Countering PRC Influence Operations

Taiwan leads longtime fight against coercion by the People’s Republic of China 

Lt. Gen. Vincent W.F. Chen/National Security Bureau of Taiwan

I was asked to talk about China’s influence operations against Taiwan and try to put it into the context of the regional as well as the global strategic environment. I’ll start off by offering what we view as the nature of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and I’ll also try to touch upon some aspects regarding what’s going on in Hong Kong in terms of the CCP’s influence operation against Hong Kong’s entire extradition movement. Then I’ll focus on how we — Taiwan — view the whole thing that has developed. It evolved into an imminent threat based upon our experience in fighting against it, and what we believe the most is that Taiwan’s unique status should not perish.

In an era where the CCP is jeopardizing the world order based on liberal democracy, human rights, market economy and rule of law, Taiwan is front and center of that world order. Taiwan is in a situation similar to Ukraine and Baltic states at the front of Russia’s sphere of influence. Yet, Taiwan is unique in facing the CCP’s People’s Republic of China (PRC), the most powerful party-state in history that is determined to terminate Taiwan as it is. The struggle between liberal democracy and totalitarian dictatorship is central in the discussion of the CCP’s sharp power, cognitive warfare, influence operations and mind control.

The history of Taiwan since 1912, especially since 1949, is a process of democratic enlightenment. The CCP’s rule in China is based on Deng Xiaoping’s four cardinal principles in 1979. Chinese General Secretary Xi Jinping has further catalyzed that into totalitarianism with some modern technology.

The situation in Hong Kong is a salient example of Beijing’s desire to undermine political and civil liberties, as well as subordinate individual human rights to the overarching authority of the party-state.

To keep their jobs, Chinese journalists are required to use a government app to pass an exam on their understanding of Chinese President Ji Xinping’s thought. The app also monitors
and evaluates Chinese Communist Party members. REUTERS

From the perspective of cognitive warfighting, defined as the capacity to weaponize knowledge, Taiwan has a unique vulnerability because Mandarin Chinese is the common language for both China and Taiwan. 

With the unrestrained resources in centralized policy at its discretion, Beijing could easily monopolize or overwhelm the Chinese-speaking audience to achieve the PRC’s goal of subliminal cognition manipulation.

We believe Xi’s digital Leninism is straddling the world. Xi rules China by emulating imperial-era government, only reinforcing it with advanced surveillance technologies. Dr. Stein Ringen, a Norwegian sociologist and political scientist, termed this combination a perfect dictatorship of a party-state.

Xi’s regime is now evaluating 80 million party members based on their test score of Xi’s thought. On the little red app on smartphones and since September 2019, journalists are required to pass an exam of Xi’s thought to keep their jobs. The PRC’s social credit system to be completed in 2020 is the peak of Orwellian treatment of China’s entire population.

Also influenced by Marxist and Leninist economic determinism, the CCP intends to appropriate modern global means of production to perpetuate the party’s life. Since Deng Xiaoping’s open-door policy in the 1980s, the CCP has followed the path of state capitalism, accumulating wealth while disregarding rules of market economy. For this purpose, Xi has sought to achieve a series of faits accomplis through ploys like the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) policy, the China standard 2035 and other long-term strategies.

Xi also tried to consolidate the South China Sea fortification. He has gradually tried to appropriate aerial, cyber and arctic domains and pushed international adoption of China’s preferred technological standards. Under his leadership, China has bypassed the international rule-based order and taken advantage of the West’s dismissal of war as a conflict resolution tool.

Hong Kong students and Taiwan supporters hold up cards that read “Taiwan Supports Hong Kong” and “No China Extradition” outside the Legislative Yuan in Taipei in June 2019. Anti-government protests in Hong Kong against an extradition law were echoed in Taiwan. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Through its investment in think tanks, social organizations and elite of other countries using Confucius Institutes, the CCP broadened its foreign influence to cultivate a pro-China public opinion in the world. A grand international propaganda strategy was launched in 2009. The China Central Television (CCTV) is now airing in at least 170 countries in five different languages. In the meantime, state-run technology companies, including Huawei, ZTE, CE, IEC and High Vision, export surveillance equipment to Argentina, Burma, Cambodia, Morocco, the Philippines, South Africa, Sri Lanka, United Arab Emirates and others, and Huawei is installing its safe city solution in cities of more than 100 countries.

