Taiwan: How an Island Democracy Resists the Propaganda Onslaught of Beijing and Moscow

Written by Anton Khimiak

Lai Ching-te, chairman of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), was recently elected as Taiwan’s new president. The current status quo, which is characterised by ongoing tensions over the island’s democracy, will continue to exist as a result of the current Taiwanese administration candidate’s victory. Moreover, the election results sparked another round of discussions about Beijing’s plans to “absorb” Taiwan. However, an examination of the election campaign’s information component reveals that Communist China’s information “landing operation” has already begun. 

In this article, the HWAG team analyses how the results of Taiwan’s election may affect the island’s democratic information resistance, how China’s propaganda methods are evolving, and why the Kremlin is seeking justifications for its own aggressive rhetoric towards Taiwan.

A Half Victory

Lai’s victory is incomplete. In addition to the presidential election, citizens of the Republic of China elected a new parliament. Following the election to Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan (Parliament), the Democrats lost their majority.

According to the election results, the main opposition Kuomintang party (KMT) does not have enough votes to form a parliamentary majority. On the other hand, to maintain control of parliament, the ruling DPP must secure the support of at least six MPs.   

The distribution of seats in the Legislative Yuan Source: Institute for the Study of War

The “golden share” ended up in the hands of the third force, the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP), which sent eight representatives to parliament. According to Yuri Poita, a visiting researcher at the Taiwan Institute for National Defence and Security Studies, “Without the KMT’s votes, it will be difficult to pass bills with differences between the Democrats and the Kuomintang.” This could result in more time for discussion, consensus building, and the pursuit of mutual concessions.”

Coalition Talks Under Big Brother’s All-seeing Eye

The relationship with Beijing will determine the outcome of the coalition arrangements. The ruling DPP party supports strengthening Taiwan’s identity and closer ties with the United States and Japan. However, the current administration in Taipei is unprepared for the escalation that will undoubtedly occur if Taiwan declares independence.   

Against this backdrop, the Kuomintang is likely to continue its rapprochement with the PRC. The party, which has always been considered anti-communist, now promotes peaceful coexistence between the two banks of the Taiwan Strait as well as national unity in China. 

The Democrats and Nationalists (Kuomintang) alliance is too toxic for both parties, so they will have to seek common ground with the People’s Party (TPP). The latter’s approach to relations with China is based on the concept of finding compromises. Thus, if a DPP-TPP coalition is formed, President Lai will be forced to maintain a cautious policy towards Communist China, even if Beijing puts more pressure on his government. If the Kuomintang and the TPP form parliamentary majority that will be in opposition to the presidential administration, a domestic political crisis will almost certainly ensue, which Beijing will undoubtedly exploit. 

Lai Ching-te, the newly elected president. Ching-te’s name translates to “pure and virtuous.” However, the new president frequently refers to himself using the English name William.

Under Attack by Fakes from the Continent

Beijing demonstrated its displeasure with Taiwan’s elections in the usual ‘manner’, by conducting military exercises near the island. However, most international observers believe that an armed solution to the “Taiwan issue” is a remote possibility given Beijing’s growing ambitions.  

Meanwhile, the PRC’s information offensive against Taiwan poses a challenge to civil society and the government of the Republic of China. According to a report published in March 2023 by Stockholm University’s Varieties of Democracy project, Taiwan has been among the world’s “leaders” in terms of external disinformation influences for the past decade. Of course, China is the primary source of disinformation in Taiwan’s information space. 

Several conspiracy theories circulated in Taiwan’s media during the 2024 election campaign, most of which were likely of mainland origin. For example, one of them claims that Washington and Taiwan have collaborated to develop biological weapons in the event of a “Chinese invasion.” The DPP’s vice presidential candidate, Hsiao Bi-khim (Xiao Bixin), an ally of newly elected President Lai Ching-te, was also at the center of the disinformation campaign. At the end of last year, opposition media spread false information about her American citizenship, rendering Lai’s deputy ineligible to run in the election. However, the key message coming from the pro-China camp is that Lai himself has a “penchant for dictatorship” and will undoubtedly “provoke” a war due to his “hasty pursuit of Taiwan’s independence.” 

