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China Is Stepping Up Its Information War on Taiwan

Pelosi’s visit is another spur for Beijing’s disinformation campaign.

By , a historian based in Washington, D.C.
A television broadcasts news about House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
A television broadcasts news about House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
A television broadcasts news about House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at a local restaurant in Taipei, Taiwan, on Aug. 2. Annabelle Chih/Getty Images

As U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi landed in Taiwan today, rumors and false stories flew around the Chinese language online sphere. Claims that PLA Su-35 fighters had crossed into Taiwanese airspace were promptly dismissed by Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense. Online assaults, meanwhile, targeted Taiwanese websites. The moves were the first shots in what will be an intensified campaign of information warfare—in an already long-running war.

On April 16, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen described the information assault against Taiwan as “cognitive warfare tactics.” For Taiwanese, that’s a long-running concern. Although the threat of invasion is a potent fear, Beijing has long sought to subvert Taiwanese democracy and persuade the island to willingly—or semi-willingly—choose unification with the mainland. If that isn’t possible, China wants a divided and unhappy Taiwan that’s an easier target for invasion.

A Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) official publication from March 17 outlines its priority for information warfare, describing it as taking a central role over conventional military strength. It postulates that warfare is evolving away from mechanized battle to information assaults, stating, “Information age warfare depends mainly on information to subdue an enemy.” The PLA white paper describes the tactic in general terms as depriving the enemy of information superiority while strengthening its own information capabilities by building an information-based combat system. The paper does not identify a specific enemy, but Taiwan is a perpetual target. The paper asserts that as a system, information warfare is meant to fight an enemy with superior mechanized military power, likely alluding to the United States and its Western allies.

As U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi landed in Taiwan today, rumors and false stories flew around the Chinese language online sphere. Claims that PLA Su-35 fighters had crossed into Taiwanese airspace were promptly dismissed by Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense. Online assaults, meanwhile, targeted Taiwanese websites. The moves were the first shots in what will be an intensified campaign of information warfare—in an already long-running war.

On April 16, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen described the information assault against Taiwan as “cognitive warfare tactics.” For Taiwanese, that’s a long-running concern. Although the threat of invasion is a potent fear, Beijing has long sought to subvert Taiwanese democracy and persuade the island to willingly—or semi-willingly—choose unification with the mainland. If that isn’t possible, China wants a divided and unhappy Taiwan that’s an easier target for invasion.

A Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) official publication from March 17 outlines its priority for information warfare, describing it as taking a central role over conventional military strength. It postulates that warfare is evolving away from mechanized battle to information assaults, stating, “Information age warfare depends mainly on information to subdue an enemy.” The PLA white paper describes the tactic in general terms as depriving the enemy of information superiority while strengthening its own information capabilities by building an information-based combat system. The paper does not identify a specific enemy, but Taiwan is a perpetual target. The paper asserts that as a system, information warfare is meant to fight an enemy with superior mechanized military power, likely alluding to the United States and its Western allies.

A coordinated study among leading international research institutions analyzing the intersection between tech and social science—Graphika, the Institute for the Future’s Digital Intelligence Laboratory, and the International Republican Institute—produced an August 2020 report with detailed evidence of China’s direct and likely interference in Taiwan’s politics. They found, for instance, that in 2018, the PLA’s leading psychological warfare unit recommended investing in conducting digital campaigns to create subliminal messaging and spread propaganda. Evidence of such efforts range from content farms to sizable donations and instant followers for key pro-China political candidates who promote unification with the mainland. As other studies and reports have shown, using the same methods, hackers infiltrated the business community as well, altering commercials from key businesses to support Beijing’s “One China” policy.

Although the everyday attacks on Taiwan are abstract, one of the most threatening scenarios for Taiwan is a physical assault on a key information line. China may sever the undersea internet cable, currently the island’s only source for internet access. The cable connects Taiwan to the mainland, creating a dependency on the mainland. Should that cable be cut, most of Taiwan’s communications devices would shut down and forestall any smart weapons systems and military coordination on the island—effectively rendering almost all defense systems inoperable.

Tsai has prioritized building a satellite system to avoid dependence on the cable, which has now reached its third stage. Tsai’s emphasis on the satellite system, however, slows conventional military preparations—to the frustration of many. Yet the satellite system deters China’s advance. There is concern in China, for example, that in the next 10 years, Taiwan’s own information-based combat system could challenge China’s, especially with the threat that Taiwan would share intelligence with the United States.

In the meantime, however, the Chinese Communist Party’s goal continues to work toward softening Taiwan for voluntary annexation. Beijing’s political information warfare against its neighbor has largely failed; independence sentiments grow every year. That means the original goal, a peaceful—at least on the surface—reunification, looks increasingly unlikely. Beijing still campaigns for it, in part because its own rhetoric at home depends on the idea that the Taiwanese are deluded compatriots who can be shown the light.

