Beijing is flooding popular social media channels with malicious content aimed at weakening support for Taiwan’s sovereignty and undermining its most important bilateral relationships.
“The People’s Liberation Army has taken control of Kinmen! With the conditions of the exchange exposed, the United States is furious!” say the Chinese characters on the thumbnail image of a YouTube video uploaded on August 28, which received 73,000 views in two days. The image appears to show Chinese soldiers riding in tanks.
Click through to watch the video and it becomes clear you were baited. The 10-minute clip is not about a military operation. Rather it suggests that the outlying island of Kinmen, a close neighbor of the PRC’s Fujian Province, relies on China’s generosity to alleviate its perpetual water shortages. In reality, each ton of water costs the Taiwan government NT$9.86 (US$0.32), per a 2015 agreement with China. Taiwan spent NT$1.35 billion to build the 16-kilometer-long pipeline connecting the Tianbu Reservoir in Kinmen to Fujian’s Jinjiang City. Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) has repeatedly pushed back against Beijing’s efforts to portray the water as a gift.
In the comments section, one user writes in traditional Chinese (used in Taiwan): “The title and content are two different things, which is a bit over-the-top.” Then, however, they add that “thanks to the mainland, people in Kinmen do not have to worry about freshwater shortages. If unification occurs, I believe the residents of Kinmen will be happy.”
The video combines disinformation about military action with snippets of distorted information about Kinmen’s water arrangement with China to depict Beijing as more concerned than Taiwan’s central government about the archipelago’s needs. The clip well exemplifies the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) evolving influence operations in Taiwan, which increasingly lean on social media channels that are popular here but blocked in China. Social media platforms are subject to less regulation than traditional media, making them easier to blast with malicious content.
To be sure, the video is not sophisticated. “The reality is there is little evidence that Taiwan’s well-educated and internet savvy population is susceptible to disinformation from China,” says Ross Darrell Feingold, a Taipei-based political risk analyst and lawyer. “Even sources that purport to be from Taiwan can often be identified as actually from China due to differences in vocabulary.”
Still, “a lot of times [the CCP] don’t need fake news – they manipulate real news to fit their narrative,” says Yu Chi-hao, co-director of IORG, a Taipei-based NGO that aims to safeguard Taiwan’s information environment. Compared to written information, “videos are more powerful in persuading people,” especially on social media channels with huge Taiwanese audiences, he notes. YouTube has 20.1 million users in Taiwan and Facebook 16.35 million, according to online reference library DataReportal. LINE’s messaging app has 22.6 million, according to Statista.
The use of video on social media shows that Chinese propaganda is increasingly targeting Taiwan’s youth, observes Puma Shen, director of the civil society organization DoubleThink Lab, which tracks Chinese digital influence operations. It is relatively easy for Beijing to reach older Taiwanese through traditional media channels, and the CCP is less focused on winning them over than it is with influencing the young people who will eventually lead Taiwan.
China has switched to a heavier YouTube focus due to the channel’s relatively lax policies about removing malicious content. “Previously [the Chinese] preferred Facebook as the main social media channel, but because Facebook has become stricter about fighting misleading and false content, it is harder to reach Taiwanese on that platform now,” says Shen.
The number of Chinese videos targeting Taiwanese on YouTube is staggering. A Google search for “美國出大事” (“Something big is happening in America”), a keyword that appears in many anti-American clips, turns up thousands of results on YouTube. Due to the sheer amount of such content, “it is very hard for YouTube to monitor it,” Shen says.
Undermining faith in friends
Increasingly, China’s media influence operations seek to undermine the confidence of Taiwanese in its closest allies, the U.S. and Japan. Such videos can’t always be considered “fake news” since, rather than spreading misinformation, they assimilate negative information about those countries to turn Taiwanese against them. “China often focuses on ‘human rights’ issues, especially those things that are race-related, because it knows young Taiwanese care about these issues,” says Shen.
Some highly U.S.-critical videos targeting Taiwanese on YouTube exist in a gray area as they are produced locally – without the bombast of China-made content – and feature Taiwanese hosts. One such video, produced by the Want Want China Times Media Group’s CTi News, was released in January 2022. The video focuses on the high number of COVID-19 deaths in the United States, portraying the U.S. government as inept, and implores Taiwan to stick to a zero-COVID approach and “learn from the mainland’s experience” in eliminating SARS-CoV-2. The video had more than 185,000 views as of late August.
The context and what was left out of the video are, of course, crucial. The video does not mention that Communist Party officials’ cover-up of the first COVID-19 outbreak in China allowed the virus to spread unchecked globally. It also fails to mention that U.S. pharmaceutical companies (one of which was backed by the federal government) developed two of the most effective COVID-19 vaccines.
In March, the National Communications Commission (NCC) rejected CTi TV’s application for its CTi Asia channel to be included in Chunghwa Telecom’s multimedia-on-demand system. The reason given by NCC was that CTi planned to co-produce programs with the Chinese television stations Dragon Television and Xiamen Star. CTi News’ license renewal application was first rejected in late 2020.
