As China’s primary target for annexation, Taiwan has for many decades borne the brunt of Chinese propaganda and saber rattling.
During a video address to UK-based think tank Policy Exchange on Oct. 23, US Deputy National Security Adviser Matt Pottinger spoke at length about China’s “united front” strategy.
With a background in journalism as a China-based correspondent, Pottinger is considered a China expert in Washington. His address should serve as a warning for Taiwan.
Pottinger said that the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) victory in the Chinese Civil War owed less to military prowess and more to its ability to infiltrate and manipulate the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT).
The CCP continues to rely on “united front” work today.
Although the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs handles diplomacy, the United Front Work Department of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee is responsible for collecting intelligence on and influencing other nations, with a focus on elites and organizations, Pottinger said.
The CCP aims to “co-opt or bully people — and even nations — into a particular frame of mind that’s conducive to Beijing’s grand ambitions,” he said.
Pottinger described a “united front” worker as a cross between an intelligence collector, a propagandist and a psychologist, and referred to the uncovering in September of a massive database compiled by Shenzhen Zhenhua Data Information Technology. It contains dossiers on at least 2.4 million people around the world.
It shows that the CCP seeks to fuse traditional Leninist techniques with powerful new tools of digital surveillance, Pottinger said.
Data harvested by the company is used by China’s state security apparatus for “psychological warfare,” according to information on its Web site and comments by its chief executive.
Targeted individuals include members of royal families, lawmakers, judges and clerks, members of the military, technology specialists, entrepreneurs, professors and people working in think tanks, Pottinger said.
Pottinger quoted New Zealand academic Anne-Marie Brady, who said that China’s “united front” work is a “tool to corrode and corrupt our political system, to weaken and divide us against each other, to erode the critical voice of our media, and turn our elites into clients of the Chinese Communist Party, their mouths stuffed with cash.”
Pottinger said that China’s propaganda has two consistent themes: “We own the future, so make your adjustments now,” and “We’re just like you, so try not to worry.”
“Together, these assertions form the elaborate con at the heart of all Leninist movements,” Pottinger added.
Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative and “community of common destiny for mankind” are classic representations of the theme, Pottinger said, again quoting Brady.
Pottinger’s warning can be tested by looking at Taiwan’s experience.
First, examine the “united front” propaganda. Taking Pottinger’s Leninist analogy, “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese people” is an appeal to Chinese and a siren call to Taiwanese: “let us together construct the Chinese dream.”
In a similar vein, “one family on both sides of the Taiwan Strait” sounds genial and harmless on its face. A certain Taiwanese politician controversially adopted it, while Taiwanese performer Ouyang Nana (歐陽娜娜) sung the popular Chinese patriotic song My Motherland (我的祖國) on Chinese state broadcaster China Central Television as part of China’s National Day celebrations on Oct. 1.
The number of ruses are numerous and the propaganda slogans and narratives employed are extremely varied in nature.
Speaking at an international forum in Taipei on Friday last week, former US assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs Randall Schriver used historical examples to refute the idea promoted by Chinese propaganda that the US would not come to Taiwan’s aid in the event of a conflict with China, because Washington would deem the cost of intervention to be too high.
Despite this, Beijing’s collaborators in Taiwan periodically echo this narrative — such as former president Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) assertion that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army would win decisively against Taiwan’s military and that it would be impossible for the US to come to Taiwan’s assistance.
Then there was the statement by retired army general Chen Ting-chung (陳廷寵), who last month said that “Taiwan’s military combat capabilities are close to none, and it has no chance in a war against the Chinese People’s Liberation Army.”
“I am Chinese, which is a symbol of pride ... but our Chinese race has a lot of scum who are willing to become running dogs of the US and Japan,” Chen added.
Of similar importance to China’s strategy is its infiltration operations in Taiwan.
Former National Security Bureau deputy director-general Vincent Chen (陳文凡) gave a speech at US think tank the Jamestown Foundation in October last year, during which he said that China has carried out sustained “united front” and infiltration operations in Taiwan over several decades.
He said that China has been able to build up extensive contacts with 24 Taiwanese companies, media organizations and representatives.
Furthermore, Beijing has established at least 22 pro-China organizations or political parties and has developed networks in Taiwan at a local level, including individuals, businesses, local media and criminal gangs.
This “red” infiltration has not only absorbed a significant amount of Taiwan’s political, commercial, military, police, intelligence and counterespionage “bandwidth,” the infiltrating forces have also found their way into Taiwan’s temples and schools.
This has created a dense network of vectors to spread misinformation deep into Taiwanese society, permeating people’s homes and hearts.
Propaganda is transmitted through pro-China media and echoed by Internet celebrities to influence public opinion and popular sentiment as part of China’s psychological warfare campaign. Imitating the “Hong Kong model,” China is trying to build a “pro-China ruling alliance” in Taiwan, dividing and subverting from within in preparation for Beijing’s ultimate goal to annex Taiwan.
As China closes in on its objective, Taiwan cannot afford to be complacent. The use of military force against Taiwan would be a tangible act of war; “united front” and infiltration operations are war by stealth. Their clandestine methods lull many into a false sense of security.
This is particularly the case due to Taiwan’s ambiguous national identity, which causes many to feel confused about who the enemy is, and creates an opening for China to exploit.
Since the Democratic Progressive Party gained a historic legislative majority in 2016, it has amended national security laws and passed the Anti-infiltration Act (反滲透法) to close some of these security loopholes created by the mistaken polices of the Ma administration.
However, tightening up statutory law is only the first step in the process of closing these loopholes. Examining cases of Chinese espionage and instances of Taiwanese who have “sold out” their country to China, the punishments handed out have not befitted the severity of their crimes. There is still much work to be done to plug the holes of Taiwan’s leaky national security and counterespionage apparatus.
On a fundamental level, it is an issue of attitude and resolution. China brazenly carries out “united front” and infiltration operations in Taiwan by comprehensively exploiting its open and democratic society.
In democratic Taiwan, people live in a society that is free, open and operates according to the law. By contrast, in autocratic China, society is moving in the opposite direction. Beijing takes advantage of Taiwan’s different model of government to seriously threaten its development — even its continued survival.
To deal with this asymmetric challenge, Taiwan would do well to take a leaf out of US President Donald Trump’s book.
As Pottinger pointed out in his address: “Reciprocity is the straightforward idea that when a country injures your interests, you return the favor.”
This concept should apply to latent aggressors too.
Given the prosperity and power of the US, as China’s rise becomes more ambitious and its uses improper methods that harm US interests, the Trump administration has taken decisive action against China and built a cross-party consensus against Beijing.
Trump has won extensive praise among Taiwanese for his efforts.
China’s “united front” and infiltration operations present an existential threat to Taiwan; Taiwanese must take it seriously and fight back.
Translated by Edward Jones
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