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China steps up political interference ahead of Taiwan's elections

Illustration of a map of the coast of China and Taiwan, with a giant shadow of Xi Jinping looming over it.
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

As Taiwan's Jan. 11 presidential election approaches, the Chinese government is spreading disinformation and taking coercive political maneuvers aimed at convincing voters Taiwan is helpless without China.

Why it matters: China is meddling in the internal political affairs of numerous countries around the world. In Taiwan, China's multi-pronged campaign to sway voter behavior demonstrates Beijing's growing ability to challenge the foundations of democratic governance.

“This could be the last meaningful election in Taiwan if we are not careful,” one senior Taiwanese government official tells Axios.

Background: The Chinese government is deeply opposed to another term for Tsai Ing-wen, the current president of Taiwan and a member of the Beijing-skeptic Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

  • Tsai ended the era of closer China-Taiwan economic and political ties that her predecessor Ma Ying-jeou championed.
  • She has also explicitly rejected the "one country, two systems" model for unification that China has used in Hong Kong, which promises a "high degree" of autonomy.

In the election tomorrow, analysts are expecting a Tsai victory.

  • But her opponent, Han Kuo-yu of the China-friendly Kuomintang (KMT), may still have a shot.
  • “While the polls do indicate high support for the president," Russell Hsiao, executive director of the DC-based Global Taiwan Institute, told Axios, "I would not rule out the possibility that the opposition party candidate could potentially pull off an upset.”

What they're saying: In conversations with Axios, some Taiwanese voters said they felt distressed at what feels like an increasingly destabilized information environment.

  • On Dec. 31, the Taiwanese legislature rushed through an anti-infiltration law, similar to the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act, that penalizes organizations and individuals for secretly acting on China's behalf. The new law also includes provisions to fight disinformation.
  • DPP lawmakers, who currently hold a majority and the presidency, pushed the bill through out of fear that the KMT opposition would water down the bill or scrap it altogether if the KMT triumphs in the elections.
  • The KMT believes that the law "unfairly targets legitimate cross-strait exchanges," said Hsiao.

What's happening: China's attempts to convince Taiwanese to build closer ties with the mainland have largely failed so Beijing has turned to political coercion, co-optation, and disinformation.

  • Media: The Chinese government has sought to make Taiwan's media scene more Beijing-friendly. For example, China quietly paid five Taiwanese news outlets to publish articles casting China as a land of opportunity that would bring prosperity to Taiwanese, according to an August 2019 investigation by Reuters.
  • Disinformation: Puma Shen, an assistant professor at National Taipei University, uncovered social media disinformation campaigns aimed at Taiwanese readers and originating from content farms in Malaysia or from Chinese government-linked social media accounts in mainland China.
  • Overt coercion: Since Tsai's election, China has poached more than half a dozen of Taiwan's few remaining diplomatic partners. Two of these countries, Kiribati and the Solomon Islands, switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing as recently as September 2019. One Chinese government-tied media outlet has claimed that if Tsai is re-elected, Beijing will flip all of Taiwan's remaining allies.
  • Economic carrots and sticks: Beijing has pushed for closer economic ties — a trend many in Taiwan now see as a way that China has slowly bled Taiwan of its sovereignty. China is widely known to threaten economic retaliation for political speech and behavior that it opposes.