Johns Hopkins University Press

In January 2020, Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen won reelection with a commanding 57 percent of the vote. The result was a setback for China's Taiwan policy under Xi Jinping, and it demonstrated the impressive resilience of Taiwan's democracy in the face of a relentless pressure campaign from Beijing. These elections illustrated a paradox: Taiwan's economy is deeply entwined with the Chinese mainland's, yet Taiwan has proved especially resistant to Chinese Communist Party (CCP) influence operations. The surprising reversals in the 2020 race suggest that the CCP still struggles to understand how best to influence public opinion in Taiwan.

On 11 January 2020, Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen won reelection with a commanding 57 percent of the vote. She defeated her main challenger, Han Kuo-yu of the Chinese Nationalist Party or Kuomintang (KMT), by more than 18 points, and her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) retained its majority in the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan's unicameral 113-seat parliament. Voters decisively rejected Han's populist appeals and the KMT's calls for closer relations with the People's Republic of China (PRC), and instead chose to keep the more China-skeptical DPP in power. The result was a setback for the PRC's Taiwan policy under Xi Jinping.

The elections also demonstrated the impressive resilience of Taiwan's democracy. During President Tsai's first term, a relentless PRC pressure campaign sought to make the Taiwanese political climate friendlier to Beijing's long-term goal of political unification. The aims were to "punish" President Tsai and the DPP for not endorsing Beijing's preferred version of the One-China Principle—the position that both Taiwan and mainland China are part of the same country, and must work toward political unification—and to deter steps toward independence. This wide-ranging campaign had diplomatic, economic, military, and propaganda components. The PRC's campaign exploited the growing influence of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) over Taiwanese media, business, and civil society to put out more propaganda and disinformation online. It also included increased use of "sharp power" via selective engagement with only the more China-friendly elements of Taiwanese society. These efforts appeared to bear fruit for Beijing in November 2018, when the [End Page 85] DPP took a beating in same-day local elections across the island, and worries mounted about what PRC interference might accomplish in 2020. Even if Beijing-friendly candidates did not win outright, the legitimacy of the winner and of Taiwan's democratic system as a whole might suffer serious damage.

In the end, however, Taiwan's democratic institutions held up. The Taiwanese state showed its underlying strengths: regulatory bodies with broad powers, independent and energetic prosecutors' offices, and above all an excellent system of election management. The Tsai administration, alarmed by the 2018 results, stepped up scrutiny and regulation of PRC-linked groups, while the DPP-led legislature adopted legal changes to stem PRC interference. The well-institutionalized party system made many voters resistant to CCP influence, and Beijing's efforts crashed up against Taiwan's rigid partisan divides. The island's vibrant civil society highlighted dubious online behavior, refuting false rumors and working with social-media companies to combat misinformation on their platforms.

In a surprise twist, as they ramped up in scope and intensity, CCP efforts to influence the 2020 campaign proved clumsy and often counterproductive. Beijing's open disdain for Tsai and the DPP, paired with the enthusiastic support that Han received from pro-unification media outlets and businesses in Taiwan, left Han open to charges that if elected he would be a mere CCP tool. When in June 2019 Hong Kong erupted in protests over Beijing's latest attempt to erode local autonomy, the campaign in Taiwan became focused on sovereignty and security rather than the economy, driving Han and the KMT even further into a defensive crouch. In most documented cases of disinformation during the campaign, it is impossible to determine whether interference efforts from outside Taiwan came from official CCP-sanctioned groups or amateurs operating for the most part independently. But either way, these efforts seem to have worked against Beijing's "defeat Tsai" project: Within a year, she went from probable loser to 18-point winner.

The 2020 elections thus illustrate a paradox: Taiwan's economy is deeply entwined with the mainland's, and the CCP (given the common language) presumably has a feel for the "pressure points" in Taiwanese culture and society that it may lack in other cases, yet Taiwan has proved especially resistant to PRC influence. Taiwanese democracy has grown up under the shadow of an existential threat across the Taiwan Strait, helping to inoculate it against CCP tactics that have proven more effective [End Page 86] in other contexts, where they can operate with much less awareness and scrutiny.

In Taiwan, Beijing's preferred candidates have tended to do best when Beijing does least—threats and overt endorsements have usually served only to strengthen PRC-skeptical voices over friendlier ones. Beijing's attempts to wield sharp power via selective engagement—refusing to do business with anyone who will not disavow independence—have failed to make Taiwanese public opinion more favorable to unification. The 2020 campaign followed this pattern: Xi Jinping's hard line on the future of cross-Strait relations and the anti-CCP protests in Hong Kong overwhelmed whatever soft-power attraction or sharp-power weapons Beijing tried to wield. The voters rejected PRC pressure and gave Tsai and her party four more years.

