Beijing has ramped up its push to interfere in next month’s Taiwan presidential election, with a top Chinese leader urging officials to be more effective and discreet in their work at a recent high-level meeting, according to a senior Taiwanese security official.
Wang, a longtime advisor to Chinese leader Xi Jinping, was put in charge of Taiwan affairs earlier this year after being appointed the deputy head of the Central Leading Group for Taiwan Affairs, a decision-making body chaired by Xi.
According to the Taiwanese official, who requested anonymity due to sensitivity of the matter, Wang told officials attending the meeting that the Chinese Communist Party must step up its effectiveness in influencing Taiwan’s public opinion, while reducing the likelihood that external parties could find evidence of such interference.
The allegations come as Taiwan’s presidential candidates are campaigning in full force for the highly consequential election, taking place at a moment of high tensions across the Taiwan Strait as China ramps up military, political and economic pressure on the democratic island that Beijing claims as its own territory.
The candidate for Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Vice President Lai Ching-te, is currently leading in the polls, leaving contenders in the China-friendly camp behind.
Beijing, which openly loathes the DPP, has long been accused of meddling in Taiwan elections to boost the prospects of candidates who favor closer ties with China, and Taiwanese officials have publicly warned of its more diverse tactics in recent months.
The Taiwanese security official noted Beijing convened the meeting after Xi visited San Francisco last month to meet with US President Joe Biden, who had cautioned his Chinese counterpart against interfering in Taiwan’s elections during their four-hour talks.
Because of that, the source claimed, Wang stressed to officials that it is important to strategize so that external parties can’t easily find evidence of Beijing’s interference.
The attending officials were told to coordinate their work with the Communist Party’s Central Propaganda Department and the People’s Liberation Army’s Base 311 – a psychological warfare unit headquartered in the city of Fuzhou near the coast of the Taiwan Strait, according to the Taiwanese official.
Created in 2005, Base 311 has drawn attention from global defense experts for its role as an operational command for Beijing’s “Three Warfares” strategy against Taiwan – namely “public opinion warfare, psychological warfare and legal warfare.”
The Taiwanese official said Base 311 has also been tasked with organizing trips for Taiwanese media to visit mainland China, as well as picking soundbites that fit Beijing’s narratives from Taiwanese programs and making them into short videos to spread on social media.
Meanwhile, the Chinese government’s Taiwan Affairs Office and the Communist Party’s United Front Work Department are responsible for interacting with Taiwanese businesspeople and low-ranking Taiwanese politicians, the official added.
According to the source, the strategies discussed at the meeting include magnifying narratives that the upcoming election is a “choice between war and peace” – a talking point that blames the ruling DPP for provoking Beijing and stoking tensions – and that the DPP candidates are “diehard Taiwan separatists.”
Beijing has repeatedly decried Lai, the DPP’s candidate, as a “separatist” and “troublemaker” for his pro-independence leanings. In 2017, Lai enraged Chinese officials by calling himself a “pragmatic worker for Taiwanese independence,” though he has moderated his stance since winning the nomination for the race.
The Taiwanese security official pointed out that since last week, there has been a large number of social media posts targeting Lai’s running mate and vice presidential candidate Hsiao Bi-khim, including on accounts allegedly controlled by the Chinese state.
Some posts accused Hsiao – who until recently was Taiwan’s top representative in the US — of being a “diehard separatist,” while others falsely alleged that she still holds US citizenship
“They hope that the party they dislike will lose the election,” the Taiwanese official said, referring to the DPP, which has prioritized elevating Taipei’s ties with Washington since taking power in 2016.
“They have repeatedly attempted to remind (voters) that this election is a choice between peace and war, and that one of the tickets is comprised of separatists,” the official added.
China’s Communist Party has vowed to one day “reunite” with Taiwan, by force if necessary. Regular polling shows the vast majority of Taiwanese have no desire to be part of China and a growing number, especially younger generations, see themselves as distinctly Taiwanese, not Chinese.
The DPP views Taiwan as a de facto sovereign nation, a stance that infuriates Beijing which has cut official communications with the island’s government since the current ruling party came to power.
Ahead of Taiwan’s first direct presidential election in 1996, Beijing fired missiles toward the island to intimidate voters not to support a candidate championing Taiwan’s separate identity from China. That move backfired spectacularly and the candidate, Lee Teng-hui, swept to a landslide victory.
Since then, China has switched to a different approach. Taiwanese officials and experts have accused Beijing of spreading disinformation on social media, illicitly funding election campaigns and media outlets, and influencing Taiwanese businesses with investments in mainland China.
In 2019, weeks before Taiwan’s last presidential and legislative elections, the island’s legislature passed a law aimed at blocking political interference from China. The Anti-Infiltration Law seeks to plug legal loopholes by blocking any foreign force from making political donations, spreading misinformation, staging campaign events, or otherwise interfering in elections.