Wednesday, July 24, 2024
HomenewsHow Beijing is changing the way it involves itself in Taiwan’s election

How Beijing is changing the way it involves itself in Taiwan’s election

A few months after Taiwanese NGO worker Cynthia Iunn bought a book titled If China Attacks from a Taiwanese bookstore in February, she started to get calls from strange numbers.

In the middle of May, she decided to answer one of them.

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“I ended up talking to three different people and although they pretended to be from Taiwan, they were very clearly Chinese,” Iunn told Al Jazeera.

Initially, she thought it was a scam and expected the conversation to eventually turn to her credit card information or bank details.

Instead, Iunn was surprised when the person on the other end revealed that they knew her full name, the name of the book she had ordered in February and where she had ordered it from.

According to Iunn, they were curious about what she thought of If China Attacks and why she had bought the book in the first place.

“They also wanted me to know that the book contained inappropriate and sensitive content and was a piece of propaganda,” she recalled.

The person also told her that in the event of a war between China and Taiwan, Taiwanese forces would be no match for the Chinese military.

At that point, Iunn realised that she was being subjected to Chinese cognitive warfare.

Beijing considers Taiwan to be part of China and has not ruled out using force to achieve its goal of bringing the self-ruled democratic island under its control.

The best way to avoid a war, Iunn was told, would be for her to vote for the opposition party, Kuomintang (KMT), rather than the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in the presidential and legislative elections that will take place on January 13.

The KMT wants friendlier relations between Taiwan and China while Beijing has refused to engage in dialogue with the DPP, which the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) claims is “separatist”. The DPP rejects such accusations and says it is up to the people of Taiwan to choose their leaders and their future.

Iunn found the call itself ridiculous but it also left her concerned that the callers had been able to collect so much personal information about her.

“It felt like a message to people like me from the CCP, saying that we know who you are and we know you are against China,” Iunn said.

“And that is quite frightening.”

Making the ‘right choice’

Beijing has made it no secret that it is taking an active stance regarding the Taiwanese election.

Chinese officials have called the election a “choice between peace and war”, a slogan used by the KMT, and urged the people of Taiwan to make the “right choice”.

During a sit-down in February in China between the head of Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office, Song Tao, and KMT deputy chairman, Hsia Li-yan, Tao told Hsia that China was willing to forge closer relations with the party.

Meanwhile, the CCP has refused to engage in dialogue with the DPP administration of incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen since she was first elected in 2016.

Instead, Beijing has bypassed the Taiwanese government to engage directly with local Taiwanese leaders and officials.

Earlier this year, the Chinese authorities exempted a southeastern Taiwanese county from an import ban on Taiwanese custard apples. The exemption came through after a KMT commissioner from the county visited China twice.

More than a thousand local Taiwanese leaders have headed to China lately – many more than in the lead-up to the last national election.

Recently, district prosecutors’ offices across Taiwan have opened investigations into hundreds of these cases as evidence suggests that Beijing has either partly or fully covered the expenses of these trips.

Prominent public figures have also been the targets of alleged Chinese activities leading up to the election.

In October, China’s state-run Global Times reported that Chinese authorities had launched a tax probe into the activities of Taiwanese tech giant Foxconn which generates about 70 percent of its revenue from products made in China.

The announcement came two months after billionaire founder and former Foxconn CEO Terry Gou had declared his own independent run for president – a move that the Global Times suggested would split the opposition camp and favour of the “secessionist ruling DPP”.

After the tax probe became public, Terry Gou cancelled several campaign events and a few weeks later, dropped out of the race.

Also in October, the Chinese authorities extended an investigation into “Taiwan’s trade barriers against China” until January 12 – the day before the election.

According to Fang-Yu Chen, an assistant professor at Soochow University in Taipei who researches political relations between China and Taiwan, such decisions so close to the election are no coincidence.

“This is part of an organised Chinese effort to create chaos, stoke distrust and spread dissatisfaction with the current DPP government,” Chen said.

Online campaigns

This is not the first time there have been reports of increasing activity directed at Taiwan in the run-up to an election. Interference efforts were also reported in the local elections in 2018 and the presidential election in 2020.

As in previous polls, this time’s efforts involve cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns.

Google warned in early December of a huge increase in Chinese cyberattacks over the past six months directed at Taiwan’s defence sector, private industries and government.

In August, Meta, the company behind Facebook and Instagram, cracked down on a Chinese influence campaign involving more than 7,500 accounts across different platforms in the company’s largest such operation to date. Many of the accounts were targeting Taiwan.

There have also been cases of TikTok being used to spread disinformation among Taiwanese users while also monitoring their activities, according to a French documentary that aired in early December.

Ai-Men Lau is a research analyst at the Taiwan-based organisation, Doublethink Lab, which tracks malign Chinese influence operations and disinformation campaigns as well as their impact.

Lau told Al Jazeera that while it can be difficult to trace much of the manipulative content or disinformation straight to China, there are often signs pointing in that direction.

“Some suspicious accounts only operate during Chinese office hours from 9am to 5pm with a lunch break in between, and they will post pure media content more than 200 times a day,” she said.

“Unless that is your job, it does not align with natural human behaviour.”

At the same time, Chinese disinformation tactics have also evolved, according to Lau.

“We are seeing the PRC increasingly using Taiwanese voices such as journalists, local proxies and social media influencers to get their message across,” she said, using the acronym for the People’s Republic of China.

This makes it challenging to distinguish a personal opinion from planted or seeded Chinese disinformation, which in turn makes such disinformation difficult to counter.

“It also makes the Chinese involvement much more covert,” Lau added.

A coordinated effort

In spite of the more covert nature, Taiwanese intelligence recently stated that interference activities directed at Taiwan were coordinated by top Communist Party leaders.

According to the intelligence, the CCP’s fourth-ranked leader, Wang Huning, held a meeting in early December between certain ministries and agencies about ensuring the effectiveness of various efforts targeting the election in Taiwan.

Recent episodes do show signs of a more integrated Chinese approach.

For example, protests in Taipei against the visit of a United States arms manufacturer where participants were paid to attend by Chinese proxies, fake news about US plans for the destruction of Taiwan and a controversy stoked around an upcoming bilateral agreement between India and Taiwan were all cases where Chinese involvement took on various forms across different online and offline spaces, and sought to exploit existing local grievances.

“Particularly in terms of using existing issues and concerns in Taiwan, Chinese activities have grown increasingly sophisticated,” said Chen from Soochow University.

According to Doublethink Lab’s Lau, disinformation campaigns exploiting existing grievances threaten to deepen polarisation in Taiwan and could ultimately weaken Taiwanese society.

“In the end, it is about undermining resistance to a Chinese annexation of the island,” she said.

The extent and impact of Beijing’s evolving campaigns will only be fully known once the election is over but Iunn is convinced that Chinese attempts at manipulating and swaying Taiwanese voters will only increase as the date of the election moves closer.

“They will try to influence us as much as they can,” she said.

Source: Al Jazeera


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