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China Moves To Subvert Taiwan’s Democracy – Analysis

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By Dan Southerland*

China recently has been threatening Taiwan with artillery drills and bombers flying near the self-governing island.

But according to some analysts a more serious threat to Taiwan may turn out to be Beijing’s attempts to subvert democracy there.

This would involve, among other things, encouraging splits among the island’s people that would work to China’s advantage.

J. Michael Cole, chief editor of the Taiwan Sentinel, summed this up well when he wrote that “instead of trying in vain to win the hearts and minds of the Taiwanese as part of its effort to engineer the unification of China, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has…abandoned that strategy.”

Instead, Cole said, the CCP is “now intensifying efforts to corrode and undermine Taiwan’s democratic institutions, create social instability, further isolate Taiwan internationally, and hollow out Taiwan’s economy by attracting its talent.”

Beijing regards democratic and self-governing Taiwan as part of its territory, a breakaway province that must return to the motherland.

According to Cole, the key reason for China’s shift to a subversion strategy is the failure of an eight-year-long attempt by China “to shape Taiwanese self identification and support for unification through various economic incentives and various acts self-described as ‘goodwill.’”

That approach had the counterproductive effect of strengthening a trend in Taiwan for its people to identify themselves as Taiwanese rather than Chinese, an identity that has been highlighted repeatedly in public opinion polls in Taiwan.

And in elections for both the executive and legislative branches of government 2016, Taiwan’s voters came out in favor of a return to power of what Cole calls the “Taiwan-centric” Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

China’s unhappiness with Taiwan’s new president

For eight years, from 2008 to 2016, Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou pursued a policy of rapprochement with Beijing.

So China was clearly unhappy when Taiwan’s new president Tsai Ing-wen took power in May of 2016.

Beijing sees Tsai as a proponent of independence for the Taiwan and its more than 23 million people.

Though Tsai has been careful not to speak openly about independence, she hasn’t supported the conciliatory China policy pursued by her Nationalist Party predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou.

Tsai’s ruling DPP has also declined to endorse a so-called consensus reported to have been agreed to in 1992 by China and Taiwan when the island was ruled by the Kuomintang (KMT), or Nationalist Party.

DPP supporters contend that there’s little documentation to show that any consensus was agreed upon.

At the same time, Tsai has taken a pragmatic approach by calling for a continuation of the status quo with China.

Beijing has cut off contacts with Taiwan that had been established during Ma Ying-jeou’s presidency and has been using a variety of means to pressure its government and, sometimes under cover, to influence its people.

In 2017, China intensified its efforts to get nations that have diplomatic relations with Taiwan to break off their ties with Taiwan.

These efforts had ceased when Ma Ying-jeou was in power under a kind of tacit agreement by China to ease pressure in the diplomatic realm.

How PRC subversion works

Russell Hsiao, executive director of the U.S.-based think tank Global Taiwan Initiative, has outlined how a policy of subverting Taiwan’s democratic system might work.

In testimony last month before the congressionally funded U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC), Hsiao said that China had already adopted subversion tactics in the 1980s, when Taiwan began moving from a dictatorship under martial law to a democratic system.

He described such tactics as part of the Communist Party’s United Front policy of “forming alliances with non-communist masses against a common enemy” that dates back to the 1920s.

According to New Zealand scholar Anne-Marie Brady, “United Front activities incorporate working with groups and prominent individuals in society; information management and propaganda; and it has also frequently been a means of facilitating espionage.”

China’s leader Xi Jinping gave a speech in 2014 on the importance of United Front work, calling it one of the Communist Party’s “magic weapons.”

As Hsiao explains it, given the history of the Chinese civil war between the Communists and Nationalists and the strategic importance of Taiwan for the Communist Party’s leaders, Taiwan remains “the United Front’s number one priority.”

After the People’s Republic of China (PRC) took the Republic of China’s seat in the United Nations in 1971, Beijing’s objective evolved into the incorporation of Taiwan into the PRC under a formula described as “One Country, Two Systems.”

That formula, rejected at the time by the Nationalist government, was applied to Hong Kong and remains until today the blueprint for the Communist Party since it was first proposed by China’s supreme leader Deng Xiaoping in 1979, says Hsiao.

In the meantime, Hsiao says, nonmilitary actions by China that take place in a “grey zone of conflict falling beneath the level of warfare” possess the “most coercive potential against Taiwan.”

