Wednesday, October 23, 2019 from 12:00 PM – 1:30 PM at the Global Taiwan Institute
Taiwan stands on the frontlines of threats from China’s “sharp power,” or malign authoritarian influence that takes advantage of the island’s open democratic system to build support for China. Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council said in July that the Chinese Communist Party has stepped up its United Front work and efforts to infiltrate Taiwan since January of this year, following Chinese President Xi Jinping’s hardline speech on reunification with Taiwan. Beijing has conducted an aggressive political propaganda campaign in Taiwan, through its penetration into Taiwan’s information and political environments. In this information war, Chinese agents have sought to influence Taiwanese political actors and society through the distortion of information on social media and other platforms — all to ultimately benefit Chinese interests and objectives. What are the channels of China’s disinformation chain in Taiwan? How has Taipei responded to China’s malign efforts to influence and manipulate Taiwan’s democratic system? And how can the United States and Taiwan best cooperate to counter threats emanating from China’s “sharp power”?
Panelists are Puma Shen from National Taipei University in Taiwan, Gary Schmitt from the American Enterprise Institute and Christopher Walker from the National Endowment for Democracy. GTI Research Fellow I-wei Jennifer Chang will moderate the panel. Join GTI on October 23 for a discussion on U.S.-Taiwan cooperation against China’s sharp power. This public seminar is part of the Civil Society and Democracy Series, which is partially funded by the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy.
The event will take place at the Global Taiwan Institute, located at 1836 Jefferson Place Northwest, Washington DC 20036.
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Puma Shen is vice president of Taiwan Association for Human Rights (TAHR), focusing heavily on the Right to Privacy and track privacy violations locally. He is a lawyer, an assistant professor at National Taipei University, and also an expert in the field of white-collar crime, including state crime and financial crime. Dr. Shen’s article on China’s disinformation chain has been circulated widely among academics and the Taiwanese society in early 2019, greatly contributing to public awareness of Chinese influence operations.
Gary Schmitt is a resident scholar in strategic studies & American institutions at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI).He has held senior staff positions in the US Senate & the White House. He is the author, coauthor, editor, and coeditor of many books, with the latest being Rise of the Revisionists: Russia, China, and Iran (AEI Press, 2018). Dr. Schmitt has a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Chicago and a B.A. in politics from the University of Dallas.
Christopher Walker is vice president for Studies and Analysis at the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a private, nonprofit foundation dedicated to the growth and strengthening of democratic institutions around the world. In this capacity, he oversees the department responsible for NED’s multifaceted analytical work and is part of NED’s leadership team. Prior to joining NED, Walker was vice president for Strategy and Analysis at Freedom House. Walker has also served as an adjunct assistant professor of International Affairs at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs. He holds a B.A. from Binghamton University and an M.A. from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. Walker has testified before legislative committees, appears regularly in the media, and frequently conducts briefings on critical issues relating to democratic development. He is an expert on authoritarian regimes and has been at the forefront of the discussion on authoritarian influence on open systems, including through what he has termed “sharp power.” His articles have appeared in numerous publications, including the Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy.com, Journal of Democracy, and World Affairs. He is co-editor (with Larry Diamond and Marc Plattner) of the edited volume Authoritarianism Goes Global: The Challenge to Democracy (2016), and co-editor (with Jessica Ludwig) of the report Sharp Power: Rising Authoritarian Influence (2017).
Russell Hsiao is the executive director of GTI and adjunct fellow at the Pacific Forum. He previously served as a senior research fellow at the Project 2049 Institute, National Security fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and Penn Kemble fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy. Prior to those positions, he was the editor of China Brief at The Jamestown Foundation from October 2007 to July 2011 and a special associate in the International Cooperation Department at the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy. While in law school, he clerked within the Office of the Chairman at the Federal Communications Commission and the Interagency Trade Enforcement Center at the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. Mr. Hsiao received his J.D. and certificate from the Law and Technology Institute at the Catholic University of America’s Columbus School of Law where he served as the editor-in-chief of the Catholic University Journal of Law and Technology. He received a B.A. in International Studies from the American University’s School of International Service and the University Honors Program. Mr. Hsiao is proficient in Mandarin Chinese.
On Wednesday, October 23 GTI held a public seminar on US-Taiwan cooperation in countering the PRC’s sharp power. This event was part of the Taiwan’s Global Impact series, which is partially funded by the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy.
