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China’s War Against Taiwan Has Already Started

Beijing's attempts to coerce a democratic nation into submission

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A 2018 typhoon trapped thousands at Kansai International Airport near Osaka. Taiwanese participants. It may have been non-political. After a few hours, an obscure Taiwanese news website reported that diplomats had failed to rescue civilians. Bloggers lauded the Chinese government for sending buses to rescue their people. Taiwanese tourists impersonated Chinese to board. Speculation grew. Airport footage was shared.

Taiwanese media reported it promptly. Journalists questioned the government: Why had Chinese diplomats moved so quickly and effectively? Taiwanese incompetence—why? Taiwanese media labelled it a national humiliation, especially for a nation that claims to need no Chinese support. “To Get on the Bus, One Has to Pretend to Be Chinese” and “Taiwanese Follow China Bus” headlines. After receiving severe press and social media harassment, a Taiwanese diplomat committed suicide.

Strange finds ensued. Many of the incident’s popular posters were composites. The story was promoted by an obscure Chinese Communist Party website. Fakes. The Japanese authorities oddly denied Chinese buses and Taiwanese failure. Journalists and newscasters leveraged this perception of failure to attack the ruling party. Chinese propagandists wanted this. Social media anonymity, bogus “news” sites, and hyper-partisanship in Taiwanese politics bolstered the Chinese regime’s narrative that Taiwanese democracy is weak. Chinese dictatorship. Emergency Taiwanese prefer Chinese.

The episode was important because it was another fight in a long-running campaign that may have started before modern Taiwan was founded. General Chiang Kai-shek founded the Republic of China on the island in 1949 with his Kuomintang (KMT) Nationalist Party. Since then, the People’s Republic of China has considered Taiwan as its ideological opponent, an uncomfortable reminder that not all Chinese want to be united under the Communist Party.

Taiwan has felt Chinese military threats and missile launches. In recent years, China has used threats, missiles, and other pressure to create “cognitive warfare,” or an attitude of submission, in Taiwan. Eastern Europe saw this military, economic, political, and information offensive. Before 2014, Russia wanted to conquer Ukraine by convincing Ukrainians their government was corrupt and incompetent. Beijing now annexes Taiwan without a military campaign by convincing Taiwanese that their democracy is fundamentally flawed, that their allies will abandon them, and that there is no “Taiwanese” identity.

Taiwanese leaders see Ukraine as a model. Taipei consistently informed me that the Russian invasion of Ukraine was a precursor. Taiwan and Ukraine are now similar despite no geographic, cultural, or historical ties. Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu told me that the Russian invasion of Ukraine makes people in Taiwan and throughout the world worry, “Wow, an authoritarian is initiating a war against a peace-loving country; could there be another one? Taiwan appears.”

Similarities. Many Europeans and Americans trusted Russian Ukraine assertions. Before February, Russia painted Ukraine as a divided nation with dubious loyalty, convinced many Ukrainians would not fight back. Chinese propaganda about Taiwan divides. Most islanders speak Mandarin, the People’s Republic’s official language, and have family, business, and cultural ties to the mainland, even if many oppose the Communist Party. Westerners didn’t recognise how seriously the Ukrainians were preparing mentally and militarily to defend themselves, and we haven’t observed Taiwan’s developments either.

Despite concerns that Taiwanese are overly complacent and close to the PRC, not all have personal links. Pre-1949 island families speak languages other than Mandarin. Taiwanese of all ethnicities don’t miss mainland China. Taiwanese-only voters favour the Democratic Progressive Party, the KMT’s main competitor. The majority of Taiwanese today oppose the “one country, two systems” reunification plan, whether they are KMT or DPP supporters (Taiwanese speak “blue” or “green”). Millions of Hong Kongers recognize the Chinese war on their society has begun when the democratic rallies were repressed.

Taiwanese are fighting democracy vs authoritarianism alongside Ukrainians. They must create resistance strategies too. China’s leaders want to spread their influence worldwide, especially in democracies. Taiwanese strategies to counter Chinese cognitive warfare, economic pressure, and political manipulation will be needed everywhere.

Ttcat and Puma Shen, Taiwanese activists, founded Doublethink Lab, a nonprofit study group, after the Kansai airport bus tale. Ttcat (an alias) is a high school dropout who played video games, got accepted to a university to study computer science, dropped out again, and then became an environmental activist. He tracks and identifies Chinese information activities and designs public education programs. He and Shen, a lawyer and criminologist, may represent Taiwan while being independent of the government. Video game activists are not political careerists.

The airport story inspired Ttcat to prevent non-attack attacks. Happened. Taiwanese vulnerability was politicised. He and Shen then formed a team to interact with hyper-online youth in dark, dirty environments. They provided Chinese propaganda regarding Ukraine. Also: A Ukrainian visitor to Hong Kong during the 2019 political protests dominating Chinese media. Chinese and Taiwanese media routinely feature his far-right tattoo. CIA-sent neo-Nazis may boost Hong Kong protests. Hong Kong and Ukraine should dread unrest and radicalism. Russia and the international far right justified their February invasion of Ukraine with Chinese state-sponsored biolab conspiracy theories.

