On January 13, 2024, Taiwan’s 19 million registered voters will go to the polls to elect a new president and parliament. After two terms in office, incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is ineligible for re-election. The DPP’s candidate, William Lai, will be challenged by two contenders: Hou You-yi of the Kuomintang (KMT), and Ko Wen-je of the Taiwan People’s Party.
Since the country’s democratization in the 1990s, Taiwan’s democracy has matured into a solid democracy. As summarized in the 2022 Bertelsmann Transformation Index (BTI) report on Taiwan, the country enjoys “stable democratic institutions and a vibrant civil society, and does extremely well in guaranteeing its citizens political rights and civil liberties.” In particular, the report highlights the quality of Taiwan’s “regular, universal and secret multiparty elections, which are usually undisputed and widely covered by the media”. Yet, the report also stresses that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) pursues a range of activities and strategies to influence Taiwan’s electoral processes.
China’s electoral meddling
Beijing’s interest in Taiwan’s elections is rooted in the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) view that the island is an integral part of China. Free and fair elections in Taiwan challenge this position because they are an expression of the island nation’s de facto sovereignty. To sway Taiwan’s voters, China pursues a three-pronged strategy that combines political and military pressure, economic means and attempts to sway Taiwanese public opinion. These are specifically aimed at weakening support for Lai and the DPP, who Beijing suspects of working towards de jure independence, and at strengthening the electoral prospects of Hou and the KMT, whose policy platform promises more conciliatory cross-Strait relations.
Ko’s position on cross-Strait issues is less clear-cut, but he is of relevance to Beijing because his candidacy means splitting the opposition vote, thus potentially increasing the chances for a DPP win. Earlier plans of Hou and Ko to run on a common ticket faltered due to their inability to agree on who should run as presidential candidate.
On the political stage, China prevents Taiwan’s involvement in international organizations that require formal statehood and pressures and entices countries to forego state-to-state relations with Taipei. In the March of 2023, for instance, Honduras switched diplomatic relations to Beijing, leaving Taiwan with the diplomatic recognition of only 13 countries. Moreover, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) continues to conduct aerial and naval drills in the Taiwan Strait. These political and military measures are meant to create an atmosphere of defeatism among the Taiwanese and drive home the inevitability of a unification, coercive if necessary, with the mainland.
Beijing also employs a mix of economic coercion and incentives, leveraging Taiwan’s deep economic integration with the mainland. Since the DPP came into power in 2016, China has repeatedly restricted access to its markets for Taiwanese firms and banned a number of agricultural imports, especially targeting producers from southern Taiwan where the DPP is strongest. At the same time, by offering preferential trade agreements, market access and investment promises in the case of a KMT victory, China seeks to sway the Taiwanese electorate towards voting for Beijing-friendly alternatives.
Finally, China is attempting to shape Taiwanese public opinion and electoral outcomes through online disinformation campaigns, cyber warfare and attempts to influence local media. Chinese content farms and cyber trolls seek to sow dissent and spread false rumors. They attempt to discredit Taiwan’s government and to undermine citizen’s confidence that Taiwan and its international partners could successfully resist unification. Meanwhile, pro-China Taiwanese influencers and web personalities spread pro-unification messages. As part of its so-called “United Front” program, the CCP sponsors tours to China by Taiwanese local politicians and leaders of cultural institutions. Such tactics aim at undermining trust in the electoral process, the media, political parties, and individual candidates while drumming up support in favor of candidates aligned with Beijing’s preferences.
Taiwan’s countermeasures and democratic resilience
Taiwan’s government and civil society are acutely aware of these efforts and take steps to counter electoral interference. Taiwan’s intelligence and law enforcement agencies are on high alert and the Ministry of Justice promises monetary rewards for tips related to interference in elections. The defense ministry routinely reports on the PLA’s actions and the Taiwanese military’s responses, aiming to instill confidence in the Taiwanese public. Other state agencies, including educational institutions, are also involved in bolstering public resilience, for instance through developing and communicating civil defense measures.
These measures are complemented by efforts from within Taiwanese society to counter disinformation. A large, open and diverse media landscape ensures that a variety of perspectives and opinions are voiced, while numerous news outlets scrutinize political narratives and expose misinformation. Civil society actors, including voluntary fact-checking collectives and tech-savvy individuals, address fake news and propaganda and increase media literacy, while grassroots initiatives work to strengthen the public’s resilience against external manipulation. All this occurs against the backdrop of a lively democratic political culture, which is marked by a competitive and diverse political landscape and engaged citizens who are resilient in the face of external pressures and blatant misinformation.
Consequently, China’s attempts to influence Taiwan’s public opinion do not appear to have been particularly fruitful. Polls suggest less than 9% of Taiwanese respondents consider China a credible partner. Moreover, most pre-election polls show Lai as a likely winner of the presidential race, even though the DPP might lose its majority in Taiwan’s legislature. While this would limit Lai’s ability to pursue his domestic policy agenda, such a scenario is unlikely to mean major changes in the relationship with China, since foreign policy is mainly determined by the president.
That said, China is expected to further increase its activities in the weeks leading up to the election, meaning that ongoing and tireless vigilance by Taiwanese authorities and civil society will be needed. The outcome of the 2024 general elections will shape Taiwanese politics and cross-strait relations in the crucial coming years.
If Lai is victorious, he is expected to continue the policy of increasing Taiwan’s international maneuvering space and intensifying ties with democratic allies. Should Hou win, he has promised to reduce tensions across the strait through greater economic integration. Regardless of the outcome of the elections, however, Beijing’s stance will not change, and neither will the prevailing Taiwanese resistance to compromising on their de facto sovereignty.
[Anton Schauble edited this piece.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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