Author: Billy Zhe-Wei Lin
English Translation: Christopher Chan
China stretches out its influence over the whole world. As for Taiwan, the island speaks the same language with China, that impact is even greater. Taiwan will hold presidential election in 2020. At this point, China is using information warfare with an aim to get pro-China candidate elected in this election. Many presidential candidates of the KMT have already called for a “peace agreement” with China. Once signed, Taiwan would risks itself to be recognized as a part of China, which may bring in “one country, two systems” policy and turn Taiwan into the next Hong Kong. Here we start from background, and try to expose the China’s information warfare in Taiwan.
Taiwan is still a young constitutional democracy
Taiwan does not have a long history of democracy. Taiwan’s lifting of the martial law was in 1987, and it was not until 1996 that Taiwanese citizens had the chance to elect their head of state, the president, through universal and direct suffrage, effectively ending the authoritative regime in place before.
Consequently, democracy is still young in Taiwan. The former authoritarian government created a high pressure social system which left an authoritarian mark on lots of people. On the one hand, people were utilized to maintain absolute obedience and respect for authority, on the other hand, it established its own sense of superiority from this authoritarian worship.
In 2014, a survey by National Taiwan University showed a great generation gap between Taiwanese people’s perceptions of democracy. While young people think that they have the opportunity to change the government through elections(fair election). The older people think that democracy only means “the basic needs of everyone can be satisfied(narrowing the wealth gap).”
Taiwanese Media Struggles to Be the 4th Estate
After the democratization, the media environment in Taiwan has also been freed, and many TV stations have sprung up. In 2005, the Government Information Office (GIO) did not renew some media licenses because some media were broadcasting bare or too commercial content, and because some media had poor financial structure. The move caused an uproar at the time. Subsequently those sanctions were found to be flawed in their procedure, and many TV stations eventually had their licenses renewed. The independent institution National Communications Commission (NCC), which was established later to regulate media, was criticized for having strict application thresholds, but loose reviewing standards and rarely withdraws any licenses.
Why is the government afraid to sanction TV channels ? Because behind many TV stations, there are often local political forces. Through the opening of channels, many TV stations also have enough political capital to challenge politicians. Taiwan currently has six channels that broadcast news 24/7, mostly on channel 49 to 55, and many other TV channels also have news broadcasting. As the Taiwanese news market is limited, the existence of so many news channels have lead to a vicious competition between news channels for advertising. In order to win audience share, many news channels have taken the road of sensationalism to attract the attention of the audience. Journalists are also finding it to be more difficult to conduct in-depth investigations and reports. At the same time, there are many business-sponsored news, which makes the boundaries between news and advertising more blurred.
In such an environment, the thin media market makes it difficult for the media to play the function of the fourth estate; in addition, because many Taiwanese media outlets are facing tighter budgets, China can buy influence in the sector.
The history of dictatorship creates “authoritarian personality” and make people lose resistance to Chinese propaganda
Taiwan had a history of imposing martial law for decades. During that time, the Kuomintang (KMT) ruled society in a dictatorial manner. This history has affected Taiwan at large.
On the one hand, during the dictatorship, through the education of the authoritative government, many people have developed an “authoritarian personality”. Consequently, political propaganda from the dictatorship period is still very persuasive.
On the other hand, through the party-state system, the KMT has taken hold of a large amount of assets, including borrowing directly from the state treasury, setting up companies, earning money through state-franchising, or even arbitrarily extorting trade revenue, filling their pockets with illegal money; these money were then laundered through companies and other means, therefore, while Taiwan has been transformed into a democracy, the KMT still uses these resources to win elections in an unfair way.
The KMT Can’t Let Go of its Party Assets
After president Tsai Ing-wen came to power, the majority passed “The Act Governing the Settlement of Ill-gotten Properties by Political Parties and Their Affiliate Organizations”, trying to sort out and deal with political parties’ properties. Within a few months of the consequential establishment of the “Ill-gotten Party Assets Settlement Committee”, the investigators found that for two companies held by the KMT, the Central Investment Co. Ltd and Xinyutai Investment Co. Ltd, the assets did not come from legal income such as party fees and political contributions, so the two companies were required to transfer assets back to the state. This made the KMT to no longer have the huge assets of the past, nor could it conduct social network operations or electoral marketing with these resources any longer. As a result, this gave the KMT a strong demand for funds and gave the Communist Party from China the space to intervene.
The reform of the retirement pension system and the anger of the civil servants
In the past, when life expectancy in Taiwan was not so long, the government gave the civil servants an 18% preferential interest rate for their savings, so that people have incentives to serve as military, civil servants or in the national education system. However, with the situation evolving and current life expectancy being as it is , such planning has led to the incoming collapse of the retirement pension. After Tsai Ing-wen took office, reforms were carried out to reduce the payment of many pensions, allowing the pension fund to operate steadily, however, it also led to the dissatisfaction of a large number of ancient civil servants.
