Undeterred by coronavirus, China takes influence campaign online to win Taiwan hearts

TAIPEI (Reuters) – While the coronavirus pandemic is almost bringing the Taiwan Strait to a standstill, China is launching its "reunification" campaign with Taiwan in the virtual world of live broadcasting, online conferencing, and video contests.

FILE PHOTO: The party flag for the Chinese Unity Promotion Party and China's national flag can be seen in Lin Guo-cing's office in Tainan, Taiwan, on April 9, 2019. / File photo

Increased efforts to win hearts and minds in democratic Taiwan are taking place on widespread government support for anti-government protests in Hong Kong and opposition to a new Chinese security law for the city.

Taiwan is China's most delicate territorial problem. Beijing claims that the self-governing island is its own so that it can be brought under its control if necessary.

While many Taiwanese trace their ancestors back to mainland China and share cultural similarities with Chinese, most don't want to be ruled by autocratic China.

Beijing has long tried to win Taiwan, where defeated nationalist forces fled in 1949 at the end of the Chinese Civil War. Inexpensive summer programs for young Taiwanese, find-your-roots tours and other programs express the message that Taiwan would be better off under Beijing and has nothing to fear.

With normal travel connections suspended, China has turned to the Internet to continue this campaign.

In June, dozens of Taiwanese families videotaped a gala in the southern Chinese city of Fuzhou to celebrate the traditional dragon boat festival.

Chinese state media described the event as an attempt to "strengthen the identity of Taiwanese youth" and "express desires for eternal love on the Taiwan Strait."

A video competition to “break down the barriers caused by the virus” is now being held for Taiwanese students.

"The epidemic cut off the mountains from the oceans, but cannot cut off the longing for home," wrote an online poster about the competition, which was sponsored by a youth group from the Chinese Communist Party in Fujian Province, the Taiwan Strait.

TAIWAN UNNERVIZED

The move has unsettled the security authorities in Taiwan.

An agency described it as part of a "new campaign model" to guide political ideology and sow discord with the Taiwanese government. This emerges from a report on internal security reviewed by Reuters.

A second internal security report reviewed by Reuters says the move online has made it difficult for the Taiwanese authorities to determine who was involved and could trigger a "new national security crisis".

"They have been instructed to expand live broadcasting and video conferencing efforts," a Taiwanese security officer investigating the matter told Reuters. "They want to increase the positive impression they have of China."

Security officials say the virtual campaigns are being initiated by Chinese government agencies, including the Taiwan Affairs Office and the United Front Work Department, which is responsible for co-opting Chinese and non-communists from overseas.

Social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram have been used to "attract" interactions with Taiwanese youth, a third security report said.

A TikTok spokeswoman declined to comment. Facebook, which Instagram owns, did not respond to requests for comments.

The Chinese Taiwan Affairs Bureau said in a statement to Reuters that dealing with the people of Taiwan online is a "natural choice" given the pandemic.

However, the Taiwanese government tried to "stigmatize the normal exchanges between compatriots across the strait," the office said, describing it as a "despicable" step towards Taiwan’s independence.

The Taiwan Mainland Council in China told Reuters that people need to be careful not to fall into the Chinese Communist Party's trap as China's campaigns are "taking a new form."

But the move may not be as effective as the physical exchange that China is likely to resume once the trip resumes, security officials said.

"It's harder to convince people without seeing what's on offer," said a second security guard.

Some evidence suggests that the campaign is unsuccessful.

According to a survey by the National Chengchi University in Taipei, about 27% of people on the island support Taiwan's formal independence, a record high, compared to 0.7% who want to join China. The majority of respondents preferred to maintain the status quo.

"You have put a lot of effort into the virtual campaign," said the first official. "But most people in Taiwan have a clear head."

Reporting by Yimou Lee; additional reporting from Ryan Woo, Yang Yingzhi and Brenda Goh in Beijing; Editing of Lincoln Feast.

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