Taipei, Taiwan
Taipei, Taiwan. Image: Pixabay

Taiwan to reveal Chinese election interference after Jan. 13 vote

Editor's note: Election day is January 13 in Taiwan. Headline and story have been corrected.

The government of Taiwan said it will wait until after Saturday's vote to publish an analysis of Chinese attempts to interfere in its elections, sharing the details to “soften the learning curve for fellow democracies in dealing with malign authoritarian influence.”

Voters are set to head to polling stations Saturday to choose both the country’s president and the 113 representatives of its parliament, the Legislative Yuan. The elections come amid tensions over the future of Taiwan, which has been self-governing but claimed by Beijing since the conclusion of the Chinese Civil War in 1949.

Historically, the Taiwanese government has in turn claimed it is actually the rightful government of mainland China too, although there has been some controversial support for recognising the territory as an independent state.

Joseph Wu, Taiwan’s foreign minister, wrote in The Economist this week that his country is “taking measures to counter China’s interference and is documenting its experiences,” although he did not detail what Beijing’s efforts so far have been.

“Voting will once again be taking place under the shadow of hybrid warfare and covert influence from the People’s Republic of China, which is motivated by a desire to sabotage the rules-based international order and expand its global influence,” Wu wrote.

The front-runner for the Taiwanese presidential election — but only by a small margin — is William Lai Ching-te, who previously campaigned based on his support for Taiwanese independence. His main opponent, Hou Yu-ih, has opposed any direct claim of independence in favor of maintaining the status quo.

Chinese President Xi Jinping in his New Year’s message earlier this week repeated his assertion that Taiwan would “surely be reunified” with the mainland. Beijing has repeatedly refused to discount achieving such a reunification by military means.

The People’s Liberation Army regularly conducts military drills in the Taiwan Strait and there are concerns that a military invasion could spark a war between China and the United States, where President Joe Biden has explicitly pledged U.S. forces would defend the island against an invasion.

Such a war could have significant ramifications in the cyber domain. Jen Easterly, the director of the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, warned last year that the Chinese government would consider destructive or disruptive attacks on American pipelines, railroads and other critical infrastructure if it believed the U.S. would get involved during a potential invasion of Taiwan.

Microsoft also disclosed last year that a Chinese state-sponsored hacking group had gained access to critical infrastructure organizations in Guam. According to The New York Times, the cyber operation raised alarms "because Guam, with its Pacific ports and vast American air base, would be a centerpiece of any American military response to an invasion or blockade of Taiwan.”

President Xi did not reference military action against Taiwan in his speech, acknowledging “conflicts are still raging in some parts of the world” and stating: “We Chinese are keenly aware of what peace means. We will work closely with the international community for the common good of humanity, build a community with a shared future for mankind, and make the world a better place for all.”

There have been numerous allegations of Chinese interference in Taiwan short of military action, with Beijing accused of grooming Taiwanese officials with subsidized trips to the mainland and more than a dozen people on the island charged with spying for China last year alone.

Online attempts to influence the Taiwanese population have been publicly documented for several months. In one case, a faked official document intended to foment distrust of the United States was reported as authentic by one of the country’s most-read newspapers.

Last year, Google reported shutting down tens of thousands of accounts that had been promoting disinformation focusing on Taiwan, while researchers at cybersecurity firm Trellix uncovered a spike in extortion emails from China aimed at Taiwanese officials.

“Our desire is to turn Taiwan’s experience into a positive contribution to the rules-based international order, thereby helping the free world’s fight against authoritarian powers bent on eroding democratic systems. It is our belief that democracy will prevail,” wrote Taiwan’s foreign minister Wu.

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Alexander Martin

Alexander Martin

is the UK Editor for Recorded Future News. He was previously a technology reporter for Sky News and is also a fellow at the European Cyber Conflict Research Initiative.