Will China's Disinformation War Destabilize Taiwan?

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen attends the annual Han Kuang military drill in Penghu, Taiwan May 25, 2017. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

There is evidence to suggest that China is increasingly dependent on computational propaganda in its efforts to destabilize Taiwan.

Somewhat unfairly to the KMT, this propaganda pattern has resulted in accusations that the party as a whole is consciously colluding with the Chinese Communist Party, when in reality it, too, is likely being played by the Chinese. That is not to say that there are not some opportunistic elements within the blue camp (e.g., the New Party, Blue Sky Alliance, or leftover members of former chairperson Hung Hsiu-chiu’s Beijing-friendly mainlander faction in the KMT) who are indeed working with the Chinese side or its ideological allies in Taiwan (e.g., Chang An-le’s China Unification Promotion Party) to undermine the Democratic Progressive Party government. But given clear indications that Beijing has (rightly) lost faith in the KMT’s ability to deliver what it wants (i.e., unification), in many instances its efforts now deliberately bypass its former “ally” in Taiwan and seek to target local groups directly. These groups consist of officials, students, indigenous leaders, temple operators, small and medium businesses, crime syndicates. China lures them with incentives (financial, opportunities in China) and shares with them disinformation.

As its propaganda units and army of “freelance writers” who contribute to content farms disseminate various disinformation about the policies of the Tsai administration, Beijing also knows it can rely on traditional media in Taiwan to amplify the message through their own coverage, which—due to the competitive nature of Taiwan’s media environment—often entails poor fact-checking and attribution. Thus, a piece of (dis)information (or “fake news”) originating in China will often go through a process of circular corroboration by replicators—traditional and online media—in Taiwan. As a result, this (dis)information is normalized and becomes part of the narrative. Subsequently, the (dis)information becomes the subject of heated debates on evening TV talk shows, compelling the embattled (and distracted) government to respond with denials or corrections.

In recent weeks, disinformation has prompted television networks and national newspapers to debate whether President Tsai intends to destroy Buddhism in Taiwan and force the population to venerate Japanese gods. They want to know if a temple had insulted the “emperor” by inscribing her name on a red scroll during a religious festival/protest on Ketagalan Boulevard. They’re interested in whether the Democratic Progressive Party government is getting even with the KMT by taking away civil retired civil servants’ pensions. They discuss whether a young man who has been studying in China for years and is an intern with the pro-Beijing (and disinformation friendly) Want China Times acted improperly by lobbing water balloons inside the legislature last week after being led into the building with help from KMT legislative aides. Additionally, he  may or may not have been a member of the Communist Youth League.

When the authorities (and journalists) point to China’s “black hand” in all this, opponents counter that such claims are meant to tarnish their reputation or that the accusers have a “Cold War” mentality. Consequently, rather than debating about policy, the debate now is whether President Tsai is anti-religious (add the conservative Christians who argue that her government is trying to destroy the nation by legalizing same-sex marriage), anti-press freedom, anti-youth and ultimately undemocratic. None of this, in isolation, constitutes a threat to Taiwan’s democratic fabric. However, in the aggregate this can easily overwhelm a government and cause information overload among the population, which will increasingly find it difficult to prioritize the information they receive and tell signal from noise. Once this happens, most people will tune out, and the real issues that need careful study and deliberation, the necessary reforms that will benefit the nation, risk being lost in the cacophony. Absent a workable Taiwan strategy, the best that Beijing can hope to achieve in the immediate future is to undermine the island nation’s ability to further consolidate its democracy and strengthen its lines of defense against Chinese annexationism, with the ultimate goal of creating future conditions that may be more conducive to “peaceful unification.”

If you can’t control the message, take that control away from your opponent by making sure the message gets lost.

It will take extraordinary diligence on the part of the Taiwanese government and members of society to ensure that decisionmakers and people of influence do not lose their ability to focus on the issues that matter. If they get lost in the maze that Beijing is busy building for them, then it might be very difficult to find the way out.

J. Michael Cole is a Taipei-based senior fellow with the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham, and a research associate with the French Centre for Research on Contemporary China. He is chief editor of Taiwan Sentinel and project coordinator of the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy’s Taiwan Democracy Bulletin.