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Chinese Interference in Taiwan’s 2024 Elections

Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall in Taipei, photo by Olimpia Kot-Giletycz

What is going on?

As Taiwan braces for presidential and legislative elections, its foreign minister Joseph Wu (吳釗燮) announced that the government is documenting China’s attempts to interfere in the upcoming elections and will make them public after the vote. Experts identify economic coercion, diplomatic isolation, and cognitive warfare as primary forms of meddling in the electoral process. There are, however, more tactics China is using in its attempts to influence votes. With a wide array of methods of interfering in Taiwan’s electionsthe island nation has also become a testing ground for China’s foreign information manipulation and interference (FIMI) campaigns. 

What is the broader picture?

Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs emphasized that China has repeatedly used various excuses to escalate military coercion and intimidation against Taiwan. Instances of the Taiwanese army being infiltrated through espionage are not uncommon. Moreover, the defense ministry views Chinese balloons, which have been observed over the Taiwan Strait and recently floating over the main island of Taiwan, as an attempt to use cognitive warfare to affect the morale of Taiwanese people.

However, these are not the only measures of Chinese operations aimed at influencing the outcome of the Taiwanese elections. At the end of 2023, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Taiwan stated in its press release that China’s recent termination of the tariff reductions on certain goods, warranted by the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA), highlighted attempts to use blatant economic coercion to interfere in Taiwan’s free elections. Taiwanese authorities are also investigating dozens of local leaders suspected of violating the Anti-Infiltration Law, who traveled to China in recent months allegedly as targets of an influence operation designed to increase votes for China-friendly candidates. However, the number of people, including grassroots politicians—borough and village chiefs—who recently participated in tourist or religious trips, many of which are centered around the cult of goddess Mazu (媽祖), is much higher. 

Taiwan’s information space is also vulnerable to China’s malign influence. Beijing’s tactics include manipulation in traditional and social media—in the case of the latter, especially TikTok—disinformation campaigns exploiting existing tensions, questioning candidates’ competence, and undermining local politicians’ legitimacy and efficacy. All these efforts are aimed at deepening political polarization and weakening Taiwanese society. Moreover, as per Google’s warning issued in early December, Chinese and China-friendly actors have been ramping up cyberattacks on Taiwan’s defense sector as well as private enterprises and the government. 

On October 22, two months after Foxconn’s founder and former CEO Terry Gou (郭台銘) announced his independent run for the Taiwanese presidency, the company underwent an inspection by Chinese tax officials. The timing of the tax probe suggested that China wanted to influence Gou to abandon his candidacy to increase the chances of the opposition winning the presidential race. Gou dropped out of the race without providing a reason

Why does it matter?

In the past, China has been interfering with Taiwan’s elections either through military intimidation, economic coercion, or disinformation. However, this time we can see a clear shift to more diverse tools and a more coercive approach. Although China accuses Taiwan’s current government of exaggerating the Chinese military threat for its gain, China undoubtedly depicts the upcoming elections as a choice between peace and war, and prosperity and decline. This directly affects the preferences of Taiwanese voters concerned with such issues as economic situation, wages, housing prices, inflation, or energy security. Without a doubt, Taiwan’s elections are the testing ground for China’s ability to influence democratic processes; in the future, its lessons from Taiwan might be applied to influence the decision-making processes of other countries.