Beijing’s Attempts to Sway Taiwan Voters Under Scrutiny as Island Prepares for 2020 Election

January 9, 2020 Updated: January 9, 2020
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TAIPEI, Taiwan—With just days left before the island holds its presidential election, China’s efforts to influence the outcome are being closely monitored by Taiwanese authorities and experts.

On Jan. 11, Taiwanese citizens will elect a new president and vice president, as well as 113 representatives to the island nation’s parliament, known as the Legislative Yuan. 

Influencing Taiwan’s politics has long been part of the Chinese regime’s infiltration strategy, in the hopes of eventually annexing Taiwan, which it views as part of its territory, despite the island being a full-fledged democracy with its own military, currency, and constitution. Meanwhile, Beijing has never renounced the use of military force to unite the island. 

The Chinese regime’s goal is to have pro-Beijing candidates elected into public office so that they can push policies promoting economic and cultural integration with China, and eventually influence public opinion to accept unification with the mainland. 

In 2018, Kuomintang (KMT) candidates, on platforms promoting closer ties with Beijing, scored a landslide victory, in elections for city, county, town, and village officials, against the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). At the time, KMT candidate Han Kuo-yu, against expectation, won the mayoral seat in Kaohsiung, a southern city long considered a DPP stronghold.

Han is now the KMT presidential candidate. He currently trails in polls behind Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, who is running for reelection as the DPP candidate. 

Many analysts predict that Tsai will win, as her popularity has been boosted by ongoing Hong Kong protests, which ignited in June over Beijing’s encroachment on the city’s autonomy. Many Taiwanese see Tsai as someone who can better safeguard the island’s sovereignty against China’s influence. 

However, the Legislative Yuan races are harder to call. 

Economic Pull

J. Michael Cole, senior fellow at the Washington-based nonprofit Global Taiwan Institute, attributed the 2018 KMT victory in part to the Chinese regime’s sustained disinformation campaign.

He said Beijing’s disinformation succeeded in promoting the idea that economic ties with mainland China would improve Taiwanese people’s livelihood.

The same disinformation campaign is “definitely happening in the lead-up to the 2020 election,” said Cole in an email interview with The Epoch Times. 

Taiwan’s economy has long been a key issue in local elections. Han has also played up the economy card to woo voters during his 2020 campaign. 

For example, a day after Beijing announced 26 sweetener policies to encourage Taiwanese firms to invest in the Chinese market, Han’s campaign office spokesperson said it welcomed the “26 measures.” The spokesperson said that it was “advantageous” for Chinese government measures to improve its investment environment for Taiwanese businesses.

The “26 measures” include allowing Taiwanese citizens to seek protection and assistance at Chinese consulates around the world, and permitting Taiwanese companies to participate in China’s research and development of the 5G next-generation wireless technology.

Then, at a campaign rally on Nov. 23, Han said that 3 1/2 years of DPP rule has made life more challenging for Taiwanese.

Tsai had criticized the “26 measures,” saying that Beijing pushed them forward as part of its strategy to eventually realize its goal of ruling Taiwan under “one country, two systems,” the model Beijing has used to rule Hong Kong since the city’s handover in 1997, according to local daily Liberty Times.

Cole said that in the 2020 campaign, there have been “large volumes of disinformation about Taiwan’s economy defying actual numbers and portraying the embrace of the so-called ‘1992 consensus’ as a remedy to all this. This dovetails with China offering incentives and various measures to entice young Taiwanese and depict China as the solution to all their economic ills.” 

Under the “1992 Consensus,” Taipei and Beijing agreed that there is “one China,” but both sides can interpret what the “one China” is. 

Most recently, Chinese leader Xi Jinping, at a gathering of China’s People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) on Dec. 31, pledged to promote the “1992 consensus” as the basis for peaceful development of a cross-strait relationship, according to state-run media Xinhua. 

On the following day, Tsai stated that “China is using the ‘1992 consensus’ to hollow out the Republic of China [official name for Taiwan]. So, we should be more firm in safeguarding our sovereignty.” 

Some KMT candidates directly adopt Beijing’s rhetoric in their campaigns. On Dec. 13, local newspaper Liberty Times reported that Lai Shyh-bao, a KMT candidate running for Legislative Yuan in a Taipei district, put up a campaign banner with the words: “92 Consensus, Fight for the Economy.” His campaign calls for closer ties with Beijing to uplift Taiwan’s economy.   

