TDB Vol. 1 No. 18: China’s Expanding Influence in Democracies Around the World

TDB Vol. 1 No. 18: China’s Expanding Influence in Democracies Around the World

China is using its power to undermine democratic institutions and free expression in democracies worldwide. From the harassment of journalists to the removal of thousands of articles in prestigious academic journals, the CCP is rapidly eroding freedoms that we have long taken for granted. Olivia Yang reports.

 

During his three-and-a-half-hour address to the 19th Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Congress on Oct. 18, Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged to make his party more responsive to calls for democracy and justice. But tight security around the congress — human rights lawyers, rights defenders, petitioners and dissidents were arrested nationwide — suggested otherwise. And increasingly, China watchers are warning of Beijing’s accelerating efforts to reinforce and export its anti-democracy beliefs abroad.

One day before the closely watched Party Congress, a press conference was held in Taipei to draw attention to China’s spreading influence in democracies around the world.

Titled “Made in China: Democracy Oscillated and Human Rights Wrecked,” the media event was convened by 17 Taiwanese non-government organizations, including the Taiwan Association for Human Rights, Covenants Watch, Taiwan Support China Human Rights Lawyers Network, Human Rights Network for Tibet and Taiwan, International Tibet Network, and Tibetan Youth Congress.

Beijing has been increasing pressure on international events and organizers to either not extend an invitation to Taiwan or force the island-nation to attend under the name “Chinese Taipei.” Taiwan delegations, research teams, journalists and NGOs have also been barred from entering international meetings and assemblies despite having gained access in the past. These events have included the World Health Assembly (WHA), the Interpol general assembly, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the International Labor Organization conference, and others.

Other than interfering with Taiwan’s international affairs, China has been tampering with local events through more direct means. This includes the kidnapping of Taiwanese activist Lee Ming-che in March, influence in Taiwanese media, threats against journalists, and longstanding reliance on pro-unification groups to intimidate civilians, such as the violent assault on student protesters who rallied against the “Sing! China: Shanghai-Taipei Music Festival” which was scheduled to be held at National Taiwan University last month.

Growing international threat

China’s interference is not limited to Taiwan. In August, Chinese authorities demanded Cambridge University Press (CUP) remove 315 articles in China Quarterly, CUP’s China-focused journal, when accessed in China. Around 1,000 e-books were also asked to be taken off from CUP’s Chinese websites. The writings covered issues ranging from the Tiananmen Square protests and the Cultural Revolution to Taiwan and Tibet.

The U.S.-based Association for Asian Studies (AAS) also confirmed the same month that China had requested the censorship of around 100 articles in its Journal of Asian Studies — also published by CUP. It was also learned in early November that Germany-based Springer Nature, the world’s largest academic book publisher, had removed at least 1,000 articles in the Journal of Chinese Political Science and International Politics. The articles in question also contained the keywords “Taiwan,” “Tibet,” and “Cultural Revolution.”

U.K-based CUP reversed its decision to comply with Beijing’s request after receiving widespread criticism, while AAS refused to adhere to Chinese authorities.

Visa denial is an alternative approach China is taking to curb discussion of democracy and human rights.

Canadian Conservative House Leader Candice Bergen in August was denied a visa upon planning to raise questions on human rights on a Canada-China Legislative Association trip. Prominent British human rights activist Benedict Rogers this month was also barred from entering Hong Kong, despite Rogers saying he was making a private trip.

In a more extreme case, leader of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, Berit Reiss-Andersen, was not even allowed to apply for a China visa when she sought to attend the funeral of Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Liu Xiaobo in July.

China has long used visa denials to also rid itself of foreign journalists and academics who are too critical of its repressive policies. In recent years, several foreign journalists have also been denied access to certain sites or regions, and a number of them worldwide have been threatened with legal action for writing about sensitive issues in China. In August this year, Nathan Vanderklippe, the Beijing bureau chief for Canada’s Globe & Mail, was briefly detained by police and his computer was seized while reporting in Xinjiang. For updates on how China meddles and censors media worldwide, see Freedom House’s “China Media Bulletin.”

