Taipei, Taiwan. CREDIT: <a href="">peellden (CC)</a>
Taipei, Taiwan. CREDIT: peellden (CC)

China-Taiwan "Political Warfare" with Russell Hsiao

Aug 6, 2018

China and Taiwan have been trying to influence each other ever since 1949, often through very subversive means, says the Global Taiwan Institute's Russell Hsiao, so Taiwan can provide useful lessons on dealing with CCP operations. Of course all governments try to influence foreign publics. What's concerning are "corrupt, coercive, and covert" activities, such as recent cases where China has directly interfered in Taiwan's political process.

Podcast music: Blindhead and Mick Lexington.

DEVIN STEWART: Hi, I'm Devin Stewart here at Carnegie Council in New York City, and today I'm speaking with Russell Hsiao. He is executive director at the Global Taiwan Institute (GTI) in Washington, DC.

Russell, great to speak with you today.

RUSSELL HSIAO: Thank you very much for having me on your show.

DEVIN STEWART: Today's theme is Chinese political influence operations in Taiwan and also around the world as part of our ongoing Information Warfare series that we've been conducting here at Carnegie Council. I know that this is an issue that you've been following very closely.

Russell, how would you describe the political influence operations that China is conducting in Taiwan? Give us the big picture.

RUSSELL HSIAO: Before I begin, let me just tell you a little bit about my organization. GTI is a 501(c)(3) think tank focused on Taiwan policy, research, and analysis. Our mission is to enhance the U.S.-Taiwan relationship by contributing to a more informed public discussion about Taiwan here in the United States and around the world.

We do that by various means. We publish a biweekly publication called Global Taiwan Brief where we feature timely analyses conducted by academics, scholars, subject matter experts, and other professionals focused on issues related to Taiwan.

We also organize many regular seminars to raise the visibility of Taiwan issues largely here in the Washington, DC, area. We also host an annual symposium and a number of cultural programs, the standard fare in terms of think tank work, but the idea is that we want to contribute to a more informed public discussion about Taiwan here.

DEVIN STEWART: Thanks for explaining that.

RUSSELL HSIAO: To your question about a broad view on Chinese or what I would rather describe more specifically as Chinese Communist Party (CCP) influence operations against Taiwan, it has been going on for a very long time. I think we all need to remind ourselves that Taiwan in fact is the longest contender, if you will, in dealing with CCP influence operations in part because of the history of the Chinese Civil War in which the Chinese Communist Party fought in a very tense battle both in terms of cooperating to expel foreign imperialists as well as the Japanese, but also amongst themselves during the civil war for a good many decades.

As a result of that, both parties, the Nationalists as well as the Communists, have tried to influence one another through various means—a lot of it was very subversive means—in order to undermine the control of the adversary in the territories it controlled. As you know, post-1949 with the relocation of the Nationalist Party to Taiwan, that type of influence operation continued even with the democratization of Taiwan and arguably with the opening of cross-strait liberalization in the 1980s.

Those avenues were more covert perhaps, beforehand, because of just how closed the two sides have been to any type of interaction that they became much more in the open. These are activities that go through party-affiliated organizations that really a lot of the Western countries are just waking up to.

These are non-traditional mechanisms that the CCP wields through instruments such as the United Front Work Department or through their political advisory bodies such as the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) in which they attempt to mobilize non-CCP masses to support the CCP's political objectives.

There are various channels by which they exert such influences. Either it is through influencing academic institutions through some Confucius Institutes—I don't think all Confucius Institutes are built the same. The level of influence and interference depends in part on the leverage. These institutions have to resist the type of control that these institutions attempt to wield, in some cases to impact academic curriculums or to influence how certain subject matters are taught and taught in a manner that would be conducive to the CCP's or the People's Republic of China's (PRC) standards of political correctness.

There is academia, and it is also through means of think tanks, collaboration with prominent think tanks, with smaller think tanks, to engage on research projects or exchanges that would make these organizations and these high-profile think tank experts who do recommend policies to see things in a manner of light that would be supportive of the CCP's agenda.

There is a lot of interaction going on in the civil society level, especially when we talk about interactions with democracies. Democracies are open. There is a lot of active civil society in Taiwan especially, and there are a lot of associations that have been built around engaging China and vice versa built around these front organizations, if you will, in China that have been used to lure and attract and conduct exchanges with counterparts in Taiwan.

