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How Taiwan's media is resisting Chinese threats

June 20, 2024

The self-governed island not only faces the challenge of defending itself against China's increasing military threat but also from the propaganda war unleashed by Beijing to advance its interests in the region.

A large screen in Beijing shows China's military drills around Taiwan in May
Chinese media strategies for Taiwan reflect the restrictive nature of its own media landscapeImage: Kyodo/picture alliance

As Taiwan headed to the presidential polls in January, there was widespread apprehension among the island's population that Beijing would try to influence the vote. Their concern was not unfounded, given similar occurences during previous elections.

China, which considers the self-governed island as its territory, employed several methods to ramp up support for pro-Beijing groups in Taiwan, dissuade Taiwanese people from casting their ballots in favor of pro-independence parties, and create an environment of fear among the public.

"One of the methods was economic coercion," said Yuchen Li, DW's correspondent in Taipei, prior to the vote. "Since China is Taiwan's biggest trading partner, Beijing framed the vote as a choice between economic prosperity or [financial] depression."

Despite these efforts, the ruling party candidate Lai Ching-te, a vocal supporter of Taiwan's sovereignty, won the presidency, angering China, who warned him against possible "separatist activities."

This is just one of the few examples of how multilayered the China-Taiwan conflict is.

Although Beijing's military build-up in Taiwan Strait and Pacific Ocean tends to attract global attention, its media war has largely been an under-the-radar affair.

Panelists discuss Taiwan's resistance to China's threats at DW's Global Media Forum 2024 in Bonn
Panelists discuss Taiwan's resistance to China's threats at DW's Global Media Forum 2024Image: Florian Görner/DW

Geopolitics and media

"Since 2018, the number of foreign media outlets in Taiwan has doubled," Tzung-Han Tsou, DW's Taipei bureau head, told a panel, "Under attack – How Taiwan's media resists China's threats," at DW's Global Media Forum (GMF) in Bonn on Tuesday.

Not only has Taiwan’s geographical location contributed to its growing significance, but there is also heightened global interest in China's efforts to exert pressure on this small territory.

"Taiwan ranked 27th on the Reporters Without Borders' World Press Freedom Index 2024 while China 172nd. This shows the two neighbors have a very different idea about the press freedom," Tzung-Han said.

"At the same time, according to the Swedish Center for Democracy and Diversity, Taiwan ranks Number 1 in the world in terms of severe attacks by overseas fake news, mostly by China," he underlined.

The panel participants — which included Billion Lee, director of Cofacts crowdsourcing organization; Hsueh-Li Lee, deputy CEO of The Reporter Cultural Foundation; and Mathias Bölinger, head of research and investigation at DW — emphasized the significance of considering China’s geopolitical aggression in the context of its media strategies aimed at undermining Taiwan's democracy.

China's authoritarian image

Bölinger, who worked in China as a reporter for many years, believes the Chinese media strategies for countries like Taiwan reflect the restrictive nature of China's own media landscape.

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"Between 2016 and 2021, I noticed that what a journalist can report, and how nervously the authorities reacted to reporting, aggravated a lot," he said.

The period highlighted by Bölinger was a critical time for Beijing. During this period, China demonstrated its assertiveness in Hong Kong, which had been under British rule until 1997, when it was handed back to China under the principal of "one country, two systems." 

Massive protests erupted in Hong Kong in 2019, triggered by plans to allow extradition to mainland China, which critics feared could undermine the region's autonomy and endanger civil society activists.

In 2020, China's efforts to conceal the initial COVID pandemic cases and its crackdown on journalists who reported it drew global scrutiny.

In summary, China's regional hegemonic ambitions coincided with heightened efforts to suppress freedom of speech both domestically and in territories it asserts claims over.

A multipronged media war

Everything in China is controlled by the Communist Party (CPC), which itself is waging a media war against places like Taiwan, The Reporter Cultural Foundation's Hsueh-Li said.

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Over the past years, one of the well-established methods employed by the CPC involves leveraging social media platforms such as TikTok. Additionally, the CPC uses pro-Beijing groups and Chinese nationals in Taiwan to "dump fake news" on the island.

Beijing employs different tactics to silence critical press and influence the citizens in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

"The past few years have been very challenging [for journalists]," she added.

"After a crackdown was unleashed in Hong Kong, many journalists disappeared or were sent to prison," according to Hsueh-Li. "In Taiwan, China is not only spreading fake news but is also trying to prevent journalists from reporting."

How to counter Chinese propaganda

DW’s Tzung-Han cautioned the GMF participants about China’s use of artificial intelligence (AI)-generated propaganda.

"I was watching this video about a former Taiwanese president on Facebook, a deep-fake video with her image… talking about bitcoin. It was absurd, of course," he said.

But by doing this, China keeps feeding Taiwanese people this kind of information, Tzung-Han said.

"Then you start seeing more and more AI-generated material on social media, which could be about entertainment, soft news, but gradually they let you get used to this AI-generated image, voice… You start feeling it is natural, and then they feed you something more political," added Tzung-Han.

According to Cofacts' Billion Lee, China’s media war is multifaceted and hybrid. On one hand, China attempts to discredit Taiwanese politicians by scandalizing them, while also portraying the West in a negative light.

It is therefore important to fact check and reach out to people to counter this Chinese propaganda, Billion underlined.

Experts believe that the Chinese media war is likely to escalate alongside Beijing’s military aggression in the coming years. Therefore, addressing both challenges simultaneously is crucial.

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Edited by: Keith Walker

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