The CCP Brings the Pressure

The day President Tsai took office, 20 May 2016, the PRC rolled out the first in a series of moves meant to change the cross-Strait status quo and challenge her. Beijing suspended the cross-Strait hotline and other formal high-level communication channels that had been set up under President Ma Ying-jeou (2008-16), Tsai's KMT predecessor. It blocked Taiwan from its observer role in international bodies such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Civil Aviation Organization. It resumed trying to strip Taiwan of its remaining formal diplomatic relations with other governments, eventually flipping seven of the 22 states that had recognized Taiwan to nonrecognition. It reduced PRC tourism to Taiwan, and later suspended the Ma-era independent-traveler program under which mainlanders had been making cross-Strait visits.

In January 2018, Beijing began giving the screws some fresh turns. It unilaterally introduced a new civil-flight route over the Taiwan Strait, abrogating a previous understanding with the Ma administration. In April, it ordered foreign air carriers and hotel chains to list Taiwanese destinations as being located in China. In July, Beijing forced the East Asian Olympic Committee to rescind Taichung City's right to host the 2019 East Asian Youth Games. Throughout this time, PRC authorities repeatedly detained Taiwanese nationals on vague national-security charges without notifying Taiwanese authorities. The PRC military maneuvered near Taiwan's territorial waters and airspace; bombers several times circled the main island. On 31 March 2019 there was an apparently deliberate incursion by PRC fighter jets across the midline of the Taiwan Strait—the first such incident in two decades.

The pressure campaign also featured intensified efforts to make public opinion in Taiwan more open to unification. Selective engagement played a role. Cultural and civic exchanges with the DPP were frozen, [End Page 87] but the CCP continued to allow other cross-Strait social, economic, and political groups to interact so long as they avoided saying anything favorable about independence.

Beijing also tried to exploit its economic leverage over Taiwan, which had grown over the past two decades as the mainland became Taiwan's biggest trading partner and locus of external investment. The PRC kept open cross-Strait economic and transport links while trying to encourage a "brain drain" with generous pay and benefits for the island's best and brightest if they would take jobs on the mainland. Restrictions on Taiwanese investment in "sensitive" PRC industries such as energy, entertainment, finance, and infrastructure were relaxed. Taiwanese nationals with at least six months of residency in the PRC were granted permanent-residence cards that gave them access to welfare benefits and unemployment insurance plus free schooling and medical care. Legal rights and protections for Taiwanese in PRC courts were also strengthened.1

The CCP also appeared to step up covert efforts to influence Taiwan's public discourse. Since the democratic transition of the late 1980s, many of Taiwan's media outlets have had strong partisan leanings, but at the same time have been averse to anything that looks like censorship or government control regardless of who has been in power. That began to change in 2009, however, when one of Taiwan's richest men, Tsai Engmeng (no relation to the president), purchased the China Times Group, which included the China Times newspaper plus two television stations, CTV and CTiTV. The Taiwan-born Tsai is founder and chairman of a snack-food company whose main market is mainland China. He openly backs unification. After he took over the China Times Group, its outlets dropped their traditional moderation and pivoted toward the pro-Beijing extreme. Critical coverage of PRC politics waned as reporting took on a strong pro-CCP tone. Stories that showed the mainland in a negative light were ignored, while the DPP and the broader pro-independence agenda received hostile scrutiny.2

By the time President Tsai took office, Tsai Eng-meng's television stations with their major audience shares had become reliably pro-Beijing and anti-DPP. The changes at the China Times, though gradual, were even more noticeable. The venerable Times—founded in 1950, just after the establishment of the Republic of China on the island—is Taiwan's paper of record. In one particularly alarming move, its managers quietly scrubbed its online archive of all content related to the Tiananmen Square crackdown just before the thirtieth anniversary of that event.3 The Times mostly ignored the 2019 Hong Kong protests, instead filling its front page with stories about DPP infighting. That July, the London-based Financial Times revealed what was already an open secret among journalists in Taiwan—that editors at China Times Group outlets were in regular touch with Beijing's Taiwan Affairs Office.4 [End Page 88]

Other circumstantial evidence also points to a stepped-up CCP disinformation campaign during Tsai's first term. In August 2019, Reuters reported that the PRC had been secretly paying to place positive stories about the mainland in Taiwanese papers.5 Many misleading online stories and false social-media rumors in recent years have been traced to mainland sources. In the most prominent instance, Professional Technology Temple, an online bulletin board popular with students and professionals, carried reports in September 2018 that the PRC consulate was evacuating Taiwanese travelers stranded at Osaka's airport after a typhoon because Taiwan's office there was failing to help. When traditional media picked up the claim, an avalanche of criticism fell on the DPP government. This report was eventually debunked and traced to mainland "content farms," but only after it may have contributed to a Taiwanese official's suicide.6