These can vary from very local associations for farmers in order to attract them to go to China and to help them purchase their products in areas and localities that perhaps have been traditionally supportive of what is now the ruling political party in Taiwan, the Democratic Progressive Party, that has traditionally held a stronger position resisting the People's Republic of China, or local fishermen's associations or village delegations to Chinese spouses.

There is a very concerted effort right now to exert greater influence among the younger generations of Taiwan in order to influence them. On the one hand, I think it's important that they're providing an affirmative policy to try to attract more youth to be able to work and to build their livelihoods in China, but there is of course the ulterior motive there that is clearly spelled out in its United Front activities that they hope that such activities would then be able to promote greater political integration between the people of Taiwan and those of China.

I think all these activities that I'm trying to outline—and I can certainly go into a lot more detail there, but I think one point that I want to make sure that I make here is that we need to be very careful in terms of being able to draw a line and distinguish between what is CCP influence operations versus what all governments do, and that is try to influence foreign publics.

I think that's important to point out, and a good starting point is to delineate that the particular activities that we should be most concerned about are those activities that are corrupt, coercive, and covert in nature. It's not a conjunctive role, where all three have to be present, but I think elements of corruption, coercion, and covertness are the ones that I think we need to be most on the watch for, and that we are more mindful in terms of being much more precise about the types of activities and the intention behind it that we are concerned about when we think more broadly about influence operations.

DEVIN STEWART: Can you give some examples of tactics that are seen as corrupt, coercive, or covert?

RUSSELL HSIAO: Sure. I think one example of the type of corruption that is present in Taiwan and is somewhat covert as well is a recent case that has come to light where there has been an indictment issued in the case of a spokesman of one of the smaller fringe political parties in Taiwan, and Taiwan prosecutors recently indicted this spokesperson for alleged corruption for taking what is likely Chinese government money for creating organizations in Taiwan to help support CCP's political agenda.

I think that is a case that is coming to light in Taiwan where basically China is interfering in the political process in a very direct manner. Small politicians are basically doing the bidding of a foreign government.

Another case which is also quite coercive, and the level of covertness is becoming less, there is greater transparency and greater public attention to these issues. They are becoming less covert in that way but they are coercive certainly in that there is also another fringe political association that currently still enjoys the freedom that political parties enjoy. In Taiwan and in other democracies they are afforded certain types of political rights.

The China Unification Promotion Party, and this is an interesting organization because it was in fact established by a former leader of—and who may still be currently influential—a large triad. This individual now who goes by the popular nickname of "White Wolf" is the head of this China Unification Party that has been involved in a number of violent altercations on the streets of Taiwan in cases where they were violently disturbing public demonstrations and intimidating peaceful protesters, really just trying to stoke public discord in what would otherwise have been peaceful assemblies.

The leader of this organization has already clearly indicated that he talks to Chinese officials. While he denies any type of coordination with them, it's quite a coincidence that the formula which he promotes for cross-strait interaction carries or is completely a carbon copy of the one country, two systems model that the Chinese government puts forward as the model for unification.

He doesn't hide the fact that he is sympathetic to CCP's agenda and why his supporters and organizations would often in any of these public assemblies wave the flag of the People's Republic of China. But I think these are types of blatant activities that do fall within that broad rubric of what could be considered corrupt, coercive, and covert type of malign activities that we should certainly be on guard against, but I think other activities are more sophisticated and perhaps would also require far more nuanced response in dealing with.

I think a strand that follows through the activities that are directed against Taiwan and other democracies is that it really manipulates the freedoms that people in democracies enjoy in order to achieve these political objectives.

DEVIN STEWART: You mentioned a few times Beijing's objective in using these various methods. You mentioned, for example, political integration between the two peoples. Can you elaborate a little bit about the overarching objective for China and also how effective you assess these campaigns to be?

RUSSELL HSIAO: I would say that the objectives flow from China's core interests, and those core interests have evolved over time, but I think they basically fall within three baskets. The first of these is the primary core interest, of which the two other flow from, and the first is the preservation of the CCP-led political system. That is first and foremost the most important objective, that these types of activities are I believe intended to preserve and to promote because I think there is a defensive element to it and there is also an offensive element to it.

The second is the interests of course on sovereignty and territorial integrity. Here is where Taiwan comes in, Tibet, Hong Kong, South China Sea, and East China Sea. These are all included within this second set of core interests.

It also ties in very closely with, again, the preservation of the CCP-led political system because if you think about Taiwan especially and the existence of Taiwan, this Chinese-speaking democracy that exists across the strait, its very existence is almost an existential threat for the CCP because it provides an alternative model that the people of China may aspire to one day. That is something that I think really strikes hard not only at the issue of territorial integrity but at the preservation of their CCP-led political system that it has built its legitimacy around.