CCP propaganda efforts are more effective in Latin America, Southeast Asia and Africa and less so in the West, at least for now. The CCP has also launched cognitive warfare during the trade war with the U.S. for this core supremacy, manipulation of American voters and Chinese nationalism. The latest propaganda TV show in September 2019 highlighted the Chinese strategic patience and that of a U.S. economic growth slowdown.

The United Nations is another key multilateral platform for the CCP’s infrastructure and cognitive campaign efforts. The CCP inserted its OBOR objective into U.N. sustainable development goals locally and released it on a U.N. website. Chinese nationals Houlin Zhao and Fang Liu were reelected to lead ITU (International Telecommunication Union) and ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization), respectively. In 2019, the CCP successfully secured leadership of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization through hybrid warfare. The intelligence suggests the PRC forgave tens of millions of dollars of debt to an African state in exchange for withdrawing its candidate. Before voting in June 2019, the CCP disrupted communication of the French candidate, which led the French government to install encryption devices. On voting day, the CCP took no chances, providing transportation for pro-China voters, and Chinese candidates won the election on the first round.

Supporters of Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen cheer as she launches her re-election campaign in Taipei on November 17, 2019. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Hong Kong campaign

Now, I’d like to turn to the CCP’s cognitive warfare against Hong Kong’s demonstration. Hong Kong’s entire extradition to China movement is an epic battle with global and cross-strait implications. The CCP has long offered Hong Kong’s business tycoons national prestige, including through appointment to the National People’s Congress in exchange for political support, and by appropriating media under the umbrella. The CCP resorted to cutting advertisements or even using gang-related violence for those who refuse to yield.

The CCP Hong Kong central liaison office controls half of Hong Kong’s publishing companies, and based on this network, the CCP, at early stages of the demonstrations, pointed at foreign involvement to manipulate cross-strait relations and Taiwan-U.S. ties to ensure that the peaceful transformation in China would not take place. It is worth noting that demonstrators held up a large banner calling for Xi’s death on September 27, 2019. The CCP views the role of the U.S. Congress in the Hong Kong demonstration as a threat to national security.

Hong Kong’s 2019 pro-democracy protest also exposed the weakness of the CCP’s cognitive warfare. Hong Kong protester activities were so flexible and water-like to the extent that some Chinese observers suspected the U.S. military was supporting the Hong Kong demonstrators with telecommunications broadband capacity. Intelligence shows that Hong Kong demonstrations seemed to apply the unconventional warfare that generates impact on financial, trade, legal, media and ideological dimensions. The pro-China media such as Oriental Daily News, a Chinese language newspaper in Hong Kong, admitted in August 2019 that both the CCP’s intelligence and propaganda in Hong Kong were utter parroting. The CCP’s parroting and smearing campaign seemed to endorse this admission.

Operations against Taiwan
Let’s turn to CCP influence operations against Taiwan. Xi has articulated that the rejuvenation of China cannot occur without the so-called reacquisition of lost territories. He set a deadline of 2049 to solve the Taiwan “problem” vis-à-vis annexation. China’s influence operation against Taiwan is an integral part of the CCP’s digital Leninism. It can be conceptualized under party ideology and national security. Xi’s speech on struggle at the central party school in September 2019 confirmed this as a priority. His remarks revealed that the survival of the party matters the most and is the cardinal imperative. This imperative constitutes the fundamental difference between the CCP’s party-state and rest of the world.

Today, the CCP’s Taiwan policy is guided by Xi’s five-point remarks in January 2019, which dictate the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) military coercion, external isolation of Taiwan, infiltration and subversion, United Front interaction, cyber activities and disinformation dissemination. All of these activities are incorporated in the PRC’s propaganda framework intended to shape the Taiwan mindset, preferably to the extent of annexing Taiwan without bloodshed. In 2018, the CCP launched a relatively new state-owned eliminating campaign called “namefare” that sought to efface all trace of Taiwan’s sovereignty, particularly in the private sector and with nongovernmental organizations.