In recent years, several foreign journalists have also been denied access to certain sites or regions, and a number of them worldwide have been threatened with legal action for writing about sensitive issues in China.

While Beijing authorities had a direct hand in the above occurrences, the Chinese Communist Party is also infiltrating democratic countries through “soft power.”

In May, the Chinese Students and Scholars Association, which has chapters in universities across the U.S., condemned one university for inviting the Dalai Lama to deliver a speech. A few days later, it accused a Chinese student of “not loving China” because she praised U.S. freedom and liberty in her graduation speech.

The following month, Chinese students at Australian universities were reported to be monitoring fellow nationals and keeping the Chinese embassy informed of activities such as human rights protests. Political parties in Australia have also been accused of taking donations from Chinese property developers in recent years, while Chinese state-controlled media giants have sought to influence mainstream Australian media by pushing cooperation deals.

Interference by Chinese officials has also been reported in Canada, such as during a state visit by then-president Hu Jintao, when, according for a former Canadian intelligence officer, a Chinese diplomatic mission mobilized Chinese counter-protesters. Keen on securing a free-trade deal with China, the Liberal Trudeau government has been reluctant to openly criticize Beijing for its human rights violations or activities that undermine Canada’s democracy.

Dr. Anne-Marie Brady of the University of Canterbury, also a prominent expert on Chinese affairs, in September published a research paper examining how China’s soft power is becoming a growing concern for New Zealand and how its effects could be mitigated.

In the executive summary of her study, Brady writes, “The focus of media attention has been on Australia, but the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) attempts to guide, buy, or coerce political influence abroad are widespread. China’s foreign influence activities are part of a global strategy with almost identical, longstanding approaches, adapted to fit current government policies. They are a core task of China’s united front work; one of the CCP’s famed ‘magic weapons’ that helped bring it to power.”

China’s influence, and by default its nefarious influence on democratic institutions, is also growing through its “One Belt, One Road” initiative and in places like Africa, where it has been cooperating with local media organizations.

Safeguarding democracies

The Australian government is preparing to introduce next month a series of laws covering espionage and foreign political interference. The U.K.’s Foreign Office also summoned China’s ambassador to the U.K. after Rogers was denied entry in Hong Kong. The activist said on Oct. 17 that he will start an NGO to monitor the city’s democracy and human rights.

However, in Canadian MP Bergen’s case, she said Liberal MPs that were also traveling to China for the Canada-China Legislative Association trip did not reply when she asked what measures they would take in response to her visa denial. The group proceeded with the trip without her. Senator Joseph Day, co-chair of the Canada-China Legislative Association, said the group was told by Canadian and Chinese officials it had no choice if it still wanted to go.

When Montreal-based ICAO last year refused to invite Taiwan and blocked Taiwanese reporters from a triennial air safety assembly, Paraguay’s ambassador to Canada, Julio Cesar Arriola Ramirez, told reporters that the ICAO Secretary General, Fang Liu of China, had warned them their microphones would be muted if they tried to speak on behalf of Taiwan.

“The government must make the utmost effort to safeguard Taiwan’s values of democracy and freedom, as well as our way of life.”

In addition to his vow to respond to calls for democracy, Xi also mentioned cross-Strait relations during his report at the 19th CCP Congress, saying China has “a firm will, sufficient faith, and adequate capacity to defeat any intention of ‘Taiwan independence’ in any form.”

“[We will] never allow any person, organization or political party, at any time or in any form, to separate any part of Chinese territory from China,” he said.

In response to Xi’s remarks, Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council said in a statement that the unilateral construction of a “one China” on Taiwan was unlikely to gain support from the Taiwanese. Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen in her National Day address on Oct. 10 also dedicated a passage reminding that the island-nation’s democracy and freedom “only came following the joint efforts of all Taiwanese people.”

“As a result, the government must make the utmost effort to safeguard Taiwan’s values of democracy and freedom, as well as our way of life,” Tsai said.

The president also reiterated that she and Taiwan would not “bow to pressure” from China regarding cross-Strait relations.

