China Won’t Leave Taiwan’s Election to the Taiwanese

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Written By Pinang Driod

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Taiwan is headed into a close election on Saturday, and China is determined to influence the outcome. Some of Beijing’s tactics are heavy-handed, such as the January 9 threat of sweeping new trade restrictions against Taipei, or the barrage of balloons that drifted over the island beginning last week. Others are by turns sinister and pedestrian—even slightly ridiculous, as might be said of a reported Chinese investigation into a Taiwanese rock group for lip-synching, which authorities on the island charge is politically motivated.

China has long made a habit of harassing Taiwan before the island votes, but is not nearly so practiced at election subversion as, say, Russia. What Beijing does in Taiwan, which it claims as its own, is likely a bellwether in a year when more than 60 countries around the world are holding elections, many of which Beijing would surely like to sway.

“It is an established fact that Taiwan is a test ground for China’s ambitions to exert its malign influence abroad,” Joseph Wu, Taiwan’s foreign minister, wrote in The Economist last week. “Should China succeed in shaping the outcome of voting in Taiwan, it will apply the same tactics to other democracies to promote its preferred international order.”

For Taiwan, the interference follows a defeat for Beijing in the island’s last presidential election, in 2020. That year, Taiwanese voters were swayed by the convulsions in Hong Kong, where hundreds of thousands of protesters demanded greater democratic rights, including universal suffrage, promised to them under the “one country, two systems” formula that was supposed to govern the city for 50 years after the British handover. The former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping had devised the system with an eye toward Taiwan. In light of events in Hong Kong, Taiwan’s incumbent president, Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), rejected the system as a failure and said that Taiwan could never accept it. She won reelection handily, capturing 57 percent of the vote.

Hong Kong “was the largest factor that decided the election four years ago,” Wen-Ti Sung, a nonresident fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub, told me. So toxic is the “one country, two systems” model that the major opposition parties contesting this year’s election have also dismissed it as unviable.

Tsai’s victory appeared to show that China’s attempts to sway Taiwan’s population had failed. Academic research confirmed that some disinformation campaigns had been ineffective or even backfired. But DoubleThink Lab, a Taiwan-based civil-society organization that researches and monitors disinformation, found that Beijing’s aims went well beyond the election outcome and could not be dismissed on that basis alone. Information operations worked to “amplify discord, harshly criticize certain ideologies, and fabricate conspiracies,” the group reported. Despite Tsai’s win, the report concluded, “China’s information operations are profoundly effective in the wars over culture, values, and governance.”

Nor did failure to sway one presidential election discourage Beijing or its proxies from trying to shape the next. Last month, Graphika, a social-media-analytics firm, detailed a campaign to influence online discussions about the election. The group said that the operation had begun in May 2022 and included more than 800 Facebook profiles and 13 Facebook pages, as well as other social-media accounts. The company did not attribute the work to a specific actor but noted that the accounts showed poor Taiwanese language skills; promoted the Kuomintang (KMT) party, which advocates for stronger relations with China; and worked to portray that party’s opponents as incompetent and corrupt. Last month, Taiwanese security officials told reporters that senior Chinese leaders had met to discuss plans to sway the election in the KMT’s favor via news outlets and social media.

In January, I stopped by the offices of TeamT5, a cybersecurity company in Taipei. Analysts there were generally upbeat, if slightly harried, in the run-up to the election. They jokingly referred to their unseen Chinese adversaries as “pen pals,” knew some of their calling cards, and assigned them names from Chinese mythology. But they also described the work as Sisyphean.

“Once you identify it, it has already spread. You can’t stop it,” a threat analyst named Chih-yun Huang told me of disinformation. “You can only observe it.”

Huang had spent the previous months lurking on forums where cybercriminals peddle stolen data, looking for suspicious sales. She told me that actors pushing China’s agenda had recently taken to using “hack and leak” operations to sow its preferred narratives. A user would put supposedly hacked government material up for sale in a dark-web market. Shortly afterward, a thread would appear on a popular online forum, alerting users to the information and linking it to claims of government malfeasance. These stories would eventually migrate to social-media platforms, reaching a wider audience.

