Red Media and CCP's Influence Operations: How Taiwanese Media Became Beijing’s Proxy

Red Media and CCP's Influence Operations: How Taiwanese Media Became Beijing’s Proxy
What you need to know

The CCP is engaged in a sophisticated warfare to control what’s going into your mind.

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Cover image by Stellina Chen

Even before the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) became China’s ruling party, it has always put an emphasis on taking over the minds of the people as a psychological warfare. Stirring dissent and infiltrating enemy organizations were instrumental in CCP’s victory against Kuomintang (KMT) during the Chinese Civil War.

In its continuous attempt to claim sovereignty over Taiwan, the CCP has waged a similar tactic against Taiwan in the 21st century. Taiwanese politicians, public figures, and media outlets have been increasingly vocal in supporting closer ties or “reunification” with China, even though Taiwan was never ruled by the Communist Party.

On New Year’s Day, Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) reiterated China’s right to the use of force in preventing a de jure Taiwan declaration of independence. While Beijing has yet to use armed forces against Taiwan despite constant threats, it has launched an aggressive pro-unification campaign through Taiwanese-owned media.

China’s media infiltration in Taiwan has led to the insurgence of “red media,” a newly coined term referring to Taiwanese-owned media that actively fall in line with Beijing’s interests. The problem of “red media” gained widespread attention in Taiwan when left-wing legislator Huang Kuo-chang (黃國昌) and right-wing influencer Chen Chih-han (陳之漢) allied to organize a massive rally against Beijing’s encroachments in June.

反親中媒體遊行  民眾舉標語表訴求(2)
Photo Credit: CNA
Taipei's massive rally against "red media" on June 23, 2019

Despite the recency of the protest, the Chinese infiltration into Taiwanese media and political landscape has been a long-standing issue that can be traced back to 2008.

In 2008, Tsai Eng-meng (蔡衍明), chairman of the Taiwanese-owned food company Want Want China, purchased the financially struggling China Times, one of the largest newspapers in Taiwan. Shortly after the purchase, Tsai met with Wang Yi (王毅), director of China’s Taiwan Affairs Office at the time and now a state councilor of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). During the meeting, Tsai told Wang that he hoped to push forward the cross-strait relations through the power of media.

Tsai explicitly supported unification between China and Taiwan during an interview with Washington Post in 2012 and said, “Whether you like it or not, unification is going to happen sooner or later.” In the same interview, he also denied that the 1989 Tiananmen military assault on student protesters was a massacre.

According to a 2015 report published by Taiwan’s Tsinghua University, China Times’ corporate structure had been drastically changed since Tsai’s purchase. Through 15 anonymous interviews with China Times employees, the researchers revealed how China’s Taiwan Affairs Office was in regular contact and engaged in favor-exchanges with the China Times newsroom. Chinese intelligence agents from the Ministry of State Security (MSS) also contacted the reporters regularly, both reminding them of Beijing’s constant surveillance of the so-called “red line” and appearing to befriend them by providing tips.

As Sun Tzu wrote in the Art of War, “The supreme art of war is not to fight a hundred battle and win each, but rather to have an enemy submit without having to fight any.”

Discontent China Times employees have frequently written in public to complain about the erosion of journalism ethics in the company’s organizational structure. The editorial stance of China Times has also been heavily criticized for propagating the Beijing perspective. In the past months, the publication has erased and reposted reports relating to the Tiananmen Square Incident from its website, according to Central News Agency.

CTi News (中天電視), a cable news channel similarly under the Want Want conglomerate, was fined NT$200,000 in January for spreading misinformation. In May, it was again fined NT$1 million for “failing to fact-check.”

In these cases, Tsai Eng-meng’s corporate interest dangerously lines up with that of the CCP; both parties would like to see Taiwan unified under China. While the latter has always employed state media that pushed on politicized narratives, sometimes through a deliberate twisting of facts, the former has started to adopt the same tactics. “Red media” thus refers to Taiwanese media that behave and publish like China’s state-owned media.

國民黨立院黨團  抗議NCC重罰中天
Photo Credit: CNA
KMT Legislators claim the penalty against CTi News as "Green Terror" during a press conference on March 28, 2019.

While evidence has pointed to the cooperation between Want Want Group and the CCP, many of the measures used to influence Taiwanese voters are not considered illegal by Taiwanese laws. In the case of Want Want, the fact that a majority of its business is located in China makes it even harder for the Taiwanese government to halt influence campaigns from a top-down perspective. Dubbed as a beacon of democracy, Taiwan under the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) administration would find even more trouble in regulating media output in an act against media liberty.

China has started to use its power in a “whole-of-state” approach to change international political reality as it sees fit in all realms. Beyond media control, Beijing has tried to revise the map by drawing arbitrary dashes and lines in the South and East China Sea to claim additional territories. Last year, two Chinese companies were also found to have aggressively stolen US intellectual properties through a Taiwanese proxy.

The CCP’s influence operation has stretched its reach all over the world, and Taiwan’s “red media” case just the tip of an iceberg. As Taiwanese legislator Hsiao Bi-khim (蕭美琴) mentioned during a speech at the Atlantic Council in April, China is inserting its influence via religious organizations as well as the agriculture and tourism sectors.

Formless and subtle, these influence operations may not cause visible violence, but they do form an artificial, alternate reality for the Taiwanese people, with politicized lies constantly told to reinforce a certain way of thinking in order to facilitate the realization of China’s ultimate goal: claiming sovereignty over Taiwan and eliminating the Taiwanese identity.

反鐵籠公投  韓粉郭粉聚凱道
Photo Credit: CNA
A red sea of supporters for KMT presidential candidates Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜) and Terry Guo (郭台銘) at Ketagalan Boulevard in Taipei.

Michael J. Cole, a Taipei-based policy analyst, wrote that the CCP’s media influence campaign consists of six goals: manipulate public trust weaken morale, sow confusion, court elites of the civil society, coerce CCP critics, and exacerbate feelings of abandonment.

The CCP's ongoing psychological warfare is deeply rooted in Chinese and Marxist-Leninist doctrines, said Mark Stokes, Project 2049’s executive director. Classical literature such as the Thirty-Six Stratagems (三十六計) and the Art of War (孫子兵法) provides insight into the CCP's imperial strategy as both works emphasize on winning battles by first attacking the enemy's mind.

As Sun Tzu wrote in the Art of War, “The supreme art of war is not to fight a hundred battle and win each, but rather to have an enemy submit without having to fight any.” The people of Taiwan, most of whom underwent an even more orthodox education on Chinese values than those across the strait, can find that old adage now applies to a people who share some common history. The highly sophisticated campaign designed to manipulate their minds means that the Chinese government is a clear enemy.

Taiwan will, however, face the struggle against the narrative dominance by pro-Beijing parties, which seek to discredit any criticism. However, in the months leading to the 2020 presidential election and beyond, more Taiwanese should take the initiative to define what “red media” actually means, in order to prevent it from being thrown around as an unsubstantiated accusation like how the term “fake news” has been used.

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TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee (@thenewslensintl)

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