The third element is on economic and social development. I think you see here that this also ties into the preservation of the CCP-led political system because much of the legitimacy of the party now rests on the fact that it has, to its credit, been capable of having lifted millions of people out of poverty.

But its source of legitimacy is not about organizing thought of communist ideology anymore, it's much more about the fact that right now it's about economic development. If that is to be in jeopardy, you can see why it would be a huge risk to the CCP-led political system.

Going back to my first subsidiary point about defensive and offensive influence operations is that the offensive element of this is making the world safe for the Communist Party of China, and that comes from I think a careful study on their end in terms of what they saw as the failures of the Soviet Union as well as looking around them at the color revolutions and seeing that these types of activities have threatened their sense of stability, and that in order to guard against those types of movements they are trying to similarly build strategic alliances with non-CCP masses, both internally within their social and political elites, but externally as well. Part of that also comes a more sensitive point, which is utilizing the overseas diaspora.

I think herein lies a very sensitive point where there is a careful precision that is required in how democracies respond to these types of efforts because whatever response must be based on the protection of civil liberties of citizens of democracies, and rights should not be violated in the course of trying to stem these types of malign influence operations that the CCP is engaged in.

To your second question about my assessment of their effectiveness, I think this is a terribly important question, and I think it's really hard to give a definitive answer in terms of how they are doing because we still haven't seen the second-order or third-order effects of these types of influence operations. I think to a certain extent an overall assessment of their effectiveness must also in part depend upon our better understanding in terms of how the CCP and its leaders assess, what are the metrics they use to assess their objectives and what they're after.

My preliminary sense in terms of the effectiveness of CCP influence operations is that it's limited. I think it's limited because if you look at the reaction right now that such activities, malign influence operations, have elicited, it's quite counterproductive to CCP's efforts to more broadly win hearts and minds.

I think this is evident in the case of Taiwan, and I suspect with the growing attention the United Front Work Department or other associated and affiliated institutions are getting as a result of growing concern about these types of activities, that they are most effective when their motives are less known. I'm not saying that we're there yet, but I think when the public becomes more aware about who these organizations are and where is it exactly that these financial resources mainly are coming from these broader networks that are involved in these types of operations, then people become less susceptible to being unwittingly or wittingly influenced by such activities.

But again, like I started off in my response, we haven't yet seen the second- or third-order effects of all of this yet. That's not to say that they're not investing a great deal of resources to engage in such influence operations. I think it's important to also point out that even the chairman Xi Jinping himself has described United Front Work as a "magic weapon" for the CCP in recognition clearly of its unique status in terms of broader efforts by the CCP to pursue its interests.

DEVIN STEWART: It seems like that would be counterproductive, to call it a "magic weapon."

RUSSELL HSIAO: Right. Exactly.

Going forward now, I think what's really needed is that we need to start to not only understand what metrics they're using to assess the success of their influence operation but also have a clear metrics to assess from the vantage point of defending against or guarding against it, is what metrics of success are we going to use to define it. That goes back to again the definitional question, which I think is still very essential, in terms of how we distinguish between legitimate or more benign public diplomacy efforts to more malign influence operations that are corrupt, coercive, and covert.

DEVIN STEWART: At the outset, Russell, you mentioned that Taiwan is also trying to influence the debate in China. Can you talk a little bit about Taiwan's own efforts to create political influence? Also, I understand that you recently held a panel called "Taiwan's Role in Countering CCP Political Warfare." Maybe you could talk a little bit about what Taiwan's role is in countering the information warfare.

RUSSELL HSIAO: That's a good question. We're still working on that topic.

There is a role that Taiwan can play, and I think part of that stems from the extensive knowledge that Taiwan has in dealing with CCP influence operations. From a situational awareness and from an information-sharing perspective I think Taiwan stands to play an important role in helping the international community that is only beginning to really deal with the rise of the CCP's influence operations to better understand the organizations involved and perhaps the financial flows of these networks that can allow foreign governments as well as—

What I think is more important than what governments do is how civil society responds, because I think this is a whole-of-government, a whole-of-society strategy on the part of the CCP and that it requires not only a whole-of-government but a whole-of-society response, and that comes with greater transparency. The knowledge of, and the information about, does need to reach the public in that way so that people can better understand and judge for themselves about the effects of these types of activities.

