What you need to know
A military insider reveals how events like the Kansai Airport disinformation incident expose deep flaws in Taiwan's strategy to counter Chinese influence campaigns.
The Republic of China (ROC) military is not usually candid about internal affairs as it fears they will negatively affect morale. But without a war to fight, even if the Eight Flags of the ROC Army are bursting with morale, it will not make much of a difference.
Surely it is be better to openly discuss internal problems, so that we at least know what needs to be improved.
Personally, I’m not afraid of leaking any internal secrets to the enemy. After all, the worst kept secret is that, in the fight against Chinese psychological warfare, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense has no clue what it’s doing.
Psychological warfare: The modern day battlefield
The average person may think that psychological warfare is an unessential aspect of war in an era ruled by missiles and (very big) buttons.
However, psychological warfare (psy-war) is one of the very few battles between countries that can be ‘fought’ continuously and is thus actually ‘valuable.’ You cannot just casually launch a missile, but you can dish out “fake news” whenever you want.
Recently, after the Kansai Airport disinformation incident and the suicide of Su Chii-cherng (蘇啟誠), director-general of the Osaka branch of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office, in September, people in Taiwan have finally begun to notice the might of modern-day psychological combat.
In today’s world, the costs of deploying troops is incredibly high, encompassing logistics costs, political risk, and potential economic sanctions. Therefore, most defense work is done in preparation for war: training, running drills, and maintaining military supplies, all to increase readiness for the next battle.
Hacking and stealing your enemy’s military secrets is just another element in this warm up for a war that has yet to begin.
But psychological warfare can also be used to directly impact another nation’s strength in times of peace. Effective psy-war will affect an enemy’s domestic situation, while subverting its political power – a light impact could affect the elections, but a heavy impact could cause a revolution. This thereby weakens the threat posed by the enemy.
All methods of warfare other than military might can fall under the classification ‘political warfare’ (pol-war). Psychological warfare is an indispensable weapon in this arena.
Government departments and media outlets with a conscience must be completely committed to journalistic ethics. However, military personnel are not bound by this duty. They only require devotion to working in the best strategic interests of their countries. Therefore, intervening in media to affect online and public opinion is now one of the duties of modern psy-war.
As the CCP stationed a large number of their cyber troops on Taiwan’s major news websites, online forums, and social media, Taiwan's own psy-war division did not have its cyber defense battalion established, could not even directly post messages on Facebook or LINE, and was only allowed to contribute articles from editorials or post messages through the department’s Facebook fan page.
For example, after Russia was found to have interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, the U.S. government prosecuted 12 Russian intelligence officers, all of whom are former soldiers.
Closer to home, the Communist Party of China (CCP)’s cross-Strait cyber army, mockingly nicknamed the “50 Cent Party” due to the fees they allegedly receive per social media post, emit a constant flow of political propaganda posts on LINE, and “fake news” real enough to meddle with Taiwan’s internal operations. These provide superficial evidence of a deeper calculus.
When the CCP disseminates product messages, they are thinking about the end result: how the people of Taiwan will react to specific information; how it will affect public opinion; how the Taiwanese media will react; and what kind of impact it will have on Taiwan’s political and military situation.
It should be noted here that even though we refer to such operations as ‘cyber warfare,’ they are completely different from Taiwan’s Information, Communication, and Electronic Warfare Command, which was formed last year and is responsible for obtaining national security and military secrets.
The technical level and approach involved with these two approaches is as different as night and day, and should not be confused. The ROC military is currently paying more attention to the latter – and does not seem to have much of a clue about the former.
Cross-strait psychological warfare: A confrontation between the CCP and the ROC army
In China, a one-party state, the departments involved in the implementation of psychological warfare against Taiwan and the opinion of its public encompass a wide selection of high-level CCP departments and entities.
These departments span the CCP itself, the government, and the military, including the Central Publicity Department, the United Front Work Department, and the Communist Youth League, but also reach as far as the Taiwan Affairs Office and its peripheral organizations.
The attacks on public opinion online that everyone is familiar with are meticulously planned and then implemented by these departments.
As for the CCP’s psy-war department, they are more focused on the tactical side of psychological warfare – propaganda broadcasts, a war of words – and do not really engage directly in strategic psychological warfare against Taiwan.
So, what are the corresponding departments for countering cross-Strait psychological warfare and public opinion attacks in Taiwan? Let’s look at the same three sectors of political parties, the government, and the military:
On the political side, some parties and politicians in Taiwan have cyber troops However, these exist for dealing with their political opponents and opposing candidates. They are never used specifically to help fend against the CCP’s cyber army, so we can ignore them in this analysis.
In terms of government entities, there are departments that are used to announce public information and to publicly clarify news stories, such as the Executive Yuan’s “Real-Time News Clarification” portal. However, there is no department that specializes in propagating public opinion or the dissemination of product messages. After all, if a democratic country’s civic organizations intervened directly in public matters in order to influence public opinion, there would be an understandable backlash.
