The Chinese government is likely to hit Taiwan with Internet-based disinformation and step up the intensity of other interference and influence operations ahead of voting in the nine-in-one elections on Saturday, a national security official said yesterday.
Chinese cyberunits could flood social media with fake news in the week before the elections to sow conflict and harm political parties that Beijing disfavors, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Beijing’s has dedicated substantial resources to infiltrate society as part of its “united front” tactics, the official said.
The tactics include leverage of the Belt and Road Initiative, academics and think tank exchanges; cultivating pro-Chinese politicians and influential opinion makers; compartmentalizing the treatment of the pan-blue and pan-green camps; using activists to pressure the government; and propaganda and psychological warfare, the official said.
China has also used military, naval and air drills, poaching diplomatic allies and blocking the nation’s participation in international events to pressure Taiwanese, the official said.
Beijing is expected to intensify its propaganda and psychological operations against the administration of President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), particularly by spreading disinformation on social media and ordering China’s state-run media to portray her in an unfavorable light, the official said.
The appetite among local media outlets for live updates is a vulnerability that China might exploit, with media in the habit of copying and pasting information without verifying it, the official said.
A source familiar with political affairs said on condition of anonymity that social media comments about Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Kaohsiung mayoral candidate Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜) spiked in the past three or four months, but many of his supporters were found to have an IP address in other nations, including Venezuela, Ukraine, Russia and Mexico.
“The phenomenal rise of Han from cyberspace to the real world is a case in point for what Web brigades could achieve by manipulating public opinion and using psychological warfare techniques,” the source said.
Such efforts represent an attempt by China to refine its blunt-force interference — such as then-Chinese premier Zhu Rongji’s (朱鎔基) outright threats during the 2000 presidential election — which have backfired on Beijing, the source said.
Beijing’s methods have become more sophisticated and indirect, which is marked by how it exercises restraint on the surface even as it applies sharp power clandestinely, the source said.
Stealth, deception and bribes appear to be China’s favored strategy in manipulating the elections, the source said, adding that Chinese actors make regular payments to Taiwanese pundits, local political operatives and political parties, groups and media with pro-China views.
Information from China-based businesspeople suggests that the Chinese government has ordered entrepreneurs with businesses or investments in China to go to Bejing, where they are told to show support for Beijing with their actions, including voting for and making campaign contributions to specific candidates, the source said.
Election time “is when China makes those people earn their keep,” the source said.
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