TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) — Taiwan’s ruling party is crying foul over alleged Chinese attempts to sway the self-governing island’s presidential election on Saturday.
The Democratic Progressive Party, known as the DPP, rushed through a law banning “infiltration” by outsiders just days before the vote. The opposition Nationalist Party, which is friendly to China, contends the law might be abused to stifle freedom of speech and is seeking for shift attention toward domestic issues. A third candidate, James Soong, also has objected to the move.
China claims Taiwan as its own, if necessary to be taken by force, and its alleged meddling is a hot issue in the race between incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen and Nationalist candidate Han Kuo-yu, the populist mayor of Kaohsiung city.
Alarm over foreign interference has risen globally following evidence of Russian meddling in U.S. and other elections. China’s “soft power” efforts to shape public opinion in its favor by acquiring overseas media outlets, funding academic posts and setting up government-supported Confucian Institutes abroad have likewise raised concern.
“Resisting China is the party’s biggest issue this year across candidates,” said Lin Fei-fan, the DPP deputy secretary general.
Government security experts say they believe the use of fake Facebook pages and other online disinformation has eased somewhat since local elections in November 2018, but Beijing uses other forms of infiltration and more traditional ways to try to influence Taiwan politics more than 70 years after Nationalist forces fled the communist mainland for Taiwan.
Facebook set up a “situation room" and shut down some 250 pages of purported supporters for Han in the 2018 vote after tracking them to China-based IP addresses. Han won the mayor's race in Kaohsiung, a DPP stronghold, propelling him to the Nationalist party candidacy for president.
DPP officials say that on average 1,000 items of “fake news” from China are published or shared in Taiwan every day.
“It’s difficult to trace it back because every day it happens, so we try to analyze the data and once we’ve got fake news we as the government, as the ruling party, have the responsibility to let people know what’s true,” said the DPP’s deputy director of international affairs, Chen Chih-wei.
Civil society groups, village chiefs, professional and academic associations, criminal syndicates and religious organizations all have built up relationships with mainland Chinese counterparts that are sometimes used to push political agendas and spread disinformation, said Jin-Deh Wu, acting director for Cyber-warfare and Information Security at Taiwan's Institute for National Defense and Security Research, a non-partisan think-tank.
Such “local agents for change are everywhere inside Taiwanese society," Wu said in an interview.
“It’s not really something new here. It’s one of those fundamental understandings that the (Chinese Communist Party) is trying to mess with elections either directly or indirectly as best they can,” said Lev Nachman, a Fulbright research fellow in Taiwan.
Months of massive, often violent political protests in Hong Kong have accentuated those concerns and left many in Taiwan skeptical that Beijing's “one-country, two systems” approach to governing the semi-autonomous former British colony could ever work for their own democratically ruled island.
A recent case involving an alleged spy for Beijing has further raised alarm.
In what may be the first case of a mainland Chinese operative blowing his cover, self-confessed spy Wang "William" Liqiang reportedly disclosed to Australia's counterespionage agency intelligence on how Beijing runs interference operations abroad. Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg described Wang's allegations of Chinese infiltration and disruptions of democratic systems in Australia, Hong Kong and Taiwan “very disturbing.”
Wang said he meddled in Taiwan’s 2018 municipal elections and claimed there were plans to disrupt Saturday's election, according to Australian media reports.
Those assertions have not been officially confirmed, and Chinese officials in Beijing have dismissed them as false. But Taiwan authorities have detained two executives he claimed had been running a spy network for China on the island. On Thursday, Taiwan's foreign minister, Joseph Wu, said Taiwanese and Australian authorities were investigating Wang's claims.
Wu, the government cyber-warfare expert, views political bias and disinformation in television news and newspapers as a greater threat, one that is tricky to address in a society that respects civil rights and liberties.
“The majority of Taiwanese people believe that democracy is the only game in town and we want to preserve our way of life," he said. “We want to maintain this democracy and we don't want to shift to authoritarian rule."
Associated Press journalists Ken Moritsugu, Johnson Lai, Taijing Wu and Tassanee Vejpongsa contributed to this report.