“We have consulted the Ministry of Culture, which told us that all Chinese media are essentially owned by the Chinese Communist Party,” NCC Vice Chairman and spokesperson Wong Po-tsung said at a press conference, adding: “The ministry said that CTi Asia’s business plan could contravene Article 33-1 of the Act Governing Relations Between the People of the Taiwan Area and the Mainland Area.”
Sometimes China uses local influencers to advance its agenda. “China has worked with some pro-unification groups in Taiwan, funding efforts to push young Taiwanese internet celebrities in a pro-China and anti-American direction,” says Patrick Tung, an industry analyst at the semi-governmental Market Intelligence & Consulting Institute (MIC). Over time, “China may brainwash these influencers and through their large reach on social media [especially live streaming], the influencers’ fans.”
Chen Ming-tong, director of the National Security Bureau (NSB), said in May that the CCP was paying local internet celebrities to conduct “cognitive warfare” campaigns in Taiwan. Chen noted that in early March, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a Taiwanese internet celebrity on the Chinese-owned social media platform TikTok claimed that the Chinese government was offering to evacuate Taiwanese from the European nation. The person who made that claim turned out to be situated in Zhejiang Province and not in Ukraine, having been trained by the CCP on how to use social media to disseminate propaganda.
In May, Taiwanese YouTube celebrities based in China attended the fifth Cross-Strait Youth Development Forum in the Zhejiang provincial capital of Hangzhou, where they discussed their social media success and encouraged young Taiwanese to join them, according to The Taipei Times.
Protracted information war
One thing is certain about China’s influence operations in Taiwan: the Communist Party will not let up. If anything, its efforts will likely intensify once Xi Jinping secures an unprecedented third term at the 20th Party Congress this autumn. Finding an answer to the “Taiwan question,” as Beijing calls it, has always been a priority for Xi. In October 2013, about a year into his first term, Xi told former Taiwan Vice President Vincent Siew at the APEC summit in Indonesia that “looking further ahead, the issue of political disagreements that exist between the two sides [of the Taiwan Strait] must reach a final resolution, step by step, and these issues cannot be passed on from generation to generation.”
To be sure, Xi still prefers a peaceful solution – China’s latest Taiwan White Paper made that clear – but “peaceful” to the CCP includes extensive use of coercion and cognitive warfare. Beijing will redouble its efforts to win the information war with Taiwan and convince Taipei that becoming another Hong Kong is its best option.
Persuading Taiwanese that when push comes to shove, the U.S. will abandon them is integral to China’s chance of victory in this information war. Beijing is cognizant that abandonment anxiety runs deep in Taiwanese society for historical reasons, notes IORG’s Yu. “Fear of abandonment is rooted in our collective psychology,” he says. After its expulsion from the United Nations in 1971, “the Republic of China withdrew from the international community and educated us that we had been abandoned by the U.S. and the international community. That was a narrative.”
With that in mind, Yu believes that many Taiwanese want the U.S. to prove that it will stand with Taiwan. “People want to see concrete actions,” he says.
Meanwhile, analysts say the Taiwan government should do more to combat China’s influence operations, especially on digital media. MIC’s Tung urges the Taiwan government to examine the impact of CCP’s digital propaganda dissemination on national security. First, Taiwan should propose a framework for amending relevant laws after communicating with stakeholders so that it can better monitor and analyze information flows and how they are funded, he says.
Second, the government should encourage the establishment of more fact-checking organizations like MyGoPen and Taiwan FactCheck Center, both of which work with Facebook’s parent company Meta to reduce the spread of malicious content. Third, the government should subsidize the media, public relations firms, and other stakeholders to raise public awareness of the negative effect of Chinese propaganda on society, Tung says.
DoubleThink Lab’s Shen reckons that although Taiwan’s civil society is having some success combating China’s influence operations, the sides are not evenly matched. “Since China uses state power heavily, it is not a good idea for Taiwan to rely only on civil society,” he says.
Shen notes that the Taiwan government currently focuses on debunking specific Chinese disinformation. For instance, during and after Beijing’s live-fire drills in response to U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s visit, Chinese sources suggested the People’s Liberation Army came within less than 24 nautical miles of Taiwan. If true, this would have been a highly provocative move requiring a strong response from Taiwan’s military. But Taiwan’s Defense Ministry said in a statement to Bloomberg that it “deployed warships around its contiguous zone 24 nautical miles from shore and denied Chinese vessels access during the drills.”
Yet China-generated conspiracy theories continue to proliferate online. These are harder to debunk because they are often elaborate, and it is difficult to provide evidence that they are false. Shen notes a couple of conspiracy theories trending on Chinese-produced YouTube channels: that China’s internment and persecution of Uyghurs in Xinjiang Province is actually disinformation propagated by the U.S. government, and that the CIA was responsible for the 2019 Hong Kong protests – with the aid of Ukraine.
“If China can convince Taiwanese people the U.S. is a devil, then maybe in five years they will start to believe China is not that bad,” Shen says.