- Being aware of risks associated with military actions, China pursues a strategy to achieve Taiwan unification “without combat.”
- Through subversive activities that hide its involvement, the Chinese government attempts to lead Taiwan’s public opinion to not oppose unification.
- China’s manipulation through the “China Factor” is not unique to Taiwan. Other countries experience it as well.
“A Taiwan contingency” has been the topic of numerous discussions in recent years. In Dec. 2021, former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo issued China a warning: “A Taiwan contingency is a Japan contingency.”
The truth is, though, invading Taiwan would not be an easy matter for China. The country lacks necessary military capability. A failed attempt could cause the Chinese Communist Party to lose political clout and even lead to independence of Taiwan.
Instead of a military invasion, the Chinese government under Xi Jinping is prioritizing an infiltration operation coined [by the international community] as the “China Factor.”
The Taiwanese Ministry of National Defense believes that China, an advocate of “military-civil fusion” and “combining peacetime and wartime preparations,” widely utilizes fake news and exerts economic pressure to thwart Taiwan’s domestic opposition to China. China also uses military pressure and diplomatic means to exclude Taiwan from the international community, thereby cultivating public opinion and political forces inside Taiwan that are more amenable to unification with China. These efforts aim at “seizing Taiwan without fighting,” says the ministry’s 2021 national defense report.
According to Wu Jiehmin, a political scientist at Academia Sinica, Taiwan’s research institute, the China Factor targeting Taiwan is a combination of “Sharp Power” targeting foreign public opinion and a hybrid method of assaults by military pressure and information/cyber attacks. Although the China Factor is widely recognized in Taiwanese society, the involvement of the Chinese government is hidden from view. Wu says that unlike the efforts of other national governments to improve their country’s international image–as seen in “Cool Japan”–the China Factor aims to “create a schism in the target society.”
A typical case in point was the manipulation of the Taiwanese public opinion at the time when Taiwan was experiencing a rapid increase in community transmission of COVID-19 in May 2021. As the Taiwanese public became increasingly critical of the insufficient supply of vaccines, the Chinese government touted the free inoculation with the Chinese vaccine to Taiwanese businessmen residing in China and suggested that it would be willing to provide the Chinese vaccine to Taiwan.
The Taiwanese administration under Tsai Ingwen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) steadfastly rejected the Chinese offer on the basis of safety. However, the Taiwan administration’s plan for vaccine procurement from a German manufacturer stalled because the German company was bound by an exclusive sales agreement with a Chinese firm, and the Tsai administration took a plunge in opinion polls. When vaccine donations arrived from Japan in June, the Chinese government spread fake news on the web, claiming that Japan supplied batches of expired vaccines, negatively affecting for a long time the Taiwanese public’s decisions on vaccination.
These fake postings included the simplified Chinese characters used in mainland China and different from the characters used in Taiwan. The Tsai administration repeatedly issued warnings that “these comments were posted from outside Taiwan.”
Although politically at odds, Taiwan is highly dependent on China for trade and investment. China’s manipulation is also prevalent in the economic sector.
In March 2021, China banned the import of Taiwanese pineapples, citing harmful insects discovered in the fruit. Over 90% of Taiwan’s pineapple exports were shipped to China. A political motive for the ban was suspected as many pineapple producers were supporters of the DPP. The Chinese government further tried to sway Taiwanese farmers affected by the ban by urging them to expand their business to China, offering them favorable land and investment terms.
In November, the Chinese government determined that three members of the Taiwanese administration, including premier Su Tsengchang, were pro-independence and warned Taiwanese businesses that firms making political donations to these three politicians won’t be allowed to earn profits inside China. About two weeks later, a Taiwanese conglomerate, the “Far Eastern Group,” which had made a donation to Su, was ordered by the Chinese government to pay fines and back charges totaling the equivalent of 8.5 billion yen for violating Chinese environmental protection rules.
Tsai strongly protested, saying, “China used open-sourced information on political donations to threaten and intimidate Taiwanese corporations.” One week later, however, the president of the Far Eastern Group submitted to Taiwanese news outlets an opinion piece that stated: “We oppose Taiwan independence.” The company president also referred to the importance of economic ties between Taiwan and China, likely in an attempt to alleviate the negative impact on their business [from measures taken by the Chinese government].
Researchers from Japan, the United States, and Taiwan agree that the Chinese government has enhanced its capability to manipulate Taiwanese opinion through “China Factor” since around 2016. It was the period when the Taiwanese Nationalist Party, with which China had a cooperative relationship, lost popular support for being perceived as being too close to China and fell from ruling to opposition status. Seeing this, the Chinese government shifted its approach to Taiwan, which had previously aimed to appease the Taiwanese population through the Nationalist Party to create favorable opinion toward China, to an approach focused on exerting pressure.
A senior Nationalist Party member says: “As China increased its economic clout, it stopped seeing Taiwan as a partner in dialogue. Even if the Nationalist Party were the ruling party now, China would have taken the current [hardline] approach.”
According to Taiwan’s national defense ministry, some of China’s operations involve the Chinese military. Ying Yulin, an assistant professor at National Sun Yat-sen University, says that the Strategic Support Force, which was established within the People’s Liberation Army during a 2015-2016 organizational restructuring, is using abundant monetary and human resources to play a key role in spreading fake news. “China’s method of disseminating fake news is evolving,” Ying said. “To increase its credibility, fake news is made up of 70% truth and 30% lies.” He urges the swift implementation of necessary countermeasures.
The Tsai administration has reviewed domestic laws concerning elections and natural disasters, as well as infectious diseases, to strengthen measures against fake news and activities that damage others. In order to reduce the level of economic dependency on China, the administration extends favorable terms to businesses seeking to enter Southeast Asian markets and develop production sites there. However, Taiwan’s regulations and legal restrictions don’t reach China. The growth in Taiwanese trade and investment vis-à-vis Southeast Asia still pales in comparison with its trade with China.
In facing China under the control of the Chinese Communist Party, Taiwan steadily upholds democracy and guarantees freedom of speech and economic activities. In such a society, too many restrictions will inevitably draw protests from the public.
Taiwan’s politicians and scholars are calling for a system that enables Taiwan to share information with Japan and other members of the international community. They also call for an economic framework that prevents Taiwan from becoming isolated. Fake news doesn’t recognize national borders, and Chinese economic pressure has been felt by corporations and governments in Japan and the rest of the world. The China Factor is not somebody else’s problem.