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As Taiwan’s Election Nears, China’s Espionage, Interference Attempts Come Under Scrutiny

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As Taiwan’s Election Nears, China’s Espionage, Interference Attempts Come Under Scrutiny

There has been an increased number of reports on espionage plots and disinformation campaigns, and Taiwan’s government is eager to show it is taking action.

As Taiwan’s Election Nears, China’s Espionage, Interference Attempts Come Under Scrutiny
Credit: Depositphotos

With less than a month until the Taiwanese presidential elections, concerns are on the rise regarding how China might attempt to interfere in the elections. 

Chinese military threats directed at Taiwan continue, with daily air incursions and naval activity. This month saw Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense publicize information about movement by a Chinese surveillance balloon for the first time. 

That being said, it is not likely that China will launch large-scale military exercises before the elections. While China may launch exercises after the voting, launching a set of military exercises poses too much of a risk of pushing voters toward the historically independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). 

At the same time, the announcement by Chinese authorities of the arrest of Taiwanese writer Liao Meng-yen has been interpreted as an attempt to intimidate Taiwan. Liao, a writer of erotic fiction, has been missing since last year and was arrested on charges of obscenity. Liao was sentenced to 12 years in jail, significantly longer than Taiwanese imprisoned on political charges in recent years, even though Liao was known as an advocate of unification between Taiwan and China by military force if necessary. 

There has been much speculation to date about which candidate China favors in Taiwan’s presidential election, seeing as there are two candidates from the pan-Blue camp (a third, Foxconn founder Terry Gou, who was running as an independent, has since withdrawn from the elections). 

Research by the Taiwan AI Labs suggests that Chinese online efforts at disinformation as of late have focused on backing Kuomintang (KMT) candidate Hou Yu-ihi while criticizing Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) candidate Ko Wen-je. Ko has fallen in the polls after his missteps negotiating with the KMT as part of failed attempts at cementing a joint presidential ticket. The Taiwan AI Labs’ research suggests that efforts to attack Ko from Chinese disinformation efforts have intensified since this fell through. 

In the meantime, the Tsai Ing-wen administration has sought to present itself as proactive on the issue of interference in the upcoming election. Forty people were detained earlier this week by authorities, with the Ministry of Justice stating that the involved individuals were part of online disinformation efforts. According to the Ministry of Justice, this operation used 800 Facebook accounts, 13 Facebook groups, a YouTube channel, and a TikTok account, and sought to disseminate disinformation targeting DPP presidential candidate William Lai, as well as Ko Wen-je. 

The accounts alleged wrongdoing regarding Taiwan’s domestically developed COVID-19 vaccine, Medigen. They also focused on egg shortages that affected Taiwan earlier this year, and a scandal involving allegations of students being drugged at a kindergarten in Banqiao, though teachers were later cleared of wrongdoing. 

This was centered around a multimedia platform known as Agitate Taiwan. There were several telltale signs that this platform involved disinformation: the use of doctored profile images that were sourced from authentic social media accounts, check-ins at the same locations for accounts part of the network to simulate real-world activity, the use of some simplified characters, and unsuccessful attempts to simulate Taiwanese internet slang. 

There also continue to be concerns about espionage in the military. CTWant reported earlier this week on an alleged plot by a lieutenant colonel to defect to China. The plot would have involved the lieutenant colonel, surnamed Hsieh, flying across the median line of the Taiwan Strait to a waiting aircraft carrier with a CH-47F Chinook helicopter. Although the Chinese government originally offered Hsieh NT$200,000 (roughly US$6,400) a month and to protect his family in the event of a cross-strait conflict, Hsieh reportedly agreed to the deal after being offered US$15 million – half of the value of the Chinook. 

After the report was published, the Ministry of National Defense (MND) confirmed that Hsieh had been apprehended. The MND also emphasized that it was not aiming to cover up the incident. The plot is reminiscent of pilot defections that occurred during the Cold War, but which have been few and far between in the decades since.  

