A new report titled “China’s Pursuit of a New World Media Order” by Paris-based non-profit Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF), or Reporters Without Borders, reveals growing concern over China’s attempts to manipulate the press worldwide and stifle any criticism.

According to the report, Beijing has now combined its state TV (CCTV-CGTN) and the national and international radio broadcasters (China National Radio and China Radio International) into the China Media Group, unofficially known as “Voice of China.” With an annual budget of US$1.5 billion, Voice of China’s official mission is to “propagate the [Communist] Party’s theories, directions, principles and policies.” As part of this mission, BuzzFeed News reported last June on a plan by China Global Television Network to hire more than 350 London-based journalists over the next 18 months, with salaries “well over” average.

One target is Taiwan, which Beijing claims as “sacred territory” – despite the People’s Republic of China (PRC), established in 1949, never having set foot on the island. Taiwan was loosely administered by the Manchurian Qing dynasty as a prefecture (1684-1887) and a province (1887-1895) before being handed over to the Japanese after the end of the First Sino-Japanese War.

After Japan’s defeat in World War II, the leader of the Republic of China (ROC), Chiang Kai-shek, sent government representatives to accept the surrender of Japanese forces in Taiwan. Chiang and his Nationalist government (along with some 1.2 million Chinese) eventually fled to Taiwan after suffering defeat at the hands of Mao Zedong’s Communist forces in 1949.

Why Taiwan matters

After severe repression, imprisonment, and murder by Nationalist authorities during the “White Terror” and the eventual lifting of martial law in 1987, Taiwan has since blossomed into one of Asia’s most respected democracies, with high voter turnout for elections and peaceful transfers of power. In addition, Taiwan has fostered open and robust media, which RSF recently recognized by deciding to host its first Asian regional headquarters in Taipei – a stark departure from its original plan to locate it in Hong Kong. Taiwan now hosts the freest press on the Asian continent, according to RSF’s global rankings. At the launch of its Taipei office in July 2017, RSF secretary general Christophe Deloire remarked:

“Taiwan is pure evidence that democracy and press freedom are possible in Chinese culture, and that is really one of the strongest arguments against claims by Beijing authorities their system is really adapted to Chinese culture.”

As an advocate for press freedom, RSF justified its decision to locate in Taipei by citing concerns over increased media control in Hong Kong and potential infiltration by spies from mainland China, though Taiwan faces these same challenges.

Challenges to press freedom in Taiwan

One of the more difficult challenges facing Taiwan’s open media comes from disinformation campaigns originating at “content farms” in China. Taiwan Thinktank and the Global Taiwan Institute (GTI), a non-profit policy incubator, addressed these concerns at a public seminar in Taipei titled “How to Face China’s Sharp Power Collaboratively between Taiwan-US?” held in December. One example of sharp power, disinformation, was discussed at the seminar, specifically how Taiwanese editors failed to stem the flow of rumors and disinformation ahead of the local elections in November, which ended with a historic defeat of the ruling Democratic Progress Party.

A far more tragic outcome is outlined by RSF in its report – the suicide last year of Su Chii-cherng, Taiwan’s diplomat in Osaka, after he was falsely accused of failing to assist Taiwanese citizens trapped at Kansai Airport during Typhoon Jebi and relying on the Chinese Embassy to rescue them. According to later reports, the embassy was found to play no role in their rescue and the disinformation campaign was later traced to “content farms” in China.

RSF also documented the “radical change in its editorial policies” after China Times, a Taiwanese daily, was purchased by Want Want, a Taiwanese food-industry company that has 90% of its turnover in China. During Hong Kong’s pro-democracy “Umbrella Movement” in 2014, China Times did not send correspondents to Hong Kong to cover the demonstrations and largely mimicked the viewpoint of Xinhua, the Chinese state news agency.

How to combat disinformation

For democratic countries such as Taiwan, RSF recommends developing programs that help citizens recognize disinformation campaigns and to fact-check information using several independent sources. These efforts are especially important in light of the hotly contested elections to be held in 2020 in Taiwan, which Beijing is attempting to influence in its favor. Of course, in the fight against disinformation, citizens will need to be both motivated and open-minded enough to make such an effort.

Arguably, it is unclear to what extent disinformation can actually convert people to opposing points of view – many people are simply not inclined to change their preconceived notions. Nonetheless, as we have seen in many countries with free and open media, disinformation can serve to harden and polarize positions while sowing discord among the populace and within political parties – which Beijing may believe is money well spent.