China’s nonmilitary tools include economic coercion, political influence, clandestine measures, information operations such as propaganda and disinformation, and the use of noncommunist proxies in Taiwan who act motivated by self interest rather than ideology.

China’s efforts to get Taiwan’s diplomatic allies to break their ties with the island and switch their recognition to Beijing can have a psychological effect.

Since the election of Tsai Ing-wen as president of Taiwan in 2016, China has intensified its anti-Taiwan diplomatic offensive.

On May 24, the West African nation of Burkina Faso cut its ties with Taiwan, ending a 24-year-long relationship with Taipei only a few weeks after the Dominican Republic severed its relations with Taiwan.

Taiwan now has only 18 diplomatic allies around the world compared with 22 when Tsai was elected president.

In a televised statement, Tsai criticized Beijing for its “dollar diplomacy” and said that Taiwan would “no longer be forbearing” and would instead become more determined in seeking international partnerships.

But as Hsiao explains, “the continued bleeding of diplomatic allies could lead to lower public confidence and morale in Taiwan.”

Beijing is also using its influence to exclude Taiwan from international organizations, such as the World Health Organization and the International Civil Aviation Organization.

Recruiting Taiwan’s young people

According to Russell Hsiao, the student-led “Sunflower Movement” on Taiwan in the spring of 2014 caused a rethink in Beijing’s approach to United Front work against Taiwan.

Student protesters occupied Taiwan’s Legislature for 23 days in opposition to a trade agreement which the island’s government had drawn up with China without what many considered to be adequate consultation.

Beijing found that high-level exchanges with Taiwan had done little to change pro-independence views on the island. Therefore, Hsiao says, China shifted its United Front strategy to focus on targeting small and medium-sized enterprises, middle to low income people, regions outside of the capital Taipei, and Taiwan’s youth.

Targeted groups also included aboriginals, distant relatives, fishermen’s associations, religious organizations, pro-China political parties, Chinese spouses, and retired Taiwan Army military officers, some of whom have been willing to provide sensitive military information in return for bribes provided by Beijing operatives.

In a report written for the U.S.-based Jamestown Foundation, China scholar Peter Mattis wrote that in 2009 then President Ma Ying-jeou “opened the flow of people and businesses across the strait without consulting security officials on how to manage the risks.”

This brings up another issue: An estimated 300,000 Chinese wives in Taiwan with passports from China are reported to include many who are associated with pro-unification groups.

Chinese businesses go through local pro-China legislators in Taiwan to purchase local fish products, making some local industries beholden to China and its interests, according to Russell Hsiao.

In an effort to attract Taiwanese high school graduates, China offers them subsidies to study at Chinese universities and to stay on and work there if they like.

This can be particularly appealing at a time when wages remain stagnant in Taiwan and openings for well-paying jobs are limited.

At the same time, China’s economy has been growing much faster than Taiwan’s in recent years, thus opening up more opportunities to start up small businesses in China.

Michael Holtz of The Christian Science Monitor reported last month from China’s southeastern city of Fuzhou on Beijing’s efforts to win over young Taiwanese.

Fuzhou is located on the western side of the Taiwan Strait and only 155 miles from Taipei, Taiwan’s capital.

According to Holtz, in February Beijing introduced 31 new policies aimed at making it easier for Taiwanese to invest, study, and work on the mainland.

The U.S. Connection

As Russell Hsiao notes, Beijing attempts to use United Front activities to weaken Taiwan’s relationship with the United States, its main security partner.

Chinese propaganda presents China as Taiwan’s natural partner for cultural and ethnic reasons, despite the fact that Taiwan and the U.S. share an interest in supporting democracy and human rights.

On March 17, President Donald Trump angered Beijing by signing legislation known as the Taiwan Travel Act, which encourages U.S. officials to visit Taiwan.

The U.S. has unofficial ties with Taiwan and provides the island with defensive weapons.

Trump also upset Beijing by authorizing U.S. companies to sell to Taiwan technology needed to renovate the island’s aging submarine fleet, the oldest such submarine fleet in the world.

Perhaps more importantly, U.S. technology will now support Taiwan’s development of new submarines.

*Dan Southerland is RFA’s founding executive editor.


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Radio Free Asia’s mission is to provide accurate and timely news and information to Asian countries whose governments prohibit access to a free press. Content used with the permission of Radio Free Asia, 2025 M St. NW, Suite 300, Washington DC 20036.

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