How to Save Democracy From Technology
Ending Big Tech’s Information Monopoly
On January 11, Taiwanese voters will elect a new president and parliament. The election pits incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen and her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) against Han Kuo-yu, the mayor of the southern city of Kaohsiung, and his opposition Kuomintang (KMT). But the vote is about more than that. It is a battle over the island’s relationship with China—a contest between those advocating for more distance from the mainland and those calling for less.
Joining Tsai and Han in that contest is a third, unofficial contestant: Beijing. The Chinese government has undertaken a vast information influence campaign designed to support its favored candidates and sow distrust in Taiwan’s democracy.
China’s efforts go far beyond spreading disinformation and stale state propaganda. Beijing’s ambition is to shape the production, dissemination, and consumption of information in Taiwan. And as my colleagues and I argue in a forthcoming Brookings report, these efforts foreshadow a sophisticated strategy to influence every stage of the global information supply chain, from the people who produce content to the institutions that publish it and the platforms that deliver it directly to consumers. Democracies around the world should pay close attention to what happens in Taiwan’s election—for their own journalists, media companies, and platforms are fast becoming the focus of similar efforts by Beijing.
As in most Taiwanese elections, the future of the cross-strait relationship looms large in the current race. Tsai’s DPP views Taiwan and China as separate entities and has worked to keep Beijing at arm’s length. Han’s KMT, by contrast, generally considers China and Taiwan to be part of the same country. If elected, Han is expected to pursue much closer cross-strait ties that could end up eroding Taiwan’s autonomy and, some fear, help pave the way for unification.
At a time of heightened tensions between China and the United States, the fate of Taiwan matters more than ever. The island’s significance is partly symbolic, its robust and vibrant democracy proof that Chinese culture is hardly incompatible with liberal democracy. But Taiwan also has economic and military value: unification with the mainland would give China control over a top 20 global economy and access to Taiwanese semiconductors and other advanced technology. It would also allow China to build military bases that effectively turn the island into an unsinkable aircraft carrier and navy outpost, making it almost impossible for the United States to deter future Chinese adventurism, let alone prevail in any regional conflict with Beijing.
China’s primary interest in Taiwan, however, dates back to the Chinese Civil War, when the victorious communists took control of the mainland from the nationalists, who fled to Taiwan. For 70 years since then, Beijing has seen Taiwan as a province whose autonomy proves that the Chinese Communist Party’s nationalist project remains incomplete. Successive Chinese leaders have therefore made unification a top foreign policy goal.
Starting in the 1990s, Taiwan’s democratization and its growing political and cultural distance from the mainland made China’s objective harder and harder to achieve. Beijing’s efforts to pull Taiwan closer into its orbit, including by meddling in the island’s elections, have met with limited success. In 1995 and 1996, for instance, Beijing launched missiles into Taiwan’s waters to sabotage the reelection campaign of then-President Lee Teng-hui, whom it viewed as pushing Taiwan toward independence. But the attacks backfired, ultimately helping propel Lee to reelection. A 2010 free trade agreement increased Taiwan’s dependence on the mainland economy—a strategy sometimes described in Beijing as “peddling politics through business”—but widespread protests on the island cut short plans for a follow-up agreement in 2014 and helped bring into office Tsai, who opposed closer economic ties. Now, Beijing is dramatically expanding its efforts along another axis: manipulating the content and flow of the country’s information in China’s favor.
Chinese propaganda documents are unambiguous: information is a “battleground” for power, not a vehicle for truth, neutrality, or objectivity. Writings by leading figures in the Communist Party’s Propaganda Department reveal a belief that “the competition for news and public opinion is. . . a contest over ‘discourse power,’” or the ability to shape public opinion from the top down for political purposes. That is precisely what China is seeking to do in Taiwan.
The campaign amounts to more than spreading “fake news.” It is best understood as an information influence operation—a comprehensive attempt to control every step of the information supply chain. Targets range from those that create content (journalists and researchers) to the institutions that publish and validate it (television stations and wire services) and, finally, to the platforms that often provide the final link to consumers (social media sites and digital TV infrastructure). Over the last decade, China has inserted itself at each point in the information supply chain. And now, with a consequential election around the corner, it is intensifying these efforts.
China’s efforts go far beyond spreading disinformation.
To influence content creators, Beijing uses a range of positive and negative inducements. Each year, it hosts several all-expenses-paid media conferences and exchanges with Taiwanese journalists, building ties with reporters and their institutions in the process. Within Taiwan, those who write critically about China, particularly about its influence in Taiwanese media and politics, find themselves on the receiving end of an intense campaign of intimidation. Prominent investigative reporters and scholars report a deluge of public attacks, harassment, and even personal threats. Exploiting Taiwan’s low legal threshold for libel, entities with close ties to the mainland have filed a number of lawsuits against critical journalists, including reporters at Western publications such as the Financial Times. Some analysts have warned that these heavy handed tactics are chilling more detailed coverage of China’s meddling in the current election campaign.
China also seeks to bend the island’s major media institutions to its will. It has made inroads to these through a mix of acquisitions, advertising, investment, and content-sharing agreements, among other methods. A recent Reuters investigation uncovered that government-controlled front companies paid at least five Taiwanese media groups to publish stories, some of them directly influenced, edited, or essentially written by the Chinese government. Similar claims have been made about various Taiwanese radio stations.
