Upcoming Taiwan elections to decide on China ties

With days left before Taiwan’s 2024 presidential and legislative elections on January 13, there is intense speculation whether the two opposition parties, pro-China Kuomintang (KMT) and Taiwan People’s Party (TPP), at the last minute will form a unity ticket to defeat frontrunner Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). 

Unifying opposition votes would place the DPP in greater risk of losing power, which would likely mean a less hostile approach toward China in Taipei.

“A successful opposition alliance – no matter who is running as president – means it’s likely cross-strait tensions will improve, as the opposition has more than a 50 percent chance of beating the DPP’s Lai according to local polls,” National Taiwan University political science professor Wang Yeh-lih told Bloomberg News. “For China, either Ko or Hou taking the presidential seat will be better than Lai.”

The ruling DPP could very well lose its legislative majority in Taiwan’s 113-seat national legislature in the January polls, according to a report by Focus Taiwan citing observers. 

The report indicated that a smaller party could play a crucial role in the body’s proceedings, with either a hung legislature in which the TPP holds the balance of power or an KMT majority as most probable outcomes for the upcoming legislative elections, Nathan F. Batto, an associate research fellow at Taiwan’s Academia Sinica, asserted during an event in Washington hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

“I do believe the DPP is planning for the scenario that they don’t control the parliament in that sense, and so they are expecting perhaps the pan-Blue camp to hold the majority,” said Brian Hioe, a Taiwanese political commentator, at the event.

In Taiwan, blue refers to the KMT, green for the DPP, and white for the TPP.

“And you do see some messaging from even the smaller pan-green parties such as the New Power Party that emphasizes that this seems to be the likely outcome,” Hioe added. 

Another speaker, Kathrin Hille, the Greater China correspondent for the Financial Times (FT), said she had come across fears from the DPP that they would not be able to win another legislative majority.

January’s vote comes at a period of frosty cross-strait ties as Beijing steps up military, political and economic pressure on Taiwan, a self-governed island that China’s ruling Communist Party (CCP) claims as its own territory, to be reunited with the mainland by force, if necessary, despite having never controlled it.

On December 17, two Chinese surveillance balloons flew across the sensitive Taiwan Strait, as per reports by Taiwan’s defense ministry, as the communist regime in Beijing mounted pressure on Taiwan prior to January’s elections. 

This was the second time Taiwan reported Chinese balloons flying near the island. Previously, on December 7, Taiwan said it detected a Chinese surveillance balloon southwest of Keelung, a port city on Taiwan’s northern coast. 

At a recent closed-door security briefing attended by media outlet CNN, Taiwan’s intelligence community cautioned that China has been working to shape the outcome Taiwan’s upcoming elections via a series of disinformation, military and economic operations, with the goal of increasing the chances of opposition candidates who prioritize enhancing relations with Beijing.

Also, Beijing has publicly declared that it is taking an active position regarding the Taiwanese election.

Chinese officials have labeled the election as a “choice between peace and war”, a slogan used by the KMT, and called on the people of Taiwan to make the “right choice”.

During a sit-down in February 2023 in China between the head of Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office, Song Tao, and KMT deputy chairman, Hsia Li-yan, Tao told Hsia that China was willing to foster closer relations with the party.

Based on Taiwanese intelligence, Wang Huning, the fourth-ranking leader in the CCP, recently organized a meeting to coordinate efforts to influence the election, while reducing the likelihood that external parties could locate proof of such meddling. 

“They hope that the party they dislike will lose the election,” a senior Taiwanese security official, alluding to the DPP, which regards Taiwan as a de facto sovereign nation and has favored boosting Taipei’s ties with Western powers since taking office in 2016.

The candidate for DPP, Vice President Lai Ching-te, is presently leading in the polls, and is openly disliked by Chinese officials.

Lai is ahead of the two other candidates – Hou Yu-ih from KMT and Ko Wen-je from TPP – who are viewed as preferring closer relations with Beijing.

The KMT prefers friendlier relations between Taiwan and China while Beijing has rebuffed talks with the DPP, which the CCP claims is “separatist”. With a party charter that urges for eventual unification, the KMT is Beijing’s preferred negotiating partner. Still, the KMT is aware that its stance is not necessarily shared by voters. 

Polls have revealed that most Taiwanese people are content to maintain the deliberately ambiguous status quo instead of pushing for unification or formal independence.

On the other hand, the DPP disavows declaring independence and maintains that it is up to the people of Taiwan to select their leaders and their future.

Among the different strategies adopted by Beijing, Taiwan believes China’s cognitive warfare operations – which include spreading disinformation in Taiwan and highlighting talking points that favor China-friendly candidates – are the most sophisticated, various officials admitted at a closed-door briefing on security affairs attended by CNN.

