A Beijing-based think tank last week published a poll showing that the majority of Chinese consider “international military intervention in Taiwan” one of the top threats facing China.
Arguably, the sole purpose of the poll, which was conducted by the Tsinghua University Center for International Security and Strategy, is to serve as propaganda. A poll conducted in China, where freedom of speech is curtailed, cannot accurately reflect public opinion. Chinese would be reluctant to publicly express their true opinion, especially when it contradicts the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) narrative, as doing so would likely be construed as subversive behavior.
RAND Corp Hu Taiwan Policy Initiative director Raymond Kuo (郭泓均) said as much. Commenting on a separate poll, he said that the number that expressed a dissenting view in that poll was likely only one-quarter of the true number.
Even if Chinese were to express themselves truthfully in a poll, the information would be of little use to policymakers in Beijing. Direct elections are held only at the local level in China, where nominees are controlled and vetted by the CCP. Hence, Chinese policymakers are not held accountable to the public.
While Beijing has been shown to take public opinion into account on rare occasions — for example, during the COVID-19 pandemic when successive lockdowns led to widespread protests, eventually prompting Beijing to ease restrictions — protests are dangerous and invariably lead to many arrests.
The poll might have been in part a response to recent surveys by the Pew Research Center in Washington, which for the past few years have shown that the majority of the US public holds a negative view of China. In 2020, the survey showed that about 74 percent of Americans felt China handled the pandemic poorly, while 55 percent said they had “no confidence at all” in Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) handling of international affairs.
Tsinghua is a public university, and it is not unlikely that the CCP commissioned the poll in an attempt to convince the Chinese public that negative views of the US are the norm in China, just as negative views of China are prevalent in the US. This might have been done to fan the flames of nationalism, which the CCP has done in the past to deflect attention from restrictions on personal freedoms by portraying “foreign interference” as a more pressing threat that Chinese should rally against.
That the South China Morning Post also reported on the poll suggests that the CCP intends to use it as propaganda in Hong Kong. Hong Kong no longer enjoys press freedom, and it is not a stretch to assume that it was the CCP’s idea for the news outlet to run the report.
The report was subsequently picked up by Chinese-language media in Taiwan, giving the CCP a wider audience for its message that it is the US — rather than China — that is the real aggressor in the Indo-Pacific region, and that Beijing’s military buildup is for self-defense and not expansionism. China has probably taken cues from Russia, which has tried to paint its war of aggression against Ukraine as a self-defense measure intended to keep NATO at bay.
Taiwanese have freer access to information than Chinese do, but the government must still ensure that media literacy in Taiwan is kept high, as China has been ramping up its cognitive warfare.
The government should use information campaigns to improve public awareness of Chinese disinformation, and work with news and social media companies, with the assistance of artificial intelligence technology, to flag content identified as disinformation. Schools should also teach children about disinformation and other threats from China, and conduct audits to limit the impact of China-friendly educators.
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