As for the military rank, the CCP’s military short-term coercion against Taiwan had an immediate cognitive dimension in 2019. As reported by overseas Chinese newspaper World Journal in February 2019, two Chinese scholars visited California in January 2019 to meet with a former U.S. intelligence official to convey Xi’s forceful unification plan by 2022. They revealed that Xi would work with Russia, Iran and North Korea for coordination of a scenario in Mideast and Northeast Asia to constrain intervening U.S. forces for Taiwan. At that time, the plan sounded like a groundless bluff in the midst of the Sino-U.S. trade war.As it turned out in 2019, Xi’s plans seemed not so groundless. In Russia, Tu-95 bombers circled Taiwan proper for the first time on June 20.

PLA air force and Russian aircraft jointly patrolled the East China Sea on July 23, 2019. As of October 2019, North Korea had conducted 11 short-range missile and submarine-launched ballistic missile tests. And after the Saudi Arabia oil refinery attack in September 2019, Iran announced a joint military exercise with China and Russia in the western Indian Ocean. The CCP’s role is still unclear, but there is some similarity with Xi’s plan.

Long-term coercion
The CCP has pursued United Front interaction and infiltration in Taiwan for decades, having reached quite widely and deeply in our island. The CCP has developed a complete network of local government across the strait where 24 business, media and semi-official representatives in Taiwan cultivate a wide connection. Some of them have engaged in activities beyond their publicly stated mission. There are at least 22 pro-China organizations, political parties, and we have identified a number of them with connections to organized crime for extending their networking to local entities, Taiwan businessmen in mainland China and Taiwan news.

On the other hand, the CCP’s cyber activities are an imminent threat to Taiwan. The cyber force successfully hacked into Taiwan’s health insurance data around 2010 to appropriate  vital demographic information on Taiwan’s population structure.

From 2016 to July 2019, the CCP cyber force launched more than 21,000 attacks against Taiwan, targeting defense, foreign affairs, overseas service, medical service, maritime and firefighting institutes. Many of the attacks were conducted through relay stations. Nearly 300 around the world were used by CCP hackers between January and July 2019.

The CCP has long cultivated influence on Taiwan media, and since 2015, the CCP has attempted to overwhelmingly engage Taiwan media in a cross-strait media summit. In May 2019, this summit assembled executive delegates from 80 communist newspapers, TV and radio stations, news websites and publishing industry and Taiwan news agencies, a scope meant to monopolize perception of Taiwan audiences.

While China’s effort to sway Taiwan’s public opinion might work in some instances, it has failed to undermine sovereignty and national identity. A poll released by Taiwan Mainland Affairs Council in May 2019 showed that 86% of respondents oppose the so-called one country, two system formula, and 78.5% support Taiwan authorities vindication of liberal democratic institutions. Another poll released by National Chengchi University showed that 40.3% prefer maintaining status quo and favor independence, while only 3.7% prefer maintaining status quo and unification later.

The CCP’s meddling with Taiwan elections dates back to the 1990s. The 1995-96 Taiwan Straits crisis was meant to intimidate voters ahead of the first direct, presidential election. The CCP cyber force hacked into campaign headquarters of major political parties during the 2008 election. As for Taiwan elections in 2018 and 2020, the CCP established a multidepartmental task force in late 2017 to evaluate the election, finance pro-China parties and support a mainland spouse group. The task force also funded a regional talk show host and website writers.

In 2018, mandated by the CCP’s so-called central national security commission, PLA strategic support force was tasked to coordinate propaganda, cyber and Taiwan affairs office as well as the United Front Department to conduct cognitive warfare to shape Taiwan public opinion. Beijing developed so-called self-media, or social media as we call it, to disseminate video messages on YouTube, mobilize armies of internet posters and chair bots to overwhelm discussion. They also work with China’s own information technology company to characterize desired issues, evaluate manipulation and modify strategy, accordingly. It also used pro-China media and internet celebrities in Taiwan to echo CCP messages on Facebook, Twitter, Live and other social media. These activities constitute a new model or trend of CCP’s cognitive warfare against Taiwan, which challenges Taiwan’s response capacities.

