For more than 60 years, Chinese military action against Taiwan was considered the biggest threat to the latter’s security and independence — a threat the US military has long committed to defend against.
However, if recent events are any indicator, both Taiwan and the US need to pay far closer attention to a new and more potent threat: China’s quiet attempts to gain influence over Taiwan’s media landscape and undercut its robust free press tradition.
If action is not taken, media manipulation by allies of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) may accomplish what 60 years of military threats could not — the acquiescence of Taiwanese to a future takeover by China.
Standing up for one of Asia’s strongest free press infrastructures and standing up against China’s increasingly assertive posture across East Asia should be a no-brainer for the US, and yet the US Department of State, members of the US Congress and other US policymakers have been missing in action when it comes to addressing this threat.
The need to begin exploring options to address this growing challenge to one of the US’ staunchest allies is becoming increasingly urgent.
This new threat only recently came to light after Taiwanese media outlets ran stories from China’s state news services and began publishing ads sponsored by China that were disguised as news reports. Following an in-depth investigation, the Taipei Times warned that “China has been ramping up its media manipulation” in Taiwan since at least 2010.
Another recent example involves the media giant Want Want Holdings, which is owned by one of Taiwan’s richest businesspeople, Tsai Eng-meng (蔡衍明), an outspoken supporter of the Chinese government.
In 2010, Tsai submitted an application to the National Communications Commission to purchase 60 percent of China Network Systems — one of the nation’s largest cable television providers.
Tsai’s corporate empire already includes extensive print and broadcast holdings such as the China Times, China Times Weekly and the Commercial Times — all part of his Want Want China Times Group.
He also owns a 49 percent share in Antenna Investments, which broadcasts widely in China and Hong Kong.
In June last year, the commission surprisingly approved the China Network Systems deal, meaning Tsai’s Want Want China Times Group was effectively granted control over about one-third of the nation’s media market, including 23 percent of all cable subscribers.
Academics and media experts have reacted with outrage — not just because of the overwhelming control one company will have over the media market, but also because many believe Tsai is working at the behest of China.
As the International Federation of Journalists said in a statement following the commission’s approval of the Want Want deal: “Tsai’s media companies have already accepted advertising revenue from the Mainland [China] without notifying its readers.”
The federation added that Tsai has “indirectly admitted” that Want Want China Times Group has “made editorial compromises” with its newspapers.
Most recently, the China Times Group falsely reported that a prominent academic research fellow, Huang Kuo-chang (黃國昌), paid students to protest against the Want Want-China Network Systems deal. On Sept. 1 last year, nearly 10,000 journalists and media students took to the streets in Taipei to demand an apology from the China Times Group for the blatantly inaccurate reporting.
The China Times Group ultimately issued a public apology, but the damage is done — Taiwanese are losing faith in the independence of their country’s media organizations. As a nation that extols the virtues of freedom of the press, the US needs to be equally assertive in voicing its concern when those freedoms are in danger of being inhibited. US officials and lawmakers of all stripes should form a united front opposing China’s efforts to exert control over Taiwanese media. And the next president of the US should make every effort to ensure the liberal-democratic values of one of the US’ closest friends remains secure.
They can start by urging the National Communications Commission to reverse its decision to allow Want Want to purchase a majority stake in China Network Systems and condemning efforts by Beijing’s allies to manipulate Taiwanese media.
Stuart Gottlieb teaches international security at Columbia University. He has worked as a foreign policy adviser for US Senator Charles Schumer and speechwriter for former US senator Chris Dodd. This article was first printed on Roll Call.