Think Tank: China Manipulates Coverage of Military Exercises to Sway Taiwanese Public Opinion

By Frank Fang
Frank Fang
Frank Fang
Frank Fang is a Taiwan-based journalist. He covers news in China and Taiwan. He holds a master's degree in materials science from Tsinghua University in Taiwan.
August 14, 2019 Updated: August 14, 2019

TAIPEI, Taiwan—China will likely escalate its tactic of using military exercises and media coverage of them to manipulate Taiwanese public opinion, according to a recent military research paper.

Institute for National Defense and Security Research, a think tank set up by Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense, came to such a conclusion based on analysis of recent Chinese military exercises conducted off the coast of Zhejiang and Fujian provinces at the end of July. Those two Chinese provinces are just across the strait from the self-ruled island of Taiwan.

Relations between China and its democratic neighbor are fraught, as Beijing considers the island a renegade province that must be united with the mainland one day, with military force if necessary. However, Taiwan is a de-facto independent country with its own elected officials, constitution, military, and currency.

The analysis was published on Aug. 9. It concluded that such Chinese tactics serve to intimidate Taiwanese because Chinese authorities often do not provide details about the military exercises, such as the military units involved and the number of soldiers taking part.

The ambiguous statements regarding military drills leave room for Chinese state media to issue reports based on unverified claims, according to the paper. These reports, which portray Beijing as powerful and menacing, could then influence public opinion in Taiwan.

After analyzing two statements issued by two Chinese provincial maritime safety administrations—one by Zhejiang on July 28 and another by Guangdong a day later—the paper concluded that the military exercises did not include any amphibious landing.

If China were to invade Taiwan, an amphibious landing is key to Beijing’s overall military strategy, in order to allow Chinese soldiers to sail through the Taiwan Strait and occupy the island.

The paper pointed out that several Chinese media articles that reported on the military exercises were speculative in nature and based on unverified facts.

For example, Chinese news portal Sohu published a July 30 article that was written by Song Zhongping, a former instructor at the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Rocket Force University of Engineering, who claimed that an amphibious landing was part of the overall military exercises.

Also on July 30, Chinese military commentator Chen Guangwen, in an article published on Chinese news portal Sina, claimed that an amphibious landing and military isolation tactics were part of the overall exercises.

The isolation technique is likely a reference to how the Chinese military wishes to isolate the island so that foreign countries cannot come to Taiwan’s assistance, in the event that Beijing decides to invade the island.

Several Taiwanese media reported comments made by Song and Chen, including local daily newspaper China Times, which is widely known for its pro-Beijing stance.

The paper pointed out that the Chinese military holds regular exercises at its southeastern coast every year. Beijing would often time announcements of the exercises to coincide with certain political events in order to manipulate public opinion.

Taiwan was ranked the most affected among the world’s liberal democracies by false information spread by foreign governments, according to a May 2019 report published by the Varieties of Democracy Institute based at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden.

The report explained that China often spreads false and misleading information in Taiwan, including by providing funds to local media to adopt a more pro-Beijing line in their coverage, which leads to media outlets in Taiwan providing “very different presentations of the same events.”

With Taiwan holding its next presidential election in January next year, it is widely believed that China would step up its influence operations on the island, in an attempt to have a pro-Beijing candidate win the election.

Frank Fang
Frank Fang
Frank Fang is a Taiwan-based journalist. He covers news in China and Taiwan. He holds a master's degree in materials science from Tsinghua University in Taiwan.