Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je (centre left) poses for a group photo during a campaign event with grassroots supporters in Taipei on November 7. Photo: AFP / Chris Stowers

Amid reports of Chinese “meddling” in upcoming local elections on November 24, one advisor close to Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen has described the situation as far more severe than is generally realized.

Writing from Washington DC, Antonio Chiang, vice-president of the General Association of Chinese Culture and a presidential advisor, told Asia Times: “I am here in DC to talk about China’s influence on our elections.

“They are playing the same game, like the Russians in Crimea.”

The General Association of Chinese Culture (GACC) is ostensibly an official government body responsible for projecting Taiwanese soft power and promoting cross-Strait cultural exchanges. Tsai is president of the GACC, and the organization is often used as a quasi-diplomatic organ for Taiwan, which only has formal relations with 17 countries worldwide.

Chiang’s comments come amid allegations China has been funding fake news and opposition candidates to the governing, pro-independence leaning Democratic Progressive Party, which is headed by Tsai.

Taipei has also accused Beijing of pepper-shot commenting about the elections on Taiwan social media. Chiang described it as the island’s  “Chinagate.” “It’s wide open,” he said.

In response, the Taiwan Affairs Office of China’s State Council could not be reached for comment. But Beijing regards Taiwan as “sacred territory” in line with its “one China” policy.

Island for sale

Meanwhile, Chiang’s remarks should be taken in the context of long-held suspicions in Taiwan that China is far less likely to attempt to invade the island, which would be logistically difficult and could potentially spark a far wider regional conflict, than it is to attempt to buy the island.

Writing in The Diplomat, J Michael Cole, a respected Taiwan commentator, said: “The key to the strategy is two-fold. First, flooding Taiwan’s economy with Chinese investment and second, ensuring that a greater number of Chinese are in positions of authority on the island.”

Since the ratification of Taiwan’s Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) in June 2009, Cole wrote: “Taiwan [has] opened 205 manufacturing, services, and finance sectors to Chinese investment, which was followed by a further opening up of 42 sectors.”

The ECFA is an agreement between China and Taiwan to reduce tariffs and barriers to trade between the two sides.

That, some Taiwanese maintain, has put the island up for sale to Chinese business and political interests.

Yet the director-general of Taiwan’s Ministry of Justice Investigation Bureau, Leu Wen-jong, noted in a legislative session, the problem goes far beyond Chinese investment into the economy and media, both of which are rampant. He accused China of attempting to sway Taiwan election results by funding candidates it favors.

Election meddling

Leu told lawmakers that his bureau had 33 “pieces of intelligence” that point to direct Chinese meddling in Taiwan’s upcoming elections. He also added that at least four inquiries into Beijing-backed vote buying were under investigation based on “solid evidence.”

Leu reportedly told the Chinese-language Liberty Times, a broadly pro-independence newspaper, that the money was coming from the Taiwan Affairs Office of China’s State Council.

His comments should be viewed in light of widespread accusations in Taiwan’s media of a “China troll factory” which “specializes in training its media and setting up accounts on Weibo, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and other social media platforms to launch “cognitive space combat,” and “interfere with the elections.”

Taiwan has one of the world’s highest internet-penetration rates. More than 80% of the population have Facebook accounts with analysts pointing out that is one of the highest figures in the world.

The Chinese-language Liberty Times also reported that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had set up a “PLA Strategic Support Force” that specializes, in among other things, “cyber-attacks.” According to the newspaper: “The PLA has about 300,000 cyber-savvy soldiers serving.”

A further two million, the newspaper alleged, are members of China’s so-called “50-Cent Army.”

Known in Chinese as the wumao dang, the 50-Cent Army are citizen trolls who are paid small amounts of money for posting comments on social media in support of issues of interest to the Chinese Communist Party. Taiwan local elections are high on the list.

Media on the island have reported that Taiwan’s “military and military-associated networks combined were attacked more than 200 million times in 2017.”

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, one Taiwan-based lawyer told the Asia Times: “Taiwan is certainly under siege in terms of media ownership and other methods by China, but it needs also to be seen in the context of DPP vulnerabilities ahead of the local elections.

“The DPP has disappointed the progressive and youth vote by apparently lacking the political will to pass the gay marriage act, among other things, and it has disappointed its older constituency by slashing pension payments,” he said.

Taiwan’s reforms of pensions for retired civil servants have triggered protests, but to the extent that polls can be trusted they are also thought to have broad public support.

Divided opposition

Meanwhile, in the DPP’s favor is the fact that it faces no coherent political opposition. The Kuomintang (KMT), which governed Taiwan almost unchallenged from 1949 to 2000, have failed to effectively regroup since Ma Ying-jeou was toppled in 2016 elections.

The DPP gained an overall majority on all levels of government for the first time in 2016.

“The problem for the KMT is that they have failed to win public trust by creating a ‘shallow blue’ movement in Taiwan,” a Taiwan-based political commentator told the Asia Times.

Taiwan’s color politics can be broadly defined as pro-independence-leaning “green” and more China-accommodating “blue.”

The result of this is that ahead of the elections, in which Taiwan voters will elect city and county-level mayors, the DPP is facing strong opposition from so-called independents, some of whom have long-held KMT connections and some of whom are suspected of accepting support from China.

The heated issue of Chinese meddling aside, veteran Taiwan observer Michael Turton said of the overall political situation in Taiwan: “It’s hard to get a good picture of what is going on. All the polling is terrible, all are partisan. But I think when the smoke clears the DPP will keep five of the six municipalities it currently has.”

Turton was referring to the so-called “special municipalities,” which involve voting for the mayors of Taipei and five other cities. These are Taipei, New Taipei City, Taoyuan, Taichung, Tainan and Kaohsiung.

The results of the local elections in 22 constituencies are widely seen as a weather-vane indicator of the popularity of President Tsai’s administration, and what lies ahead for the next legislative and presidential election in 2022.

Writing in The Diplomat, Ogasawara Yoshiyuki, an associate professor at the Graduate School of Global Studies, Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, said: For Beijing, the continuation of a DPP administration is unacceptable, and it will do what it can to hamper its chances, even though it knows that the probability of Tsai’s re-election is still high.”

But the Tsai administration remains concerned that the sheer “firepower” of China’s multi-pronged assault on Taiwan’s democracy could yield unexpected results that dint its current commanding position. That would be reported in Taiwan as an overall defeat.

Courtney Donovan Smith, Taiwan commentator and chairman of the Taichung American Chamber of Commerce, told the Asia Times in an email: “What we already know about … [China’s] activities in trying to influence the election, and what the government has admitted they are investigating, is all very alarming by itself. The worry is in what ways are [they] trying to undermine the system that we aren’t aware of yet?

Smith answered his own question with the words: “The possibilities are nearly endless.”

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