TDB Vol. 2 No. 9: Defending Democracy: Hong Kong Under Chinese Influence and Taiwan’s Countermeasures

TDB Vol. 2 No. 9: Defending Democracy: Hong Kong Under Chinese Influence and Taiwan’s Countermeasures

Experts from Hong Kong and Taiwan highlight the ‘sharp power’ tactics used by the Chinese Communist Party to erode freedoms in its near-abroad and beyond.

 

The Taiwan Foundation for Democracy on Nov. 21 hosted a panel discussion in Taipei involving scholars and democratic activists from Taiwan and Hong Kong. Titled “Defending Democracy: Hong Kong under Chinese Influence and Taiwan’s Countermeasures,” the discussion was about how Hong Kong’s democracy and society have changed under China’s influence and how Taiwan can learn from the Hong Kong experience in order to counter such influence.

The Hong Kong Civil Hub published the report titled “China’s Sharp Power in Hong Kong” in September, showing how Hong Kong has become the “experimental ground” for China’s “sharp power,” which the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) would apply to other free societies after the tactics have been tested in the autonomous city. Similarly, the recently published U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission’s annual report points out that Beijing has continued to encroach on Hong Kong’s political autonomy.

Nathan Law, who was elected at the age of 23 to Hong Kong’s legislature and got disqualified for “failing to sincerely take the oath of office” in July 2017, told the panel that the Commission report has recommended the U.S. reassess its policy of treating Hong Kong and China as separate customs areas, as Beijing has continued to take Hong Kong as a legitimate front to bypass trade barriers and import sensitive military-related products to the Chinese mainland and even to North Korea and Iran. “The U.S. has come to realize the harms the Chinese government could do to the U.S. national security via Hong Kong,” Law said.

Beijing expects Hong Kong to follow Singapore’s example — closed politically but open economically and with a government that is “not by the people but is still able to be of the people and for the people.” But without autonomy, Law said, it is highly doubtful that Hong Kong could have a government that is for the Hong Kong people. For the People’s Republic of China (PRC), “Hong Kong could only have a government that serves PRC’s needs and is by the PRC, of the PRC, and for the PRC.”

“Recently in Hong Kong, there are many ‘integration’ projects launching or being finished,” he said, referring to the recently opened Hong Kong-Macao-Zhuhai Bridge and a new plan to build artificial islands. “The hundreds of billions [of Hong Kong dollars] could have been used to support the local policies and social welfare system, but they weren’t. It shows that what matters is actually Beijing’s needs rather than the Hong Kong people’s.”

Experts from Hong Kong and Taiwan discussed China influence last month at TFD. (from left to right: Leung Kwok-hung, Cheng, Law, TFD President Ford Liao, Wu, Leung Man-to, Tseng)

Academia Sinica Institute of Taiwan History associate research fellow Wu Ruei-ren, who has been paying close attention to Hong Kong’s democratic movements in the past years, said the concept of sharp power is authoritarian powers’ malign corrosion of other sovereign countries via manipulation and cooptation. What Beijing has been doing to Hong Kong, however, is a suzerain exercising its ruling power over its sphere of control; there was no need of guise [of its power], and the reason why Beijing is still trying to keep its actions under the radar is not because it respects the sovereignty of Hong Kong but that it needs to maintain the appearance of ‘one country, two systems’ so as to keep the status of the city as a global financial hub and a separate custom.”

While “sharp power” penetrates another sovereign state via non-governmental sections, Beijing has co-opted Hong Kong’s traditional business leaders and British-trained government officials, Wu said. “This is what a foreign regime, lacking in local ruling base, would do in a new territory in order to create its own social support. The series of suppression after the Umbrella Movement was belated house-cleaning; Beijing has been neutralizing the influence of the native political elites, by co-opting the old elites and repressing the new ones. This kind of putting down’ [rebellions in] Hong Kong is actually colonial in character, which reminds us of the Kuomintang’s actions of suppression and cooptation in Taiwan after 1947,” Wu observed.

He stressed that Beijing’s “sharp power” against the de-facto independent Taiwan, on the other hand, is like what it does to other democratic countries, which is “combined attacks,” including military intimidation, diplomatic isolation, using economic leverage, and reaching to local pro-China collaborators. “Taiwan is a textbook case [of how ‘sharp power’ is used].” Entertainment and cultural groups in Taiwan have remained indifferent to or are deliberately overlooking politics, “but we have to understand that it is impossible to separate politics from the economic and cultural spheres and that we need to have a renewed understanding of China’s totalitarianism,” he said.