Apart from running content farms and fake accounts on social media, the officials alleged that China’s information operations adopt a multi-pronged approach.

Other tactics employed by Beijing entailed cooperating with private companies to impersonate genuine news websites, cherry-picking soundbites that reflected Beijing’s narratives from Taiwanese television programs and repackaging them into short social media videos, and illicitly bankrolling small news organizations in Taiwan that mostly reported on local livelihood issues but also occasionally post content that casted aspersions toward candidates unfavorable to Beijing.

One piece of disinformation singled out by officials was a recent rumor that Hsiao Bi-khim – the DPP’s vice-presidential candidate and until recently Taiwan’s top representative in Washington — is a U.S. citizen.

Fact-checking reports, including from the Taiwan FactCheck Center – one of the most prominent news verification groups on the island – indicated that while Hsiao used to hold U.S. citizenship, she had renounced it in 2002.

Besides spreading rumors, Beijing has also been piling pressure on Taiwanese businesses with investments in mainland China to toe the CCP party line, and enticing Taiwanese politicians with discounted trips to mainland cities in an effort to increase backing for candidates in favor of closer ties to Beijing, the officials contended. 

Lately, more than a thousand local Taiwanese leaders have visited China, many more than in the lead-up to the last national election.

Recently, district prosecutors’ offices across Taiwan have started probing into hundreds of these cases as evidence indicated that Beijing has either partly or fully covered the expenses of these trips.

In October, China’s state-controlled Global Times reported that Chinese authorities had conducted a tax probe into the activities of Taiwanese tech giant Foxconn which generates about 70 percent of its revenue from China-made products.

The announcement came two months after billionaire founder and former Foxconn CEO Terry Gou had announced his own independent run for president – a decision that the Global Times suggested would divide the opposition camp and favor the “secessionist ruling DPP”.

After the tax probe became public, Gou canceled several campaign events and a few weeks later, withdrew from the race.

The Foxconn incident served as a reminder that Beijing has many potential tools beyond military might to potentially influence Taiwan’s political direction. 

Fang-Yu Chen, an assistant professor at Soochow University in Taipei who researches political relations between China and Taiwan, opined that the CCP’s move so close to Taiwan’s election was no coincidence.

“This is part of an organized Chinese effort to create chaos, stoke distrust and spread dissatisfaction with the current DPP government,” Chen said.

While like many places in the world, Taiwan often witnesses a rise in disinformation during elections, it is a unique target owing to the precarious geopolitical space it lives in.

According to a report by Stockholm University’s Varieties of Democracy Project, published in March 2023, Taiwan, for the 10th consecutive year, experienced the greatest amount of disinformation from outside its borders. 

In early December 2023, Google warned of a huge rise in Chinese cyberattacks over the past six months targeting Taiwan’s defense sector, private industries and government.

In August 2023, Meta, the company behind Facebook and Instagram, clamped down on a Chinese influence campaign involving over 7,500 accounts across different platforms in the company’s largest such operation to date. Many of the accounts were aimed at Taiwan.

Additionally, protests in Taipei against the visit of a U.S. arms manufacturer where protestors were paid to attend by Chinese proxies, fake news about U.S. plans for the destruction of Taiwan and a dispute sparked around an upcoming bilateral agreement between India and Taiwan were all cases where Chinese involvement assumed multiple forms across different online and offline spaces, and attempted to exploit existing local grievances.

General Charles Brown, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, also recently opined that “Xi Jinping doesn’t actually want to take Taiwan by force. He will try to use other ways to do this.” 

Likewise, Ai-Men Lau, a research analyst at the Taiwan-based group, Doublethink Lab, which monitors malign Chinese influence operations and disinformation campaigns as well as their consequences, told news outlet Al Jazeera that while it can be challenging to trace much of the manipulative content or disinformation directly to China, there are often signs indicating Chinese influence in these content.   

“Some suspicious accounts only operate during Chinese office hours from 9 am to 5 pm with a lunch break in between, and they will post pure media content more than 200 times a day,” she said.

“Unless that is your job, it does not align with natural human behavior.”

Concurrently, Chinese disinformation tactics have also evolved, according to Lau.

“We are seeing the PRC increasingly using Taiwanese voices such as journalists, local proxies and social media influencers to get their message across,” she said, employing the acronym for the People’s Republic of China.

This makes it harder to differentiate a personal opinion from planted or seeded Chinese disinformation, which then makes such disinformation difficult to tackle. 

Lau stated that Chinese disinformation campaigns exploiting existing grievances could eventually jeopardize Taiwanese society.

“In the end, it is about undermining resistance to a Chinese annexation of the island,” she said.

Photo credit: iStock/ Dilok Klaisataporn

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