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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.

Go deeper

2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Group of 20 bipartisan senators back $1.2T infrastructure framework

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) arrives for a meeting with Senate Budget Committee Democrats in the Mansfield Room at the U.S. Capitol building on June 16, 2021 in Washington, DC. The Majority Leader and Democrats on the Senate Budget Committee are meeting to discuss how to move forward with the Biden Administrations budget proposal. Photo: Samuel Corum / Getty Images

A group of 10 Democratic and 10 Republican senators (the "G20") tasked with negotiating an infrastructure deal with the White House has released a statement in support of a $1.2 trillion framework.

Why it matters: Details regarding the plan have not yet been released, but getting 10 Republicans on board means the bill could get the necessary 60 votes to pass.

DOJ drops criminal probe, civil lawsuit against John Bolton over Trump book

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The Justice Department has closed its criminal investigation into whether President Trump's former national security adviser John Bolton disclosed classified information with his tell-all memoir, “The Room Where it Happened," according to a source with direct knowledge.

Why it matters: The move comes a year after the Trump administration tried to silence Bolton by suing him in federal court, claiming he breached his contract by failing to complete a pre-publication review for classified information. Prosecutors indicated they had reached a settlement with Bolton to drop the lawsuit in a filing on Wednesday.

Fed may raise rates sooner, as inflation is higher than expected

Feb chair Jerome Powell. Photo: Susan Walsh/Getty Images

The Federal Reserve kept rates unchanged at its latest policy meeting, but a shift in sentiment emerged as to how soon it should begin raising rates.

Why it matters: The Fed's rock-bottom rates policy and monthly asset purchases helped the U.S. markets avoid a meltdown during the COVID-19 crisis last year. But as the economy recovers, a chorus is growing for the Fed to at least consider a timeline for pulling back its support before things get overheated.

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