China blares that light partially through Taiwan’s thriving content farm industry. Several of these companies have strong ties to the mainland. Although all political campaigns used content farms in the most recent 2020 election, pro-China content farms distributed far more digital material than those supporting Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which does not support Beijing’s “One China” policy. China’s disinformation campaigns to downplay or erase Russia’s invasion and war crimes in Ukraine bleed into Taiwan through these outlets. The disinformation study even found links to traditional media. Two of the four main Taiwan news outlets held substantial financial ties to the mainland. One received payments to write articles on specific angles of the straits crisis.

It is hard to get a sense of the full scale of this information assault. Concerns for how to share content from private spaces make publicly sharing evidence difficult. Methods of attribution vary. It is also challenging to determine where to focus research when it is coordinated in different ways and affects countries in Europe and the United States. Some efforts include payments to Western institutions and individuals, thus distorting supposedly neutral outside measures and even, at times, infiltrating sources that seem authoritative or trustworthy.

It can be difficult to distinguish legitimate political differences from such campaigns. Yet as China’s disinformation campaign ramps up, more evidence surfaces of direct involvement. Not long before the Kuomintang (KMT) party’s most recent political candidate, Han Kuo-yu, announced his candidacy for the 2020 presidential elections, he took funding directly from Chinese state entities. Later, Chinese state media praised him on YouTube for his pro-unification stance. While the KMT dominated elections since its establishment, in the 2016 presidential election, Taiwanese lined up in record numbers to vote the KMT out of power—56 percent to 31 percent.

Taiwanese are becoming savvy to disinformation messaging. The study found illegitimate posts on social media and in content farms partially by identifying phrasing and character differences not found in Taiwan—and thus not written by a Taiwanese person. Character inconsistencies, using simplified rather than traditional characters, were attributed to accidental errors by mainlanders trying to imitate supposed Taiwanese writers.

Spikes in recent discussions and disinformation center around three key nodes in Taiwan: military preparedness, Tsai, and the West’s relationship with Taiwan—all with an endgame of subverting Taiwan’s independence. The discussion of military preparedness is telegraphed to and is even perpetuated at times by a Western audience. The other two focus on a Taiwanese local audience less visible to outsiders.

Critiques of Taiwanese readiness for invasion often have multiple causes. Some of the most vigorous critics are extremely anti-China and act out of genuine fear for the island’s survival. Paul Huang published an exposé in Foreign Policy in February 2020 and has recently reconfirmed the military’s lack of a logistics core, insufficient training, and low morale. But other critiques intend to weaken morale or convince Taiwanese that resistance is futile; these center on discrediting Tsai’s military priorities. This includes propaganda videos from China mostly intended to bolster a domestic audience but partially targeted at intimidating Taiwanese.

Tsai is also a major target. Going after her is for both electoral purposes, to replace the DPP with a more friendly pro-China party, but also for military ones. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky singlehandedly turned the world’s perception of Ukraine’s resolve. Russia’s assault became more difficult with a strong leader to rally the effort against it. China needs to keep Tsai from becoming the next symbol of resistance.

After a clear election victory in 2016 and then a rise to 71 percent approval in her early presidency through 2020, Tsai’s ratings plummeted by 20 points to just over 50 percent in one year and have not changed. Her detractors have legitimate concerns, from reducing the military conscription period from one year to four months to differences over her COVID-19 policies in a time of surging cases. But there are also persistent false claims likely initiated by Beijing, such as that her dissertation is a hoax (which has been debunked by her alma mater, the London School of Economics) or that Taiwan’s COVID-19 policies, among the most successful in the world, have been a failure.

Finally, there is an attempt to infuse distrust in Western alliances and support, which was not part of the disinformation study but shows up in polling numbers. Taiwanese legitimately worry over the limitations of U.S. support for Ukraine, and a growing number of Taiwanese believe the United States would abandon them. There is legitimate frustration that the Western press do not understand the nuances in Taiwan and are getting it wrong, perhaps at times intentionally. Yet these concerns also serve an anti-Western agenda. Tsai engages the Western press to stay relevant globally, whether it is popular to do so at home or not.

Although the Chinese reaction to Pelosi’s landing has been—by Beijing’s standards—relatively restrained, more measures are likely to come down the pipeline. Some of these will be visible, like the planned military exercises that intrude into Taiwan’s nautical limits. Others will be more subtle, like online smears, fake news, and assaults on Taiwan’s online presence.

The information assault on Taiwan has already begun.

A.A. Bastian is a historian based in Washington, D.C.

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