At the beginning of the panel, GTI Executive Director Russell Hsiao pointed out that China’s influence operations and sharp power have substantially increased since the turn of the 21st century. By exploiting the openness of democratic societies and co-opting democratic and cultural institutions, China exports a model of governance with Chinese characteristics. The term “sharp power,” Hsiao explained, includes actions meant to penetrate or pierce a nation’s informational environment in order to influence its citizens. There is an imminent danger presented by China’s United Front Work operations, Hsiao added. He spoke about how Taiwan’s National Security Bureau (NSB) has identified at least 24 businesses with direct ties to the Chinese government, along with at least 22 pro-China organizations which are connected to organized crime and religious temples.
Christopher Walker, vice president for studies and analysis at the National Endowment for Democracy, began his remarks by juxtaposing China’s model of governance at home and abroad. At home, the Chinese government suppresses dissent and encourages nationalist sentiments. Abroad, it seeks to be deeply engaged and induce censorship of foreign organizations. According to Walker, this behavior shows the authoritarian tendency to exploit institutions of foreign nations. Operations of this kind have been ramped up significantly in the past 5-10 years.
Walker added that the world seems to underestimate the capacity of modernizing authoritarian states to maintain and export their methods and technologies of repression. China’s export of security technologies to countries such as Ecuador and Serbia is becoming a concern as these technologies allow for a greater degree of control of its population by the government. Additionally, the lack of unity amongst different actors and individuals in a country or an organization under pressure from China, Walker argued, makes them more vulnerable to a divide-and-conquer strategy. The NBA, whose latest response to Chinese coercion seem “ungrounded,” is an example of this, according to Walker.
Puma Shen, an assistant professor in National Taipei University’s Graduate School of Criminology, began his assessment of China’s sharp power efforts in Taiwan by comparing Chinese disinformation with Russian operations. According to Shen, Chinese Communist Party (CCP) sharp power operations are both decentralized and centralized. Multiple levels of sharp power are employed across the realms of social media and many others, Shen illustrated through his presentation. China’s Ministry of State Security (MSS), according to Shen, utilizes mobile phone applications like TikTok and WeChat owned by Chinese firms to collect this information. Shen also mentioned the example of Kansai airport disinformation campaign as a case where significant harm and disruption was brought to Taiwan. This type of information frequently originates on Chinese-sponsored websites and is legitimized as the Taiwanese public picks them up and proliferates this unverified information. Simultaneously, organizations like the Chinese Unification Promotion Party (CUPP) help spread disinformation. Different questions remain over the state of Chinese disinformation in Taiwan. The source of financing for disinformation campaigns remains difficult to discover.
Shen concluded his talk with suggestions, recommending that Taiwan continue to work on the Foreign Influence Transparency Act—a bill imitating in spirit the United States’ Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA) of 1938. In addition, Shen proposed that Taiwan could become a “Center of Excellence,” in which a network of intel-sharing and research on information and influence operations could be established.
Gary Schmitt, a resident scholar in strategic studies at the American Enterprise Institute, started off by giving accolades to those working on monitoring and countering disinformation in Taiwan after the island was plagued after the November 2018 election. Disinformation is not new, Schmitt argued, similar tactics have been at play in the past and employed by the Soviets as well. But now, in the case of Taiwan, Schmitt added, social media proliferation, new forms of social media, and journalist culture all add to Taiwan’s vulnerability to sharp power.
Drawing from his co-authored report “Blinding the Enemy: CCP Interference in Taiwan’s Democracy” with GTI Senior Non-Resident Fellow Mike Mazza, Schmitt asserted that it is difficult in Taiwan’s competitive environment to increase journalism standards—a vulnerability that has been persistently present. As for social media platforms, although Facebook has also promised to combat Chinese disinformation publicly, it has struggled to do so. Schmitt explained how Taiwan’s agencies have done well at setting up systems to combat disinformation in real-time. In Taiwan, agencies have fact-checking teams that are ready to combat disinformation and provide a correction.
Finally, Schmitt explained the difficult situation of Taiwan’s media environment. Many media owners are foreigners or have commercial interests abroad, and some compromise on their principles in pursuit of these interests. Schmitt finds it worrying that certain conglomerates which own media firms in Taiwan have been receiving subsidies from the Chinese government.
The panel discussion ended with a Q&A session.
This summary was written by GTI Fall Intern 2019, Milo Hsieh.
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