Beijing’s long-threatened invasion of Taiwan is well underway, but its shock troops are not the foot-soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army. They are the shadowy agents of the United Front Work Department (UFWD), Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “magic weapon,” who over the past decade have infiltrated Taiwanese society and institutions.
Since 2015 Xi has doubled the budget and responsibilities of the United Front, which aims to rally support for Chinese Communist Party objectives at home and abroad, often by creating groups and organizations that have no obvious affiliations with the party.
In Taiwan there is evidence that United Front operations distorted the results of last November’s municipal elections using the weaknesses that characterize any open democratic system.
Social media was used to spread blatantly false stories. Campaign funds were given to candidates favored by Beijing. And the leaders of villages and small municipalities were suborned into campaigning on behalf of candidates the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) wanted to win.
In the run-up to the November elections Taiwan’s National Police Agency said it had received 64 reports of purposefully fabricated false information circulating on social media.
A representative example was a story that the administration of President Tsai Ing-wen had contributed the equivalent of millions of dollars to the Hong Kong activists protesting for political reform, but had spent nothing on the eradication of dengue fever in Taiwan. The story was utterly false.
Some media in Taiwan also reported unusual efforts in China to try to create “buzz” around the campaigns of candidates favored by the CCP. Large bets were placed on certain candidates through illegal betting channels on pro-Beijing candidates. Some of the largest bets came from Shanghai, according to the National Police Agency.
“By inserting funds into the gambling black market, the Chinese government is able to shape the local rhetoric as to which candidate the citizens favor and further influence voting decisions of local voters,” wrote Ketty Chen of the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy in a report on the CCP’s subversion campaign in the municipal elections.
The head of the Ministry of Justice’s Investigative Bureau, giving evidence after the elections to the Legislative Yuan, the parliament, said his officials were investigating 33 allegations of Beijing funding pro-CCP candidates.
All this went on against a backdrop of increasing control of Taiwan’s media by people beholden to the CCP. Indeed, last Sunday tens of thousands of Taiwanese demonstrated in Ketagalan Boulevard, a ten-lane concourse that runs between the President’s office and Chiang Kai-shek’s mausoleum in Taipei, demanding that the government expel the “red media” from the country.
The administration of President Tsai says it is acutely aware of and troubled by United Front infiltration, and is trying to build some protections ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections in January.
But Tsai and her officials say it is very difficult to protect a democracy against the United Front without violating the fundamental principles and freedoms on which a democratic society stands.
In March Tsai and her national Security Council produced seven “guidelines” aimed at protecting Taiwan’s democracy.
Critics, most of them from among strongly nationalist factions of Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party, say the guidelines are too timid and not potent enough to defend Taiwan’s democracy against the incursions, infiltration and disruption of the CCP’s United Front campaign.
But a poll done in May by the government’s Mainland Affairs Council found that around 70% of respondents approved of the administration’s measures.
Tsai’s guidelines spoke in very general terms about resisting United Front operations in Taiwan, legislative changes to bolster the country’s democratic constitution, and encouraging Taiwanese companies that have established themselves in China to return home.
The list goes on to pledge to try to strengthen Taiwan’s links with the international community in order to counter Beijing’s efforts to undermine the island’s sovereignty, to take measures to stop media manipulation and social infiltration by CCP agents, and to invest in upgraded military capabilities.
The list came in response to President Xi’s January 1 reiteration of the long-running threat from Beijing to invade the island nation of 23 million people if it does not soon start negotiating a political union with China.
“The country [China] is growing strong,” said Xi. “The nation is rejuvenating and unification between the two sides of the [Taiwan] strait is the great trend of history.”
Xi held out the “one country, two systems” model used in Hong Kong as a template for a union with Taiwan. This is hardly seductive at a time when millions of Hongkongers are taking to the streets demanding that Beijing live up to the promises for autonomy and reform it made to the Hong Kong people ahead of the 1997 handover of sovereignty from Britain to China.
Polls show consistently that between 80% to 90% of Taiwanese want to keep their independence and only a minuscule minority – around 3% – want a political union with China. These unionists are mostly the ageing followers of Generalissimo Chiang, who fled with him to Taiwan after defeat by the CCP in 1949.
Taiwan has accomplished one of the most successful transitions anywhere from an authoritarian state to democracy. But democracy’s openness makes it vulnerable, especially when faced with an adversary skilled in political warfare like the CCP.
But Taiwan’s commitment to democracy has even allowed the legal registration of political parties whose only aim is the destruction of Taiwan as an independent nation and the country’s absorption by the People’s Republic of China.
There is the Taiwan Red Party and the China Unification Promotion Party, both of which have worked with the United Front.
The attention-getting activities of these and other pro-Beijing parties together with a deluge of fabricated social media activity promoting unification gives the impression that questions of a political union with China are a real issue. In reality, polls, as indicated above, have consistently shown for decades that all but a tiny minority of Taiwanese want to maintain their independence.
More than that, the surveys show that the islanders increasingly identify as Taiwanese and that very few consider themselves Chinese. This sense of nationality has intensified in recent years as more and more young Taiwanese who have no memory of martial law and who have only known democracy come to maturity.
In an interview last week President Tsai said: “I am very pleased that our younger generation is more aware than the older generation about the threats to democracy from misinformation” on social media.
“I think the younger generation are the best protectors of democracy,” she said, recalling the Sunflower Student Movement in 2014 when young demonstrators occupied the parliament to prevent the passage of legislation, promoted by the Kuomintang party then in power, that would closely tie the economies of Taiwan and China.
Tsai is running for re-election in January. Her personal popularity plummeted late last year and her DPP took a drubbing in the municipal elections, in part because of interference by the CCP and its agents.
However, the mass movements in Hong Kong demanding political reform and objecting to an extradition treaty with Beijing, and police violence against the demonstrators have buoyed the popularity both of Tsai and the DPP.
The United Front may be a magic weapon, but in the end it cannot hide the objectives of the CCP. The trick in Taiwan and in other countries targeted by the front, such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the US, is to expose United Front operations before they can be effective.