In late November, 10 former and current military officials were indicted on espionage charges. These included officials from units responsible for defending northern Taiwan and Taiwan’s eastern coast, as well as the 601st Brigade of the Aviation Special Forces, which includes helicopter squadrons. Two officials reportedly filmed videos in which they stated their willingness to surrender to China in the event of war, which were to be used for psychological warfare purposes, while three of the officials sought to develop a spy network. 

Four others were accused of giving military secrets to China. A CTWant report stated that this involved planning documents on how the military would respond to attacks by China, which were passed on by leaving them in a locker in the Taipei Main Station. The report alleged that the military had sought to downplay the matter. 

At the same time, the spate of reports from CTWant is in itself suspicious. CTWant is one of the many outlets owned by the Want Want Group, whose owner Tsai Eng-meng has made no secret of the fact that his interest in acquiring Taiwanese media outlets in the last decade was to promote positive views of China in Taiwan. Concerns about Tsai’s acquisition of Taiwanese media outlets and steering them toward Chinese propaganda purposes sparked the Anti-Media Monopoly Movement in 2012, one of the pivotal movements before the outbreak of the much larger 2014 Sunflower Movement. 

The Financial Times has reported that Want Want Group-owned outlets such as the China Times directly take orders from China’s Taiwan Affairs Office in terms of editorial direction. According to Apple Daily, Want Want Group outlets accepted more than 477 million yuan in funding from the Chinese government. Executives of Want Want outlets attended meetings with members of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference National Committee and executives of Chinese state-run outlets such as the People’s Daily and Xinhua News in Beijing in May 2019. 

Given this background, it’s worth questioning the motives behind the reports of Chinese intelligence infiltrating Taiwan’s military. Even if there may be truth to these stories, Want Want may aim to suggest that the Taiwanese military is covering up or downplaying defection and espionage cases. 

For its part, Want Want has responded to criticism with lawsuits, suing Financial Times journalist Kathrin Hille for her report on the Want Want accepting orders from the Taiwan Affairs Office, suing the government-run Central News Agency for reporting on Hille’s story, and suing the Apple Daily for its claims.  

Ahead of elections, there has also been increased scrutiny of the phenomenon of borough chiefs traveling to China for trips subsidized by the Chinese government. Borough chief is the lowest level of elected position in Taiwan, serving local neighborhoods. 

The phenomenon is widely known as one of China’s United Front tactics directed at encouraging positive perceptions of China in Taiwan. Through such trips, borough chiefs and their constituents would be shown aspects of China in a light intended to encourage pro-unification sentiment. However, increased scrutiny of the phenomenon took place after a report by Reuters. 

Some trips were free, while others were subsidized, costing amounts ranging from NT$6,000 to NT$15,000. During the trips, some borough chiefs met with members of the Chinese National People’s Congress Standing Committee. According to the Liberty Times, nearly 30 percent of borough chiefs in Taipei have participated in such trips, with 400 trips in the past month according to Reuters. The participating borough chiefs come from all across Taiwan, with investigations now opened into such trips in Taichung and Tainan

It is also widely known that some trips are tailored to target minority demographics that have historically voted for the KMT, such as Hakka and Taiwanese Indigenous peoples. Such trips often involve taking Indigenous groups to visit ethnic minority communities in China. 

It is to be seen whether prosecutors take action over the trips. Law enforcement may be limited in the scope of what they can do, given how many borough chiefs have participated in such trips – authorities will not want to be accused of political persecution by going after such a wide breadth of borough chiefs. 

Either way, the government has sought to stiffen penalties for espionage, with punishment for corporate espionage increased to up to 12 years in prison, while those who falsify the provision of military arms can face between three and 10 years in prison. Though stiffening such penalties is clearly timed for before elections, it is to be seen whether this has a deterrent effect on espionage or voter inference.