Jonas Parello-Plesner / Oct 2019
While the horror of the terrorist attacks of 9/11 was memorialized in the US and elsewhere, China Daily, a Communist Party mouth piece, posted on Facebook a photo of the two crumbling towers, with a text stating that ’anti-government fanatics’ in Hong Kong were planning similar terrorist attacks in the city-state. That is crude and shameless but does illustrate to what length, the Chinese propaganda system tries to control the narrative including on social media platforms. If we leave the warped upside-down propaganda universe, the reality is that pro-democracy demonstrators have been taking to the streets for over three months in Hong Kong.
These democracy activists deserve support from democratic-minded people everywhere. The response from European and American leaders so far has been meek, among others an EU statement by parting foreign policy head, Mogherini, which didn’t even dare to insert the word democracy in the declaration. In the US, President Trump has mostly carried a small stick and talked about finding a ‘humanitarian’ solution although he spoke more forcefully this week at UN.
The German foreign Minister, Heiko Maas, did the right thing recently and met with Joshua Wong, one of the vocal democracy activists and poster boy for protests in Hong Kong. Beijing is threating with repercussions for Germany after the meeting. The solution for deflecting Chinese pressure on Germany should be to invite Wong to the next EU meeting of foreign ministers, and stand united, so that the People Republic of China can’t threaten individual member states with their diplomatic dog house.
Behind the battle over Hong Kong’s fragile rights, lurks the bigger question of Taiwan and its democratic future. Taiwanese support Hong Kong both in action and deed but they also do their own preparations for the People Republic of China’s most sophisticated meddling in their upcoming and decisive presidential elections in January 2020.
For decades now, Taiwan has been a well-established democracy with free elections, peaceful transfer of power and rule of law. That evolution shows that Chinese civilization is in no way incompatible with multi-party democracy which the Communist Party in China otherwise claims.
And Taiwan is doing its utmost to maintain its democracy even under Chinese pressure and disinformation. Militarily, the People’s Liberation Army has bolstered its capacity to attack Taiwan but increasingly guns and bullets are replaced with fake news and election interference. As Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen said recently; “we struggle with a giant that has chosen to use new tools of technological advancement not for the greater good, but to sow disinformation, division, and discord in free and open societies.”.
In Taiwanese local elections in late 2018, Taiwan’s Police received sixty-four reports of fabricated false information on social media. One of these fabricated stories was that President Tsai Ing-wen had contributed funding for Hong Kong activists but refused to spend money on eradicating dengue fever in Taiwan.
And Taiwanese legal authorities are investigating allegations of Beijing’s covert funding of political candidates in Taiwan with similar United Front strategies to what has been uncovered in Australia and New Zealand. Even through the black market of betting on political candidates, the Communist Party is trying to influence outcomes inside Taiwan as the democratic watchdog, Taiwan Foundation for Democracy has shown in a report.
The Taiwanese authorities have taken a number of steps to improve election security and curbing social media fake news towards 2020. They also need international support. Election interference is not just limited to Russian meddling.
The EU among other democratic nations should step up its game to help Taiwan defend its elections and democracy. The EU has valuable experiences with election security and how to build digital resilience. On the other hand, Taiwan can provide the EU with valuable first-hand experience with the People’s Republic of China’s interference playbook including the use of United Front methods to infiltrate democracies. Hong Kong and Taiwan demonstrate the broader challenge to open and free societies emanating from the People’s Republic of China.