What Taiwan needs to do now is to expose China’s influence, make good use of the fact that Taiwan is a sovereign country to establish internal security mechanisms, reiterate democratic values to inoculate the Taiwanese people against the influence of “sharp power,” and “to raise the costs of those who try to collaborate with China — which means punishment,” Wu said.

The U.S. once believed that incorporating China into the liberal economic system could lead to its democratization, but what we see instead is that China’s anti-democratic ideology has proliferated and abetted a global democratic backsliding. “We need to be aware that [China’s] influence is global, and in this sense we share the same destiny that we must defend and safeguard democracy together,” he said.

Wu recommended that different sectors in Taiwan and between Taiwan’s and Hong Kong’s civil societies should collaborate “to share information and experiences,” adding that working with what is left of Chinese civil society is likewise crucial. Hong Kong’s Alliance for True Democracy convener Joseph Cheng said the importance of cooperation is evinced in Beijing’s accusations of “convergence of forces” in Taiwan and Hong Kong. “It means it really is fearful of the alliance.”

National Cheng Kung University political science professor Leung Man-to, who was born in Hong Kong and has lived in Taiwan for 17 years, said that when facing the CCP, “there is only one kind of attitude, which is that you have to distrust it and then distrust it.”

Beijing’s control over Hong Kong is through media and the economy, he said, adding “1.3 million people in Hong Kong now live below poverty line; that is one seventh of the Hong Kong population.” “Beijing only cares about maintaining the city’s financial freedom so that [the Chinese elite] can undertake money-laundering and profiteering activities,” Leung said.

“Beijing is also good at polarizing people, making your fellow people either your friends or enemies. This is what it has been applying to Taiwan, too, using many controversial issues to manufacture serious divides,” he added.

Cheng also called on Taiwanese media to be aware of China’s united front tactics and be as objective as possible in their reporting to avoid polarization, while Hong Kong’s veteran democracy activist Leung Kwok-hung said we need to understand that the influence of China as a new imperial power is global. The Taiwanese government must be aware that there can be no political independence if Taiwan’s economy isn’t so.

 

For more on Chinese/authoritarian influence, see also:

“Chinese Influence & American Interests: Promoting Constructive Vigilance”

“Sharp Power: Rising Authoritarian Influence”

“Authoritarian advance: Responding to China’s growing political influence in Europe”

“The Hard Edge of Sharp Power: Understanding China’s Influence Operations Abroad”

 

 

Feature image: From Flickr CC BY 2.0.

TDB Vol. 2 No. 6: ‘Asymmetry’ and the Threat of Disinformation

Fake news have successfully penetrated democratic societies due in part to public complacency, the explosion of social media, and deficiencies in the media environment. New measures to counter disinformation spread by anti-democratic forces are being mooted by governments, but it will be a long time yet before the effects of this new assault on reality can be properly mitigated. Alison Hsiao discusses recent developments in Taiwan.

 

Most Taiwanese are familiar with the joke in which a Taiwanese celebrates the fact that he or she is free to comment on politics and to lambaste the Taiwanese president — and the Chinese replies, “I can lambaste the Taiwanese president, too!”

When the term “sharp power” was introduced, the authors of the report drew our attention to the idea that authoritarian regimes are “exploiting a glaring asymmetry” by “[raising] barriers to external political and cultural influence at home while simultaneously taking advantage of the openness of democratic systems abroad.” Authoritarian regimes may have problems selling their repressive system as an alternative to the liberal-democratic order, but by freely launching propaganda campaigns calling democracy “foreign” and “Western,” inefficient, and unable to deliver, they have won some adherents in democratic societies.

They have also been wily enough to criticize democratic institutions using democratic standards and are quick to dismiss democracy as “no better” than other systems of governance. The most recent case involves Beijing accusing the UK of “violating” a Chinese reporter’s freedom of speech when she was forced to leave a venue after she threw a tantrum during an event on the erosion of freedom and rule of law in Hong Kong after handover in 1997.

 

The cover photo of Biyun Temple’s Facebook page, showing the temple celebrating the 91th anniversary of the establishment of the PLA.

In Taiwan, we can see the five-star red flag waved in the capital and raised at a “shrine to the Chinese Communist Party” which the owner called “the united front patriotic education base.” The CCP mouthpiece Global Times reacted strongly to the demolition of the “base,” which was ruled an illegal construction in violation of the Mountain Slopes Conservation and Utilization Act (international coverage undoubtedly helped the local government summon up the political courage to tear it down and end a controversy that had begun in 2017). The hawkish party publication called on Taiwanese authorities to “provide legal space for the activities organized by the pro-unification groups, whose calls are in accordance with the PRC Constitution and do not violate Taiwan’s laws as long as they are not violent, and therefore should be treated equally as all other political forces without being subjected to political discrimination.”

