The recent Taiwanese elections provide important insights into the tools and tactics the People’s Republic of China (PRC) might use when election results matter to its leadership. Similarly, Taiwanese authorities’ vigilance and responsiveness to Beijing’s activities can provide other democracies with best practices for insulating themselves against foreign authoritarian interference.
Taiwanese voters re-elected the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) for a historic third consecutive term in the January 13, 2024 elections. The PRC had resorted to a broad range of interference and disinformation tactics aimed at securing an election outcome favorable to it. The scale of those activities was remarkable. As of early January, the island’s authorities had investigated almost 3,000 attempts at interference in the election.
All Part of the Plan
Beijing uses a wide range of techniques, some of which straddle a fine line between acceptable nation-state influence and interference, to both coax and coerce the Taiwanese population into accepting closer ties. They include cultivating elites, information manipulation, economic coercion, gray zone activities, and other disruptive methods. These actions are meant to complement and support one another. For instance, the Chinese military’s maneuvers around the island were accompanied by disinformation campaigns suggesting the imminence of war.
The PRC’s attempts to interfere in the election were intended not only to harm the prospects of the DPP while supporting the Kuomintang (KMT) and other opposition forces seen as more amenable to Beijing’s positions. They also aimed to sow chaos to discredit Taiwanese democracy and lessen democracy’s appeal globally.
The PRC’s interference in Taiwan’s domestic affairs builds on and draws from Beijing’s long-term campaign to isolate the island on the international stage, including by pressuring countries to switch their diplomatic recognition. Beijing has intensified its efforts on this front since the DPP came to power in 2016.
Wine for Friends
The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) United Front strategy aims to cultivate pro-PRC or potentially pro-PRC groups and isolate those it opposes and accuses of “separatism”. In Taiwan, the CCP has tried to co-opt businesspeople and opposition politicians—especially those from the KMT—and gain influence in temples, which play a central role in Taiwanese politics.
According to Taiwanese sources, hundreds of local leaders have taken heavily discounted trips to China. Taiwanese security agencies believe that Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office, itself part of the United Front bureaucracy, paid for at least some of those trips—during which the participants were encouraged to support certain political parties and oppose Taiwan’s independence. In several localities, such as Yilan, Keelung, and Kaohsiung, Taiwanese prosecutors have brought proceedings against facilitators of, and participants in, such trips.
Beijing also allowed the KMT to campaign in China among the roughly 1.2 million Taiwanese—about 5% of the island’s total population—who reside there. An organization linked to Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office also arranged for Chinese government-owned airlines to heavily discounted prices for Taiwanese citizens to return to the island and vote in the election.
It’s the Economy
United Front work also reached into Taiwanese business circles, with top CCP official Wang Huning addressing Taiwanese CEOs at a cross-strait business summit held in Nanjing in November 2023. Wang promised the attendees that they could “better share together in the mainland’s development achievements and glories of national revival”.
Beijing used both economic carrots and sticks across a variety of sectors to weaken the DPP. For instance, at the end of December 2023, it decided to end tariff cuts on 12 chemical imports from Taiwan, with its Taiwan Affairs Office deploring that the DPP’s “stubborn adherence to Taiwan independence” made solving disputes difficult. The following day, the PRC lifted restrictions on certain fish imports that had been imposed after Nancy Pelosi’s 2022 visit to the island. On January 10, just three days before the elections, Beijing announced its plans to end additional tariff cuts, for which Chinese state media openly blamed the DPP.
A Climate of Fear
These arbitrary sanctions and reprieves seek to create a sense of insecurity and to demonstrate the cost of standing up to the PRC. As is the case with other activities, Beijing’s economic reprisals are a constant, long-term threat that it employs to intimidate its neighbor.
In parallel, the PRC’s messaging continuously broadcasts ominous warnings aimed at Taiwanese citizens. In the spring, a CGTN program called Taiwan independence forces “a tumor” that “requires an operation”. In August, Beijing’s ambassador to France told a TV interviewer that Taiwanese people would have to be “re-educated” after an annexation.
In the run-up to the election, the rhetoric was matched by a whole range of gray zone activities. In the final quarter of 2023, cyber-attacks were multiplied by 30 compared to the previous year. The PRC has maneuvered aircraft through Taiwan’s air defense identification zone on an almost daily basis and flown several balloons over the island in recent weeks. And on January 9, Beijing launched a satellite over the island, prompting the government to issue a national warning to every Taiwanese person’s phone in which the Chinese word for “satellite” was erroneously translated to “missile” in English. PRC authorities immediately downplayed the launch and pounced on the mistranslation to accuse the DPP of “misleading the public and sowing panic”.
Muddying the Waters
This increase in military pressure has taken place in a fraught information environment. According to Taiwanese factchecker Cofacts, 2023 saw a 40% increase in disinformation compared to the previous year.
What is certain is that the PRC has sought for years to acquire “public opinion management” tools to make bots and other means of inauthentic coordinated behavior more efficient. In the aftermath of the satellite launch and the national warning, a Guardian correspondent in Taiwan noticed odd bot activity on X that amplified the message that “a lot of people were scared.” Taiwanese researchers found that, in the last quarter of 2023, suspiciously synchronized social media accounts appeared to mimic the narratives of Chinese state-owned media.
The PRC’s activities surrounding the Taiwanese elections covered a broad spectrum of activities within a relatively short period of time. They show how seemingly disconnected bribes, economic sanctions, and gray zone maneuvers are in fact meant to act in concert to influence voter behavior. Moreover, the conclusion of the elections does not mean the end of Chinese government campaigns targeting Taiwan. Just two days after the election, the government of Nauru terminated diplomatic relations with Taiwan—a move likely timed in coordination with the PRC. Beijing also chastised governments that congratulated president-elect Lai Ching-te and accused them of meddling in China’s internal affairs.
Taiwan’s civil society is very active, however, especially in documenting threats to the online information space. In addition, strict anti-infiltration laws have allowed authorities to investigate and prosecute some of Beijing’s activities. While the DPP won by a slimmer margin than in 2020 and lost its majority in the Legislative Yuan, it is unclear to what extent the PRC’s activities were a decisive factor. Domestic dynamics likely played a bigger role. Nonetheless, other democracies, especially those with elections coming up this year, would do well to study Taiwan’s experience with interference and learn from its response.
This article was originally published on GMF’s website on January 19, 2024 as a part of its 2024 Taiwan Election series.