As Taiwan prepares for pivotal presidential and legislative elections on January 11, China is seeking to influence the democratic outcome through a mix of military intimidation, economic sweeteners and what some view as outright cyber-warfare.

Tsai Ing-wen, the incumbent president seeking re-election under the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), said on November 19 that China is interfering in Taiwan’s elections “every day.”

Her comments came soon after China sailed a carrier group, including its first domestically built aircraft carrier, in a provocative and muscular show of strength through the Taiwan Strait in route to the South China Sea.

Taiwan’s elections are especially crucial for China, as opinion polls show that Tsai and her DPP, which in principle advocates for Taiwan independence, has a comfortable lead over her opponents in the nationalist Kuomintang (KMT), a party that traditionally adheres to the notion that there is one China of which Taiwan is a province.

China considers Taiwan a renegade province that must eventually be brought under the mainland’s control. Chinese President Xi Jinping has promised to “unify” Taiwan with China by 2020, a military threat that would likely intensify if Tsai and her DPP romp to victory.

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen speaks during a press conference at the Presidential Office in Taipei, August 21, 2018. Photo: AFP/Sam Yeh

China clearly prefers the alternative outcome. In more recent years, the KMT has favored closer relations with the mainland rather than outright “reunification.” While Tsai’s DPP is not overtly opposed to maintaining good ties with Beijing, its policy is to emphasize Taiwan’s separate political status and identity.

The soft side of Beijing’s election influence strategy was made public on November 11 in what it referred to as “26 measures”, half of which would better enable Taiwanese companies in China to take part in construction, aviation and 5G telecommunication projects while the other half promise “equal treatment” for “Taiwan compatriots.”

On the dark side, Beijing’s has launched a full cyber assault aimed at influencing the election result through the dissemination of fake news, bots programmed to interfere with Internet traffic, and fake social media accounts to smear disfavored DPP candidates and otherwise deceive voters, according to a report by V-Dem, a program at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden that monitors elections worldwide.

Beijing is well practiced in such cyber campaigns. Before Taiwan’s local elections in November 2018, “hackers and bots spread disinformation through…Facebook, microblogging services such as Weibo, and popular chat apps such as Line,” the V-Dem report said.

The same report cites an example of how Chinese media outlets disseminated a false story claiming that Su Chii-cherng, a Taiwanese diplomat in Japan, had allegedly failed to help Taiwanese people trapped during a typhoon in Osaka.

“The stories were widely shared in Taiwan, and Su later took his own life, noting in a letter that he had been troubled by the viral posts,” the report said. Several online organizations in Taiwan vowed in a joint statement to fight fake news after the incident.

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They will have their work cut out for them in determining what is real and what is not ahead of the upcoming elections. Pro-China parties seem keen to sow confusion and doubt for social media consumption.

For example, the pro-Beijing Chinese Unification Promotion Party (CUPP), led by Chang An-lo, a widely alleged former leader of the notorious United Bamboo gang, reportedly recruited young toughs to attend DPP political rallies during the 2018 campaign, paying each of them 1,000 Taiwan dollars (US$33) to wear CUPP vests and waved Chinese flags.

The incident, widely reported in local media, was not commented on by CUPP.

But Beijing’s military intimidation is making the biggest waves. China’s unprecedented move to send an aircraft carrier through waters close to Taiwan just hours after Tsai named her election running-mate, William Lai, an ex-premier who openly favors independence from China, was a clear shot across the DPP’s bow.

China has repeatedly threatened to invade Taiwan if it moves towards independence. Many here still recall when China fired missiles into waters surrounding Taiwan in 1996 to dissuade voters from electing then-president Lee Teng-hui, a KMT stalwart who had angered Beijing by promoting democratic values as well as Taiwanese culture and national identity.

That crude attempt at voter intimidation failed miserably as Lee was later that year elected with 54% of the vote. But Beijing’s multi-pronged campaign to influence Taiwan’s 2020 election is more sophisticated than merely lobbing missiles.

Drew Thompson, a visiting research fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore, has argued that disinformation campaigns are now part and parcel of Beijing’s broad foreign policy. “Its capabilities are built into the government’s vast propaganda apparatus, including the People’s Liberation Army, intelligence departments, and the foreign education and culture ministries,” he wrote in a recent op-ed in regional media.

A woman photographs a Chinese National Day propaganda poster in Shanghai. Photo: AFP

China’s policy of interfering in other countries’ political affairs, to be sure, is not limited to Taiwan.

In Myanmar, for example, China is reportedly funneling money to local media and political parties to gain influence and promote its interests. This, observers familiar with the situation say, is being channeled through local business tycoons to avoid running afoul local laws prohibiting foreign funding for political parties.

More broadly, Beijing has demanded that regional airlines stop referring to Taiwan as a country in their timetables, or risk losing the right to fly over and to China. Many airlines have yielded to the threat, showing that Beijing’s bullying tactics against Taiwan are working abroad to some extent.

Beijing’s bullying has predictably been less effective in Taiwan. Recent opinion polls show that 89.3% of the public, marking a 13.9% increase since January, opposes unification with China under the “one country, two systems” formula that is now coming undone in Hong Kong via mass and often violent protests against Beijing’s creeping influence over the autonomous city.

Beijing is now promoting the same autonomy model to Taiwanese voters though social media campaigns, with the iron glove threat of a military invasion if Tsai and her DPP win the upcoming elections and continue to assert the island’s de facto independence.

Despite opinion polls showing the DPP’s popularity, it will not be easy for Tsai and her party to retain power. Tsai’s KMT opponent, Han Kuo-yu, a Beijing-friendly populist, is also popular and has a formidable social media presence. In 2018, he was resoundingly elected mayor of Kaohsiung, a traditional DPP stronghold.

KMT presidential candidate Han Kuo-yu at the Taiwan Foreign Correspondents Club (TFCC) in Taipei, November 14, 2019. (Photo by Sam Yeh / AFP)

In Taiwan, as elsewhere, social media matters in determining election results. An estimated 19 million of the island’s 23.8 million population use Facebook, eight million are on Instagram and nearly 30% of the population between the ages of 30 and 34 use the Chinese multi-purpose app WeChat. According to people who monitor Taiwan’s social media, China is targeting all of those platforms.

Paul Huang, a DPP-affiliated freelance researcher looking into Chinese influence operations, wrote in Foreign Policy on June 26 that Han Kuo-yu’s rise from relative obscurity to “superstardom” was driven by a social media campaign orchestrated by a “mysterious, seemingly professional cybergroup from China.”

Whoever wins the January election will have to cope with Chinese President Xi’s pledge to “reunite” Taiwan with the “fatherland”, come what may. A Chinese military report in 2013 stated that China’s military buildup in recent decades would enable it to invade Taiwan in 2020, even if its allies including the United States comes to the island’s aid.

In 2021, China will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party, an occasion at which some observers believe Xi would like to announce that Taiwan has finally been brought into Beijing’s fold. Whether Xi intends to take such drastic military measures is uncertain.

But what is clear is that Xi’s soldiers, propagandists and online trolls will be working overtime in the coming weeks to coerce and persuade voters, and influence the outcome of Taiwan’s elections to its liking.