The battle for public opinion begins long before any shot is fired. Governments worldwide are well aware of this, and none more so than authoritarian regimes like China and Russia, who dwell in fear of a discontent populace. Having perfected their propaganda techniques internally, global ambitions have led them to launch influence campaigns against their rivals.
For those far away, the attempts seem laughable. US voters are likely familiar with stilted English and awkward memes vaulted their way by Russia in the past few election cycles, concerning in their number but easily spotted.
Yet for those nearer, the effects can be more destabilizing. Shared language and culture allow for more sophisticated messaging and a sense of camaraderie that is hard to dismiss. Russia’s extensive charm offensive in Ukraine had worked prior to 2014. A Pew Global Attitudes poll in 2011 found that over 80 percent of Ukrainians had a favorable view of Russia. Russia’s annexation of Crimea dramatically altered this view; a similar poll conducted in 2014 found that only 35 percent held a favorable view.
The same could be said of Taiwan. The simple fact of a shared language means that China-created content will enjoy greater reach, whether obvious and deliberate misinformation, or as reasonably argued thought pieces on the importance of cooperation. It also means that Taiwan’s uphill battle to counter Chinese influence is much steeper than it might seem — and it already appears insurmountable. After all, in Ukraine it took an invasion to break the spell.
At the World Federation of Taiwanese Associations’ annual conference in Vilnius on Sunday, Kuma Academy cofounder Puma Shen (沈伯洋) exposed just how far behind Taiwan is in its efforts to break the spell. Citing one of his organization’s surveys, he said that fewer than 20 percent of Taiwanese believe that most misinformation comes from abroad. Among them, only about 30 percent named China; another 20 percent each naming the US and Japan, though “nothing can be further from the truth.” With the rise of artificial intelligence, Taiwan only stands to fall further behind as Chinese tactics grow more sophisticated.
To Shen, most concerning are the internal divisions within Taiwanese society, eroding people’s willingness to resist China. Without a catalyst, “I’m afraid it will take decades, but China won’t give us decades,” he said.
One speech attendee was surprised there could still be such stark divisions, even as other democracies are consolidating under their mistrust of China. This stands to prove Taiwan’s informational isolation from allies, with an inward-facing media landscape easily mired in political infighting. Add to that China’s influence, and it is easy to lose sight of the existential threat looming from across the Strait.
Important fact-checking efforts aside, one of Taiwan’s most powerful tools is also one of its most overlooked. Amplifying voices from like-minded countries is how Taiwan’s supporters can counter the megaphone from across the Strait, and no group is better suited to that task than Taiwanese expats.
Their voices can resonate with their compatriots on a level that those of international media and diplomats cannot, while serving as a bridge to communicate Taiwan’s perspective abroad, generating global support on a grassroots level. The Vilnius conference is a wonderful example of the enthusiasm of the Taiwanese diaspora, as well as its ability to organize and communicate complexity. Despite being only a small hill among the mountains of efforts needed to counter China’s influence, their contributions should not be overlooked.
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