TDB Vol. 1 No. 10: Taiwan Confirms China’s ‘Black Hand’ Behind Anti-Reform Protests

TDB Vol. 1 No. 10: Taiwan Confirms China’s ‘Black Hand’ Behind Anti-Reform Protests

Using ‘content farms’ and other means, Chinese elements are suspected of generating much of the disinformation that has been circulating concerning the Tsai administrations’ pension reform plans. They have also helped mobilize protesters. J. Michael Cole looks into this worrying interference in Taiwan’s democracy. 

 

Taiwan’s national security apparatus on Monday confirmed that a recent wave of increasingly virulent protests against President Tsai Ing-wen’s pension reform efforts have been influenced by China.

According to government information, Chinese elements (presumably agencies involved in political warfare) have played a role in mobilizing protesters and spreading disinformation about pension reform via electronic media. Various web sites, as well as the LINE instant communication tool, have been used to disseminate “fake news” about the government’s plans. The national security apparatus has confirmed that the information originated in China.

Besides domestic online platforms, China has also been using microblogging sites in China, as well as WeChat and popular “content farms” (also known as “content mills”) such as COCO01.net to spread disinformation and interfere with government policy back in Taiwan.

Content farms are platforms that pay large numbers of freelance writers to generate large amounts of content that is specifically designed to satisfy algorithms for maximal retrieval by automated search engines. While such platforms were initially designed to generate advertising revenue, groups and regimes have quickly realized the potential of content farms to manipulate public perceptions. Using techniques that have been tried and tested by authoritarian regimes in Russia and China, “repeater stations” — online and traditional media that willingly take part in “fake news” efforts or that fail to properly corroborate information — are then relied upon to broadcast the disinformation to a wider audience.

On several occasions, anti-independence slogans were chanted at the protests against pension reform, which also suggests that the movement has been co-opted by the Chinese side.

▶︎ See also “TDB Vol. 1 No. 9: Pension Reform: A Bitter but Necessary Pill”

Over the past six months, members of Chang An-le’s (“White Wolf”) China Unification Promotion Party (CUPP) have also been identified at various protest sites. Chang, who in an interview with foreign media in 2014 confirmed that he works closely with the State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO), led members of his organization at an anti-pension reform protest outside the Legislative Yuan in April. Since 2013, the CUPP has also been involved in activities targeting independence activists and members of civil society in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Chang is also a former head of the Bamboo Union, a major crime syndicate in Taiwan with roots in China.

Physical violence is also a m.o. of those organizations, and the protests against pension reform have often led to violent clashes, resulting in injuries. Other organizations with a history of violence, such as the Blue Sky Alliance, have also participated in the protests.

Worryingly, protest organizers appear to have insiders in Tsai’s security apparatus — retired members of the police and national security apparatus ostensibly still have good contacts within the active force — and on several occasions have been able to obtain details about her daily schedule and itinerary. The groups have threatened to shadow President Tsai and Vice President C. J. Chen and thus could compromise the leadership’s personal security. Last week organizers also threatened to disrupt the upcoming Universiade in Taipei.

Taiwanese authorities have been closely monitoring the developments and have implemented measures to counter the disinformation.

 

Top photo: Members of the China Unification Promotion Party protest outside DPP headquarters in 2015 (J. Michael Cole).

TDB Vol. 1 No. 9: Pension Reform: A Bitter but Necessary Pill

TDB Vol. 1 No. 9: Pension Reform: A Bitter but Necessary Pill

When President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) delivered her inauguration speech after being sworn in as Taiwan’s first female president on May 20 last year, she pledged to build a better nation for younger generations. The first and foremost task in fulfilling that goal, she said, is to reform the nation’s cash-trapped pension system that would otherwise go bankrupt within a decade. Stacy Hsu looks into the history of and the many challenges associated with this endeavor.

 

Before the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)-dominated legislature passed the pension reform bills targeting retired civil servants and public-school teachers amid fierce protests in late June, the country’s pension system was a “political time-bomb” that many leaders before Tsai had tried — and failed — to defuse.

At the center of the problem are two notorious absurdities in the pension schemes of retired military personnel, civil servants and public-school teachers: the so-called 18% preferential interest rate and abnormally high income replacement ratios.