Contrasting the self-righteous language with the fate of Taiwanese activist Lee Ming-che for holding discussions about history and democracy with people in China, or with the Chinese citizen who was detained for expressing the wish to celebrate the Republic of China’s National Holiday, the asymmetry is evident, and this has been fueled, in part, by our complaisance. All of this now calls for counteractions.

Rumors kill

The inroads made by disinformation — a phenomenon with a long history but whose detrimental effects have been amplified in a world connected by the Internet and social media platforms in particular — also epitomize the “glaring asymmetry” and how it is being exploited.

A Taiwanese diplomat deployed in Japan committed suicide earlier this year, allegedly due to the pressure he was under over how much assistance — unjustifiably little, some believed — Taiwanese nationals trapped at Kansai Airport during Typhoon Jebi received from Taiwan’s representative office (TECO) in Japan. The pressure snowballed after information appeared and gained attention on PTT, the country’s largest online bulletin board system. The post alleged that China had dispatched buses to the isolated Kansai Airport to extract its nationals, and that at least one Taiwanese national admitted to have taken the ride by agreeing to be a Chinese national, all allegedly because the Taiwanese government “had done nothing.”*

The heated debate and finger-pointing soon escalated, with accusations that officials at Taiwan’s representative office had failed to do their job. Few netizens, however, questioned whether the source of the “news” should be examined for its authenticity before they plunged into the debate.

The diplomat is said to have complained about disinformation in his suicide note.* It was later discovered that the buses which the Chinese embassy dispatched to pick up Chinese nationals were only sent after the trapped Chinese had been transported out of Kansai Airport by buses provided by airport authorities. In other words, Chinese nationals did not in any way get privileged treatment because of their embassy’s move in terms of how and when they left the airport. It was later found out that the initial post (Sept. 6) on PTT which claimed that China had made a laudable diplomatic effort in Japan came from an IP address located in Beijing.

When influence operations meet open societies

Ethan Tu, dubbed the father of PTT, came to PTT’s defense after the platform was accused of acting as “a source or abettor of fake news.” In his response, Tu underscored the fact that PTT is an open forum, and added that it was also PTT users who first expressed doubt about the “Chinese power” hype made by posts from Weibo, the Chinese Twitter-like platform. He also pointed out that it was Taiwanese online news outlets that amplified the controversy and that they never bothered to correct or update the reports after their authenticity had been called into question by PTT users.

Taiwanese news outlets compete for “clicks” and have a penchant for sensational content and headlines in order to attract readers, as the Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shinbun has correctly pointed out. This can be exploited by the “Taiwan-targeting team” set up by the CCP Central Propaganda Department and the China Internet Information Center, according to the Japanese paper, which quoted a source saying that the team would be rewarded with bonuses if the disinformation it deliberately initiates receives coverage in Taiwanese media.

Another one of the team’s guiding principles is to spread rumors that concern people’s daily lives. These can be about anything from the plummeting price of bananas to President Tsai Ing-wen riding a fully armed armored personnel carrier and “refusing” to come down during an inspection at flood-devastated areas in southern Taiwan in August.

The media environment, along with the unexpected consequences of social media platforms — originally designed to encourage people interactions but more often than not giving rise to filter bubbles instead — have compounded the spread of malicious disinformation.

Much discussion has been devoted to the idea of amending existing laws to put the kibosh on the deliberate spreading of disinformation in the country, which in turn has given rise to misgivings about the possible abuse of new regulations. Legislation or not, there is a need to raise public awareness on how our open environment and political biases may be — and have been — exploited to the advantage of those who wish to destabilize Taiwanese society.

The establishment of the Taiwan FactCheck Center and the introduction of media literacy in Taiwan’s new K-12 curriculum are a good start, but the immediate effects will still be limited. For one thing, people who turn to the FactCheck Center probably already harbor healthy skepticism, but this does not help those who generally consume news uncritically. Also, media literacy does not only concern future adults but current ones as well, so more immediate solutions are necessary. The government must therefore bolster public trust through transparency in its operations, and by collaborating with civil society to keep the public aware by exposing and delegitimizing disinformation.

Feature image: From Flickr CC BY 2.0.

 

*There have been new developments and debates concerning the diplomat’s suicide after this article was published. Please refer to the reports (1, 2) for the updates.

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