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Soft power billions seek ‘consent’

China flag. (Unsplash)
October 15, 2023

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

Amid ongoing efforts by the Taiwanese authorities to stem a roiling tide of Chinese money and disinformation aimed at influencing Taiwan’s January presidential elections, the Taipei District Prosecutors’ Office on Tuesday indicted members of the Taiwan People’s Communist Party.

A day later, National Security Bureau Director-General Tsai Ming-yen warned Taiwan’s legislature that Beijing’s methods of interference in the elections have also diversified, including manipulating public opinion polls and packaging false information as reports from international media.

The development came just days after the U.S. State Department’s Global Engagement Center issued a report warning that China is engaged in a global campaign of disinformation, throwing billions of dollars at furthering Beijing’s aims and burying all criticism of its policies.

The sums in the Taiwan Communist Party case – totaling around US$11,000 in contributions for Don Quixote windmill tilts at office in Taiwan, among other accusations – are paltry by comparison to the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) alleged billions sloshing around the world in pursuit of a coherent soft-power narrative.

But the fact that Taiwan even has a communist party signals that Taiwan’s inclusive, democratic society makes it vulnerable to information influencing campaigns. Allegations in Taiwan are subject to due legal process, which makes it vulnerable to unscrupulous bad actors.

Chief among these is the CCP’s United Front organizations – funded networks of groups and individuals that advance Beijing’s interests – which have been assiduously working for decades to bring Taiwanese around to the idea of unification. Funding is growing year by year.

According to Ryan Fedasiuk, a Non-Resident State Department Fellow at the Center for Security and Emerging Technology, based on information from more than 160 budget and expense reports from national and regional PRC government and Communist Party entities “organizations central to China’s national and regional united front systems spent more than US$2.6 billion in 2019.”

That’s more money than China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs got, according to Fedasiuk.

Diversified disinformation: more targeted and nuanced

Analysts say that China’s disinformation has become more targeted and nuanced over the years.

Kenddrick Chan, head of the Digital International Relations project at LSE IDEAS, said: “It is important to recognise that disinformation from Beijing often takes on different tones and varies in messaging, depending on the target audience.

“For the younger crowd, it is more of portraying the U.S. as an ‘unreliable ally,’ with Ukraine and Afghanistan being examples etc. Beijing knows that the ‘China is your friend’ line is much less likely to work for the younger generation.”

But, for the older generation, says Chan, “the messaging tends to be that the DPP [Democratic Progressive Party] has messed up across the spectrum, from worsening Cross Strait’s relations to economic mismanagement etc.”

Last week a State Department report said, “The PRC suppresses critical information that contradicts its desired narratives on issues such as Taiwan, its human rights practices, the South China Sea, its domestic economy, and international economic engagement. More broadly, the PRC seeks to cultivate and uphold a global incentive structure that encourages foreign governments, elites, journalists, and civil society to accept its preferred narratives and avoid criticizing its conduct.”

Last year, Taiwan was the leading target for foreign – and China – disinformation for nine years in a row, according to V-Dem, a Swedish institute that produces annual reports dedicated to pulling back the veil on global disinformation. 

In the Taiwan legislature on Wednesday, National Security Bureau’s Tsai told legislators that apart from military intimidation, the CCP United Front was also exerting economic pressure, including putting pressure on Taiwanese businesses, disseminating false information and shaping a narrative that Taiwan must choose between “peace or war” in the January presidential elections.

DPP legislator Lin Ching-yi asked Tsai whether Taiwanese collaborators were playing “ping pong” with the United Front, referring to “pay to play” bounce-forward-bounce-back amplification of disinformation.

“There’s an industry chain involved in the operation of false information,” Tsai replied. “The CCP quotes international media, such as Russian media, to present it as an international media report, and then creates disputed information to resell to the industry chain. Distribution channels include one-time accounts, stolen accounts and AI technology to massively generate artificial accounts.”

But long-time Taiwan commentator and election pollster Courtney Donovan Smith said despite all the money being thrown at influencing elections in Taiwan by the CCP’s United Front, he thought that Taiwan’s electorate was becoming increasingly better at sorting the wheat from the chaff.

“They’ll [the United Front] run into diminishing returns as more and more people grow suspicious, [and] eventually they’ll only be trusted by the hardcore and extreme voters who want to believe them.

“It will take time, though, so I’m worried it might impact this election.”

Chan of LSE IDEAS was more cautious, noting that influencing Taiwan’s elections may not be as simple as China’s United Front imagines.

“Of course, it is safe to say that CCP influence campaigns have had a non-negligible effect on the decision-making process of voters,” he said. “However, there are also other factors at play here – some voters might give more weight to socio-economics issues as opposed to geopolitical ones.”

He added, “This is where you can see the dynamics of Taiwanese politics at play.”

Blame the Americans

As Chan noted, the ‘China is your friend’ line is widely met with justified skepticism by Taiwanese, who closely watched the CCP’s hard-handed and increasing control of Hong Kong after the 2019 protests.

But “Americans are untrustworthy” is a line the CCP’s United Front sees as having traction.

Last month, The Taiwan Information Environment Research Center (IORG) released a report entitled “U.S. Skepticism Narratives and Where They Come From.”

According to the report, the CCP leads the way in skepticism towards the U.S., shaping a worldview for Chinese-speaking readers that aligns with the CCP’s interests.

Between 2021 and the first half of 2023, the United Front, the report said, highlighted shortages of COVID-19 vaccine supplies, the Biden administration’s first arms sale to Taiwan, the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, former U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, TSMC’s establishment of factories in the U.S. and the CCP’s military exercises against Taiwan in April of this year – the latter being a scare tactic: vote wrong, vote for war.

The IORG classified the above as mostly “conspiracy theories” that aimed to lead Taiwanese to see the U.S. and Taiwanese elites as conspiring to exploit the Taiwanese people and profit from them.

The investigation found that the CCP accounted for some 84% of such narratives.

“Skepticism towards the U.S. can be understood as an authoritarian regime’s attempt to create dissent against its competitors,” Huang Jaw-nian, assistant professor at National Chengchi University’s Graduate Institute of National Development, told Radio Free Asia Mandarin service.

“From China’s perspective, it crafts ‘dissent against the U.S.’ and covertly infuses agreement with China.”

Jasmine Lee, analyst at BowerGroupAsia and co-editor at U.S. Taiwan Watch said her research suggests the CCP is involved in more than half of the disinformation efforts that she described as “Fake Friends, Fake Democracy, Anti-World and Destroy Taiwan.”

“Is it possible that … the CCP understands better than the Taiwanese whether the U.S. and Taiwan are friends? Is China more aware of the crucial role of democracy in U.S.-Taiwan relations?” she asked.

“No,” she said. “It’s just that China understands the leadership position of the U.S. in the world, and so they want to tell you that the U.S. is ‘anti-world’ and will harm Taiwan.”