The preferential interest rate can be dated back to as early as 1960, when Taiwan was under authoritarian one-party rule. In light of inflation and the relatively low salary received by public servants back in the day, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) regime issued a series of administrative orders to offer a preferential saving rate on civil servants’ pension payments in a bid to ensure their financial security after retirement.

According to the Examination Yuan, the administrative body in charge of managing public servants, the saving rate has undergone several adjustments since its introduction, from the initial 21.6% to 14.25% in 1970, 16.7% in 1979 (with the rate floor at 14.25%), and then to 18% (also the rate floor) in 1983.

The preferential interest rate was scrapped following the implementation of a new pension system in 1995, which increased civil servants’ pension benefits by allocating part of their monthly income to the pension fund, rather than relying on the government as the sole contributor.

However, it did not quash the controversy surrounding it, as public servants who were hired before 1995 were still entitled to the saving rate after retirement. (The amount of a retiree’s pension payment that is eligible for the interest rate depends on a public servant’s pre-retirement income and number of years of service prior to 1995.)

The meeting minutes of the Presidential Office’s Pension Reform Committee show that as of June last year, approximately NT$462 billion (US$15 billion) in pension payments from about 457,000 public-sector retirees were stored in bank accounts eligible for the 18% interest rating, putting a NT$82 billion dent in government coffers each year.

The committee’s deputy convener, Lin Wan-i (林萬億), estimated that the interest rate would not really become history until 2054.

Though the saving rate had its historical necessity, today it is mostly seen as a remnant of Taiwan’s authoritarian era, one of the roots of social injustice, and a form of political payout by the previous KMT authoritarian regime to cement support among the nation’s civil servants, which has in turn created an uneven playing field for political parties.

Due to the preferential interest rate and/or public-sector employees’ ostensibly “unfair” pension calculation formula, some of their actual income replacement ratios (the percentage of one’s pre-retirement income) could be over 100%. This means they could earn even more in retirement than they did when they were on the workforce.

In 2006, despite leading a minority government, president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) of the DPP sought to reform the preferential interest rate. However, instead of gradually phasing out the rate, he only managed to cut down on the amount of pension payment from which a retiree could earn the interest rate by putting a cap on their income replacement ratio.

Chen’s successor, Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) of the KMT, also made pension reform one of his policy priorities, describing the problem as so dire “people will regret it tomorrow if we do not reform it today.”

The Ma administration established a pension reform task force to solicit public opinions in 2009 before rolling out a draft plan in 2013. Despite the efforts, the plan was stalled at the KMT-dominated legislature at the time — allegedly due to electoral concerns and overwhelming criticism of what president Ma called a “painful decision” to cut year-end bonuses for public-sector retirees in 2012.

Failed efforts by her predecessors and fears of further alienating the DPP among public servants should have deterred President Tsai from making another attempt. Instead, she put pension reform at the forefront of her policies and joined hands with DPP lawmakers in ramming pension reform bills that many deem drastic through the legislature.

Under the bills passed so far, the 18% preferential interest rate will be reduced to zero two years after the bills’ promulgation scheduled for July 2018.

In addition, civil servants and public-school teachers (the draft bill for military personnel is yet to be drawn up) will see their income replacement ratio reduced to 60% within 10 years and ultimately be required to calculate their pension payment based on their average monthly salary in the final 15 years of employment, rather than their last month of service as currently stipulated.

Tsai’s reform success has reflected in her approval ratings. According to a survey by the TVBS poll center on July 12, the president’s support rate has climbed to 29%, from 21% in June.

Such efforts, however, are not without their costs. President Tsai has been shadowed by anti-reform protesters, some of whom have threatened to use violence or to disrupt events such as state visits by foreign presidents or the upcoming 2017 Universiade in Taipei. The KMT and its spin-off, the People First Party, are mulling filing a request for a constitutional interpretation on pension reform legislation.

Just as in other countries, pension reform is almost always a magnet of unpopularity and fierce protests. A good leader will know when to overlook temporary noises and focus on the long-term good.

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