Written by Nicholas Welch.
Approaching the January 2020 Taiwan elections, many Taiwanese and international spectators broadly feared PRC-based disinformation operations weakening Taiwan’s democratic institutions. In particular, many feared Russian-style “covert social influence via the use of bots and fake persona accounts”, which would sway public opinion en masse. Nevertheless, when the dust settled, it remained unclear whether the PRC propagated that form of disinformation at all. Before the election, and although no substantial evidence for such claims exists, the international community pre-emptively accused the PRC of spreading disinformation. Since there are compelling reasons to believe the PRC forwent disinformation operations, the international community unwittingly bolstered the PRC’s credibility with unsubstantiated accusations, scoring a foreign-policy own goal.
To non-comprehensively cite examples of pre-emptive accusations:
- The Stanford Internet Observatory hypothesized that the PRC could attempt “covert social influence via the use of bots and fake persona accounts”, on the basis that “China has a well-documented covert social influence capability”; “hundreds of thousands—some estimates reach as high as 2 million—of conscripted posters who comment on local Chinese social media and news articles to bolster the CCP and its leaders and policies”.
- At the Global Taiwan Institute, Michael Mazza asserted that “China’s interference in Taiwan’s democracy is a genuine challenge. Via disinformation campaigns, … the CCP is seeking to weaken Tsai Ing-wen, boost the opposition Kuomintang (KMT), and undermine confidence in Taiwan’s democratic institutions”. Mazza also cited a letter written by Senators Cortez and Rubio, which urged various intelligence and State Department officials to proactively investigate possible PRC influence.
- At the Taiwan Sentinel, J. Michael Cole wrote that among the pillars which “China’s strategy relies on” are “dozens of content farms/mills, with content increasingly generated by Taiwanese or people with similar linguistic footprint (e.g., ethnic Chinese in Malaysia)”, as well as social media “trolls, bots, cyborgs, ‘sock puppets’ to swarm targets”.
Thus, as Kharis Templeman observed in 2019, the pre-election climate in Taiwan “appears to most outside observers to be acutely vulnerable to Chinese exercise of sharp power”.
Yet, though Tsai Ing-wen was not Beijing’s preferred presidential winner, she easily and incontestably won the election. As PRC influence efforts were so widely predicted, Tsai’s win instantly forced a reassessment—many observers were struck most by what did not happen. The Stanford Internet Observatory followed up post-election: “we did not find any cases of disinformation on social media that we believed to be attributable to the PRC.” In fact, they attributed “suspicious activity” and amplification of dubious stories to “domestic hyper-partisanship fan groups”.
To be sure, even after Taiwan’s 2020 election, some spectators still wrote that the PRC is obviously guilty of disinformation efforts in Taiwan. For example, Denmark’s Anders Fogh Rasmussen penned a Newsweek article, maintaining that the PRC’s efforts “to sway the outcome of Taiwanese elections” via disinformation are still “rife”. His assertion would be more compelling, however, if he cited even one concrete example of PRC disinformation related to the 2020 Taiwan elections. He mentioned the case of a Taiwanese representative’s suicide in Osaka after widely believed fake news led to undue criticism of him—but that incident was in 2018. The Osaka incident is actually a favourite in many reports about PRC disinformation—the Center for Strategic & International Studies and Reporters Without Borders—but even in those exhaustive reports, the Osaka incident is the only concrete example cited as evidence of “rife” PRC disinformation campaigns. Moreover, it is not a compelling example of PRC disinformation anyway, as a Taiwanese college student was identified by prosecutors in Taiwan as the source of the fake news, albeit criminal charges against him were dropped.
Also, to be sure, the PRC’s influence efforts, broadly speaking, often are difficult to find and substantially prove. As James To wrote of United Front Work, “That is the beauty of UF work—often there is no evidence—at least in black and white”. It is theoretically possible that everyone missed swaths of PRC-originated accounts, and disinformation went undetected, say, under the auspices of the Taiwanese hyper-partisanship identified by the Stanford Internet Observatory. Even so, that theory does not account for obvious political opportunities the PRC missed. For example, Annette Lu entered the election in September 2019, late in the game. As Paul Huang observed, “DPP party rules prohibit members from running against the party’s incumbent nominee”; to run against Tsai, she would need to be expelled from the party: “Should DPP opt to expel Lu, one of its earliest founders and a former vice president, it would certainly not be favourable to President Tsai, who has yet to repair the party’s deep internal division following the bitter presidential primary race between her and former Premier William Lai earlier this year”. Assuming Beijing preferred Tsai to lose the 2020 election, amplifying Lu’s voice would have been an obvious tactic to divide the DPP and thus reduce Tsai’s re-election chances. Nevertheless, Lu’s campaign received little press at all—as nobody attempted any kind of influence efforts, we can assume the PRC did not.
