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China’s Weapon of Choice in Taiwan

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China’s Weapon of Choice in Taiwan

While military operations spark the most attention, China prefers an easier path: spreading disinformation and fake news in Taiwan.

China’s Weapon of Choice in Taiwan
Credit: Depositphotos

While China has not given up the possibility of using military operations to resolve the conflict between Taipei and Beijing, it also acknowledges the potential interference from the United States and the high cost of military operations. Instead, Beijing’s preferred policy is to seek unification by hollowing out resistance within Taiwan. 

When the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee was setting up its Taiwan Work Office (TWO) in the early 1980s, it chose officials with expertise in united front work and intelligence gathering. Many of them had personal connections or relatives in Taiwan. This has resulted in a path dependency where united front work remains a key part of China’s Taiwan policy. 

Recently, several reports have triggered debates that bear similarities to what CCP did in the 1940s, where the Communists spread misinformation and fake news to crush the morale of their opponents. With military pressure looming in parallel, this effort may increase the possibility of CCP solving the Taiwan conflict peacefully, as their opponents become divided and it becomes easier for China to establish organizations that align with their policy.

The Background of the Taiwan Work Office 

Before the “Message to Compatriots in Taiwan” was announced on New Year’s Day, 1979, China considered the cross-strait relationship to be in a state of war. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was still bombarding Kinmen up until that date (which also marked the normalization of China-U.S. relations). 

As part of the changed approach, the CCP decided to establish its Taiwan Work Office to handle cross-strait affairs. However, it faced difficulty finding people who understood Taiwan issues, aside from members in the PLA, intelligence, and foreign affairs systems.

In the early 1980s, when the CCP was reestablishing the Central Leading Group for Taiwan Affairs (CLGTA) and TWOC, it selected members from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, PLA, the Department of National Security, and the Department of United Front Work. For example, Deng Yingchao and Liao Chengzhi, both previously deputy ministers of the Department of United Front Work, were leaders of CLGTA in the early 1980s. Luo Qingchang, an intelligence agent during the Chinese Civil War, was the affirmed deputy director of CLGTA between 1979 and 1983. Apart from senior officials, the junior officials recruited in the 1980s also had similar inclinations. For example, Sun Yafu, the deputy director of the TWOC between 2004 and 2013, worked in the National People’s Congress Overseas Chinese Affairs Committee before joining the TWOC in 1990. 

These TWOC members were selected for specific and practical reasons. Before 1978, only a few people were legally allowed to access news or stories about Taiwan. 

Officials who had previously worked in the Department of United Front Work had personal connections or even blood relations with political elites in Taiwan, who became China’s leverage or tools in its Taiwan policy. For example, in the 1980s and early 1990s, the southeastern provinces, especially Fujian, Guangdong, and Jiangsu, established companies whose representatives had relatives in Taiwan to attract investments.

The TWOC’s background implies that their experience with united front work will play a significant role in shaping China’s Taiwan policy. Therefore, it is essential for Taipei and its allies to consider the CCP’s approach to united front work.

The CCP’s Long History of Weaponizing Fake News

The CCP has a long history of using fake news as a part of their united front work. For example, following the South Anhui Incident in 1941 – when a battle between Kuomintang (KMT) and CCP forces upended their uneasy truce – the CCP urged the KMT to take full responsibility, while the KMT argued that the CCP’s army had disobeyed their joint consensus. However, research conducted by British historian Jonathan Fenby suggests that the incident resulted from a deliberate delay in relaying a message from the KMT to the CCP troops, due to political conflicts within the CCP.

Another significant aspect of the CCP’s united front work is covert action, including the establishment of spider-web contacts around their agents, assembling willing collaborators, and developing organizations. Guo Moruo’s work between 1940 and 1945 is a typical example of this tactic. As the chairperson of the KMT’s Culture Administration Association, Guo created an umbrella organization for left-wing artists. This allowed the CCP to recruit many supporters who played a significant role in propaganda during the Chinese Civil War.

The purpose of manipulating disinformation is to develop sympathetic organizations and undermine confidence in society, reducing support for the enemy government. During the war, the CCP not only criticized the KMT’s political regime and policies but also claimed to represent democracy and progress. These efforts became the foundation for the CCP’s recruitment of more supporters from within the KMT

China’s Taiwan Policy and Disinformation Today

The use of fake news and manipulation of disinformation has been a common practice in China’s Taiwan policy since the late 1980s. A turning point came between 2008 and 2016, when interactions and exchanges between Taiwan and China increased. The increase in these interactions allowed China to find new agents and establish connections between the CCP and local agents. 

As Institut de Recherche Stratégique de l’ Ecole Militaire (IRSEM) argued in their 2021 report, Taiwanese media enterprises have been forced to review their content to comply with China’s policies and take directions from the TWOC to protect their investments and profits.

The background of united front work and disinformation as a CCP tool helps us make sense of two recent reports about the United States’ Taiwan policy that have triggered a debate in Taiwan. The first report alleged that U.S. President Joe Biden said “Wait until you see our plan for the destruction of Taiwan,” while the second involves a discussion on some local forums about an article titled “Broken Nest: Deterring China from Invading Taiwan.” According to the discussions, the U.S. report suggests destroying Taiwan’s semiconductor manufacturing capability to deter a Chinese invasion – and prevent China from possessing those facilities in the event of a successful takeover.

These reports have raised suspicions among Taiwanese about U.S. intentions, especially as Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) is establishing a new factory in Arizona, and the frequency and intensity of PLA military activities around Taiwan is increasing. The incidents above are deliberately interpreted to suggest that the U.S. will take over TSMC and leave Taiwan to be destroyed.

Upon closer examination of the sources and language used in these reports, however, a different narrative emerges. The report about Biden’s alleged “plan for the destruction of Taiwan” originated from a tweet by Garland Nixon, a radio host for Radio Sputnik in Russia, and was intended as a joke, according to Taiwan FactCheck Center. Biden himself never actually made the comment. The first person in Taiwan to spread this message is also known to be a pro-China politician.

In the second case, the initial Chinese-language report centered on “Broken Nest” contains language written in simplified Chinese, which is not commonly used in Taiwan. The report also uses specific words and phrases that are not commonly used in Taiwan.

Since the Chinese Civil War, the CCP has employed a strategy of crushing the morale of the opponent through fake news and disinformation. This remains a key component of their Taiwan policy nowadays. The reports cited above, which appear to have originated as part of a disinformation campaign, could trigger Taiwanese to view both the United States and their own government with suspicion. Current events – the daily presence of PLA aircraft and vessels in the Taiwan Strait and TSMC’s new investment in the U.S. – increase the perceived credibility of the disinformation. 

How Does the CCP Prefer to Conquer Taiwan? 

Upon examining the personal backgrounds of the TWOC members in the 1980s and 1990s, it seems that China prefers united front work over military operations to achieve unification with Taiwan. If this presumption holds, we can hypothesize a possible scenario where fake news is spread to delegitimize the government and create distrust among social groups. Drawing from the CCP’s experience during the Chinese Civil War, the next step would be to develop friendly organizations within opponents. Military pressure would increase during these steps, leading to negotiations covered by “peace talks” as seen in Peiping in 1948 and 1949.

However, this scenario does not rule out the possibility of armed conflict in the Taiwan Strait. In fact, military operations may be necessary for the CCP to proceed with their united front work, as negative pressure can be more persuasive than positive enticement. Nevertheless, unifying Taiwan through peaceful means would be more cost-effective and yield greater benefits than through military operations.