Counterinitiatives at home
Let’s turn to Taiwan’s overseas effort. To be responsible for Taiwan’s destiny, President Tsai Ing-wen on March 2019 proposed guidance for countering the CCP’s version, countering “one country, two systems” in various dimensions. In the legal realm, her administration has comprehensively reviewed 11 laws and about 134 regulations governing the cross-strait interaction and defined and made necessary amendments, such as expanding the scope and definition in criminal law of treason, including protection of sensitive technological information in national intelligence work and enhancing punishment for violation of that law.

With respect to country and CCP’s infiltration and interfering in Taiwan’s elections, the Taiwan National Security Bureau (NSB) has formed a task force integrating intelligence organizations to monitor underground financial transactions across the strait, including local gambling, arms and drug smuggling, gang-related violence, and unusual activities of certain foreign visitors. Taiwan authorities also have formed an iron-clad triangle for cyber security, integrating the National Security Council executive, National Communication Commission and the NSB responsible for early warning and cooperating with the Ministry of National Defense, the police, the investigation bureau as well as international partners for relay station detection.

In terms of information countermeasures, some newspapers now have a rumor terminator section. The security apparatus identified this information and forwarded it to proper authorities to deal with them. To enhance public awareness, our authorities have cooperated with the private sector to introduce internet media programs on disinformation and fake news. 

Like-minded support
Having said this, Taiwan still has lots to do. We appreciate the support of like-minded friends around the world, the U.S. in particular. The U.S. passed the Taiwan Travel Act in 2018, the Taiwan Assurance Act of 2019 and the Taipei Act in 2020. In the first Indo-Pacific strategy report by the U.S. Department of Defense in July 2019, Taiwan is characterized as a partner of vital interest to the U.S. The global training and cooperation framework managed by the U.S. and Taiwan has made impressive progress, lately attracting Japan, Sweden and other countries to participate. Additionally, Taiwan was invited to join the U.S.-led coalition to counter ISIS. The White House called out Beijing for launching “namefare” to coerce the international community into its One China Principle.

We appreciate, in particular, the U.S. government position concerning Taiwan’s national defense, manifested by the recent sale of M1A2 Abrams battle tanks and F-16V fighter jets.

The U.S. authorities shared with Taiwan information about technologies nations used to meddle in the U.S. midterm election in 2018. Later in October 2019, British experts were invited to Taiwan for a workshop to share the United Kingdom’s balanced approach against disinformation.

For the future, and in light of the growing CCP digital Leninism threat and looming urgency for complete unification, it is increasingly difficult for Taiwan to survive on its own. From the cognitive perspective with U.S. support, it is worth considering that Taiwan and like-minded countries form an interregional alliance of cyber security combating this information where we can share information and other pertinent early warning information.

The objective of this alliance is to safeguard freedom of speech and explore regulation of internet activity.  As part of the Indo-Pacific strategy, the U.S. and Taiwan could consider signing a joint memorandum of understanding on combating disinformation, as Taiwan is the real-time combat zone.

The CCP’s activities and Taiwan’s defense experience can serve as a valuable reference for the free world. Besides, we can also further expand the cognitive interoperability among us. For example, through a bilateral U.S.-Taiwan free trade agreement, more cooperation between public Taiwan television and HBO or more Taiwan appearances on CNN Heroes to name just a few.

In March 2019, President Tsai Ing-wen announced her duty to confront the national security threat of a new era and to preserve options for Taiwan future generations. She then asserted that the key for peaceful development of cross-strait relations is democratization of China. This remark suggests that Taiwan’s uniqueness is an inspiration for Chinese democratization and a key element in responding to the CCP’s influence operation against Taiwan. It is reassuring that during his tenure U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense Randy Schriver, who left the Pentagon in December 2019, affirmed that the U.S. will continue to help Taiwan maintain its unique status.  

Lt. Gen. Vincent W.F. Chen is the deputy director-general, National Security Bureau of Taiwan. This article is excerpted from his October 15, 2019, presentation, “The Unique Status Shall Not Perish: CCP’s Influence Operations Against Taiwan,” at the Jamestown Foundation’s Ninth Annual China Defense and Security Conference at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C. It has been edited to fit FORUM’s format.

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