Using a medical analogy, Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) on Saturday spoke words of wisdom after he was asked to discuss the individual who will lead the Chinese delegation at an upcoming cross-Strait forum in Taiwan’s capital.

Last Friday, the organizers of the Taipei-Shanghai twin city forum announced that Sha Hailin (沙海林), the head of the United Front Work Department of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) Shanghai Municipal Committee, will lead the delegation at the forum.

As Ko pointed out, the term United Front has gotten a bad rap in Taiwan, largely due to the secretive — and propagandistic — nature of many of the individuals and organizations that are involved in it. The name summons images of Cold War spies and, not unreasonably, overlapping interests with other organs under the CCP’s control, primarily China’s intelligence apparatus and the People’s Liberation Army’s sub-agencies that conduct information/political warfare against Taiwan.

Ko, however, downplayed the significance (and threat) of Sha’s participation at the forum, which will be held Aug. 23, adding that we should all “take a deep breath.” In the present context, the lack of alarm is probably warranted, as the five subjects that will be discussed during the event are innocuous enough — medical health, youth exchanges, smart cities, culture and traffic.

The Taipei Mayor may also have been right when he argued that there is a “cultural gap” between how United Front activities are perceived in China and in Taiwan.

Ko is no doubt nevertheless aware that not all cross-Strait exchanges are as anodyne and apolitical as this one, and that in some instances the players involved do a lot more than engage in vapid talk about traffic control. There are occasions — forums, conferences, and behind-the-scenes exchanges of information and money — which undoubtedly have darker motives and whose outcome can be detrimental to Taiwan’s security.

Still, using a medical analogy, Ko was absolutely right when he said that “if our immune system is good, there is no reason to fear bacteria” — the bacteria being all that pro-unification propaganda that is dumped at Taiwan by the shovelful on a daily basis. The key here, which Ko identified perfectly, is the immune system — Taiwan’s liberal-democratic institutions and respect for human rights. Also described as a prophylactic or firewall, this immune system is itself the target of much of China’s United Front work and information/political warfare, which aim to erode Taiwan’s democratic institutions by discrediting them or cultivating relationships that bypass the norms of and institutionalized accountability that exist in modern Taiwan and help distinguish it from authoritarian China.

Thus, while Ko is right that we shouldn’t worry too much, his statement also implies that we are responsible for ensuring that Taiwan’s immune system remains healthy and capable of adapting to whatever new pathogen the CCP comes up with. Taiwanese must therefore be much better educated than they are at the moment about the true scope and nature of China’s United Font and political warfare activities so that they can recognize it when they see it. They must also acknowledge that the severity of the United Front threat is directly related to the health of Taiwan’s democracy.

As long as the quality of Taiwan’s democracy — which involves much more than the holding of regular elections and also includes horizontal accountability and transparency, a vibrant civil society and free press — is preserved (or improved upon), we need not be overly worried about the CCP’s information and political warfare, which will find little soil to grow in. Let it lapse, however, and the bacteria will soon invade the whole body.

First Editor: Olivia Yang
Second Editor: Edward White