This dissatisfaction has been used by China. China’s local facilitators have been infiltrating many groups of such person and use them to spread fake news. These ancient civil servants groups are generally older and unfamiliar with the Internet era’s fact checking tools. Their past experience of dictatorship has also allowed them to embellish the dictatorship and to believe that democratic freedom of speech will bring chaos. “Now, Taiwan is too free,” is what they often hang on.
Through the mediation of big companies, authoritarian country can influence democracies’ politics
As elections in democratic countries demands money, rich companies are more capable of influencing policies through political contributions and lobbying. This is an issue that many democratic countries need to overcome. But in a one-party dictatorship such as China, politicians can intervene in the company’s operations through special permissions, taxes, judicature, etc., and even punish disobedient companies through the judicial system at their service. In order to operate, Chinese companies need to obey the government or the party’s instructions. This includes surrendering information or the obedience of the company’s top management. Therefore, once Chinese business owners reach a certain amount of financial resources, they will run for a seat in the National People’s Congress (NPC) and use this power to protect their assets.
In China, politics has the ability to intervene in private business operations, but in democracies, companies and groups have the opportunity to influence policy and politicians. If you add in a political party that has difficulty to get used to legal sources of revenue because it can no longer use illegal party properties, this may lead to a democratic party being controlled by China’s massive investment.
China’s infiltration of Taiwanese local politics with helps from local facilitators
In addition to influencing politicians, business men who have been operating in China can also form their own party in Taiwan. Once a Taiwanese gang leader, Chang An-lo, who later worked in China, returned to Taiwan to run the China Unification Promotion Party in Taiwan. Through village chiefs and even some religious networks, Chang continues to infiltrate and establish a network of contacts, and advocates peaceful reunification with China in Taiwan.
Al Jazeera once revealed in Taiwan that China has funded the China Patriotic Confederation, the China Unification Promotion Party and other organizations through the donations of specific Taiwanese businessmen, in order to infiltrate Taiwan, even asking the police to provide a list of pro-independence members in police station.
In addition to these local organizations becoming China’s local facilitators, China also entertains villages chiefs as well as students and teachers with many cheap trip and tourism in China. At the same time, many Chinese students studying in Taiwan were monitored by Chinese national security units, and some Chinese students were arrested by the Taiwan government because after graduation they were developing organizations and espionage activities in Taiwan.
Taiwan’s churches and religious organizations are also being hosted by China. For example to attract Mazu’s believers, there is a trip to find Mazu’s roots in China. The Chinese house church also has exchanges with the Taiwanese church. In the previous anti-gay referendum, we saw that Chinese funds came in through the Wang Xuehong Foundation. In addition to spreading false rumors about the opposites camp in Taiwan, these rumors also seriously hurt and tear Taiwanese society.
China’s PR campaign is maturing and using human weaknesses to market products
In addition to the inflitration in the physical world, the virtual world is also targeted.
In China, the use of online information and social networking sites as “war tools” has been commercialized for a long time. Many Chinese companies use social networking sites to launch “public relations war.” Through the acquisition of media, related public relations companies, fake account numbers, etc., they launch smear campaigns against other companies, or boasts to their own. Time and again, the hype will gradually change the views of the masses. First, marketing toward potential customers, adding new traffic “acquire new (customers)”, and then giving them the urge to click again, visit the merchant to be “retained”, and finally “activating” them, so that they are willing to pay for the purchase. These practices have been institutionalized and scientifically orchestrated, and the three steps of “acquisition, retention, and activation” allow for measurement of the results after each operation. The purpose of these public relations wars is to let users have confidence in the brand, and make the target audience willing to use the services on the platforms. Then, they are willing to buy on the platforms when the Double 11 arrives. This kind of behavior can of course be adapted to a different subject, such as to shape the worship for a specific person, or to attack the elections of democratic countries.
The bombardment of information by allied media is one of the characteristics of the public relations war. In the current state of scarcity of attention resources, many times the ability to focus on a specific aspect, will be able to influence everyone’s perception; the release of a large number of specific messages will unconsciously affect a person’s feelings about the event, and thus change many people’s cognition and behavior.
Local facilitators arranges many “break points”, hard to verify
Is there any clear evidence of information warfare in Taiwan? Since “plausible deniability” is one of the characteristics of a hybrid war, the attacker will also deliberately annihilate the relevant evidence so that the information operation is not unveiled thus becoming ineffective, consequently the evidence is very difficult to find. Moreover, in a democratic country, we cannot fully track all monetary flows in the territory, nor can we know the discussion content between people online, moreover some benefits are not necessarily in the form of monetary flow, it may be a privilege, a special permission etc., so breakpoints are many and traceability is not easy. As is the case in the United States or in Australia, China’s handling of information warfare in Taiwan has made extensive use of local facilitators, so it is harder to find concrete evidence than in a totalitarian state.
