Taiwan election: China 'sows' distrust of US through disinformation

The rumor was old but effective: the Taiwanese are being fed "poisonous" pork imported from the US. This allegation was followed by another: the Taiwanese government was secretly collecting blood from citizens and providing it to the US to produce biological weapons to attack China. Both claims, however, were quickly refuted. But it is a narrative that is flourishing in Taiwan ahead of the presidential and parliamentary elections on 13 January.

"Yimeilun," or American skepticism, questions the loyalty of Taiwan's biggest ally, portraying the island as a pawn used by America. Its ultimate goal, analysts say, is to drive a wedge between Taiwan and the United States and push the Taiwanese toward the "welcoming arms" of China.

"There seems to be this narrative that the U.S. won't support Taiwan or will abandon it if there's a war or the situation is not advantageous for the U.S.," said Kwang-Shun Yang, a disinformation researcher who coined the term in 2018.

Disinformation experts say China has a hand in spreading this message and may even be creating it. Their evidence also points to Taiwanese close to Beijing.

It is not always about conspiracy theories, in most cases it is about highlighting news that shows the US in a bad light or points to it as an unreliable superpower.

"For China, this is a battle for public opinion," says Puma Shen, a Taiwanese expert on Chinese disinformation and a Democratic Progressive Party candidate for the legislature.

"Convincing everyone that China is the better country is harder, but convincing everyone that America is problematic is comparatively easier, for China it would be considered a success."

When Taiwanese microchip manufacturing giant TSMC expanded into the US, it was described as American interference and a "depletion" of Taiwanese resources. The US sale of arms to Taiwan, in turn, was seen as "cheating" the island out of its money by sending it unreliable weapons.

These are some of the 84 types of narratives about U.S. skepticism found by the think tank IORG between 2021 and 2023 in Chinese-language media, social media, the online forum PTT, and the messaging platform LINE.

The propaganda departments of Chinese provincial governments and state media amplified these narratives, and in some cases were even the first known sources.

But most of the sources were Taiwanese politicians and China-friendly media organizations. There have long been suspicions of Chinese state influence, and a 2019 Reuters report found evidence of mainland officials paying Taiwanese media for coverage.

The biological weapons rumors first surfaced in an unconfirmed Taiwan newspaper report that some speculated was linked to Beijing. The US pork rumour began with internet posts claiming, without evidence, that the government was secretly passing off US pork as Taiwanese. Weeks later, others made the claim of poisonous American pork products, which was traced to an old debunked report by a pro-China Hong Kong newspaper. The idea that American pork might be dangerous has been debated in Taiwan for years.

But it has returned just in time for what looks set to be a tense presidential race. Mr. Shen believes that any disinformation campaign would only have to persuade about 3 percent of voters to affect the outcome of the election.

In the run-up to the last election in 2020, there was a huge wave of disinformation against the DPP in Taiwan, which was believed to have come from China. Although it ultimately failed, President Tsai Ing-wen won her second term in a landslide victory, and this deeply alarmed many Taiwanese.

Since then, however, the political landscape has changed. On the one hand, tensions with China have risen sharply, with Beijing repeatedly emphasising reunification as a goal, offering peace but not ruling out the possibility of force. And second, faith in the United States is increasingly scarce.

Opinion polls show that the Taiwanese public still trusts the US much more than China. But the annual "Portrait of America" survey, conducted by Taiwanese scholars, found that only 34% of Taiwanese believed the US was a trustworthy country last year, compared with 45% in 2021.

Another poll by the Taiwan Public Opinion Foundation found that 51% of Taiwanese in their 20s identified with narratives of U.S. skepticism, the highest figure among all age groups.

According to the polling organization, one possible reason is that younger Taiwanese are more likely to be sent to the front lines of a possible war.

Most of this can be attributed to the actions of America itself. The disastrous withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and the reluctance of a divided Congress to continue funding the war in Ukraine have contributed to Taiwanese fears that America will abandon them or not intervene if China invades, analysts say.

In 2021. Zhou Shou-kon, a vice presidential candidate for the Gomindang (a conservative political party in Taiwan) who has called for closer ties with China and encouraged U.S. skepticism, warned that "if Taiwan does not want to become a second Afghanistan, it should think clearly about whether it wants war or peace."

"US scepticism has also played a role in 'sowing' doubts," said Qihao Yu, author of the IORG study. "And when the US makes a mistake, it will confirm previous suspicions."

Like other propaganda and disinformation tools, American skepticism also develops thanks to fear, whether it's about food safety or the threat of war.

But it also relies on something fundamental in the Taiwanese psyche: decades of uncertainty about their relationship with America. This is due to Taiwan's "orphan mentality," Mr. Yang argues. "Taiwan has been a colony of many empires, transferred again and again by its previous rulers. This historical perspective has always remained in the collective memory."

"But the most immediate challenge was in 1979. That was the year the US stunned the world and horrified Taiwan when, after months of secret negotiations, it formalised its diplomatic relations with China. By switching recognition from Taipei to Beijing, the US severed its official ties with the island. But it also passed a law saying it must help Taiwan defend itself. To this day, the US maintains close unofficial relations with the island and sells it arms," Yang said.

The diplomatic rift, however, instills the idea that "Taiwan may be abandoned by the US again". The wound is so deep that it spawned a hit Taiwanese song from the 1980s called "Orphan of Asia." It sings of "an orphan crying in the wind" as "the West wind sings a sad song in the East."

"This is why US scepticism often works in tandem with pro-China narratives such as 'forces of pressure and pull' - encouraging Taiwan to engage more with China to ensure peace," Yang added. "If Taiwan is an orphan, it should be a prodigal son returning home to the great China, not remaining a daughter state of the US."

"American assurances are the best antidote to American skepticism," analysts say.

"If our ally can become more aware of the dangers of American scepticism and re-emphasise the good aspects of our partnership, people will see that this relationship is good for us," Mr Yu said. "China does this all the time, they talk about all the benefits Taiwan gets from it. But you don't see that so often in U.S. policy messages."

The island has stepped up its defenses against misinformation with public education campaigns, whistleblower hotlines, and even artificial intelligence chatbots that point out fake news. Taiwan's parliament has also debated laws to combat misinformation, although this has raised concerns about curtailing media freedom. But Taiwan is now estimated to be the world's top location for foreign governments to spread fake information.


According to Wei-Ping Li, a researcher with the anti-disinformation group Taiwan Factcheck Center, years of propaganda and misinformation have polarized society and created a greater distrust of facts.

"The problem is not so much the disinformation, but the attitude of people towards the information, who are now asking: can this even be trusted? They will judge the credibility of information based on their party affiliation or their political views," she said.

Mr Shen warned that while Taiwan is getting better at defending itself, China will get better at influencing discussions with more sophisticated methods.

"Constant warnings from the Taiwanese government about the dangers of Chinese influence, combined with Beijing's efforts to stigmatise criticism of China, have led to fatigue among ordinary Taiwanese," he said.

"These days, even if we want to discuss China's problems, there will be people who will say, 'Why don't you discuss America's problems?"'/BGNES


Tessa Wong, BBC