Social Media

In 2018, Beijing utilized different social media platforms popular in Taiwan to influence public opinion. This time, Beijing is more focused on YouTube, “which has been proved effective on influencing the 2018 elections and helped Han,” said Austin Wang, assistant professor of Political Science at the University of Nevada, in an email interview with The Epoch Times. 

Wang conducted a data analytical report, published last month, showing that the probability of Kaohsiung voters voting for Han in 2018 increased from 67 to 84 percent if they watched YouTube videos as a source for political information. Additionally, there was a positive correlation between voters’ opinions of Han and watching YouTube videos, compared to no correlation between voters’ opinions and reading political information on Line or Facebook. 

Multiple YouTube channels and YouTubers have been identified as sources of disseminating disinformation.

In October last year, the Investigative Bureau of Taiwan’s Ministry of Justice announced that a video circulating on Facebook falsely accused Tsai of selling out Taiwan by giving the Japanese government more than $20 billion annually. 

The video was created by Zhang Xida, a reporter with China’s state-run China National Radio. 

Zhang has a YouTube channel called “Xida Talks About Taiwan.” He was able to confuse viewers into believing he was Taiwanese because he occasionally spoke the Hokkien dialect in his videos, a dialect also spoken by about 70 percent of Taiwan’s population.

While Mandarin is the official language of Taiwan and mainland China, many Taiwanese who are descendants of mainland Chinese who immigrated from Fujian during the Qing Dynasty also speak Hokkien. 

Taiwan’s CoFacts, a crowdsourced fact-checking database, has also identified a YouTube channel called “Bit King on a Mission” as spreading wrongful facts. In one video, it falsely accused Tsai of wasting money from the nation’s healthcare system. In another video, it made false claims about Taiwan’s nuclear power-generating project. 

Facebook is still a popular platform to disseminate disinformation. 

“Various fan pages and groups on FB have been used to generate, spread, and replicate disinformation, much of which originated on so-called content farms,” mostly created by Chinese and Taiwanese businesspeople, Cole stated. Content farms are websites that intentionally write up fake news. 

Facebook opened a “war room” in Taiwan on Jan. 1 to combat disinformation ahead of the elections. 

In October, Liberty Times reported that Facebook also banned several content farms, including kknews, Hssszn, and Mission, preventing users from sharing those websites’ articles. 

Mission worked closely with Taiwan’s pro-Beijing New Party, according to Wang, which openly proposes Taiwan’s unification with China. In June 2018, the party’s spokesperson Wang Ping-chung, his father, and two other members of the party were charged with espionage. Prosecutors alleged that they recruited Taiwanese into their organization to serve Beijing, according to local English-language daily Taipei Times

According to CoFacts, Mission also generated a fake story claiming that Taiwan’s Ministry of Defense was going to buy “outdated” F-16V fighter jets from the United States. 

In fact, in August 2019, Taiwan announced its successful procurement of 66 newly-built F-16V fighter jets from U.S. defense company Lockheed Martin. 

Wang also pointed out a new phenomenon: in December, dozens of Taiwanese models suddenly uploaded photos of themselves making the same salute gesture on Facebook and Instagram. Their accompanying social media posts all complained about Taiwan’s high housing prices and low salaries, and used the same hashtag #myvotingwill. 

It indirectly insinuated economic woes under the incumbent administration, and reminded Wang of the way the Chinese regime hires pro-China Taiwanese models to spread its propaganda.

Wang said that while there’s “no direct evidence between these models’ actions and China,” they were all represented by the same company, M.Entertainment, an online streaming and video gaming firm with ties to a Shanghai-based online streaming company called KingKong. 

“There is no similar incident in the past election,” Wang said. He noted that this kind of social media campaign is “quite common in China;” in 2016, many Chinese celebrities reposted a nationalistic poster made by China’s state-run media People’s Daily. The poster showed a map of China with the “nine-dash line” and the caption “This is China, not one bit less.” 

The campaign happened around the same time as a ruling by an arbitration court by The Hague in July 2016, refuting Beijing’s “nine-dash” territorial claim over 90 percent of the South China Sea. 

Election Betting

Taiwan also has the unique phenomenon of illegal gambling rings devoted to betting on election outcomes. This time, people are wagering on whether Tsai or Han will win the vote.