It is worth noting that Beijing is honing its skills at disseminating manipulative information to instill loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party’s policies on the “rebellious” island. Analysts argue that, whereas China’s attempts to spread disinformation in previous elections (in 2020) were clumsy and easily identified (particularly via IP addresses), pro-China messages are now better tailored to the local audience.  

During the recent Taiwanese elections, communist Chinese ideologues tested new methods of spreading information, including:

  • funding small news organisations that spread critical messages and fabricated polls;
  • involvement of the local online influencers and bloggers, broadcasting pro-Mainland narratives;
  • extending deepfake technology into the realm of political technologies. A good example is the YouTube channel “Eat Rice, No War”. In December, it released a video using deepfake technology claiming that the DPP candidate (Lai Ching-te) had three mistresses. This followed previous attempts to create an audio file in which the People’s Party presidential candidate mocked Lai for visiting the United States and “interviewing” for the presidency.
An example of using diplomacy technology on the eve of elections in Taiwan

The Battlefield is Social Media

The dominance of social media campaigning over political advertising in traditional media was a defining feature of Taiwan’s recent elections. This is understandable, given that in 2022, only 27% of Taiwanese trusted traditional media, the lowest rate in Asia-Pacific (data from Reporters Without Borders, a Reuters Institute and Oxford University study).

The most significant threat to Taiwanese information resistance has developed around the short-form video service TikTok, owned by the ByteDance company headquartered in Beijing. This social network is extremely popular among Taiwanese residents, with approximately a quarter of the island’s population using the app, including a number of well-known influencers and celebrities. 

Source: Aljazeera.com 

It is worth noting that in the run-up to the election, the Taiwanese segment of TikTok was inundated with disinformation accusing Lai of sex scandals, tax evasion, and a plot to start a war with China. According to Puma Shen, an associate professor at National Taipei University, “China’s role is to amplify the sound, not to spread disinformation. When China sees something worth amplifying, it does so, and we can’t match that scale.” Min Hsuan Wu, a disinformation researcher and co-founder of Doublethink Lab, notes that several fakes were spread on social media via fake accounts and artificial intelligence (AI).

The War of the Two Towers

According to Taiwanese intelligence, the information campaign against Taiwan is being coordinated by Wang Huning, a longtime associate of Chinese president Xi Jinping and a leading party theorist who is a member of the Chinese Communist Party’s highest governing body, the Politburo Standing Committee of the Chinese Communist Party. The Communist Party’s Central Propaganda Department and “Base 311” of the People’s Liberation Army directly coordinates propaganda efforts on Taiwan issues, a psychological warfare unit based in Fuzhou near the Taiwan Strait coast.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and Wang Huning, 2015. (Feng Li / Getty Images Asia Pacific)

According to Taiwanese sources, Base 311 specialists organised trips for Taiwanese media to mainland China and disseminated pro-Beijing narratives on social media (via short videos) based on out-of-context stories from Taiwanese television programmes.

Tzu-wei Hung, a researcher at Taiwan’s Academia Sinica (National Academy of the Republic of China), says “Beijing is stepping up its efforts in cognitive warfare.” The scholar goes on to say: “Negative narratives are effective not because they change the outcome of elections, but because they exacerbate social conflicts and create a vicious circle of mistrust and hatred.”

Taiwanese authorities counter China’s information influence by:

  • supporting NGOs and think tanks that identify and refute fakes
  • using blockchain technology to detect manipulative messages in social media
  • increasing media literacy among citizens

The establishment of the Taiwan Centre for the Study of Cognitive Warfare was announced on January 17, 2024. 

The Centre is divided into three areas: 

  • data collection and research, 
  • cognitive warfare analysis against Taiwan
  • rapid response to combat fake news

The Center’s cyber experts are expected to monitor fake accounts, request that social platform owners remove fake news and videos, and issue statements to the public.

According to Taiwan’s Prime Minister, Chen Chien-jen, “The government continues to improve our citizens’ ability to recognise false information, develop relevant guidelines, and investigate fakes. Cases of deliberate dissemination of disinformation are also investigated and prosecuted in accordance with the law. The government will continue to monitor this closely”.

