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China’s influence as January polls loom

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Taiwanese flags during a campaign event in Taipei on June 1, 2019.

Daniel Shih | AFP

Election season is entering its final lap in Taiwan, and comes amid allegations of severe meddling by the mainland China government.

This week, Taiwan detained two executives at a Hong Kong-listed firm on suspicion of violating national security, Reuters reported. They were detained in Taipei to help with investigations over allegations — by a Chinese asylum seeker in Australia — that China interfered in Taiwan and Hong Kong.

The detention of the two men came less than two months before Taiwanese head to the polls with incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen seeking a second term. Her popularity was bolstered amid her increasingly confrontational stance against the Chinese Communist Party as social unrest in Hong Kong dragged on.

Allegations of mainland meddling have intensified in recent days due to a combination of factors, said Russell Hsiao, executive director of the Global Taiwan Institute, a Washington-based think tank. He cited “heightened activities that have raised public sensitivities in Taiwan towards CCP (Chinese Communist Party) interference issues,” such as Hong Kong.

Pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong started nearly six months ago. What began as demonstrations against a now-scrapped extradition bill has morphed into calls for full democracy. Hong Kong is a British colony that returned to Chinese rule in 2017.

According to Hsiao, Taipei has been on high alert since November last year, when Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) lost local elections in important cities to the opposition party Kuomintang (KMT) — or Nationalist Party, which is seen to be Beijing-friendly. In particular, the DPP lost its stronghold of Kaohsiung, the southern port city where it had held power for more than 20 years.

“There have already been a number of high-profile disclosures made by intelligence sources in Taipei and by US officials in the last year, that have pointed to Beijing’s ongoing activities on this front as well as its intent to interfere in Taiwan’s political process,” Hsiao told CNBC.

China has a long history of meddling in Taiwan … Hackers and bots spread disinformation through social media platforms.

Joshua Kurlantzick

Council on Foreign Relations

On Monday, the chairman of the DPP slammed China as “the enemy of democracy,” Reuters reported.

“The enemy of democracy is China. At present, Taiwan’s most ambitious opponent, competitor, is also China,” said Cho Jung-tai, the party chairman.

Another presidential candidate Han Kuo-yu — the mayor of Kaohsiung who is from the KMT — is Tsai’s most prominent rival. Seen to be Beijing-friendly, he recently denied that he was taking money from the Chinese Communist Party, local media reported. He has gone so far as to say he will drop out of the race if found to have received money from Beijing for his campaign.

Beijing considers Taiwan a wayward province and has been increasingly aggressive in its rhetoric toward the island. China has been pushing for a reunification since a civil war split the two 70 years ago.

Relations between Beijing and Taipei have been chilly since Tsai took office in 2016. She has not publicly acknowledged Beijing’s “One China” principle, which stipulates that Taiwan is part of China.

In November, Tsai named a pro-independence politician William Lai as her running mate. Lai, a former premier, angered Beijing in 2018 when he called for Taiwan’s independence. Chinese state-backed tabloid, Global Times, called for his arrest.

China’s ‘soft-hard approach’ to Taiwan

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s government recently announced a package of incentives in a bid to further open Chinese markets access to Taiwanese companies. Beijing also offered to help train Taiwanese athletes in China, among other moves aimed at showing that mainland Chinese and Taiwanese were treated equally.

Taiwan’s Presidential Office rebuffed the package, saying it is a ploy to divide the Taiwanese, the official Central News Agency reported.

The Chinese Communist Party recently announced, after a major meeting, that China will “fully respect” Taiwan’s way of life and social system once it has been “peacefully reunified” — as long as national security is protected, Reuters reported.

Along with the “carrots,” China has also been wielding “sticks” in its approach toward Taiwan.

In January, while commemorating the 40th anniversary of a thaw in the China-Taiwan relationship, Xi called for the “unification of China.”

“China has a long history of meddling in Taiwan,” wrote Joshua Kurlantzick, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in a recent post on the council’s website.

Last week, China said its first domestically-built aircraft carrier sailed through the Taiwan Strait in a move Taipei said was an act of intimidation.

The “highly visible” measures such as the package of incentives and the sailing of the aircraft carrier through the waterway are a combination of “soft-hard measures” that are “consistent with Beijing’s pattern of behavior towards Taiwan,” said Global Taiwan Institute’s Hsiao.

‘Disinformation’ campaign

Beijing is also increasing its control over Taiwanese mass media via the ownership of outlets owned by pro-China tycoons, Kurlantzick said.

“Hackers and bots spread disinformation through social media platforms such as Facebook, microblogging services such as Weibo, and popular chat apps such as Line,” he added.

Despite China’s efforts, Tsai’s popularity soared after she took a jab at China’s lack of freedom.

Taiwanese have also been increasingly vocal about their views of Beijing’s encroachment into Taiwanese politics and society. In June, a large crowd protested in Taipei against media outlets seen to be pro-Beijing.

The unrest in Hong Kong has also helped Tsai.

Beijing has been trying to sell the “one country” framework to Taiwan for years but the recent social unrest in Hong Kong has undermined the credibility of that principle.

Most recently in October, Tsai outrightly rejected the “one country, two systems” formula.

Tsai is currently leading the polls with a double-digit lead over her closest rival, the KMT’s Han. Veteran Taiwanese politician James Soong is also a contender, after announcing his fourth presidential bid on Nov. 13.



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