Chinese election interference tests Taiwan’s capability to defend freedom of speech

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.

Taiwan: An interview with politician and heavy metal frontman Freddy Lim on music and censorship

The intertwining nature of music and politics is nothing new. Tom Morello, former Rage Against the Machine guitarist, has been raging against corruption and inept politicians for years. Bernie Sanders, influenced by folk greats like Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan, released an EP of covers with the help of fellow Vermont artists and politicians in 1987. Even former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, a classically trained performer since her adolescent years, played piano alongside Aretha Franklin in Philadelphia in 2010. However, the words “Taiwanese parliament” and “death metal” are not a combination most are familiar with. Freddy Lim, frontman of one of Asia’s most popular heavy-metal bands, Chthonic, is out to change that.

Lim recently won a seat in parliament representing the New Power Party and defeating Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) member Lin Yu-fang, who had held his seat for 20 years. The election saw an end to KMT control, with Tsai Ing-wen, the Democratic Progress Party, becoming Taiwan’s first female president. Lim, a longtime human rights activist, served as president of Taiwan’s Amnesty International branch from 2010 until 2014. Lim’s unconventional persona — performing in excessive face paint and flaunting tattooed biceps — has been attractive to the country’s youth, who have been receptive to Lim’s political activism around gay rights, government transparency and environmental issues.

Index on Censorship had the chance to discuss Lim’s outlook on Taiwanese politics and the power of music.

Index: What are your biggest goals for your term? Which do you hope to accomplish first?

Lim: I hope that during my term, we are able to deepen the democracy in Taiwan. Within the next four years, I hope we are able to correct a lot of things, including fixing our current referendum laws, reworking our impeachment laws so we can actually vote a public official out of office. I’m hoping to help complete the improvement our legislature through reform — to allow our legislators to be able to conduct investigations when they need to, also to allow the legislature to be monitored by citizens, and to give the legislature the ability to monitor the government.

Index: How do you think music breaks down suppression and censorship in the world? In Taiwan?

Lim: Music is a very special medium. It can break through barriers of language as well as socioeconomic barriers that stem from differing backgrounds and upbringing. It’s also softer, it’s different from preaching, so I think it has a special power to break through boundaries. So, for example, in China they have extensive censorship of the internet, they are prohibited from viewing YouTube and Facebook and a lot of different other methods of coming into contact with various types of important information. But now they’ve found ways around that, to find out the information that they want. And within all of this information, I think music is very special, because through music — for our Chinese fans at least, a lot of them find out about Taiwanese history through listening to Chthonic’s music. It’s different from a lecture, reading theoretical books or just learning from history lessons to get to know Taiwan’s current state. A lot of the Chinese fans that I know came to know Taiwan’s history and came to understand it through Chthonic’s music.

Index: What are the pressures in speaking about taboo subjects like being less reliant on China?

Lim: In Taiwan, when you talk about more ‘taboo’ subjects, actually there aren’t really any taboo subjects because we are a free and open country. So when you talk about these things, such as in China, well, in China they just won’t report on it but in Taiwan it is okay. For example, if you talk about Free Tibet, or supporting the freedom of the Chinese people to pursue democracy. There are peculiar groups in Taiwan that are close to China that will give you some pressure, but in terms of this particular question, when you talk about things like “cutting ties and being less reliant on China”, it’s not really prohibited since most people in Taiwan believe that Taiwan is different from China and is a separate country, so when you talk about being less reliant on China actually there isn’t much pressure there. Things that will cause more pressure might be like supporting Free Tibet, or supporting human rights group within China, or things having to do with democracy in China, or protection of legal rights, there might be some pressure such as through verbal threats, they might call us, or perhaps through the internet we receive threats. Or like previously when Chthonic toured abroad, due to my activities with Free Tibet and support of Chinese democracy, there have been some self-proclaimed Chinese students that have given us pressure, threatening that we should not perform on stage otherwise they were going to kill us or something like that. There are a lot of vocal threats, but we won’t be afraid to talk about these kinds of things because of that.

Index: Do you feel like you deal with censorship more so with your music career or political career?

