China is employing various tactics in an attempt to influence Taiwan’s upcoming presidential election on January 11th, 2023. As tensions between China and Taiwan continue to escalate, Beijing sees the election as an opportunity to install a more China-friendly leader in Taipei.
Disinformation Campaigns Target Taiwanese Voters
China has launched widespread disinformation campaigns on social media platforms in an effort to sway Taiwanese public opinion and election outcomes. Researchers have identified a network of fake accounts on Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms that are spreading pro-China narratives and attacking the current President Tsai Ing-wen.
“They praise China. They say Taiwan is part of China…Their goal is to gradually indoctrinate Taiwanese people with Chinese ideology,” said researcher Doublethink Lab.
These fake accounts have shared false allegations about President Tsai and the leading opposition candidate Han Kuo-yu. They also amplify fringe candidates to try to divide the vote.
|Tsai Ing-wen|Democratic Progressive Party
In response, Taiwan’s government has partnered with civil society groups to educate citizens on how to identify and report disinformation. The groups are teaching digital literacy skills and pressuring social media companies to be more transparent.
China Attempts to Weaponize Religion
China is also trying to manipulate religious groups in Taiwan by promoting idols and temples devoted to the Chinese sea goddess Matsu. As Matsu is worshipped on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, Beijing sees an opportunity to use her positive historical connections to advance its goal of eventual unification.
In the past, Matsu devotees in Taiwan mostly steered clear of politics. But recently China has used business ties and donations to curry favor with some major Matsu temples. These temples have then started advocating positions aligned with Beijing.
“The Communist Party is good at using emotions and faith as tools,” said Yao Chia-wen, head of a major Matsu temple.
This religious influence campaign has raised alarm within Taiwan’s DPP government. Officials warn China could leverage these religious networks to sway the election or even enable intelligence operations.
In response, the government plans to introduce new laws increasing oversight of religious groups and limiting large anonymous donations from abroad. However, supporters of religious freedom argue this could undermine constitutionally protected rights.
Economic Coercion Attempts to Undermine Incumbent
Experts say China has also used various forms of economic coercion in an attempt to weaken support for the incumbent President Tsai ahead of the vote. For example, China has blocked imports of certain Taiwanese agricultural products while targeting sectors dominated by districts that traditionally favor Tsai’s DPP party.
Some analysts believe Beijing wants to stir discontent over the economy to boost the prospects of opposition candidate Han Kuo-yu. As mayor of Kaohsiung, Han has pushed for greater engagement with China to bring economic opportunities. During the campaign he has criticized Tsai for poor management of cross-strait ties.
“We lost the market because Mainland China is our largest trading partner…We should become friends, not enemies, with mainland China,” said Han.
However, the pressure may be backfiring on Beijing. President Tsai has painted herself as defending Taiwan against Chinese bullying. Her support rebounded significantly in polls after the crackdowns on imports.
Ultimately despite China’s efforts, most experts still see President Tsai as the frontrunner. But with only weeks until the vote, the scale and consequences of Beijing’s election interference remain to be seen. Taiwan’s democracy faces an unprecedented challenge.
What Comes Next?
In the final weeks before the election and its aftermath, tensions across the Taiwan Strait will remain dangerously high. Both China and the US are likely to closely watch the election for any implications for cross-strait relations.
If Tsai wins re-election over the more Beijing-friendly Han, China may ramp up military intimidation and economic coercion against Taiwan. However, experts say a full invasion still remains unlikely given resistance from the US and others.
On the other hand, if Han manages an upset victory, Beijing may push for restarting official talks and negotiation of a unification deal. Much would then hinge on how far Han is willing to go in meeting China’s demands.
In Taiwan, the election is spurring heated debate around countering China’s influence versus protecting civil liberties. These discussions seem poised to continue as all sides brace for potential fallout after January 11th.
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