Step Aside Russia: Beijing "Prepares To Meddle" In US Elections

With the decades-old practice of state-sponsored election meddling thrust into the spotlight after the 2016 US election, a growing number of people inside and outside of Taiwan have been warning that China is using increasingly sophisticated methods to attempt to destroy democracy on the island ahead of the January 2020 elections, according to the Nikkei Asian Review

In late november, Taiwanese local elections were cast into disarray amid accusations by government officials that online disinformation originating from Beijing had undermined voters' confidence in President Tsai Ingwen along with the Democratic Progressive Party she belongs to. Following the loss of crucial mayoral elections to the China-friendly Kuomintang in November, Tsai stepped down as party chairwoman.

And after using Taiwan as propaganda guinea pigs, China may set its sights on US politics according to Yi-Suo Tzeng, acting director of the Cyber Warfare and Information Security division at Taiwan's Institute for National Defense and Security Research. 

"As they accumulate knowledge and test their algorithms, I think within two years we will probably see China having the capability to use cybertools to intervene in the U.S. election," Tzeng told the Review, though he characterized Beijing's methods of exercising political influence in the US as "old school" but improving quickly. 

On Dec. 13, six sitting U.S. senators, including former Republican presidential candidates Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, sent a letter to officials including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin urging a U.S. investigation of alleged Chinese attempts to influence Taiwan's elections last month. They cited concerns for other democracies around the world.

In a report published before the local elections, Jessica Drun, a research analyst at SOS International in Washington, cataloged signs that China was becoming more adept at influencing Taiwanese social media. Drun's findings included one instance of fake news connected to a Chinese IP address that may have prompted the suicide of a Taiwanese diplomat in Japan. She noted that the results of the hundreds of races decided in Taiwan would help China tweak its methods in the future.

"Chinese disinformation campaigns against Taiwan could be used as a blueprint against other democracies, particularly in sowing greater discord between segments of the population," Drun said. -Nikkei Asian Review

"While any attempt against the United States would likely require a greater degree of sophistication, China has demonstrated a familiarity with popular Western social media networks, as well as an awareness of existing vulnerabilities within these systems, as brought to light in the 2016 U.S. elections."

What's more, Taiwan's Justice Ministry announced in October that it was probing 33 cases where Taiwanese candidate allegedly received funding from Beijing - a claim which China has vehemently denied. 

"We have never interfered with Taiwan's elections," said Ma Xiaougang, a spokesman for China's Taiwan Affairs Office, on October 31. 

That's not true, according to the Nikkei, which notes that in 1996 Beijing made it clear that it it did not want the eventual winner of the island's first presidential election - Lee Teng-hui, to win - going as far as launching missiles into Taiwanese waters to emphasize their wishes. 

And when the DPP won the presidency along with legislative control in 2016 - ending Kuomintang rule for the first time since it arrived after Japan's 1945 surrender, several people have noted that Chinese President Xi Jinping's decision to meet with then-Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou just months before the election, was likely an attempt by Beijing to bolster the Kuomintang's image with the public. 

In the run-up to Taiwan's recent local elections Beijing used a combination of tactics to keep Tsai and the DPP on the defensive. These include vast amounts of disinformation created by Chinese content farms, disruption of online debates by Chinese hackers and trolls, hacking of DPP social media accounts and government websites, and inflation of the popularity of Kuomintang candidates across online, broadcast and print media, according to a recent article published by the University of Nottingham's Taiwan Insight.

Some of China's efforts to sway Taiwanese media are open, others take place behind the scenes. -Nikkei Asian Review

China weaving itself into US Media

The Asian Review notes that China has become quite adept at inserting its views into American media. 

Inserts from the state-owned China Daily are included in publications including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Los Angeles Times. Politico has entered into a content sharing partnership with the South China Morning Post, whose editorial line has become increasingly Beijing-friendly. -Nikkei Asian Review

According to Chen Yonglin, a former Chinese diplomat who defected to Australia in 2005, compromising local media, along with current and former politicians, were a major part of Beijing's strategy towards undermining democracies. 

To advance Beijing's agenda, says Chen, "you don't have to say the CCP is great, you just have to say the CCP is OK," noting Taiwan's former president Ma and former Vice President Lien Chan - both members of the Kuomintang, were useful tools in China's propaganda efforts. In particular, Ma made headlines in Taiwan and China prior to the November election with his controversial "three noes" policy; no ruling out unification with China, no use of force against China and no support for Taiwan's independence. 

China's push to sway international opinion come under increasing scrutiny especially among the Five Eyes countries -- Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the U.K. and the U.S. -- these countries and others are seeking to learn from Taiwan, according to several Taiwanese officials. Over the past year, organizations and government departments held events in Taipei to discuss China's assault on open societies, attracting journalists, analysts and officials from abroad.  -Nikkei Asian Review

While the impact of proven and suspected election meddling is difficult to gauge, the notion that "free and fair" elections have been compromised will continue to cast a cloud of doubt over global politics. We suspect that any outcomes that disagree with existing global paradigms will have been heavily "meddled in," while victories by establishment candidates will magically be free from outside influence.