China Is Influencing Taiwan's Elections — Through TV

China Is Influencing Taiwan's Elections — Through TV

“China has stretched its hands into our democratic politics and into the heart of it, our media,” says Chiu Chui-cheng, deputy minister of the Mainland Affairs Council, Taiwan’s Cabinet-level policy body that deals with China affairs.

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Why you should care

China is sponsoring television channels that promote its favored candidate ahead of Taiwan’s presidential elections, sparking worries of an influence campaign. 

To the viewers of Taiwanese television channel CTi-TV and its sister channel, CTV, it must have looked like one big party. Within minutes of Han Kuo-yu’s victory earlier this month over Terry Gou, the founder of Apple supplier Foxconn, in the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) presidential primary, footage of his supporters frantically waving national flags and firecrackers going off began flashing across TV screens.

Only national news related to Han was reported that day: A drumming troupe organized by his fans made the cut, but the visit of incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen to Taiwan’s diplomatic allies in the Caribbean did not.

The focus on the victory by the China-friendly Han, the populist mayor of Taiwan’s second-biggest city, Kaohsiung, was not a one-off. Over the past year, the two TV channels have given the 62-year-old former lawmaker nonstop coverage, helping to create the “Han Wave” — a craze that transformed a politician seen as past his prime into a resurgent star. But the effusive coverage has become a national security issue for the government of Tsai, whom Han is set to challenge in a general election next January. The channels belong to the Want Want China Times Group, a media company influenced by the Chinese government, raising concerns about the growing influence of Beijing in the island’s politics.

China has stretched its hands into our democratic politics and into the heart of it, our media.

Chiu Chui-cheng, deputy minister for relations with mainland China

“China has stretched its hands into our democratic politics and into the heart of it, our media,” says Chiu Chui-cheng, deputy minister of the Mainland Affairs Council, Taiwan’s Cabinet-level policy body that deals with China affairs.

The People’s Republic of China has claimed Taiwan as its territory and threatened to annex it ever since the KMT lost the Chinese civil war in 1949 and fled to the island. But alongside military threats, Beijing is increasingly trying to influence Taiwan from within. Taiwanese investors in China were an early target, among them Tsai Eng-meng, the founder of Want Want, a food conglomerate with large operations on the mainland. In 2001, Newslink Investment, a company based in the British Virgin Islands backed by Chinese investors, paid $37 million for a stake in Want Want.

Beijing has long leaned on Taiwanese businesspeople in China to support the KMT, which — unlike Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party — shares its view that Taiwan is part of a broader Chinese nation. But in Want Want’s case, Beijing used its clout to influence Taiwan’s freewheeling media. In 2006, Want Want acquired CTV, and in 2008, The China Times and CTi-TV. Since then, The China Times has morphed from a mainstream publication into what critics call a mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party.

Journalists working at The China Times and CTi-TV say that their editorial managers take instructions directly from the Taiwan Affairs Office, the body in Chinese government that handles Taiwan issues. “They call every day,” says one China Times reporter. “They don’t meddle in everything, mainly topics related to cross-Strait relations and to China. They have a say in the angle of the story, and whether it goes on the front page.”

The Want Want China Times Group did not respond to a request for comment on the practices or to requests for interviews with executives for this story.

A CTi-TV journalist says Chinese government officials “organize” China coverage by assigning stories and editorial positions to China-based correspondents for a range of Taiwanese media — an allegation corroborated by reporters at two Taiwanese newspapers. The Chinese Communist Party’s voice has proliferated across the island’s media sphere. Last week Lin Yu-tsang, a citizen journalist, revealed that two dozen little-known Taiwanese news websites were republishing reports verbatim from China Taiwan Web, a propaganda website of the Taiwan Affairs Office.

A media gathering hosted by the CCP two months ago threw a spotlight on the relationship between Taiwan’s media bosses and the party. The 70 Taiwanese media executives roared with laughter when Wang Yang, a member of the CCP’s Central Standing Committee, mocked the Taiwanese government. Wang then told them they needed to help implement Beijing’s playbook for Taiwan. “Now, as we want to realize ‘peaceful unification, one country, two systems,’ we need to rely on the joint efforts with our friends in the media,” he says. “I believe you understand the situation. History will remember you.”

Those critical of China fear that Beijing’s task for its Taiwanese media allies is to make Han president. Although Han rejects allegations that he is Beijing’s candidate, there are signs of a Want Want China Times campaign to get him elected.

Before last November’s election in Kaohsiung, a DPP stronghold, the media group sent several dozen reporters and editorial managers to the city to help push his campaign. “There is a task force in the editorial department for working on ‘Han Kuo-yu frozen garlic,’” says a CTi-TV journalist, using a pun that means getting elected.

The Taiwanese government is trying to push back. In March, the media regulator fined CTi-TV NT$1 million ($32,000) for violations of broadcasting law, including giving too much airtime to stories about Han, which it said violated the principle of fairness and balance.

Last month, thousands of Taiwanese marched to protest against “red” media making inroads in their country. The DPP is now looking to turn such fears into a campaign issue: It is planning a series of discussion events on the topic of red media influence.

For Han, the media support that has got him so far could yet turn into a political liability.

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By Kathrin Hille

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