weapons. The China Impact Studies Research Team (中國效應主題研究小組) at the Academia Sinica Institute of Sociology, the Economic Democracy Union (經濟民主連合), and researchers at Doublethink Lab each track PRC money flows, and report on activities found to be Chinese-funded. Meanwhile, others are devising new funding structures to insulate news organizations from outside intervention. For instance, The Reporter (報導者), founded in 2015, does not accept advertisements or political funding. Instead, it is supported by 6,000 individual monthly donors—none of whom are allowed to interfere with news coverage or hold a position on the board of directors. In 2022, The Reporter won awards from FEJA, the Society of Publishers in Asia, and more for their independent reporting on China’s treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, human rights abuses in the deep-sea fishing industry, and other sensitive topics. In terms of audience size, however, The Reporter still cannot compete with players that enjoy a significantly greater market share. However, its success—both in terms of funding and journalistic ethics—is a valuable proof-of-concept.

The final layer of defense lies in teaching the consumer to proactively confirm facts and avoid bias. As a result of the efforts of organizations like the Taiwan FactCheck Center—which, in 2021, received a USD $1 million grant from Google as part of its “Intelligent Taiwan” initiative—media literacy workshops have become extremely popular and are held across the country. The FactCheck Center, together with a multitude of similar NGOs, strives to form a “fact-checking ecosystem,” wherein civilians have all the tools, resources, and motivation necessary to stay responsibly informed. Media education has also proven an effective arena for civil society-government collaboration. For instance, the Ministry of Education (MOE, 教育部) provides funding for schools, public libraries, and the National Education Radio (NER, 國立教育廣播電台) station, empowering them to consult with these NGOs on potential media literacy courses.

The measures enacted by Taiwan’s civil society are by no means perfect. Taiwan is, after all, subject to a constant barrage of disinformation and influence attempts from a global superpower, and no shield is impenetrable. But, under the direst of circumstances, they have performed admirably and demonstrated workable blueprints in virtually every area of media protection. As COVID-19 cases and Chinese influence operations simultaneously surged in 2021, Taiwan’s civil network showcased its remarkable resiliency. Through fact-checking campaigns, PRC operation tracking, media literacy education, and government collaboration, these organizations fought pandemic misinformation at every turn. Amidst a storm of destabilization attempts, Taiwan’s traditionally low trust in media rose during the pandemic.

Lessons for the World

No country in the world faces more intense PRC influence efforts than Taiwan. Almost all nations, however, must contend with the threat in some capacity. In Freedom House’s 2022 Beijing Global Media Influence Index, 26 of 30 countries studied had been targeted by Chinese influence efforts that were designated as at least “Notable,” while 16 countries experienced influence operations deemed “High” or “Very High” in levels of effort. The United States, in particular, is tied with the United Kingdom in its level of received Chinese influence efforts—and both countries trail only Taiwan.

In this area, the primary lesson global democracies can draw from Taiwan is that, when facing foreign influence attempts, determined NGOs have the capacity to far outstrip any government action. Government restrictions on media—society’s most important watchdog—have worrisome implications, as detailed in part one. Nonprofits, conversely, are agile, decisive, and largely free from such controversy. When properly supported by a highly informed public, civil organizations can go where the government cannot and innovate where the government is stuck.

Herein lies the most difficult part of implementing this crucial lesson: properly expanding public awareness so as to facilitate the emergence of quality NGOs. In Taiwan’s case, public awareness rose semi-autonomously thanks to a series of concrete, highly publicized incidents, such as visible instances of election meddling and media takeovers. Ideally, other nations would preempt those events by building up their defenses before hostile influences over the media environment grow serious. Doing so, however, will require a more proactive, intentional approach to awareness-building.


Taiwan is not a perfectly representative model for the rest of the world, but its experience in combatting hostile influence efforts is valuable. The United States, in particular, faces unique challenges, such as its polarized political climate. Nevertheless, Taiwan’s dynamism in fending off PRC media infiltration should serve as a blueprint for all. Taiwan has shown that motivated civilians are a crucially important component of comprehensive national defense. More than almost any other foreign policy challenge, building a media-literate society must begin at the roots, not through top-down government action. Democracies looking to counter PRC media infiltration should focus on nurturing a robust civil sphere and promulgating education about Taiwan, rather than on controlling information.

The main point: In the face of widespread PRC media influence, Taiwan’s civil society has developed a range of innovative counter-techniques, gaining valuable insights and experience along the way. The United States—or any nation looking to emulate Taiwan’s success—should focus on building public awareness through education, and should look to Taiwan as a valuable model and partner in the ongoing struggle against foreign manipulation.

[1] Many of the following NGOs were studied thanks to the copious amount of information gathered by Freedom House in their Beijing Global Media Influence Report.

[2] “為新聞倫理及新聞專業建立標竿,” translated by author.

[3] The Reporter was founded partially by Ho Jungshin (何榮幸), formerly of Want Want Media’s China Times (中國時報). He resigned after Want Want’s attempt to take over China Network Systems (中嘉網路), levying criticism at the company through a cryptically worded essay in Apple Daily.