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"China's misinformation campaigns have become more subtle," an interview with Dr Yu Jie Chen

March 25, 2024 • By Anna Dziedzic

International IDEA’s Anna Dziedzic spoke to Dr Yu Jie Chen to hear her reflections on the 2024 Taiwanese elections. They discuss the implications of the new status quo – in which neither of the two major parties hold a majority of legislature seats – and the increasingly sophisticated ways that Beijing seeks to influence Taiwan’s elections. Dr Yu Jie Chen is an Assistant Research Professor at Academia Sinica in Taiwan and an Affiliated scholar of the US-Asia Law Institute of New York University School of Law.

Anna Dziedzic: In January 2024, the people of Taiwan voted in a general election to elect a new president and legislative assembly. The elections attracted global attention for the geopolitical implications of the outcome. In this interview, however, we will focus on the democratic integrity of the electoral process and explore how Taiwanese authorities and civil society promoted inclusion and addressed issues like disinformation and cyber influence during the election campaign. 

My name is Anna Dziedzic, and I work with the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance in its regional office for Asia and the Pacific. International IDEA is an intergovernmental organisation which supports democracy worldwide.

For our discussion on Taiwan's election, I'm absolutely delighted to be joined by Dr Yu Jie Chen, who is an assistant research professor at Academia Sinica in Taiwan, and an affiliated scholar of the US Asia Law Institute of New York University Law School. 

Yu Jie is a leading scholar of human rights and international law, with particular expertise in China - Taiwan relations. I first met Yu Jie in Hong Kong in 2019, when together we were witness to the extraordinary protest movement in Hong Kong and the subsequent imposition of the National Security Law – an experience which, I think, has shaped the work of both of us. So, Yu Jie, thank you so much for joining us and sharing your insights in this way.

Yu Jie: Thank you, Anna. Delighted to be here.

AD: I thought perhaps we might begin by asking you to briefly outline what happened in Taiwan's 2024 general election, and to give us a sense of the election process and the results.

YJ: Okay. So, since our first presidential election in 1996, the presidential election this year is our eighth direct presidential election. Since 1996, we've had many peaceful transfers of power. In this race, it's peculiar, in terms of it being a three-way race. There are competitors from the ruling Democratic Progressive Part (the DPP), the opposition KMT – the Nationalist Party. And there's also the young, new, Taiwan’s Peoples Party (TPP) that's only four years old. This three-way race is quite unique. In the past elections, we usually just have two, the DPP and KMT parties competing with each other, except for an election in 2000. But these are very new and interesting dynamics, political dynamics brought about by the third party.

In the end the DPPs Lai Ching-te – the current vice president – secured the presidency with 40% of the votes.

The KMT's Hou Yu-ih won 33%, and the TPPs Ko Wen-je won 26%. And as a new party that's only four years old, the TPPs Ko Wen-je really did a phenomenal job of securing so many votes, especially from young generations.

The significance of this win for the DPPs Lai Ching-te is that this is the first time the ruling party won a third term presidency. And in the past, we would have alternating turns from the TPP and the KMT. So, this time it is unprecedented in terms of a ruling party winning a third term in office. And if you think about it, the ruling party always goes into a race with some disadvantage – after ruling for eight years people are naturally dissatisfied with one issue or another.

So, I think it's quite important that the DPP secured this win. However, the Taiwanese people, were not quite happy with the DPP after eight years. Indeed, they voted quite strategically for the legislature. So, the DPP lost a lot of seats in the legislature. It did not maintain the majority in the legislature. 

Instead, the KMT won more seats than last election, however, no party, had a majority. The KMT has plurality of the votes. So, our legislature has 113 seats. The DPP now has 51 seats, the KMT at 52 so, slightly more, and there are also two independent seats that favour the KMT. So, in terms of the number, the KMT has plurality, and the crucial role is played by the TPP, which now has eight seats. That means if the TPP sides with the DPP, or the KMT, it will decide whether the bill is passed or not.

So, in that sense the TPP is now the crucial minority. So that's sort of the recap of the election result. I think right now, looking at the legislature and the presidential office we see a split because the DPP, running the presidential office, doesn't have the majority in the legislature. So, we will expect that for a lot of issues to move on through the legislature, a lot of the compromises have to be made between the executive and the legislative branch. And we also see that in polarised politics like Taiwan, there may be a lot of deadlocks and standoffs in the next four years.

AD: Brilliant. It's so interesting. What I'm hearing is there's kind of been a dynamic of continuity, with a continuation of the DPP in power, but also some change with the emergence of this new third party. And you mentioned the power of the youth vote in electing this third party. I know that in 2022, Taiwan held a referendum to change the Constitution to lower the voting age from 20 years to 18 years. I'm wondering if you think, this referendum, which failed to pass, but obviously generated a lot of publicity about the youth participation, whether this has had any effect, on youth participation in this, most recent election.