Despite Tsai having a sizeable lead in public polls, betting odds offered by illegal underground gambling rings did not show that she would win by a large margin, said Shen Yu-chung, a political science professor at Taiwan’s Tunghai University, in a phone interview with The Epoch Times. 

According to a Dec. 31 poll compiled by Nathan F. Batto, an associate research fellow at Taiwan’s premier research institution Academia Sinica, Tsai led with 48.8 percent over Han’s 20.7 percent. A third-party candidate, James Soong, had 7.4 percent. 

Shen said that such gambling can impact election outcomes. For instance, a person who places 100,000 New Taiwan Dollars (about $3,325) to bet on 5–1 odds for a certain presidential candidate will likely influence family and friends to vote for the same candidate—in order to increase his chances of winning 500,000 New Taiwan Dollars (about $16,630). 

This is why it is unusual that these gambling rings have been offering decent odds for candidates falling behind in the polls, according to Shen. He added that in past elections, betting odds better reflected poll results. 

This phenomenon brings up the possibility of foreign funding, including from China, supporting these gambling rings, Shen said. Since foreign money can be transferred through multiple countries, it is often difficult to trace its origins. 

“Normally, when an [election race] is tight, there will be greater interest in [placing bets]. It is rare to see how this year, it seems like the election outcome has already been decided [in Tsai’s favor], but the size of money going into [gambling rings] is huge—larger than those in the past,” Shen said.  

Taiwanese authorities have been cracking down on these gambling rings. Recently, on Jan. 6, Taiwan’s government-run Central News Agency (CNA) reported that the local prosecutor office in the central city of Taichung has taken down four illegal money-laundering and gambling rings, some involved in election betting

According to the prosecutor, the rings amassed over 83 billion New Taiwan Dollars (about $2.7 billion) since 2014. Taiwanese authorities also said that the suspected ring operators used online banking certificate USBs provided by China’s state-run Bank of China. 

Liberty Times reported on Jan. 7 that the local prosecutor’s office and police in Kaohsiung arrested a man surnamed Lu, for accepting bets on the upcoming elections. Taiwanese authorities found that he had accepted more than $430,000 New Taiwan Dollars (about $14,305) in bets. 

Lu said that he was funded by a Taiwanese businessman surnamed Sun, and that he was paid a commission of $150 New Taiwan Dollars ($5) for every bet of $10,000 New Taiwan Dollars (about $330) he drew in. Lu said he used messaging app Line and WeChat to look for potential gamblers. 

On Jan. 8, CNA reported that the local prosecutor’s office in the northern city of Taoyuan arrested two heads of an illegal election gambling ring and confiscated 2.7 million New Taiwan Dollars (about $89,830). 

The prosecutor said that the two were using Line to promote their gambling on the presidential election outcome, according to CNA. 

While it’s difficult to prove that China was directly connected to these gambling rings, it would be easy for Beijing to do so if it wanted to, stated Hou Tsun-yao, assistant professor at the Department of Mass Communication of Taiwan’s I-Shou University, in an email with The Epoch Times.

“The gambling money needed is not huge, so it would be an easy way to do it. All Beijing needs to do is work with multiple brokers at different rings at the same time,” Hou said. 

Other Formats

Cole pointed out that pro-Beijing traditional media in Taiwan have also given favorable coverage to Han, while spreading disinformation about the Tsai administration.

“This has served to solidify polarization [of society] and, I suspect for the Han camp, to help with mobilization,” Cole stated. 

Recently, some disinformation has been directed toward discrediting the election process.

Taiwan’s Central Election Commission issued six press releases in December denouncing fake messages, including a YouTube video that fabricated rumors about how the commission would rig the vote. 

On Jan. 4, the commission denounced online messages accusing the agency of intentionally fabricating candidates’ educational backgrounds on the election bulletin that was sent to all eligible voters in Taiwan.

With Beijing’s influence operations in full force, the Legislative Yuan recently passed an anti-infiltration law mandating penalties for those who lobby or fund politicians on behalf of a foreign state

Beijing official Zhu Fenglian, who is spokesperson for the Taiwan Affairs Office, said that the DPP had created a “green [DPP’s official color] terror … seriously hurting the interests of Taiwanese people,” according to Chinese state-run media.

Han reacted in a similar vein, saying the law was equal to imposing “martial law” on the island. He added that he would suspend the law if he were elected president.

Follow Frank on Twitter: @HwaiDer