Either the PRC is remarkably effective at projecting and concealing disinformation campaigns, their disinformation efforts failed, or they did not even try.
Tsai’s indisputable win and missed opportunities like Annette Lu make it difficult to believe that the PRC is an exceptional disinformation actor.
In many respects, Taiwan is well-prepared to fend off disinformation campaigns. Approaching the 2020 elections, the Legislative Yuan passed laws that strengthened the government’s ability to stop spreading harmful rumours. Facebook, LINE and the Taiwan FactCheck Center consistently debunked false stories. Notwithstanding the harms of extreme partisanship, especially Taiwanese in the Pan-Green camp are “deeply suspicious of pro-China candidates, messaging, or activities, and attempts by public opinion leaders—politicians, media outlets, academics, and others—to promote a China-friendly line”. Perhaps PRC disinformation campaigns failed because Taiwan had already done the necessary work to defend against an onslaught.
The PRC probably has the capability and resources to invest in successful disinformation campaigns. That virtually no evidence of these efforts exists suggests more strongly that the PRC did not try. The PRC has good reasons not to try, in that the PRC is now pursuing its interests skilfully, incrementally and gradually, unlike other disinformation operations.
In the Hoover Institution’s 2020 Conference on Taiwan in the Indo-Pacific Region, Larry Diamond said, “I feared in August of 2019, when it was reported that China was massing security forces over the border from Hong Kong, that China was going to invade Hong Kong. I even wrote an article mourning about a Tiananmen massacre in Hong Kong. And I think I greatly underestimated Xi Jinping—because, of course, that would have been a tragic and horrific thing, but it also would have been a very stupid thing, geopolitically. What Beijing has done in Hong Kong is ugly and bad enough—but it has been a lot more skilful than Tiananmen Square”.
He then asked, regarding Xi and the CCP’s approach to their Taiwan objectives, “And might China use the same incremental tactics of strangulation, and pressure, and gradual deconstruction of democratic will that it has been using in Hong Kong?”.
After Taiwanese approval ratings of the PRC plummeted, the PRC may not have been willing to risk any more escalation with Taiwan. Had they aggressively and successfully imposed disinformation during the Taiwan 2020 elections, and if their disinformation campaigns were exposed and the Taiwanese then viewed the election’s outcome as illegitimate, the PRC would have manufactured a serious problem for itself.
The PRC’s time horizons regarding Taiwan are flexible. In 2022 Xi Jinping is poised to indefinitely extend his tenure as the supreme leader of the CCP. Arguably the Taiwan issue does not pose an imminent threat to his legitimacy should little progress be made toward unification. Though Xi has increased pressure on Taiwan, the lack of evidence for disinformation campaigns hints that Xi is not desperate for immediate regime change on the island.
Even to the PRC, peaceful unification of Taiwan is in the PRC’s best interests. In theory, then, the PRC wants the Taiwanese to choose to return—and because Taiwan has a robust, decades-old democracy, the Taiwanese, ideally, will choose by democratic referendum. In that light, it is important to the PRC not that Taiwanese democracy be crippled but strengthened—such that if a majority of Taiwanese voters choose unification, the Taiwanese government and the international community view that outcome as legitimate.
Since the international community accused the PRC of rife interference—with no concrete evidence of PRC disinformation surfacing—and the PRC-favoured candidate in Taiwan lost the presidency, the PRC scored a credibility victory. This kind of victory may serve them far better in the long-run. Surely the PRC learned that the short-term victory of quashing the 1989 Tiananmen protests was a serious, long-term loss.
The PRC may not have engaged in Russian-style disinformation campaigns at all during the Taiwan 2020 elections. There is no way to know for sure. Nor does that suggestion imply complacency—indeed, Taiwan’s non-complacency is why the PRC is forced to play the long game. But before accusing the PRC of anything, disinformation included, spectators should arm themselves with sufficient evidence, lest the PRC continue earning unearned credibility.
Nicholas Welch is an undergraduate double majoring in East Asian studies and mathematical and computational science at Stanford University. He currently lives in Taipei, Taiwan.
This article is part of a special issue on “Taiwan Security Issues: Student Commentaries from the Stanford Center for East Asian Studies.