YJ: So, first of all, I went to the campaign of the TPP, and I saw so many young faces, mostly in the thirties, in their forties, and a lot in their twenties as well. And so, I'm very hopeful about youth participation in Taiwan's politics. And being a young party, the TPP can attract so many votes from young voters because I think young voters, who tend to be idealistic, they want to see change in the old traditional, political parlor. They want to see new faces who care about their lives and their future. So, I think that's definitely crucial for the TPPs rise in just four years’ time. So the voting age is indeed quite controversial. As you mentioned, in 2022, the referendum failed to pass. I think it's not because people are absolutely horrified by this idea of low lowering the voting age.

In fact, this issue is supported by many people in Taiwan. I would say, based on the polls, it's a 50/50 split. Roughly half of the population support this idea of lowering the age voting age from 20 to 18 years old. But also, we have a conservative part of the society, which thinks, you can say, it is more protective of the youth. They, even to the point of [being] condescending, sometimes even they would say, "Oh, they're too young to vote".

I disagree. But I think the attitudes are indeed changing over the years. So, I think it takes some years and maybe takes half a generation or a generation to change people's minds. On the other hand, I want to point out that it's very difficult to make the constitutional change. Because of our institutional design. We have a very high threshold to pass in order to make that constitutional change. So, in 2022, although we see a 50/50 split, but because the constitutional amendment requires a “yes” vote from half of all eligible voters in Taiwan, meaning that we needed to have more than 9 million votes from roughly 20 million eligible voters. And to me, I think it almost seems impossible. So even though the attitude may be changing over time, I think to make the institutional change is still quite difficult. But I'm still hopeful because I do think this is one of the less challenging issues with the passage of time. I do see the culture, the public attitudes changing in this regard.

AD: Thanks. That's so interesting. And so, turning to another issue of inclusion. At International IDEA, we focus on the inclusion of young people in political processes, but also the inclusion of women. And I was interested to hear your views about the election of women to parliament and to presidential roles in Taiwan. How has Taiwan performed on this measure of inclusion in the past and in this most recent election?

YJ: I think we can look at this issue not only from the perspective of representation, but also from the perspective of whether this representation is translated into good policies that promote gender equality. So, just let me talk about representation. Of course, Taiwan elected President Tsai Ing-wen in 2016. That was the first time a female leader was elected, not because of her family backgrounds or political backgrounds but based on the voters' choices on her own merits. So that was very exciting. And President Tsai Ing-wen had two terms. And now we, in this election, we elected a vice president, Hsiao Bi-khim. She is a seasoned female diplomat, very capable. So, you know, these two outstanding women are the examples, of, if you will, women's power in Taiwan's politics.

On the other hand, also, I should mention that in the legislature, we have a high ratio of women. So, this year it's really unprecedented. It's reached 40% of the legislature's seats, going to women, and that's very high. If you look at the neighbouring countries, Japan and South Korea, we are definitely leading. Looking at our past, say 12 years ago, the number was, only 30%. So, you know, in a short time of a decade, we've been able to increase so many seats in the legislature for women. 

So that's impressive. On the other hand, I would also have to point out, whether such representation is translated into policies, that promote more equality, that's still question mark. And I feel this is where scholars can come in and study this phenomenon. One of the criticisms of President Tsai Ing-wen was that her cabinet was one of the most male dominated ever, even though she herself is a female.

I think there's still a lot of institutions that need to be changed. A lot of the mindset and, culture, the way we run the government. We're still very much affected by the legacy from the authoritarian regime. We haven't talked about Taiwan's past a lot. We focus a lot on Taiwan's new democracy. And so, I often have to keep in mind that this democracy is really still young, although it's maturing. We only lifted the martial law in 1987. So, having said that, I think it's a very vibrant and maturing democracy. But still, the culture, the patriarchy that's rooted in the past authoritarian rule, I think still has an impact. We are changing very fast, but sometimes it's one step forward, two steps backward.

AD: That's a really important insight. You know, I forget that Taiwan's democracy is young and really that’s remarkable. The achievement of it is something to be celebrated and, and analysed, in the region. It sounds like from what you're saying, things are looking bright on the front of inclusion for women and young people by numbers. But of course, numbers are just one part of the story. And the institutional and policy changes are still a work in progress. Turning from inclusion to another big issue that I think received a bit more attention in the global news about Taiwan's election, was the issue of disinformation and cyber influence, which I understand to be principally driven by Beijing, seeking to influence the outcome of Taiwan's elections. I wonder if you could just tell us a little bit more about the forms that this disinformation campaign took, and then maybe we can talk more about what happened in response.

