Temple operators in Taiwan appear to have become the latest targets in a disinformation campaign intended to discredit the administration.
A suspected disinformation campaign targeting the Tsai Ing-wen administration appears to have intensified in recent weeks with false reports circulating that the central government is preparing to issue directives to strictly regulate local buddhist and taoist temples across Taiwan and ban the burning of incense.
According to information that began circulating three weeks ago, which several people in southern parts of Taiwan have received via text messages, the Tsai administration is mulling new regulations which would force temple operators nationwide to obtain permission from a “Department of Religious Affairs” to hold religious gatherings and perform chants at funeral services. Temples would also be ordered to declare their income tax, and the burning of incense would henceforth be banned. Failure to abide by the new rules, it said, would result in prosecution.
Particularly angry with what they see as an attempt to suppress the long-cherished practice of incense burning, distraught temple operators are now arguing that President Tsai is “persecuting religion” in Taiwan. Some said they plan to hold a protest on July 23.
The Ministry of the Interior denied on Wednesday that such directives have been issued and emphasized the administration’s commitment to religious freedom. References to a strict ban on incense burning, meanwhile, is a distortion on efforts by the Ministry of Culture, in coordination with the Environmental Protection Administration, to “educate” temple operators on the environmental damage caused by the widespread practice and to reduce emissions by limiting usage (some temples are already doing so).
Speaking on SET-TV on Thursday, Democratic Progressive Party Legislator Wang Ding-yu, who in recent days has sought to reassure his constituents in Tainan that no such plans are being contemplated, the disinformation appears to have originated on COCO01.net, a popular “content farm,” or “content mill” already identified as a platform disseminating fake news about Taiwan, most recently on the government’s pension reform program. “Content farms” are sites that hire large numbers of freelance writers to generate content designed to exploit Internet algorithms and thereby maximize advertising revenue.
Along with Russia, China has relied heavily on disinformation in recent years to reinforce its authoritarian agenda and discredit democratic institutions in Taiwan and elsewhere. According to Taiwan’s national security apparatus, pro-Beijing elements have infiltrated groups that in recent months have held a series of protests, some of them violent, against the administration’s pension reform program.
Experts on Chinese political warfare also believe that several Taiwanese temples, which have longstanding exchanges with their counterparts across the Taiwan Strait, have long played a role in Beijing’s united front efforts against the island-nation. While some temple operators may conceivably have been deceived by the disinformation, there is a very real possibility that others — those who are willingly engaging in united front tactics and promoting Beijing’s unification agenda — will exploit the disinformation to cause unrest and seek to destabilize the Tsai government.