Chinese Cognitive Warfare to influence forthcoming Presidential Elections in Taiwan

News of an ‘escape rehearsal’ by Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen and evacuation drills for U.S. citizens in the event of a Chinese invasion has also been making rounds.

Presidential Elections in Taiwan

A well thought out plan has been put in place and is being executed. (Image: Reuters)

By Lt Gen P R Shankar

Presidential elections in Taiwan are scheduled on 13 Jan 2024. China has mounted a concerted cognitive warfare campaign to actively interfere in the forthcoming presidential elections. Candidates of three main parties – the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), the established opposition party Kuomintang (KMT) and the relatively new Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) are in the fray. China wants to ensure that the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) presidential candidate, Lai Ching-te loses. The reason is simple. It considers the DPP as a pro separatist party. China’s multi-pronged campaign is trying to ensure that the ruling DPP candidate is not elected. China is backing KMT to win the election. China has called the election a ‘choice between peace and war’, a slogan used by the KMT, and urged the people of Taiwan to make the ‘right choice’. China has been pretty open and brazen about its intent.

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The stakes for China in this election are very high. It is well known that China claims democratically governed Taiwan as its own. For long China has been exerting military and political pressure to force the island to accept its sovereignty. However, this has not happened. While China has been preparing to annex the island militarily, the cheaper and cleaner option would be to undermine the election process in Taiwan and make sure its chosen candidate wins. If that happens, it can legally open talks for reunification and achieve Xi Jinping’s Dream of Rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. If that does not happen, China will have to either resort to a risky military option whose outcomes are unknown and carry high geopolitical risk of
confrontation with USA or wait for another four years for the next election for Xi Jinping to fulfil his dream. However, Xi Jinping is a man in a hurry and China is going all out to ensure that the election results are as per its choice.

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Reports have emerged that Xi Jinping chaired a meeting in Beijing which was called by the Chinese Communist Party’s fourth-ranked leader, Wang Huning, deputy head of Beijing’s Central Leading Group for Taiwan Affairs. That is pretty high up and indicative of the effort being put in. No effort is being spared. Taiwanese intelligence believes that senior personnel from key agencies including China’s Publicity Department, State Security Ministry, Defence Ministry, The Taiwan Affairs Office and United Front Work Department attended the meeting. A well thought out plan has been put in place and is being executed.

Before seeing what, the Chinese are up to now, it will do us well to know that their meddling in Taiwanese politics is not new. It is well documented. A report by Double Think labs on China’s Information Operation during the Taiwan’s 2020 Election is illuminative. This report makes it very clear that in 2020, China operated on multiple lines to impress upon the Taiwanese to vote the way PRC wants to or not vote at all. This blog contains a matrix which indicates the complexity and detail of the Chinese operation (reproduced here). Every possible source and method were utilised in 2020 – government agencies, all forms of social and public media, criminal enterprises, religious groups, political channels, businesses, immigrants, et all. The campaign was masterminded by the most significant offices of the PRC. Yet it failed. It did not stop Tsai Ing Wen to win the election in 2020. However, it has not stopped China from repeating its antics now. In fact, the Chinese meddling is scaling new heights of cognitive warfare.

The focus of China’s cognitive warfare is to create a fear psychosis amongst the ordinary people of Taiwan. Simultaneously, China is sparing no effort to discredit the ruling Democratic Progressive Party. Repeated naval, air and missile exercises including firing, in the plain sight of Taiwan are being used to intimidate Taiwanese about the physical danger of an invasion. Besides regular several violations of the median line by warplanes, and other military violations including firing drills, China has increased it cyberattacks against Taiwan over the past six months. Most of these have been against Taiwan’s defensive systems. All this is accompanied by a misinformation campaign of an imminent invasion of the Island in case the wrong government comes to power. It is forcing Taiwanese to make a ‘choice between peace and war’

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Misinformation is also being spread that Taiwan’s president has an ‘escape plan’ when China invades. News of an ‘escape rehearsal’ by Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen and evacuation drills for U.S. citizens in the event of a Chinese invasion has also been making rounds. Yet in another facet of cognition, news is circulated that USA will not come to Taiwan’s aid in case of an invasion and that it is an untrustworthy ally. China’s cognitive warfare has also aimed to swing voters with narratives related to the potential conflict across theTaiwan Strait. All this is to make the Taiwanese cognisant of the inevitability of a Chinese invasion and the futility of elections. The campaign also highlights that Taiwan’s public safety is deteriorating. China is clearly aiming to sap the morale of people and undermine resistance to Chinese annexation of the island. China is coercing Taiwanese to accept its sovereignty claim over the Island. China has also launched a massive influence operation as part of its cognitive warfare campaign. While Tik-Tok and YouTube are its main tools of influence, Chinese narratives have flooded across online and offline spaces ceaselessly. The PRC has been increasingly using Taiwanese voices such as journalists, local proxies and social media influencers to get their message across. They amplify pro-China narratives and create divisions in Taiwan’s democratic society. China’s messaging seeks to portray Beijing in a positive light and appeal to Taiwanese voters to vote for the pro-PRC, KMT candidate.