Another of TeamT5’s analysts tracks the efforts of Chinese actors to hack Taiwanese media companies and steal their notes, data, and correspondence. During politically important moments, like the run-up to an election, there is an uptick in activity.

China’s target is again the DPP, which it views as favoring Taiwanese independence, though this is a distortion of the party’s position. The DPP has weathered some domestic turmoil during Tsai’s second term: a struggling economy, rising housing costs, and #MeToo charges against some party officials. These concerns have somewhat lessened the election’s focus on the contentious triangle relationship among Taiwan, China, and America, but the issue is never far out of view. “After eight years of the DPP,” Sung told me, “everybody has something to complain about.” Many abroad have lauded the DPP for positioning Taiwan in the international community of democracies, but the party performed poorly in local elections in November 2022, prompting Tsai to resign as its head.

Beijing might have stood to benefit. China’s leadership cut off contact with its Taiwanese counterparts back in 2016, when Tsai was first elected. Loath to recognize the agency of smaller states, Beijing tends to cast those who defy it as mindless lackeys of the United States. That narrative has attached itself to the DPP and become more pronounced as President Joe Biden has repeatedly said that U.S. forces would defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion, setting off a scramble among his aides to insist that America’s policy of strategic ambiguity toward Taiwan remains unchanged.

In electing the DPP, Taiwan has “signed up as one of America’s pawns in its chess game of containing the Chinese mainland,” Shao Yuqun, a scholar at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies, has written. At a recent forum on China I attended, participants from Beijing made clear that the election of Lai Ching-te, the DPP candidate, would foreclose any improvement in relations with the mainland. Many also expressed concern about the import of a second Donald Trump term for U.S. policy toward China and Taiwan. The two countries have established “a very fragile floor,” one said of the recent meeting between American and Chinese leaders. With a Trump victory, he added, “the floor is going to be removed.”

The DPP’s chances have been bolstered, and China’s efforts to sway the election somewhat hampered, by the disorganization of the DPP’s opposition, which spent much of the early campaign period trying—and spectacularly failing—to form a unified ticket. The result is a three-way race among the DPP’s Lai; Hou Yu-ih, of the KMT; and Ko Wen-je, of the relatively upstart Taiwan People’s Party. With the opposition ticket split, Lai has maintained a small but consistent lead in polls, and the DPP is widely predicted to win a historic third presidential term but possibly lose its legislative majority.

“Lai has been incredibly lucky at how dysfunctional the blue camp has been this election cycle,” Lev Nachman, the author of Taiwan: A Contested Democracy Under Threat, told a crowd that had gathered in a Taipei bar’s basement to discuss the election last week. The “blue camp” commonly refers to the opposition friendly to Beijing.

The early uncertainty within the opposition seemed to throw malign actors off their game, Huang, the TeamT5 analyst, told me. Undecided about whom to back, those seeking to manipulate voters directed much of their early disinformation at attacking Lai rather than promoting an opposition candidate. Only when the unified opposition ticket definitively fell apart did she begin to see suspicious accounts throwing their support behind the KMT.

The confusion and indecision among those behind the influence operations were understandable, Huang told me: Democracy can be messy.

“It was a little bit complicated,” she said, “even for Taiwanese people.”

Such nuances are often stripped from the discussion of Taiwan’s elections in favor of a simple binary between unification and independence. In truth, the majority of people in Taiwan support maintaining the status quo, and the leading parties have some similarities. The vote, at least this year, is not purely a de facto referendum on China policy.

Beijing nevertheless believes that the election is too important to be left up to the people of Taiwan, and so it continues to threaten and meddle. For the moment, China hopes to see its candidate of choice emerge victorious. But its long-term goal is for there to be no democratic contest to interfere in at all.

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