Chinese election interference tests Taiwan’s capability to defend freedom of speech
Analysts say Taiwan needs to strike a balance between defending free speech and addressing the impact of China’s disinformation campaign
03 Jan 24

Disinformation is rife about Taiwanese presidential candidate Lai Ching-te, the rock band Mayday and the egg shortage. Photos: Shufu Liu / Office of the President; Yu-Cheng Hsiao; Edithobayaa1; Chickenonline / Etereuti; GDJ

As Taiwan gears up for the presidential and legislative election on 13 January, the Chinese government is also ramping up its efforts to interfere. From sponsored trips to China for local leaders, economic coercion, fake opinion polls, and disinformation campaigns, some analysts say the wide-ranging tactics that Beijing has unleashed will have an impact on the election’s outcome.

In recent weeks, Taiwanese authorities have launched investigations into several cases of individuals attempting to sway voters by inviting local borough chiefs and village leaders on group tours to China. These trips are partially sponsored by local Chinese authorities.

During the trips, participants were allegedly encouraged by officials from China’s propaganda department to vote for political parties and candidates favoured by Beijing. At least one man has been indicted while several others are facing ongoing investigations.

Apart from sponsored trips, Beijing also rolled out coercive economic measures to pressure Taiwan, suspending tariff relief on imports of 12 Taiwanese petrochemical products, and blaming it on the trade barriers enacted by Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party.

“Since 2023 is a major year of cross-strait exchange for China, Chinese authorities have devoted a lot of resources to facilitate influence campaigns against Taiwan,” Puma Shen, chairperson of Taipei-based research group Doublethink Lab, told Index on Censorship. “They want to make sure that Taiwanese people feel threatened but also are not too afraid of the influence campaigns from China.”

The most recent example of China’s influence campaign is an investigation into alleged lip-sync by popular Taiwanese rock band Mayday, a practice that is banned for live musicians in China. A Taiwanese security agency internal memo claims the investigation is Beijing’s attempt to pressure the rock band into publicly supporting the position that Taiwan is a part of China.

Shen from Doublethink Lab said Taiwanese people who have huge financial stakes in China, such as artists and businessmen, often become targets of China’s influence campaign. “Even though they are earning money in China, they are more like victims,” he said.

Multi-pronged cognitive warfare

In addition to economic coercion and influencing local politicians, some experts say China has also launched multi-pronged cognitive warfare against Taiwan ahead of the election, amplifying narratives criticising the ruling party through state media outlets and initiating disinformation campaigns on social media platforms, including TikTok, YouTube and Facebook.

Over the last few months, China’s state-run media outlets have repeated the narrative that the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is pushing Taiwan to the brink of war with its efforts to pursue “Taiwan independence”. The narrative resonates with criticisms against the DPP by opposition candidates in Taiwan, who have repeatedly accused DPP’s presidential candidate, Lai Ching-te, of being “the golden child of Taiwan independence.”

There are also signs that Chinese state media and online troll groups are amplifying narratives aimed at damaging the image and credibility of the Taiwanese government, including controversial domestic issues such as the de-sinicization of Taiwan’s curriculum and scepticism toward the Taiwanese government’s deepened relations with the USA.

According to Taiwan AI Labs, online troll groups have mirrored narratives promoted by Chinese state media, including the People’s Daily, Haiwainet, Xinhua News Agency, Global Times, and China Central Television (CCTV). While there is no direct evidence to prove that China is behind all online troll groups, Taiwan AI Labs said their behaviours fit the criteria of autocratic countries’ interference in democratic elections.

“Since the online troll groups promote narratives about Taiwanese domestic issues and U.S. President Joe Biden and there is a high similarity between the narratives they promote and the narratives preferred by Chinese state media, we can conclude that it fits the methods that autocratic countries use to interfere in democratic elections,” Ethan Tu, the founder of Taiwan AI Labs, said.

Compared to China’s efforts to interfere in previous Taiwan elections, it is becoming harder to determine whether disinformation targeting the upcoming Taiwanese election originates from China or not.

“This time around, it’s very difficult to determine whether the disinformation originates from China or is created by actors within Taiwan,” Chiaoning Su, an associate professor in communication, journalism, and public relations at Oakland University, told Index on Censorship.

In her view, China has built up a better understanding of public opinion in Taiwan and they realise that for efforts of election interference to work, the narratives they amplify need to match the trend in Taiwan’s public opinion.

“The way that China is amplifying social economic issues such as the controversy of lack of eggs or the debate about reducing the amount of ancient Chinese literature in the curriculum shows that their efforts to initiate disinformation campaign are becoming more localised and harder to trace,” Su said.

Shen from Doublethink Lab said one of the main goals of China’s disinformation campaign is to denigrate democracy. “They want to show the Taiwanese public that Taiwan’s democracy is a mess and that while the DPP claims to protect democracy and freedom, in the end, it is not democratic and free at all,” he told Index on Censorship.

Since Taiwan is a democracy that values freedom of speech, Shen thinks Taiwanese authorities need to deal with the threats that come with China’s election interference through ways that will safeguard Taiwanese people’s freedom of expression, by specifically identifying remarks which originate from sources external to Taiwan.

“Otherwise, they will fall into China’s trap,” he said.

By William Yang

William Yang is a journalist based in Taiwan. Since 2018, he has been covering news and developments in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan for several international media outlets including Deutsche Welle, the Times, the Independent, the Guardian and others. He also provides regular analysis on relevant topics on television and radio programmes.