Lim: Actually, I don’t feel strongly either way; maybe it’s because of my personality, but I don’t think that in either my music or political career I’ve felt censorship because in Taiwan we are fundamentally a more free country and so there isn’t any systemic pressure, they won’t really do anything. However, in reality in business or industry, in terms of doing business, in music you can clearly feel there’s some media outlets, or some music businesses, or events or festivals, if they have closer ties with China or if the group responsible for it is on friendly terms with China they won’t want you to go talking those types of things. So on a certain level, in my music career, in Taiwan, in the entertainment or music industry, there is some degree of pressure, but I feel like for Chthonic this isn’t a huge issue because the Chinese market is not our primary market so we aren’t really inconvenienced by it by any means.

Index: Which political leaders influence you during the songwriting process? What artists/bands do you go to for inspiration?

Lim: For me, when I write songs a lot of my inspiration doesn’t come from political leaders, rather it comes from bands and artists I like, such as some Taiwanese singers like Yu-Tian, Shen Wen Chen, Yeh Qi-Tian, and some that I used to really love such as Chen Yi-Lang, as well as Taiwanese Opera. In addition there are also foreign metal bands like Slayer, I really like Slayer, Pantera, Emperor, these are all bands I really love. In terms of political leaders, I really respect and admire, the one that stands out is the Dalai Lama.

Index: How do you think gatherings like the Chthonic 20th anniversary show can help make people more politically aware?

Lim: I think in terms of soft events, such as our 20th anniversary, the primary focus is still as a fun event, to let everyone have a good time, that is its nature is in entertainment, in the excitement that people get from listening to metal, so I think at its core it is still to let everyone have a good time. Now in terms of politics, I feel like it depends on the circumstance. Of course, we would hope that our fans or people that come to our shows can feel and understand some of our own political views, but the music is still the focal point when we hold these events, and for the political aspect, we just allow this exchange to happen and hope it inspires some people and that’s it.

Index: What do you think the similarities and differences are between the two types of gatherings? How do you work to bridge that gap between the two?

Lim: I think that no matter if it’s a political gathering or a musical gathering, the most important thing is the situation, it’s different from going to a lecture. For example, at a political gathering, I feel like a successful political gathering it is important to consider the logos and ethos of the audience members, whereas in terms of musical gatherings, obviously it is heavier on the ethos because most audience members at a metal show just want to have a good time, to enjoy the music. They’re not going to be analysing your lyrics or picking apart the musical or its composition. However, in political gatherings I feel like the rationale of the audience must be taken into more consideration because the people in the audience are there to logically analyse your presentation. However, I feel that in political gatherings the emotional aspect is still very important, as we can’t focus purely on logic. So how are you going to address [these political issues] with reference to the land, to history, to the people, to the relationships between the people, how are you going to call on that, to touch these emotions and to touch the people and to inspire them to rally with you? I think this is very important.

Index: How has music helped you express your misgivings about the Taiwanese government?

Lim: Actually, our music rarely expresses our misgivings about the Taiwanese government. Our music is focused primarily on Taiwanese mythology, history, legends…oh and some are ghost stories, so actually we don’t really express ‘misgivings about the Taiwanese government’. On the contrary, our music fans will express their own anger towards the government through our songs and at our concerts, sometimes even more so than we ourselves, which is pretty interesting.

Index: What kind of methods do you plan to use to promote free expression in Taiwan?

Lim: I haven’t really thought of methods to promote free expression in Taiwan, I think that Taiwan is already a country that should have freedom of expression, so to protect this freedom is to protect Taiwanese human rights and related institutions, so in this aspect, in interactions between Taiwan and China, or Taiwan and other countries where freedom of expression is suppressed, we need to have a greater precaution in our approach, like right now between Taiwan and China. Although Taiwan itself is already a country that has freedom of speech, because we are too close to China, there have been compromises, some of which I mentioned earlier, such as in the entertainment business, music industry, and publication industry, there has been some self-censorship in order to appeal to the Chinese market, and so I think that if we are going to promote free expression in Taiwan, one of the most important things is to place freedom of expression at the forefront when we are interacting or collaborating with other countries, to have it written into the contracts and so forth so that we do not compromise the value of the free expression that we already have.

Index on Censorship has teamed up with the producers of an award-winning documentary about Mali’s musicians, They Will Have To Kill Us First,  to create the Music in Exile Fund to support musicians facing censorship globally. You can donate here, or give £10 by texting “BAND61 £10” to 70070.