As for the so-called 'prevention' or 'defense' against cross-Strait attacks targeted at public opinion, portals such as the Executive Yuan website are basically useless. When faced with disinformation campaigns, it doesn’t matter whether it is monitoring problematic internet groups and organizations or utilizing big data systems to grasp public sentiment. Even if you are making sure government officials quickly respond to comments and clarify their standpoints, it is pretty much impossible to utilize “defense” in these situations.
The PRC’s psy-war department began to produce a large amount of content for Facebook and LINE, which has, at least, prompted some political interest in certain demographics.
Taiwan’s psy-war division, on the other hand, responded by releasing a series of laughably outdated politically satirical comic strips.
Modern day psy-war is difficult to defend against. Even more difficult to deal with is the damage it causes. The real solution to defend against psy-war is to disseminate product messages that resonate more with the public, going head-to-head against the enemy’s propaganda, fighting fire with fire, and reducing the effectiveness of your opponent’s attack, or even shifting the public’s attention.
It would seem that only the military and other related intelligence departments can offer a solution to counter the cross-Strait psy-war.
Within the current existing functions, the National Security Bureau focuses on countering espionage and infiltration and strategic intelligence research. The Military Intelligence Bureau focuses on collecting intelligence on military affairs. The only department under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of National Defense that actually specializes in information dissemination and psychological warfare is the Political Warfare Bureau.
The current cross-Strait psy-war battlefield is a clash between an authoritarian country’s “political party” and a liberalist country’s “military.” It is the CCP up against the ROC army.
It may feel disproportionate, but it does not mean that Taiwan is doomed to lose. The outcome also depends on whether the ROC army is aware that it is the only official command able to counter the enemy’s attacks, and what actions they choose to take in response.
Within the Political Warfare Bureau, there is in fact a psychological warfare division. The psy-war division has under its command the Psychological Operations Battalion (POB), which should be deployed to balance and cancel out the psychological warfare operations from the other side of the strait.
This is the reality of the situation: the current commander of Taiwan’s special task force for cross-Strait psychological warfare, public opinion warfare, and propaganda warfare is the director of the psychological warfare division of the Political Warfare Bureau, General Chen Yu-lin (陳育琳), who was promoted to the position in October 2016.
The person responsible for the implementation of both psychological warfare and propaganda warfare is the man directly under the command of General Chen: the chief of the POB, Colonel Chang Ching-tai (張景泰), promoted in September 2017. All POB operations are basically determined by the psy-war division.
In other words, the official Taiwanese opponent of the CCP’s Central Publicity Department, United Front Department, and Communist Youth League is its Psychological Operations Battallion. It is difficult to emphasize just how important this government entity is.
However, even with such an important military entity, there are two terrifying secrets:
First, is the Entertainment Battalion and the Broadcasting Battalion (the Voice of Han Broadcasting Network), which are two units that are in no way related to psy-war operations and were not part of that division until they were randomly brought together in 2013. It's a little like sewing a cat and a dog’s brains into a person's body. The three can't be integrated together or even communicate. You can imagine the consequences.
This has led to a very ridiculous problem: dancers and artists are recruited into the psy-war brigade, but instead of carrying out art related work as they were expecting, they are shipped off to find out intelligence on the enemy, and unsurprisingly prove ineffective.
In addition, the division cannot provide enough training or tutoring; therefore, in the end, these people are not qualified to do any of the work. These types of situations are endless and show the breadth of the gap between the strengths of the two sides of the strait. Even the smallest battalions of the two sides are worlds apart.
Second, commanding officers may act with selfish motives and promoting trusted followers into higher positions, even if these underlings have no understanding of psy-war, art, or media. A situation such as this would have catastrophic consequences. Such selfish people do not understand just how important their positions are for national security; they cannot distinguish between their aides, staff members, psy-war personnel, and performers. By randomly assigning personnel into all the wrong positions, Taiwan’s psy-war division could eventually be destroyed from within.
How does Taiwan’s psy-war division handle these cross-strait offensives?
First, we can take a look at the results: during the last two years, as the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has gradually increased their psy-war attacks against Taiwan and achieved results, how has the POB, and its commanding psy-war division, responded under the leadership of the Political Warfare Bureau?
In 2014, China’s psy-war division was successful, to a certain extent, when they stationed a large number of their cyber troops on Taiwan’s major news websites, online forums, and social media, in order to encourage the view that Taiwan’s government was “completely out of their depth.”
At that time, Taiwan's own psy-war division did not have its cyber defense battalion established, could not even directly post messages on Facebook or LINE, and was only allowed to contribute articles from editorials or post messages through the department’s Facebook fan page.
