The real risk of Chinese interference in Taiwan’s local elections

Electoral interference is a hot topic across the world and China is being as brazen as ever about its plans to interfere in Taiwan’s upcoming local elections

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TAIPEI (Taiwan News) - It has been revealed this week that China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, the Communist Party body which fronts up their attempts to destabilize and eventually overthrow the democratically elected Taiwanese Government, has held a conference planning on how to interfere with the local elections taking place in Taiwan in 2018. 

At the end of the coming year, Taiwan will go to the polls to elect mayors and other local officials across the country. Whilst these are not elections for the national legislature or the Presidency, Mayors and Local Councils in Taiwan hold considerable powers, and local elections are always viewed as a test of the popularity of the current national government too.

The open hostility of the Communist regime in China towards Taiwan’s current President and administration is clear and it will come as no surprise that they would like to see President Tsai Ing-wen and the DPP suffer heavy defeats in these elections.

But despite the flawed claims of the Communist regime in China to sovereignty over Taiwan, the conference held by the Taiwan Affairs Office on 27th December should be viewed in Taiwan and the wider world as what it is. That is an attempt by China to interfere in elections of another country.

It would not be the first time this has happened. Indeed, it has happened to a greater or lesser extent in all democratic elections in Taiwan. But in the context of the global attitude towards overseas electoral interference at the moment, their open planning about how to interfere should be provoking much more outrage than it so far has.

Let's be very clear. Elections in Taiwan are nothing to do with China and the Chinese Communist Party. They are an opportunity for Taiwanese people to exercise their democratic right to elect Taiwanese politicians to oversee and administer Taiwan.

The idea that a foreign authoritarian regime believes it has the right to unduly influence the democratic process in a neighboring country should anger everyone Taiwan and the rest of the world.

Electoral interference trends

Overseas influence in democratic elections has been very much in the news over the past year and has provoked significant public and political outrage.

The election of Donald Trump as President of the United States is widely believed to have been influenced by Russian interference. There have also been claims that Russia has also been a factor in the United Kingdom’s Brexit referendum and elections held in Germany, the Netherlands, and elsewhere.

While it has proved hard to substantiate these allegations, the evidence in the USA is especially strong, and Russia has not exactly gone out of its way to deny the allegations.

It would be naïve to think that China has not observed Russian actions in the US with interest and learned lessons and even cooperated with their neighbours on such strategies. While Russia is notionally democratic, the regime of Vladimir Putin is essentially a single-party one in the same style as China’s Communist regime and there is significant cooperation between the two.

And of course, it is not difficult for China to interfere in Taiwan’s elections. Many Taiwanese media outlets and businesses have Chinese ownership and already serve as mouthpieces for Communist Party propaganda. Indeed, it was apparently Taiwanese-funded businesses in China that were aiding the Taiwan Affairs Office in its recent conference.

Many Taiwanese people also have close friends and families living in China who are likely to be sharing state propaganda with them. And there is also a sizable minority of Taiwanese people who support the Communist Party and the concept of reunification.

Throw in the ease with which China’s cyber-army can influence the online debate in Taiwan with fake news, provocative articles, and doctored options, and the military threat which even saw missiles fired at Taiwan during the 1996 Presidential elections, and there can be no doubt that Communist China poses a significant threat to electoral freedoms of Taiwan.

How to counter the Chinese threat

Given that the international community notionally accepts China’s claims to sovereignty over Taiwan, there is little prospect of any international action, or even condemnation, of Chinese interference in Taiwan’s elections, unless they turn to military action.

That means that the issue is one which must be tackled head-on by the Taiwanese Government and its people.

The Government should be taking urgent steps to protect the election process from interference as much as possible. This should include closely monitoring where the funding of pro-Chinese parties is originating from and ensuring that candidates with links to the Communist Party of China are not able to stand.

There is also a case for introducing media regulations to ensure impartial coverage of electoral issues is required from all broadcast and print media outlets. But in the timeframe between now and the elections, such a move seems unlikely to succeed.

While there are certain things that the Government can do, much of the onus will fall on the Taiwanese people themselves. As we have seen with such issues as the alleged ban on incense in Taiwanese temples, it is remarkably easy to a fake news story created in China to be lapped up by the people and therefore has political ramifications in Taiwan.

Taiwanese people are prone to accepting what they read or hear at first glance, especially if it comes from someone they know and trust. This stems from an education system which is focused on absorbing information rather than encouraging critical thinking.

The 24-hour media cycle and near-universal use of apps like Line and Facebook to disseminate news makes it very easy for false stories to spread, and be accepted as true, quickly.

The Taiwanese people need to be aware of this. They must learn to cast a critical eye over what they read and see in the coming months, rather than just blindly accepting what they are told.

Political parties and the Government can assist in this by being transparent and open as possible. The Government should also consider introducing a Fact-Check service on Government websites to enable them to quickly counter any false narratives that are taking hold across the country.

Taiwanese elections are always rough and tumble affairs and this year’s promise to be no different. Truth could well be in short supply, but regardless of political allegiances, all Taiwanese people should be united in ensuring that these elections are run on the basis of Taiwanese issues and not the distorting influence of the country’s neighboring superpower.