Chinese interference in elections is a clear and present danger, and the time has come for the government to take enforcement action against elements that are involved in such activities.
Following the Nov. 24 “nine-in-one” local elections in Taiwan, a lot was said in the media, at conferences and during closed-door meetings about Chinese interference in electoral processes. In the lead-up to the elections, the Ministry of Justice Investigation Bureau (MJIB) had been uncharacteristically blunt in revealing that it was investigating 33 cases of suspected Chinese funding of various candidates.
Since then, however, surprisingly little has happened. No candidate has faced prosecution, no network has been unraveled, and nobody has been arrested. The findings of the MJIB investigations, meanwhile, have not been made public, leaving many to wonder whether Chinese interference indeed occurred, and if so, to what extent such activities influenced the outcome of the elections.
True, there have been various public reports of disinformation; computational propaganda; “content farms”; media outlets coming under Beijing’s influence; online swarming, bullying and threats against media personalities and politicians; Facebook page managers being approached by suspect individuals (usually pretty young women) offering to buy their pages; online managers being offered sums of money to manage pages provided they support “one country, two systems” and unification; pro-Beijing triad-linked elements “buying” Buddhist temples and creating “agencies” that bypass the central government across southern Taiwan; proxies funnelling “red” money into Taiwan; and so on and so forth. Most, if not all, of these activities point to direct Chinese involvement, or involvement by pro-Beijing proxies in Taiwan.
At this juncture, the problem facing Taiwan is two-fold. First, much of what has been discussed in public has been the product of academic research, concerned citizens, and media reports. While a substantial amount of evidence has been gathered — IP tracking, linguistic irregularities and computational automation among them — the public discourse has remained mostly theoretical and speculative. The smoking gun, if there is one, is in the hands of the state’s intelligence and law-enforcement agencies. Consequently, if the public is to believe that Chinese interference indeed poses an existential threat to Taiwan’s democracy, the government will have to make such findings public. This would likely involve releasing a sanitized (declassified) report, based on concrete intelligence (protecting sources and means of collection), which details concrete operations, traces those back to pro-Beijing elements, and demonstrates how such activities influenced elections and the good working of democratic institutions.
The other problem is that there has been no enforcement. If the government has gathered sufficient evidence of Chinese interference, then appropriate action should be taken. Nothing would send a clearer signal to the Taiwanese public that nefarious forces are actively seeking to undermine Taiwan and that the state, having identified those, has the will to target them. Absent enforcement action and prosecution, it is easy to understand why the Taiwanese public would not feel overly concerned about external interference, and why the cassandras in the media and academia who put their necks out exposing such activities would be easily dismissed by their detractors in the opposite camp.
Traditional media outlets that have spread pro-Beijing disinformation have been fined by the National Communications Commission (NCC), but such fines are pocket change for the powerful businesspeople who are behind those media operations; at the same time, ostensibly pro-Beijing businesspeople have acquired majority and/or full shares in other media in Taiwan, leading to the suspicion that most, if not all of Taiwan’s major TV stations, for example, “answer to the Taiwan Affairs Office.”
Taiwan cannot afford to regard this as a traditional counter-intelligence problem, and should treat it more with the urgency that normally characterizes counter-terrorism efforts — only this time, the bomb that is ticking is next January’s presidential election.
It has also been speculated that small restaurants, hospitals and other public venues may have been paid, on a monthly basis, to run certain channels on their television sets. Those channels have allocated an unusually high amount of airtime to prop up Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu, ostensibly a Beijing favorite. The NCC has been, in my view, remiss in its monitoring and enforcement. (NCC Chairperson Chan Ting-i resigned earlier this month amid criticism that she had failed to do enough to curb disinformation.) Early on, the commission should have adopted much more rigorous enforcement action against media that clearly are not meeting basic standards and which, furthermore, may be acting as transmitters for a hostile anti-democratic regime. The same can be said of the Investment Commission, which has failed to properly regulate the acquisition of media outlets by firms and individuals who are also suspected of having a pro-Beijing agenda. Needless to say, the Legislative Yuan needs to ensure that government agencies are equipped with the right set of laws to regulate the media environment while ensuring that freedom of expression is protected.
There has been frustration in the ranks, with sources in the intelligence and law-enforcement sector unable to explain why the government has not taken action against suspected groups and entities. Most fingers point to the National Security Council (NSC), which sources tell me has been reluctant to take the lead in coordinating action against Chinese interference. Without the political will from above, intelligence and law-enforcement agencies will not be in a position to take appropriate enforcement measures against hostile forces.
This inaction could also be due to a trait that is characteristic of counter-intelligence (CI) efforts, where investigative agencies are reluctant to take action (i.e., arrest an agent) lest this disrupt an agency’s ability to widen its network, to identify additional members of a targeted network. Unlike counter-terrorism (CT), where the threat of a bomb going off in a metro system compels the authorities to eventually arrest the targets of an investigation, CI efforts can go on for several years without a single individual ever being arrested, prosecuted, or expelled.
An additional challenge for Taiwan is that Chinese interference efforts involve both political and criminal activities simultaneously, which can create confusion among enforcement agencies (e.g., which agency should take the lead when a pro-Beijing triad uses the proceeds of its criminal activities to fund united front work in Taiwan?).
What is certain, however, is that if Chinese interference is afoot, and if, as I suspect, it is working and if it has learned lessons from the Nov. 24 elections, then Taiwan cannot afford to regard this as a traditional CI problem, and should treat it more with the urgency that normally characterizes CT efforts — only this time, the bomb that is ticking is next January’s presidential election.
Cracking down entails risks, including the possibility of retaliation, disinformation, accusations of the state acting “undemocratically” and even of violence, as some of the suspected groups are crime syndicates with access to firearms. But the stakes have never been this high, and the threat to democracy is a clear and present danger. With 2020 possibly turning into a point of no return for Taiwan should Beijing get its way, it is incumbent upon the current government to make its case clear to the public by presenting sufficient evidence, and to take enforcement action that is commensurate with the nature of the threat.