Chen Chien-jen (left) with Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen

So Taipei is implementing a number of administrative measures. The most notable step is a ban on TikTok for civil servants in 2020. Also the authorities did not renew the broadcasting licence of the local pro-Chinese cable news channel CTi TV, which is owned by businessman and media mogul Tsai Eng-meng. The latter maintains close financial ties with the mainland. At the same time, the government’s actions cannot be described as repressive, as the channel continues to broadcast on YouTube to this day, and the media group’s sister channels remain on the national cable and satellite broadcasting system. 

“Russian volunteers” infiltrate the Taiwanese information front

Russia has fallen into China’s suffocating embrace as a result of its aggression against Ukraine as well as its political and economic isolation from the West. The Kremlin’s reliance on its “senior comrades” in Beijing is evident not only in economic terms. In discourse wars with the United States and its allies, Moscow has played the role of a “junior partner,” frequently employing techniques that the arrogant Zhongnanhai avoids.  

The Kremlin took advantage of the Taiwanese elections to pay another courtesy to the Chinese leadership. The Russian Foreign Ministry issued the following statement: “The Russian side opposes Taiwanese independence in any form. We urge all external forces to refrain from provocative actions that threaten regional stability and international security.” Taiwan’s response was harsh and categorical: “Russia voluntarily turned into a thug (in the original Taiwanese, 打手, other translations include “mercenary” and “batterer”) of the Communist Party of China regime and deliberately adopted the false “one-China principle,” the island government said. “Taiwanese diplomats say this “proves once again that the authoritarian merger of Russia and China endangers international peace, stability, and the rules-based world order”.

The Taiwanese flagrant disparagement of the Kremlin took Russian propaganda by complete surprise. Prior to election day, Russian state media had sluggishly covered the Taiwanese vote, ignoring the island’s democracy. However, Taipei’s decisive diplomatic demarche sparked a chain reaction in Russian media and social media (particularly Telegram, the primary information platform for various political interest groups in Russia).

The primary objectives of the propaganda include:

  • War speculation, which, as a result of Lai’s victory, is said to be inevitable. Russian propagandists defined the Democratic Progressive Party’s slogans as “extremely extremist.”
  • Accusing Americans of setting up “funds to work on transforming public consciousness and replacing Chinese identity with Taiwanese identity.”
  • The elections were portrayed as an attempt by Washington to “interfere” in internal Chinese affairs, hinder the process of “unification”, and create “another conflict situation in the world to hinder the development of other countries.”
  • Disseminating information about election fraud (on the assumption that voters loyal to the PRC registered on small Taiwanese islands are barred from voting due to artificial transportation barriers). 
  • Emphasising that, despite the victory of the “anti-Beijing” candidate, the vast majority of Taiwanese support friendly relations with China. 

Thus, in general, the rhetoric of Russian media mirrors that of China’s official media resources. The Kremlin merely relays Beijing’s main narratives. However, there are also attempts to incorporate Putin’s pseudo-ideological justification for the war in Ukraine into the Taiwanese context. For example, the island’s “de-Chinaization” and “Taiwanization” are compared to the alleged “de-Russification” carried out by Ukrainian authorities and governments of the “former Soviet republics”.

Taiwan’s elections have become a marker of the advancement of technologies and methods for disseminating China’s information influence. Beijing is not limited to traditional means of information dissemination, such as television or the official press. Given the global trend of distrust in traditional media, social media has emerged as the primary arena for narrative warfare. In recent years, China has demonstrated a high degree of adaptability in this aspect of cyber conflict. Beijing employs a variety of tools to penetrate Taiwanese public consciousness, including diplomatic fakes, artificial intelligence, a network of loyal media commentators, and so on. 

The case of the Taiwanese elections demonstrates that China and Russia’s propaganda practices are nearly identical. Both countries do not rely on high-ranking officials. Instead, China and Russia’s propaganda reflects the local agenda. The two autocracies’ information interventions are disguised as dissatisfaction with the government’s actions among local communities. For more than a decade, the Kremlin has used similar methods of influence in its hybrid information warfare against Ukraine, such as integrating Ukrainians into Russian social platforms, incorporating Russian-controlled TV channels, and establishing a network of pro-Russian speakers and media influencers.  

The example of Taiwan demonstrates that external cognitive influences can be effectively countered, even if they are supported by forces orders of magnitude greater than the resources of the country targeted by the information attack. The primary means of achieving information resistance is improving the speed of information processing in order to detect and prevent manipulation, as well as increasing media literacy in society.