If that is not possible, they are pushing Taiwanese not to vote at all. China is directly reaching out to the grassroot voters in its influence campaign. It is specifically attempting to influence swing voters who don’t have any particular political affiliation to vote for whoever gives them benefits. The benefit of voting for the KMT candidate is being highlighted. Narratives on social media also include misinformation on military weaknesses of Taiwan. They have even managed to stoke a controversy around India -Taiwan bilateral agreements.

In an illuminative case, a lady bought a book titled ‘If China Attacks’ from a book store in a mall. Soon she was tracked and contacted on her mobile multiple times. In fact, she was hounded. She was repeatedly asked why she had bought the book in the first place when the book contained inappropriate and sensitive content and was a piece of propaganda! She was also told that in the event of a war between China and Taiwan, Taiwanese forces would be no match for the Chinese military. She was further told that the best way to avoid a war would be for her to vote for the opposition party,

Kuomintang (KMT), rather than the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)! The Chinese cognitive war campaign is running really deep.

China is also actively undermining the political system in Taiwan through bribes and financial inducements. China’s Taiwan Affairs Office and the United Front Work Department have conducted a widespread outreach programme. They have /are conducting exchange activities with Taiwanese politicians and institutions who lean towards China. These include small political parties that support China’s sovereignty claims over the island, local councillors, and temples. More than a thousand small time politicians have been given free/cheap trips to the mainland in recent times. The Chinese Communist Party has been giving financial support to some domestic groups through political donations or funding needed for local elections. All these would have been activated by now. Recipients in Taiwan are given monetary support via We Chat in the name of ‘viewer donations’ much like ‘supers’ in YouTube. China also works with travel agencies and group tours to carry cash illegally into Taiwan. The underground banking systems in Taiwan are being exploited. The PRC is providing discounted air tickets for Taiwanese living in China to fly home to vote as per its choices. Very clearly China is using a huge bag of financial inducements and tricks in funding elections in Taiwan. What is described here is probably only
the tip of the iceberg.

Economic coercion is the next form of cognitive warfare. China has announced imposition of tariffs on dozens of Taiwanese products being exported to the mainland. The penalty was imposed based on its trumped up investigations into the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement , which is a long-standing trade pact between the two economies. This move puts pressure on business persons and exporters to China to turn against the ruling party. It used a similar tactic on Terry Gou the billionaire founder and former CEO of Foxconn. Two months after Terry Gou declared that he would run for president, Chinese authorities launched a tax probe into the activities of Foxconn enterprises in China. They did this to ensure that there would be no split in the opposition camp which could favour the ‘secessionist ruling DPP’. Once the tax probe became public, Terry Gou withdrew from the race.

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The Chinese are operating a well-rehearsed playbook. This was the same playbook with which they interfered in elections in Canada. They did the same thing in Hong Kong. Unfortunately, some people in Hong Kong succumbed to Chinese inducements. Resultantly, Hong Kongers have lost their freedoms forever. They are now under the iron grip of the Communist Party and Hong Kong has lost its vitality for ever. The Taiwanese must be clear about their future, what they are being subjected to and be aware as to what they are voting for. They are voting for their future. They are voting for being part of communist China or remaining independent. They need to be aware as to what awaits them if they make a choice as per China’s wishes. They must understand that they stand on the edge of being impoverished and becoming slaves of a repressive system. On its part , while India should not interfere in the internal matters of Taiwan, it must bring home to the Taiwanese people the dangers of voting the China way. Taiwanese must make the choice of being rich and free as they are now or be poor and enslaved if they vote the China way.

The author is PVSM, AVSM, VSM, and a retired Director General of Artillery. He is currently a Professor in the Aerospace Department of IIT Madras. He writes extensively on defence and strategic affairs @ www.gunnersshot.com.

(Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited.)

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