The Information Operations Research Group, another group of young internet activists monitoring Taiwan propaganda, has produced a report on Chinese media and influencers that tried to influence island discussion during the coronavirus pandemic. In 2021, the Chinese stated that the U.S. was preventing Taiwan from accessing vaccines, that Taiwan was falling behind, and that Taiwanese residents were surreptitiously getting vaccines from China. After the 2022 Chinese lockdowns, these reasons look weak and unconvincing, yet they were popular in Taiwan.

Both organizations combat Chinese initiatives and alert the government. Doublethink develops videos that help people investigate their information. Over 180 IORG workshops helped Taiwanese middle- and high-school teachers create disinformation courses. IORG co-director Chihhao Yu told me that the purpose is to teach students how pro-Chinese media and social media use information—true or false—to make people doubt their country’s allies, capacity to be separate from China, and future. Yu trusts Taiwan’s future. “Taiwanese,” his website says. Hacking.”

The leading online activist is in government, unusually. Audrey Tang, Taiwan’s first digital minister, led digital activism. A “conservative anarchist” and “post-gender” child prodigy who programmed in Silicon Valley at 19, she participated in the 2014 Sunflower Revolution, a youth movement opposing a trade deal with China. Pronouns don’t bother her. Tang wore a Ukrainian trident T-shirt and said she had contacted Ukraine’s innovative digital ministry. She said she uploads all her interviews online, including mine.

Tang advocates asymmetric warfare—Taiwan cannot obey China’s rules. Only decentralized, transparent grassroots groups using open-source software can combat the Chinese Communist Party’s cruelty. That restricts Tang’s ministers. Doublethink and IORG oppose Chinese narratives. She said Taiwanese trust co-ops, charities, and social entrepreneurs more than political parties or capitalists. Civic activists still have power after KMT’s one-party dictatorship ended in the 1980s and China terminated economic ties in 2014. Tang said National Taiwan University students run PTT, a famous political debate forum, using “all free software, open source, communal governance, and so on.” “No political party will say, ‘Oh, let’s shut down PTT.'” loses votes,” she said.

Because activists built Taiwan’s democracy, she thinks people trust activists more than the government to monitor the intricate, through-the-looking-glass world of Chinese disinformation. Instead of government officials, Taiwanese who question what they heard or read may use Cofacts, an open-source website that lets anyone fact check an argument. Site users are engaged by rewards and levelling up. “When governments get too involved in countering disinformation, it could look like an infringement on free speech,” stated organization founder Billion Lee.

Tang may not have enough influence in the ruling party to accomplish all these ideas—many lawmakers reject her transparency—but she may count to key triumphs. A Moderna-Pfizer humour competition encouraged immunization during the pandemic. Tang calls this “humour over rumour” because Taiwan never had a significant anti-vax campaign. The Tang administration used Polis, an online debating platform, to enhance public discourse. Taiwanese can only participate in national debates due to online health-care enrollment. Polis debates—like the national e-scooter debate—are existential. Reasonable people and transparent online debate norms prevent conspiracy theories.

Tang’s theory is sound: Better dialogue, democracy, and transparency will beat even the most devious Chinese propaganda. China’s methods aren’t veiled. Beijing terrorized the island with battleships, bombers, and rockets after Nancy Pelosi’s visit.

Overcoming fear? Frightened people are not cowards. Action overcomes fear. Three dozen Taipei office workers taught how to halt excessive bleeding in the conference room on a rainy weekday.

Managers, assistant managers, secretaries, and even the CEO, wearing a sombre blue suit, were laughing and bandaging silicone arms and legs and learning that tourniquets hurt. INA Energy funded the event, not blood or tourniquets. One manager said, “we want to empower our employees to have this kind of knowledge” because Taiwan has earthquakes and typhoons and could be attacked by China.

Forward Alliance provided silicone limbs, bandages, and emergency-response training. Founder Enoch Wu researched civic defense and resistance psychology. The Forward Alliance teaches island churches and schools emergency medical and evacuation skills multiple days a week. Realistically: Hurricanes, earthquakes, and military threats need island evacuation and emergency medical. “Really emphasized upon everyday individuals that things can happen, at no fault of your own, at no instigation,” Wu continued. Emergency response training “kicked into overdrive” everywhere since February. Puma Shen’s emergency response and guns academy, Kuma Academy, received $20 million from a Taiwanese investor in September. Shen said the first courses sold like concert tickets.

Shooting and bandaging aren’t these workouts. They bond neighbors. These experiences are essential in Taiwan, where blue and green parties accuse one other of recklessness and unreason. Wu hopes his workshops build trust and skills. “In an urban climate, it’s hard to find activities that make you feel like we’re in this together,” he remarked. Threats isolate. With enough work and silicone limbs, the menace may unify disparate politics.

Taiwanese civil defense activists and anti-Chinese narrative opponents are investing big. They bet democracy, transparency, and trust can defeat dictatorship, secrecy, and terror. They do so in a country with complicated ties to its largest enemy—language, history, family, investments—and justifiably fears about distant allies.

They fight China’s cognitive warfare outside botfights. Russians miscalculated Ukrainian resistance and invaded. If Taiwan fights, China may rethink. Thus, Taiwanese social activists—who monitor Chinese disinformation online, defend judicial independence, advocate for Hong Kong citizens and ethnic minorities, and promote government transparency—and the military, which watches the Taiwan Strait, are intimately linked. Through democratization, division elimination, and public involvement, they want to persuade China that an invasion is too costly and unsafe. They decide Taiwan’s fate.

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