YJ: I think it's interesting to see the evolution of China's misinformation campaign. It's become more sophisticated and subtle. It used to be that China would try to promote their propaganda and try to persuade Taiwanese voters turning away from their disfavored candidates, especially turning away from voting for the DPP, which has a long record of promoting Taiwan's independence, Taiwan's autonomy, Taiwan's identity, distinctive of China. So that used to be the strategies that China would resort to, either coercion, missile tests, for example, were very prominent in Taiwan's first presidential election, as well as propaganda, that promotes unification, that tried to change people's mind. But of course, that didn't work. And China has also learned that maybe that's not the best way to intervene in Taiwan's election, because every time they try to intervene, say for example, by launching missiles, the result always turns out to be something they didn't like.

So Taiwanese voters, time and again, would choose candidates that Beijing disliked very much. So, I think over the years, Beijing has learned to revise its message into more subtle forms. So now it's no longer outright propaganda promoting the ideology of unification or patriotism, but it's more subtle messages that attacks two things. One is America's credibility in helping Taiwan or in defending Taiwan, if in a Taiwan contingency.

So that's what we call in Taiwan, "American skepticism discourse" or "American skepticism". And that's prominent throughout the recent years. The second thing that Beijing's discourse attacks is the confidence in Taiwan to defend itself. So, it tries to erode, undermines the confidence among Taiwan public about Taiwan's own ability to defend the island in a military situation, as well as to defend Taiwan's democratic institution.

So, I think these two things really stand out in recent misinformation campaigns and because they're subtle, they're not easy to detect, and because they're also not so outrageous, I mean, maybe they are, regardless of whether there's factual basis, the point is not whether they're factual or not. The point is really to, as I say, undermine the confidence about Taiwan's institution, about Taiwan's relationship with the outside world so that Taiwanese people would be cornered into feeling that China is their only choice to go to. That's the point. And so, I think because it's not so outrageous, sometimes people go along with it not knowing that it's a propaganda from Beijing, or not knowing it's misinformation or disinformation. 

So, we see a lot of pickups in social media and even traditional mainstream media in Taiwan reporting and help spreading this message. So, I would say the form is evolving in and also the collaboration. So, in the past, Beijing may be working alone and that's not very effective, but now we see local collaborators wittingly or unwittingly sort of supporting the message that is spread.

AD: It's really complicated. And I think what you are saying resonates with experiences elsewhere – this kind of use of social media and influencers and fake accounts and things like that. So, there's no way to often trace and control those things without it really impinging on freedom of speech of others. We’ve seen that elsewhere in the region, I'm thinking in particular of Thailand, which I know a bit better than Taiwan. So in light of this kind of changing strategy, if you like, from Beijing and this changing nature of misinformation, what, if anything, have Taiwan authorities been able to do in response? And what has been the response of say, civil society organisations and voters themselves, in the face of these kind of campaigns?

YJ: I think Taiwanese have to do better on this front. I think that although we have the government and civil society together which together had come up with fact checking institutions, I would say that these fact checking websites or institutions are quite robust in Taiwan. On the other hand, the awareness among the public is still very low. I think Taiwanese are getting to know the severity of China's misinformation campaign. But in this election the public sentiment sort of is that China doesn't intervene much this time. But in fact, China sent a lot of misinformation campaigns. It's just not so easy to detect. So, I do think based on our response from this election, there's a lot of room to improve in terms of raising the awareness of the public to resist the more subtle forms of the misinformation campaign.

But I'm really glad to see that more fact checking that not only the government sponsors, but that civil society takes its own initiative, to do fact checking during the campaign season. Because it's really important to detect misinformation and try to nip it in the bud before it does more damage to the voter's confidence. So yeah, overall, I would say we still need to be more resilient. After all, we are always ranked number one in terms of misinformation attacks in the regional scale or on the world scale.

AD: Exactly. And I know a lot of people will be looking at this issue in other countries as we go into this year of super elections in 2024, where misinformation seems to be taking on an ever changing, but very much present, dynamic in elections all over the world. So, I know that there's been a lot of interest in Taiwan's election for this reason. So that brings us to a close of this discussion. I'd just like to say thank you so much, Yu Jie, for sharing your insights and your analysis with us that really enriched our understanding, not only of Taiwan's elections and electoral process, but the embeddedness of democracy and how democracy functions in Taiwan and in the region. So, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us.

YJ: Thank you, Anna. It's my honour to be here and lovely to see you in this capacity.
Thank you so much.

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About the authors

Anna Dziedzic
Programme Officer, Asia and the Pacific
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