KAOHSIUNG (Taiwan News) — Voice of America (VOA) is a U.S. government-funded state-owned news agency which broadcasts impartial news around the world while promoting the values of freedom and democracy that are so treasured in the USA.
Over the years, it has published some important articles on Taiwanese and cross-straits affairs; indeed, it continues to do so. But on Saturday, it published an article entitled "China Steps Up Efforts to Influence Taiwan with Soft Power," which failed badly to live up to the high standards VOA usually sets.
It was penned by freelancer Ralph Jennings, who has written a number of articles for VOA over the years but is more commonly seen in such publications as (Chinese-owned) Forbes and the LA Times, which is owned by South Africa-born Chinese immigrant Patrick Soon-Shiong.
If the name rings a bell, you might remember the op-ed published here last year which took Jennings to task for peddling Communist Party propaganda as fact. Sadly, in this latest article, he is up to his old tricks again as he argues that Chinese soft-power is having an impact in Taiwan.
Jennings doing the CCP’s soft-power work for them
His article begins by referencing the so-called 31 incentives. These Chinese Communist Party (CCP) policies are designed to attract young people and businesses from Taiwan to China.
The way Jennings writes, you would assume these incentives have been an unmitigated triumph. The reality is that all independent analysis shows that they have been an abject failure.
He then references the CCP’s Xinhua News Agency as if it is a credible news source. This party mouthpiece spouts nothing more than propaganda and no reputable Western news site would quote it without first acknowledging this bias.
Jennings does no such thing. Instead, he talks about a so-called "talent exchange" launched by five cities in China’s Fujian province.
It is hard to overstate how obvious a propaganda push it is to imply that the CCP is engaging with Taiwan. There is no "exchange" involved here. Rather, this is another program to try and lure Taiwanese to China.
Jennings utterly fails to place the report in this context as any fair and balanced journalist would do. This also brings to question the editorial team which approved the copy.
The CCP’s fake economic data treated as gospel
But it gets worse. A little further down, after throwing in a couple of dubious quotes comparing the economies of Taiwan and China, Jennings writes, “China’s economy most recently grew by 6.6 percent compared to Taiwan’s 2.8 percent.”
Jennings neither provides a context for the numbers nor sources them. Where to begin?
Look at those two figures on their own and, yes, on the face of it, China’s economy looks a lot healthier. But the reality is very different, as Jennings should know if he is anything like the expert on Chinese and East Asian affairs that he claims to be.
Let’s take a look at Taiwan’s 2.41 percent growth first. This is a very healthy level of economic growth for a developed country.
Indeed, with that figure, Taiwan surpasses South Korea (2.1 percent), Hong Kong (0.6 percent), and Singapore (0.1 percent) to be the fastest-growing economy among Asia’s so-called four tigers. It is also not far off from the fast-growing US’s growth rate of 2.8 percent.
The Taiwanese economy is predicted to keep growing at around 2.27 percent in the coming years and is benefiting from a multitude of inward investments, which totaled some NT$500 billion in the first half of the year, from companies shifting their businesses from — you guessed it — communist China.
In contrast, China’s economy is in dire straits at the moment, largely thanks to the ongoing trade war with the USA. At 6.2 percent, its growth is, by its own admission, at a 27-year low.
CCP Premier Li Keqiang (李克強) has admitted that it will be hard for the country to keep the figure above 6 percent in the coming months and years.
However, there is also the vitally important fact that all CCP economic figures have to be taken with an enormous pinch of salt. More often than not, they are not so much unreliable as totally artificial.
Anyone with any knowledge of the workings of the Communist Party would know that, from the grassroots to the very top, officials are incentivized to return good economic figures. They almost always do, whether they are accurate or not.
As many books, such as the excellent "Great Wall of Chinese Debt" by financial journalist Dinny McMahon, make clear, there are no official CCP economic statistics that stand up to scrutiny. Provincial data is exaggerated, often by hundreds of percent, while at a national level, the CCP’s priority is domestic stability rather than accuracy, regardless of the wider international implications of its false data.
For Jennings to (mis)quote the party's economic figures without placing them in this context totally distorts the truth. But of course, the way he writes them supports the arguments he is trying to make.
CCP soft power: the truth
The truth about the effects of communist China’s soft-power influence over Taiwan is very different to the narrative pushed by Jennings.
Its attempts to win hearts and minds in Taiwan are crude and ineffective. At the same time, Taiwanese are looking on in horror at the brutal and illiberal treatment being dished out by CCP-supporting thugs against their brothers and sisters in Hong Kong.
Any soft-power advantage communist China might have had has been undone tenfold by its attempts to put down protesters in Hong Kong who are campaigning for the very things that most of Taiwan's people treasure above all others: freedom and democracy.
The number of Taiwanese that support unification with China is at a record low, with around three-quarters of Taiwanese citizens rejecting the notion. The number of Taiwanese who identify as Chinese is also in decline, as fewer than 4 percent consider themselves to be Chinese, according to recent surveys.
The only strategy China has left is to lure the shallow and greedy sections of the Taiwanese population with promises of wealth and prosperity.
But it is already being found out. As awareness that the Chinese economic miracle is a house built on sand grows, a few flourishes of soft power and one-off policies will have a negligible effect.
This is apparent to anyone who keeps even half an eye on cross-strait affairs, which does rather beg the question of what Ralph Jenning’s agenda is in writing an article such as this one. It is even more surprising that VOA would agree to run it.
Perhaps they will try giving his articles a little more scrutiny before publishing them from now on. After all, the last thing Voice of America wants is to be accused of pedaling Chinese propaganda at the height of the U.S.-China trade war.