Perhaps the most powerful case of co-optation was the purchase of a major Taiwanese media conglomerate. In 2008, the pro-Beijing chairman of Want Want China Holdings, a Taiwanese food and beverage company that makes 90 percent of its revenue in mainland China, purchased one of Taiwan’s largest media groups, the China Times Media Group. The group was Taiwan’s fourth-biggest media conglomerate and consisted of three daily newspapers, three magazines, three TV channels, and eight news websites. In a company newsletter, the new owner said he would “use the power of the press to advance relations between China and Taiwan.” He has also publicly endorsed Taiwan’s unification with China. Reporters from the group’s outlets have since admitted that they coordinate their coverage closely with China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, and the company now receives tens of millions of dollars in subsidies from Beijing—suggesting that the company’s acquisition was far more than a private investment decision.
Quantitative comparisons of the media group’s flagship newspaper's pre- and post- acquisition coverage reveal significant changes in content: human rights stories on China, for instance, dropped by two-thirds. In the current election, the media group has consistently promoted Han, the candidate favored by Beijing. One of its major TV channels has dedicated 70 percent of its coverage to Han, according to a watchdog organization. Some of these TV stations have reportedly paid local businesses to keep their televisions turned to their election content. Several other Taiwanese companies, reliant on the mainland market, have followed suit and purchased stakes in local media, motivated in some cases by a belief that influence in Taiwan’s information space will attract China’s support for their mainland business interests.
Parallel efforts are underway on social media platforms. Beijing is no novice when it comes to online disinformation—during last year’s protests in Hong Kong, U.S. social media platforms detected countless instances of “inauthentic coordinated activity,” which can include publishing suspiciously similar posts or consistently inveighing against critical news stories, often under deliberately misleading aliases. The effort involved some 200,000 Twitter accounts, 210 YouTube channels, and Facebook groups with over 15,000 member accounts—an army of bots, believed to be operated by mainland China, spreading falsehoods about the protests.
Taiwan’s officials and media watchdogs are now reporting a similar deluge of disinformation on social media apps and websites. Often, as the analyst J. Michael Cole has observed, the messages seem intended not only to boost candidates but to amplify social divisions and sow confusion and doubt about the state of Taiwan’s economy and the performance of its government. In 2018, Chinese state media and social media accounts spread a false story that Taiwan had failed to evacuate citizens trapped in Japan following a typhoon while China mounted a robust effort. The story initially appeared on Professional Technology Temple, a popular Taiwanese social media platform. From there it spread to Facebook, then to mainland outlets, and finally to mainstream Taiwanese media—ultimately leading to the suicide of the official who had coordinated the Taiwanese rescue effort, Su Chii-cherng.
The effect of Beijing’s influence operations on the campaign is difficult to measure. Although Han was initially competitive in the polls, many voters recoiled at China’s repressive policies in Hong Kong, leading to a sharp increase in support for Tsai. Over time, many voters have become savvy news consumers, and it is generally known which channels are pro-Beijing and which are more independent. In June, a rally against “red media” drew thousands of demonstrators into the streets of Taipei to protest Chinese propaganda.
Still, Beijing’s efforts should not be taken lightly. Chinese influence efforts may have played some role in Han’s election as mayor of Kaohsiung and, later, in his primary campaign for the presidency. More broadly, anecdotal evidence of self-censorship abounds, as does evidence of the grave impact of disinformation. In the case of Su Chii-cherng, the consequences were deadly. China’s efforts to shape Taiwan’s information supply chain may well help obscure the mainland’s political and economic influence over the island, weakening Taiwan’s democracy and autonomy.
Democracies around the world should watch closely.
Democracies around the world should watch closely. Some are already encountering less aggressive versions of these same techniques. As it does in Taiwan, China now organizes annual media conferences in Latin America and in Africa for hundreds of journalists, often supplementing the events with all-expenses-paid, months-long trainings in China hosted by the China Public Diplomacy Association. And in keeping with Beijing’s carrot-and-stick approach, entities or individuals linked to the Chinese state have sued journalists and scholars reporting on China in Australia, France, and elsewhere. The aim, as in Taiwan, is to win over or intimidate those at the very start of the information supply chain.
China’s strategy of laundering propaganda content through co-opted local media institutions—“borrowing boats to reach the sea,” in the words of Chinese propaganda officials—is being directed beyond Taiwan as well. Wherever local media are struggling financially, they are vulnerable to the kinds of content-sharing agreements, acquisitions, co-production agreements, advertisement deals, and market access inducements that have allowed China to shape the news narrative in Taiwan. China has undertaken these activities in a growing list of countries in Europe, Africa, and the Americas. All the while, it has also built up its own foreign propaganda organs over the last decade with massive investments in the news agency Xinhua as well as China Radio International and China Global Television Network.
The same is true of social media platforms. China’s own social media platforms, such as WeChat and TikTok, are attempting to go global. Both have engaged in censorship—particularly WeChat, which routinely blocks news and messaging content even outside China’s borders. And when China cannot build its own platforms, it has sought to “borrow” others by shaping their content through automated fake accounts, often with the aim of influencing global public opinion regarding Hong Kong and Xinjiang—and, increasingly, the United States.
Chinese propaganda once consisted largely of block print posters and stilted jargon. No more: those outdated methods have given way to an elaborate campaign to shape information flows in ways both direct and covert, influencing not just the message but the medium itself. China’s strategy in Taiwan may not bear fruit this weekend, but it may well prove successful down the line. And if Beijing can leverage its growing control over the information supply chain to quell reporting on its corruption, elite capture, and information campaigns in other countries, it will damage U.S. interests and pose a significant risk to democratic accountability around the world.