China’s influence operations to undermine Taiwan’s democracy should be a top concern for the U.S. government, according to a Washington-based nonprofit.
“Taiwan’s democracy is strategically important to the American vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific,” the Global Taiwan Institute said in a report released on Oct. 22, as the island is an important American ally.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) claims Taiwan as a renegade province that must be united with the mainland, with military force if necessary, despite the fact that Taiwan is a de-facto independent country with its own democratically elected officials, military, and currency.
The CCP’s operations are deployed through both social media and traditional media, according to the report.
Fake news stories have been cooked up inside China and Taiwan and then spread through Taiwan’s popular social media, including Facebook, the messaging app Line, and the online messaging board PTT.
“PTT has been a major tool of Chinese disinformation efforts,” the report said, adding that the board reaches between one million and two million middle-class residents in Taiwan.
Just prior to Taiwan’s 2018 elections—when mayors, county magistrates, and councilors were elected—the report pointed out that a large number of PTT accounts were bought and sold on an online auction site called Shopee, which is available in Taiwan and a number of countries in Southeast Asia.
In November last year, the Washington-based nonprofit Center for Advanced China Research (CACR) found that PTT accounts were also being sold on the mainland Chinese auction site Taobao.
Some of the influential PTT accounts were sold for as much as 200,000 New Taiwan Dollars (about $6,500), according to the report.
Taiwan national security officials and digital telecom firm employees told the report’s authors that “many accounts purchased ahead of the elections … switched their tenor from moderately pro-DPP to strongly pro-KMT or even pro-CCP.”
There are two major political parties in Taiwan: the Kuomintang (KMT), which has a Beijing-friendly platform, and the current ruling party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which has historically advocated for declaring formal independence from China.
Beijing wants KMT candidates to win elections, believing they’re more likely to swing public opinion in favor of a closer relationship with China—and ultimately unification with the mainland.
One stark example of the effects of such misinformation on the PTT platform: In September 2018, a post went viral accusing Taiwanese officials in Japan of failing to transport Taiwanese passengers stranded at the Kansai Airport due to a heavy typhoon. The information was widely reported by media in both China and Taiwan. Subsequently, Taiwanese diplomat Su Chii-cheng took his life.
“Distressingly, a sizeable portion of Taiwan’s professional journalist community, via traditional media, has played a role in amplifying ‘fake news’ rather than providing the rigorous reporting sensational stories require,” the report stated.
Taiwan’s media landscape has “become a fertile milieu for PRC [People’s Republic of China, official name for China] influence operations,” according to the report.
Beijing is known to influence Taiwanese media directly. In August, Reuters reported that China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, an agency within the cabinet-like State Council, paid 30,000 yuan ($4,250) to run two feature stories promoting China’s efforts to attract Taiwanese businesses in an unnamed Taipei-based newspaper.
Beijing wants Taiwanese business people to come to China not just for the investment. They are also targets of its influence operations.
“We heard repeatedly that Taiwan businessmen with interests in the PRC were directed or simply ‘urged’ by Chinese interlocutors to donate money to KMT candidates,” the report said, based on interviews conducted in Taipei.
Beijing has also “delegated responsibility to local governments in China to aggressively engage” Taiwan’s local governments and community organizations.
In April, Taiwanese lawmaker Hsiao Bi-khim spoke at the Atlantic Council about how her own constituency, Hualien County in eastern Taiwan, has been lured by China’s southern province of Guangxi.
“Religious organizations and grassroots community groups that are targeted by counterparts in China are invited to visit [China] under an innocuous cloak of exchanges or tourism, with majority expenses paid, [which] allow for influence networks to be established throughout our society,” Hsiao said at the time.
Beijing may also have ties to Taiwan’s underground gambling rings, according to the report, for the goal of influencing election outcomes.
Gambling rings that bet on who will win elections could offer good odds for a Beijing-favored candidate, creating a perception of “inevitability of a race’s outcome,” and subsequently influence both voter turnout and the vote.