The PRC’s psy-war division had already thoroughly understood the various differing sentiments held by people in Taiwan. This is because they learned long ago how to coax some Taiwanese into the 50 Cent Party; how to use traditional Chinese characters and sound Taiwanese; how to select which issues to upvote and which to downvote; and more importantly, how to fake being a democrat or pro-independence activist in order to attack those groups.
Not only did the leaders of Taiwan's psy-war division not understand the ecology of the PRC’s online environment – they didn’t even grasp their own domestic one. They seemed to have no intention of analyzing the political groups and ideologies behind the issues on each thread. This lack of effort has arisen because frontline analysts believe that even if you write a report, the people up top won’t understand it, and all the top-level ever wants are numbers that will help validate policies.
The PRC’s psychological warfare department already had a keen grasp of Taiwan’s different demographics and the corresponding popular trends. It began to produce a large amount of content for Facebook and LINE, which has, at least, prompted some political interest in certain demographics.
Taiwan’s psy-war division, on the other hand, responded by releasing a series of laughably outdated politically satirical comic strips. Everything from the mismatched color schemes, wordy dialogue, bad illustration and a terrible, old-fashioned sense of humor was at play.
In short, it was completely irrelevant for this day and age, and wasn’t even intended for official use on social media. It was instead only created to cater to and humor senior level officers who were not part of the psy-war division.
Rumor has it, the PRC intelligence department once gave their agents this instruction: When collecting military intelligence, do not go searching for information on political warfare. If this is true, then that means even the CCP knows that Taiwan’s political warfare department is doing very little of value and is therefore not worth spying on.
The PRC’s psy-war department had a tight grip on political dignitaries and opinion leaders in Taiwan and was able to take advantage of trending public sentiment in Taiwan based on intelligence gathered from online discussions and in daily interactions. By expanding their network in Taiwan, and paying close attention to local opinion, they have been able to consolidate the intelligence information in addition to making up for any gaps in their existing database.
In contrast, Taiwan’s psy-war department’s intelligence gathering on the PRC’s government and social trends was limited to the use of Open Source Intelligence (OSINT), which, put bluntly, consists of information that is mostly already available on the internet. Those in command still have no intention of establishing connections with “real people” to expand Taiwan’s intelligence network.
OSINT is not useless, but the problem with it is that most of the information included about China is actually released by the CCP and therefore has a number of discrepancies due to editing. If you cannot tell the difference between authentic information and propaganda, then all you are doing is following the trail of breadcrumbs left by the CCP.
Due to our nation’s over-dependence on second-hand information and lack of cultivating intelligence gathering abilities, Taiwan’s psychological warfare department, which has long been the first line of defense against the information released by the PRC, has been the first group to suffer in the cross-Strait psychological war.
Their work consists mainly of responsive action, dictated by the information released by Beijing. When they advocate the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), we adhere to the trend and also discuss the BRI. When they deployed the aircraft carrier Liaoning for patrol, we get dragged along and also discussed the Liaoning. Taiwan’s psy-war division has fundamentally lost the ability to itself come up with creative topics that arouse positive public sentiment.
This is the general reality of Taiwan's current psy-war division. It is a perfect example of the cost of having unqualified professional leadership – even though the division has the most outstanding officers within the entire army, each with exceptional individual abilities, when they are assembled into a mismatched group under the leadership of their senior commanding officers, none of them are able to fully exploit their talents. In the end, it has nurtured a problematic way of thinking:
“If the commanding officer wants a stone, they shall get a stone. If the commanding officer wants garbage, they shall get garbage.”
Both the ROC armed forces and the CCP are institutions in which a long-standing bureaucracy exists. However, in the field of psy-war, the bureaucracy within Taiwan’s army is far more prominent than it is in the CCP. That tragic fact sends shivers down my spine.
What do the Americans think? The U.S. actually hopes that Taiwan will show a few flashes of brilliance and prove their worth. After all the country does speak Chinese, so in theory, if anyone was to decode China, it would be the Chinese-speaking democracy next door.
The States does not have much of a political warfare structure itself, but they do understand the power it possesses. This year, the RAND Corporation published a report on the political warfare attacks executed by China and Russia on the U.S. and its allies (such as “fake news” and interference in public opinion, etc.), and encouraged the White House to actively respond. Therefore, they are keenly watching to see how Taiwan plays out their political battles. However, after only a few skirmishes, they have quickly lost interest.
How about the CCP? Rumor has it, the PRC intelligence department once gave their intelligence agents this instruction: When collecting military intelligence, do not go searching for information on political warfare. If this is true, then that means even the CCP knows that Taiwan’s political warfare department is doing very little of value and is therefore not worth spying on.
This is the reality of the situation – I am just telling it how it is. As for a more detailed explanation of the situation in each region, that will be revealed in a forthcoming article.
This article originally appeared on the Chinese-language Taiwan edition of The News Lens. The original can be found here.
Translator: Zeke Li
Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)
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