I think in terms of really what role Taiwan can play right now in terms of their own efforts, the existence of Taiwan in itself is already a way in which Taiwan stands to guard against malign CCP influence operations, the fact that Taiwan's democracy continues to thrive and that even by international standards Taiwan's democracy continues to be very highly rated, despite the growing pressure that Taiwan faces from these various means by which the CCP tries to negatively influence and disrupt and interfere with Taiwan's politics and democratic political process, is I think an important way.

The other elements I think China is becoming less open to, perhaps because of its unwillingness to work with the current government, but one element of it is of course being able to show, to lead by example in dealing with these political problems that come up in new democracies and in being able to deal with these problems through a democratic political process.

Despite China's best efforts to always continue to use propaganda and disinformation to marginalize or minimize the value of Taiwan's democracy in dealing with thorny social and political issues, there is a limit—although that limit seems infinite or without bounds—in terms of how much information China can keep outside its borders, and that's a role where Taiwan, for example, of dealing with, for instance, its very hard and difficult questions of military pension reforms and other social issues, but also the ability to show students, perhaps, that visit from the People's Republic of China, a way in which a Chinese-speaking democracy can thrive.

There is a clear recognition on my end here that I think there are limits to that immediate effectiveness because of just the nature of that political system. It inhibits even the ability on many people's parts even when they return to China to make any meaningful change, but I think in the end, looking at the longer term, that could provide a positive demonstration effect.

The other part of this, of course, is that Taiwan can also provide an important bellwether for the international community in terms of the various pressure tactics that it faces. Again, this comes back to the information sharing and the ability for Taiwan to contribute to greater situational awareness regarding these challenges as it—and I'm not saying that Taiwan has the perfect response by any means in my suggestion, but I think the amount of information and the amount of experience there can provide useful lessons on dealing with CCP influence operations.

DEVIN STEWART: Russell, thanks so much.

Before we go, can you give us a little bit of a picture about how you see Taiwan's place in the near future of the geopolitical health or stability or environment in East Asia? I've heard some military officers and experts and others express quite a lot of alarm about the possibility of conflict over Taiwan becoming perhaps the most important political risk in East Asia in the near future. Do you share that type of alarm?

RUSSELL HSIAO: I don't. I am perhaps more optimistic than some of the other experts that you've spoken to in terms of Taiwan's geostrategic role.

I think that this is being demonstrated in part with the U.S. government's "free and open" Indo-Pacific in which Taiwan is and can be a valuable partner. Given the fact that Taiwan is a democracy and continues to be one despite not being a member of the United Nations, adhering to many of the resolutions as well as sanctions efforts against North Korea, it is a rule-abiding member of the international community. I think there is a recognition of that in terms of how the United States views Taiwan and its contributions there.

However, that being said, I think it's clear that China is ramping up its pressure against Taiwan. Particularly, it's attempting to punish the current government in Taiwan for what Beijing sees as its independence-leaning activities despite the fact that the Tsai Ing-wen government has been I think by most measures, even I think by U.S. government standards, very pragmatic in her cross-strait approach which she has through the Minister of the Mainland Affairs Council reiterated the three pillars for cross-strait policy to continue to be based on the Republic of China (ROC) constitution, the Act Governing Relations between the People of the Taiwan Area and the Mainland Area, and the historical fact of the 1992 meetings.

So I think there is a recognition in Washington that this is a pragmatic approach and that she is committed to maintaining the status quo and that really it's China that is the one responsible for the destabilizing behaviors and environment that you outlined in some of the perspectives. Herein is where the U.S. response and international support for Taiwan's international space is so critical to help, I think, counterbalance this growing pressure campaign.

I think in the near term that is perhaps going to lead to greater instability as China continues down this road, but at some point I think the point needs to get across to Beijing that it cannot continue to keep going down that road without facing some cost imposition as well. It needs to also understand that it's not going to win hearts and minds if they continue down this path, and it's incumbent upon Beijing to actually do something that will be conducive to cross-strait peace and stability.

Beijing needs to learn that it's not going to get its way if it continues down this path of provocations and threats. I think that hopefully will be the longer-term result where some costs are going to be imposed so that they understand that those types of actions are not only not accepted but are counterproductive to their efforts to try to attract more Taiwanese people to its cause.

DEVIN STEWART: Thank you so much. Russell Hsiao is executive director at the Global Taiwan Institute in Washington, DC. Thanks for ending on an optimistic note, Russell.

RUSSELL HSIAO: Thank you very much, Devin. Appreciate it.

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