Taiwan’s decades-long experience with resisting Chinese interference in its politics makes it a valuable resource for other democracies that become the subject of the Chinese Communist Party’s influence efforts, according to a new report out from LSE IDEAS, the London School of Economics’s foreign policy think tank.
The case set out within the report is that currently policy-makers elsewhere see Chinese influence efforts as a security issue rather than a broad phenomenon that requires coordination between civil society and “the organs of national security.” This calculation allows for the possibility that disinformation and propaganda can be effective among targeted social groups, which can “stoke distrust in democratic elites, institutions, and processes.”
Taiwan’s experience with countering Chinese Communist Party ideas since the Chinese Civil War is offered as an instructive counterpoint to this possibility. The Chinese Communist Party successfully won over large swathes of the population in China between 1927 and 1949, including military personnel who had been trained by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), and those at the top of the KMT believed the key factor in this was a “lack of political unity and ideological conviction” within that party. As a result, KMT leader Chiang Kai-shek (蔣中正) established the “political warfare system” (政戰制度) in Taiwan in the 1950s, which still exists today.
The report outlines that in the years following the KMT’s retreat to Taiwan, the main focus of this system was to embed KMT values within the military and foster a “quasi-nationalistic political loyalty” toward the party. But over time this developed into a more comprehensive approach to political warfare, solidifying the party’s own ideology and attacking its enemy’s through a wide variety of institutional structures. Ultimately this sought to impart two core values to both soldiers and civilians: “For whom do we fight?” (為誰而戰), and “for what do we fight?” (為何而戰).
Practically, today, this has become nine branches of political warfare, administered by the General Political Warfare Bureau (國防部政治作戰局) and its eight divisions.
1. Political warfare (政戰) — Persuading citizens of the superiority of Taiwan’s political system.
2. Propaganda (文宣) — “Promoting the strength of Taiwan’s military and the superiority of its political system, as well as pointing out flaws in enemy activity or ideology to both military and public.”
3. Monitoring (監察) — “Identifying problematic thinking or behaviors among troops within the military.”
4. Defense (保防) — “Countering espionage, reducing the likelihood of espionage through education of the military and public, assessing risks in the recruitment of military personnel.”
5. Psychological warfare (心戰) — External propaganda activity designed to promote the superiority of Taiwan’s system and the flaws in China’s.
6. Counseling (心輔) — “Providing support and assistance to military personnel facing mental, financial or personal challenges.”
7. Support for compatriots (眷服) — “Keeping contact with and providing support to retired military personnel.”
8. Media (新聞) — “Keeping the public informed of both positive and negative developments in military affairs,” including identifying instances of fake news via social media channels.
9. Civilian Affairs (民事) — Maintaining civilian morale and reassuring them during wartime, plus educating them about the differences between China and Taiwan. For instance, by carrying out defense education with students in junior high school as well as with residents at the county level.
Within these branches, the report notes that some share clear lineage with Taiwan’s authoritarian past. One notable example is that soldiers are required to attend weekly ideological education sessions on topics such as Chinese Communist Party espionage and must write down their responses in diaries which are then submitted to a political warfare officer for review. Those with problematic behaviors can be removed from the military.
However, some of the work has been subject to reform since democratization in the 1990s, and some of it sounds much more modern. The report notes that the bureau interacts regularly with the National Security Bureau (國家安全局), the Investigation Bureau (調查局), the Ministry of the Interior National Policy Agency (內政部警政署), the Coast Guard Administration Ocean Affairs Council (海洋委員會海巡署) and the Military Police Command (憲兵司令部). But it has also worked with the Fact Checking Center (實查核中心), a government department tasked with identifying and countering disinformation around military activities across the Taiwan Strait on Taiwanese social media outlets.
Combining all of these threads, the report makes six recommendations for exporting Taiwan’s “whole-of-society” response to Chinese Communist Party influence attempts. These include: “Defining foreign interference in legislation and incorporating this definition into the frameworks of relevant state institutions”; “Introducing education in foreign interference activity into the national curriculum”; “Creating accessible educational programmes and or tools that improve public media literacy, public understanding of how foreign interference operates in the digital sphere as well as public knowledge of civic duties and democratic procedures”; “Training all military personnel as well as staff within relevant state institutions in the nature of foreign interference as well as the implementation of a broader counter-interference strategy”; “Establishing a chain of command between a centralized Fact-Checking Centre and the organs of state and national defense to identify and publicize any instances of foreign interference through social media”; “Establishing a platform for greater coordination and cooperation between civil society groups and state institutions in reporting instances of espionage or foreign interference.”
The question now is presumably: How popular would these invasive political gestures be elsewhere in other democracies, without the same history and geographical proximity to China? Even in Taiwan no consensus exists.