TAIPEI, Taiwan — As Taiwan prepares to elect a new president next month, officials are telling the public to guard against China’s trying to influence their votes.
President Tsai Ing-wen, who has served two terms and is unable to run again, has warned that China is spreading disinformation ahead of a contest that could be pivotal for Taiwan, a self-ruling island democracy that Beijing claims as its territory.
The front-runner in the Jan. 13 election is Lai Ching-te, Tsai’s vice president, whose Democratic Progressive Party holds that Taiwan does not need to declare independence because it is already effectively a sovereign state.
Lai faces challenges from Hou Yu-ih of the Kuomintang, Taiwan’s main opposition party, and Ko Wen-je of the Taiwan People’s Party. Both parties, which failed to run on a united ticket, favor closer relations with China.
China, which sees Lai as a separatist and a “troublemaker,” has framed the election as “a choice between war and peace.” A poll in September by the Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation reported that 48.9% of Taiwanese are in favor of gaining formal national independence. The poll also found that just less than 27% supported keeping the “status quo,” while less than 12% backed unification with China, which has not ruled out the use of force in achieving unification. A separate poll by the National Chengchi University Election Study Center found that less than 6% of Taiwanese supported either immediate independence or unification.
The status of Taiwan is one of the biggest flashpoints in Chinese relations with the U.S., which does not have official relations with Taipei but is its biggest international backer.
Taiwan has seen a recent increase in disinformation from bots and Beijing-friendly online influencers trying to persuade voters that the U.S. “is not a dependable partner,” said Wen-Ti Sung, a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council, an international affairs think tank, who is based in Taipei.
“A lot of it will be trying to say that the U.S. has only provided indirect military assistance to Ukraine, and surely the U.S. would do even less for Taiwan in case China ever tried to invade,” he said.
“The message is that there will be no knight in shining armor to save you when things really go down,” suggesting it would be safer to move closer to China, Sung added.
According to the results of a Taiwan survey released last month, 34% of respondents agreed that the U.S. was a “trustworthy” country, down almost 10 percentage points from 2021. Less than 10% of respondents considered China to be “trustworthy,” according to the survey by the Institute of European and American Studies at Academia Sinica, a research institution in Taipei.
The Taiwan election must be “free from outside interference,” Washington’s top diplomat in Taipei said this month.
Sandra Oudkirk, the director of the American Institute in Taiwan and the de facto U.S. ambassador, said the U.S. did not have a preferred candidate and that its policy on Taiwan would stay the same no matter who won.
“We support Taiwan’s vibrant democracy and look forward to working with whichever leaders Taiwan voters elect in 2024,” she said Dec. 4 in a speech at National Taiwan University.
She added that the U.S., which has also been targeted by Chinese influence operations, would support Taiwan in its efforts to combat disinformation.
Chihhao Yu, a co-director of the Taipei-based Taiwan Information Environment Research Center, said that when it comes to disinformation in Taiwan, China “will not let any opportunity go.”
Disinformation efforts “piggyback” on existing domestic issues, such as frequent power outages, Yu said, attacking the Taiwanese government and Taiwan’s democratic processes.
It’s “part of a bigger scheme to discredit Taiwan, but also to win over Taiwanese hearts to say that the PRC or China is a better option,” he said, using the initials for China’s formal name, the People’s Republic of China.
Tzu-wei Hung, a research fellow at Academia Sinica, said disinformation efforts would most likely have only a limited effect on how voters in Taiwan cast their ballots.
“China’s cognitive warfare hurts not because it will change the presidential election result, but because it will intensify existing political polarization in Taiwan,” he said.
The Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry denies such accusations, saying, “China is the top victim of disinformation, while the U.S. is the biggest source of spreading disinformation.” The source of disinformation can also often be difficult to identify, and a past case’s origins traced back to a student in Taiwan.
In the lead-up to Taiwan’s election, China has also kept up its near-daily military pressure, with the Taiwanese National Defense Ministry detecting 10 Chinese aircraft and 11 vessels around the island in the 24 hours to Monday morning. Also Monday, the defense ministry said it had sent forces to monitor a Chinese naval formation in the Taiwan Strait led by the Shandong aircraft carrier.
Taiwan’s military also said last week that it had found what appeared to be the remains of a weather balloon, most likely from China, that crashed on a Taiwan-controlled island off China. It said an investigation was still underway.
Janis Mackey Frayer reported from Taipei and Jennifer Jett from Hong Kong.