On the 8th of November 2018, Wang Li’s second war research institute(王立第二戰研所), which has been publishing strategy-related article in Taiwan for long, has compiled a flow chart of China’s manipulation of Taiwan’s elections from many reports. Although the flow of funds is difficult to confirm, what we can see now is that some media group owners have made a high-profile loyalty transfer to China. These media have by the way obtained a large number of subsidies from China, and have shuffled employees to shape their loyalty to the boss. In addition, the news of this media group from November 24, 2018,that is to say since the last election, has indeed been like in Russia: information bombing, focusing speculation on a certain politicians and even promoting peaceful reunification. For those who oppose it, it is launching extremely violent smear and bullying campaigns.
Media, content form and social networks are falling one after the other
In the public relations war, in order to shape the public opinion to ones advantages, the journalistic ethics of verification is not taken into account; no matter the country, the government and political parties should not intervene in media reports and clamp down on freedom of the press. However, in a totalitarian state, they buy and control the media. Things like this happen from time to time. Once this force is infiltrating the democratic mechanism, it will have dire consequences. Then, if the media is unable to strictly abide by its self-discipline or even self-destructs by becoming the mouthpiece of an authoritarian government, focusing on problematic news and changing people’s perception every day, democracy will be faltering and in danger.
On May 10–12, 2019, China hosted the “2019 Cross-Strait Media People Beijing Summit” in Beijing. Taiwan’s Wangwang Zhongshi Group, TVBS, Dongsen and other media attended the event. At the beginning of March 2019, Initium Media counted the occurrences of news related to Han Kuo-yu the politician, who had won the election of the Kaohsiung Mayor in 2018, participate in the 2020 presidential election, and meet director of Liaison Office in Hong Kong and Macao. They found that the media had focused a higher than normal proportion of their report on this single politician. Some media propagandize one country two system and peaceful reunification for china directly. Afterwards, the National Security Council’s report in the Legislative Yuan confirmed that “the CCP directly provides specific content and direction to the Taiwanese media or the allied media, disseminating controversial messages that divides the Taiwanese public opinion, and guiding other media to cooperate with their reports.” Some media even went as far as to send their editorials to Beijing by fax or other means before publishing it.
Apart from the media, content farms are also another issue. Some content farms in Taiwan will change the news headlines and then transfer them to their websites to attract traffic. Well-known content farms include www.guancha.cn who have disseminated information during the event leading to the suicide of a Taiwanese diplomat in Japan, as well as www.mission-tw.com shared by many pro-KMT fan pages , and happytifywin.com. According to media surveys, behind the happytifywin is Wuwei Network Technology Co., Ltd. located in Qinhuangdao City, Hebei Province, China; on Facebook, there is a “happytifywin Post News” group, which was established in September 2017 and later renamed as “Mayor Han Online support group”. It was later renamed as the “Terry Guo campaign for the presidential Online support group.” From this, it can be speculated that China may be conducting public opinion operations toward Taiwan through such technology companies. These content farms are the hub for many fake news, and many content farm articles are then sent to LINE or other private groups. After data analysis, many of the messages shared by the pro-KMT fan pages were mainly based on content farms articles. In addition to the content farm, there are also Youtube channels, such as “Jianghu Baixiaosheng(江湖百晓生),” which systematically produce and share fake news from China; the “China Unification is in the Present” video uploaded in July 2018, was viewed by 600,000 people. “The PLA launches an offensive, and Taiwan compatriots can apply for an identity card.” film also has more than 120,000 clicks.
Recently, many fan pages in Taiwan have been asked whether they were willing to be bought-out. Even some fan pages supporting the DPP were asked. It can be speculated that the agents may not have enough political awareness, and may be at the back end of the subcontracting chain. After one of the fan pages was acquired, it directly put forward articles that advocated peaceful reunification, and did not even tried to avoid showing the political position of the owners; in PTT (the largest BBS system in Taiwan), many accounts started systematically sharing articles with specific positions, and many such users accounts were deliberately converted to Foreign IP. Some politicians, talking heads were threatened and bullied on the internet, because something they said made Han Kuo-yu’s supporters dissatisfied; after the police investigation, it was discovered that the netizen who had issued some of the threats was connected from an IP in China. In many fields of public opinion, we can find that Chinese values have been systematically push to the front. Some marketing company executives revealed that other marketing companies were doing business with the Communist Party, and there was a recruiting announcement soliciting young women to become internet celebrity in order to promote the idea of peaceful reunification between the two sides of the Taiwan strait, the announcement even indicated that the it was sponsored by the Sichuan government. If this message is true, some of the information warfare operations may be performed by local governments in China.
We know that China has the intention to annex Taiwan. In Fear of that, many pro-china presidential candidates have already called for a “peace agreement”. However, signing an “agreement” with China may risk hus becoming a pawn in China’s hands. The history of dictatorship creates “authoritarian personality” and make people lose resistance to Chinese propaganda. Media decide the election issues in democratic countries, by controlling the media, influencing social network, China is intervening in Taiwan’s elections, and try to make pro-China candidate win the election. This is the threat of information warfare that Taiwan is facing.