KAOHSIUNG (Taiwan News) — At her formal registration as the Democratic Progressive Party's (DPP) presidential candidate earlier this week, President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) cautioned that interference in the election from Communist China was a daily occurrence.
Speaking at a time when the Communist Party of China (CCP) had just sailed an aircraft carrier through the Taiwan Strait and when the standoff with democracy activists at Hong Kong Polytechnic University was at its peak, with one Taiwanese high school student detained, the comment appeared to be an oblique reference to current events.
Those who follow Taiwanese political affairs closely will know that it was actually addressing far broader concerns. The CCP has attempted to influence the result of just about every election held in Taiwan since the advent of democracy in the 1990s.
But their attempts have been more brazen and damaging in recent times. This culminated in the 9-in-1 elections that took place this time last year and saw the KMT surge to victory in a number of areas on the back of a huge swell in fake news and misleading anti-DPP social media content.
Over the past year, it has become clear the CCP has significant financial and editorial influence over a number of mainstream Taiwanese media outlets. Yet there has been no government action to control the lies and pro-China propaganda they are spouting.
Why not? The Taiwanese government is aware this is a big issue. But it is also overly-cautious of being seen as stymieing free speech.
This is admirable but also self-defeating. Without holding the mainstream media to task and forcing impartiality upon them, Taiwan has almost no chance of stemming the flow of pro-CCP propaganda that is infiltrating homes across the country. The lies that can propagate freely online need to be challenged in the mainstream media — not reasserted.
Measures have been taken to tackle fake news, but they have not gone nearly far enough. With Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) being challenged for the presidency by basket-case KMT candidate Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜) and James Soong (宋楚瑜), some are speculating that it is Chinese influence and fake news that poses a greater threat to Tsai's campaign than her actual opponents.
The truth is that the issue of fake news is just the tip of the iceberg. It is the fuel that is feeding the fire of the real threat to Taiwan’s future: domestic extremism.
In researching another article earlier this week, I found myself reading up on the U.K. government’s "Prevent" strategy. This is a program that is designed to help public sector workers in schools, higher education institutes and other areas recognize and report individuals in their care who they believe could be at risk of radicalization.
In the U.K., much of the focus of Prevent is on the country’s Muslim population and the threat of Islamic extremism after a number of terrorist attacks. But it would be wrong to suggest that radicalization is an issue only associated with Islam.
Extremism can be and is adopted by people from all religious, economic, and political backgrounds if the circumstances are right. And the more I read about radicalization, the more it appears to reflect what is being increasingly seen in Taiwan society.
There is no one clear definition of radicalization, but a number of factors that crop up repeatedly include the experience of poverty or social exclusion, recent political or religious conversion, conflict with families over political or religious issues, peer pressure, and national or global events.
Let me lay out these factors alongside one personal experience, with a family member who will remain nameless. This person is now retired, was regularly traveling abroad, and considered themselves something of an Anglophile, with a keen interest in Western culture and cuisine.
They lived a comfortable life, raised their children, and retired with a decent pension. They were traditionally a swing voter and in the last presidential election voted DPP after becoming sick of the KMT under Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九).
Then the DPP took the wholly necessary step of reforming public sector pensions, a move that saw their income reduced by somewhere in the region of 40 percent. Since then, this person has changed beyond all recognition.
The anger at having money they had worked for all their lives being taken out of their pocket manifested itself as a huge sense of resentment against the DPP and Tsai personally. This is the social exclusion that Prevent talks about: the sense that society doesn’t value what they have done and will take away what is rightfully theirs.
This perception was being echoed online and in meetings with friends from a similar background. It was not challenged by the government in any way.
Since that time, this person has sunk into an online echo-chamber which has slowly morphed from being anti-DPP to being anti-Taiwan. Their view today is the only way that Taiwan can be saved and people like them become affluent again is to unify with China.
Their previously balanced political positions are now angry and extreme. They relish seeing Hong Kong protestors beaten and loudly proclaim online and in person that they should all be punished and killed.
They heap praise on Han Kuo-yu every time he announces another policy shift toward China and yearn for the day when all ethnic Chinese are united again. The CCP nationalist propaganda, which is so fiercely mocked by so many, chimes loud and true for them. Americans and British are now seen as the enemy.
This person now holds extreme pro-Chinese political views, which continue to be fueled by a drip-drip of fake news online. They demonstrate anger when these views are challenged, refuse to debate or listen to contrary arguments, and are scathing in their dismissal of those who disagree with them.
What is most worrying in all of this is that it is not an isolated case. Speak to almost any Taiwanese and they will be able to name someone in their family or immediate circle that has behaved similarly, albeit perhaps triggered by different issues.
This issue of radicalization is something very real for Taiwan, it is happening now, and no one knows where it will lead. The worst-case scenario is the violent extremism that has already been seen in other parts of the world.
How will people like this react to an election victory by Tsai and the DPP in January? How will events in Hong Kong shape their views of what needs to happen in Taiwan? It only takes one person to go over the edge and many more could follow.
This is something that should be of major concern to the Taiwan authorities. Yes, the issue of fake news needs to be dealt with and a balance between preventing the spread of propaganda and facilitating free speech found.
But fake news is part of the journey, not the destination.
It is time to wake up to the fact the CCP is radicalizing Taiwanese, brainwashing them with its lies and propaganda. This is happening across society, among people old and young, professional and unskilled workers.
Urgent steps need to be taken now to counteract this and the potential risks it presents for Taiwan’s future.