ANALYSIS: Taking the Measure of China's Meddling in Taiwan's Local Elections

ANALYSIS: Taking the Measure of China's Meddling in Taiwan's Local Elections
Credit: AP / TPG
What you need to know

The real question is, which new strategies did China use ahead of the Nov. 24 polls, and to what extend were they successful?

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By Chen Yu-hua

Taiwan completed its nine-in-one local election on Nov. 24, 2018, which ended up being a historical defeat of the ruling Democratic Progress Party (DPP). Before and after every election, Taiwanese officials and the general population question whether China would or did meddle in the process. However, this question is somewhat misleading, because China has been meddling in Taiwanese elections, if not everyday life, since the very beginning of Taiwanese democratization.

The very first Taiwanese presidential election was completed against the dire backdrop of multiple Chinese military exercises and missile tests around the waters of Taiwan from July 1995 to March 1996. Therefore, the real question is: did China’s meddling in the 2018 Taiwanese election use any new strategies, or transform into a different model? And, if so, was China successful?

Before and during the election, many were worried that China would try to replicate a so-called Russian model to meddle in the election. Generally speaking, people holding this concern referred to two specific events in which Russian behavior interfered in another country’s affairs: 1) the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014; and 2) the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

The former example caused concern around the possibility of China emulating Russia’s strategy of occupying Crimea. Specifically, there were concerns that China might try to create political chaos in Taiwanese society during the election by assassinating popular candidates, producing election disputes, or even instigating civil riots. If that happened, China, in the name of responding to the request of pro-Beijing Taiwanese, would have an excuse for a military takeover of Taiwan.

Considering Beijing’s close relations with many organized criminal groups in Taiwan, such a concern was not entirely groundless. In 2014, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio and Senator Christopher Murphy questioned the U.S. Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Daniel Russel, at the hearing of the Subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs, on whether the inaction of the U.S. in the Crimea crisis might encourage China to replicate Russia’s strategy against Taiwan.

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Credit: Reuters / TPG
US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russel, here talking to reporters during a news conference after a meeting with South Korea's senior officials in Seoul, was questioned by US senators over the possibility of China taking encouragement from the lack of push back towards Russia following its annexation of Crimea.

The second event refers to how Russia fed U.S. voters massive amounts of disinformation produced by Russian trolls and hackers, and hence changed the outcome of the election. Although the causation between the Russian intervention and the U.S. presidency of Donald Trump is still under debate, it is a fact that Russia fed U.S. voters disinformation and anti-Clinton posts via social media. Evidence presented to U.S. Congressional hearings shows Russian-generated information reached 126 million Americans by Facebook alone.

In hindsight, the first model of China’s meddling did not occur. Throughout the whole election day on Nov. 24, there was no sign pointing to any attempt by China to sabotage this election. The most severe election dispute that happened on the day was that the Central Election Commission, which is the primary agency responsible for managing election affairs in Taiwan, started to count votes at 4 p.m. (the official closing time of voting) while a significant number of voters were still queuing for voting, especially in Taipei City. There was a chance that this decision of the Commission might have triggered queuing voters to change their preference. This election dispute, however, mainly resulted from the Commission’s incorrect assessment of how much time a single voter would spend in a ballot booth during this rather complex election (every Taiwanese voter needs to vote for nine different civil posts and 10 referendum questions).

However, there are many signs indicating that the second model of Chinese meddling in the election occurred, and the trend is rather alarming. Since Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) took office in 2016, China has adopted at least five major ways to influence the opinions of the Taiwanese public: 1) producing a sea of disinformation via Chinese official news outlets and especially content farms such as Coco01, Apple01, or Bombo1; 2) spreading the disinformation through social media which Taiwanese usually use, such as PTT, Facebook, Line, YouTube, or WeChat; 3) altering online policy debates on social media in Beijing’s favor by Chinese trolls and hackers; 4) attacking DPP officials’ social media accounts and governmental websites; 5) falsifying the popularity of candidates whom Beijing prefers such as Kaohsiung mayor-elect Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜) on social media, the internet, TV, and newspapers. It seems that these five mechanisms of online discourse warfare toward Taiwanese society do not have clear boundaries separating them, but mutually reinforce each other at the same time and with the same purpose – to undermine the Tsai government and the DPP.

This discourse warfare has had a powerful effect on the Taiwanese public’s impression of the Tsai government.

China seeking to influence Taiwanese society through discourse warfare is not something new. The Chinese Communist Party has upheld Vladimir Lenin’s belief: ‘‘The easiest way to capture a fortress is from within,” for many decades. It was one important reason that the Kuomintang (KMT) lost the Chinese Civil War. What is new is the new level of channel, intensity, scope, and sophistication of the warfare in the past two years. This discourse warfare has had a powerful effect on the Taiwanese public’s impression of the Tsai government. Lo Chih-cheng (羅致政), a DPP legislator of Taiwan, believes the disinformation from China has something to do with the People's Liberation Army Strategic Support Force, which was established in 2015.

This level of Chinese meddling in the election also gained the attention of the U.S. Two weeks before the election, AIT Chairman James Moriarty stated on a TV interview that “There are obviously attempts by external powers here in Taiwan to try and alter the debate and spread false information, and those are dangerous.”

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Credit: AP / TPG
Chairman of the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) James Moriarty warned on the dangers of interference in Taiwan's democratic process.

Nevertheless, one needs to be very cautious not to fall into the trap of overly attributing the historic defeat of the DPP in this election to China’s meddling. Numerous academic studies have proved that people’s prior beliefs strongly affect how they process discrepant information against their belief systems. People tend to believe what they have already believed. In other words, Chinese disinformation delivered to the Taiwanese would most likely sway only the undecided Taiwanese voters, not voters who had already determined who they would vote for.

Most importantly, Taiwanese are also influenced by true information at the same time because of the openness and diversity of Taiwanese society. In this sense, there could be a considerable number of pro-DPP voters that changed their political loyalty away from the DPP in this election, due to other reasons. One strong alternative theory explaining the poor performance of the DDP in the election is that the party, in some aspects, disavowed the values and issues it had long upheld when it was an opposition party from 2008–2016, such as Taiwanese identity, labor rights, anti-nuclear energy, or same-sex marriage. This theory is further supported by the empirical evidence from this election. The vote proportion in favor of the DDP in Kaohsiung City has never been lower than 44 percent in the past two decades, but this time it was just 44.8 percent. A similar situation occurred in Tainan City, where only 38 percent of voters were in favor of the DDP, though this was enough to propel its candidate Huang Wei-cher (黃偉哲) to victory.

Taiwan is not the only country that has suffered election meddling from China. Countries around the world like the U.S., New Zealand, Australia and even Cambodia have all experienced different levels of meddling by China in their elections. In terms of the result, it would be fair to say China’s meddling via online discourse warfare in the Taiwan election in 2018 was quite successful. The Taiwanese government does not yet have effective measures to counter this meddling. However, this success does not necessarily mean that the intervention of China delivered the victory to the KMT.

Yu-Hua Chen is a PhD candidate at the School of Culture, History, and Language at the Australian National University. Image credit: CC by World’s Direction/Flickr.

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The News Lens has been authorized to repost this article. The piece was first published by Taiwan Insight, the online magazine of the University of Nottingham’s Taiwan Studies Program.

TNL Editor: David Green (@DavidPeterGreen)

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