In Taiwan, censorship quietly flourishes amid outrage

Activists and civic groups march in Taipei in protest against the Want Want China Times Group's planned acquisition of China Network Systems's cable TV services in Sept 2012. (Photo: Craig Ferguson / Demotix)

Activists and civic groups march in Taipei in protest against the Want Want China Times Group’s planned acquisition of China Network Systems’s cable TV services in Sept 2012.
(Photo: Craig Ferguson / Demotix)

The connections between China and Taiwanese media owners has given rise to concerns, along with some evidence, that the industry is under growing pressure to curb reporting on topics detrimental to Chinese interests and cross-strait ties.

The capital, Taipei, erupted in protests when it became known that Tsai Eng-ming, a pro-Beijing businessman, attempted to wrest control of Taiwan’s largest newspaper, the Apple Daily, earlier this year. The attempt failed amid popular outrage. But conversations with several journalists suggest that Beijing continues to exert a quieter influence – involving self-censorship and lucrative business interests – in attempt to avoid further scrutiny.

This is perhaps most prominent at the China Times Group, a Taiwanese media conglomerate that Tsai purchased in 2008. Estimated to be worth up to US$10.6 billion, the snack manufacturer has since led its subsidiaries to become more China-friendly, accepting payment from Beijing in return for camouflaged advertising and one-sided reporting. His flagship daily, the China Times, has been fined multiple times by Taiwan’s media regulators for masquerading advertising as reporting.

“It happens far more frequently than most people realize,” said Lin Chao-yi, the former head of the Association of Taiwan Journalists, that uncovered one such example last year. After receiving a copy of a schedule detailing how a visit from a ranking Chinese official was to be covered, including pre-defined topics and article lengths, Lin then impersonated a China Times employee to ask the delegation how the paper was going to be compensated.

Caught on tape, the Chinese press officer replied that the payment would be wired to a China Times Group subsidiary in Beijing. But far from discouraging such deals from taking place again, Lin said that his report “just made them more careful.” Indeed, accepting Chinese money is not only lucrative business, but also allows the paper to stay on Beijing’s good graces – guaranteeing access from behind China’s Great Firewall – according to sources familiar with the relationship.

The China Times Group’s cosy relationship with Beijing has led some journalists working under its banner to become more aware of what might, and might not, be publishable. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, one China Times reporter said that, there is an “unspoken understanding” of what articles or reports might contradict the paper’s political viewpoint, including, for example, pieces critical of either Beijing or Taiwan’s China-friendly president, Ma Ying-jeou.

“In these cases, we might choose to just drop the subject, instead of choosing to pursue it further,” the reporter said, in words reminiscent of the self-censorship taking place elsewhere in the Chinese-speaking region.

But far from taking place only at the China Times Group, self-censorship is also seen as a necessity by other media groups keen on maintaining access to the Chinese market. Much of this has to do with Taiwan’s highly profitable entertainment industry that feeds thousands of hours of programming each year into local Chinese television channels. Produced by the same media groups that also run cable news stations, coverage of some politically sensitive topics, such as the Dalai Lama or the Falungong movement, are toned down to avoid antagonizing Beijing.

“China uses its vast market as a bargaining chip,” said Cheryl Lai, the former editor-in-chief of the state run Central News Agency, adding that most of this takes place secretly and away from public scrutiny. “They know that most of these media companies are in it for the money. All they have to do is threaten to cut it off.”

The trend towards greater Chinese influence in the media is reflective of the realization that its political objectives of unifying Taiwan, which it claims to be a breakaway province, can be achieved cheaper and more effectively through propaganda, rather than force. Instead of “spilling blood on Taiwan,” an old rallying call for conquering the island by force if necessary, Beijing has deemed it easier to “spill money on Taiwan,” said Lai, who has been writing on China’s growing political sway on the island.

The same trend can be seen elsewhere where China holds political interests, such as Hong Kong, where a large number of publications are ostensibly under its influence. The South China Morning Post, for example, has reportedly been hit by allegations of self-censorship after the appointment of new Editor-in-Chief Wang Xiangwei, a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Congress, a Chinese government body.

In Taiwan, even as most media interests are controlled by large corporations, some with extensive business ties to China, there is, however also a realization that hard-fought press freedoms must be protected. More than 100,000 protestors, including students and reporters, rallied in defence of the Apple Daily during the failed purchase in January this year, with some groups vowing to raise the equivalent funds if it meant protecting the paper’s journalistic integrity.

All this is reason why Beijing is likely to continue and incubate its media influence behind the scenes, at least for now.