Other false social-media rumors have included a photograph purportedly showing citrus fruits being dumped into a reservoir by Taiwanese farmers no longer able to export them to the mainland, and claims that President Tsai in August 2018 had toured a typhoon-flooded area while riding atop an armored vehicle or surrounded by soldiers with loaded guns.7 In each case, doctored photos and false captions went around online and via private messaging before being debunked. The original source each time appeared to be from the Chinese mainland.8

This influence campaign also extended to an old-fashioned medium of political communication: radio. Local radio stations in Taiwan have traditionally been a hotbed of pro-independence opinion. Most broadcast in Taiwanese Hokkien rather than Mandarin, and many hold call-in shows that discuss political news and promote independence and Taiwanese identity. By 2019, however, observers were noting more Mandarin-language mainland songs, on-air exchanges with radio hosts in mainland cities, and promotion of the candidacy of Han Kuo-yu—a striking shift in tone and language from past practice.9

The 2018 Alarm Bell

The CCP's pressure came to a head as the 24 November 2018 local elections drew near. The DPP had gone into the campaign on the defensive, dragged down by President Tsai's low approval ratings and its own increasingly restless, disillusioned base. The KMT, by contrast, was energized. Cross-Strait pressure had little to do with any of this: Taiwan's politics are normally quite contentious. The DPP had split over labor, energy, and pension reforms that were languishing in the legislature even as the KMT was mobilizing and many of President's Tsai's erstwhile supporters were drifting away.10 Yet the hostility emanating from Beijing surely was no help. The "pan-blue" (pro-KMT) portion of the media put out a steady drumbeat of charges that the ruling party was [End Page 89] feckless and unfit to lead, while the KMT itself missed no chance to blame President Tsai for the deterioration in cross-Strait relations.

The CCP also influenced—though just how much is hard to say—the 2018 campaign's most startling turn. This was the sudden rise from obscurity of Han Kuo-yu. A 61-year-old career KMT politician nominated to run for mayor in the deep-green (pro-DPP) city of Kaohsiung, Han made surprising headway with an unconventional, populism-tinged campaign. Rather than repeat generic KMT talking points, he lamented that Kaohsiung had fallen behind other cities under DPP leadership, and that corrupt political elites had forgotten the interests of the "common people." He promised change in the form of renewed exports, with fresh investment and residents to follow. Or as he pithily put it, "goods go out, people come in." He also appealed to those nostalgic for the authoritarian era of Chiang Kai-shek and his son Chiang Ching-kuo (stretching in total from 1949 to 1988), when growth could top 10 percent a year and no one had yet experienced the messy and at times raucous democratic politics of the post-Chiang years.

As Han, a charismatic speaker, began drawing large crowds, the pan-blue media gave him blanket coverage. The China Times Group led the charge: One study found that CTV and CtiTV devoted more than half their November 2018 election coverage to Han.11 Mainland-based cybergroups, especially on Facebook, seem to have helped Han online from early in the campaign. Fan pages devoted to him saw their membership surge.12

By election day, Han had become the face of the KMT. He enjoyed almost universal name recognition across Taiwan, was in high demand for appearances on behalf of other KMT candidates, and had attracted a passionate following from the party's deep-blue base. When he managed to pull off his upset victory in Kaohsiung, winning 54 percent in a longtime DPP stronghold, he became item one in the story of the KMT's stunning electoral comeback. The party won 15 of 22 local executive offices (up from a mere half-dozen in 2014) and suddenly looked as if it might be able to take back power in 2020.

This reversal of fortunes also raised fears both in Taiwan and abroad that Beijing would greet 2020 with an even bigger disinformation and media-manipulation onslaught meant to turn Tsai and the DPP out of office. Even if Han's run for the presidency fell short, some worried, Taiwan's democratic institutions might be destabilized. The CCP's increasingly aggressive influence campaigns in other countries in the region and beyond, and the growing cross-Strait power imbalance, added to a sense that Taiwan's democracy was more vulnerable than it had been in decades, and that it would face an unprecedented challenge in trying to conduct a fair, legitimate, and transparent election campaign and vote.13

In the end, however, other events—and Taiwan's democratic defenses—proved too much for the CCP's influence campaign to overcome. What had looked in December 2018 like a growing pro-PRC populist [End Page 90] wave had subsided by January 2020. Instead, support for Tsai and the DPP gradually recovered until, by the last quarter of 2019, they had regained their lead in the polls. The way this happened can tell us a great deal about the sources of Taiwan's democratic resilience.

Why No Replay of 2018?

The first thing to note is how the CCP's hardline approach backfired. Beijing's long-term aim is to persuade more Taiwanese to support eventual unification, but the short-term influence operation against President Tsai and the DPP worked against this goal. Xi Jinping himself misfired in a 2 January 2019 speech on the "Taiwan question." Timed to coincide with the fortieth anniversary of Deng Xiaoping's "Message to Taiwan Compatriots," Xi's address mostly just restated the core PRC position on Taiwan: He stressed that peaceful unification under "One Country Two Systems" (OC2S)—the same rubric under which the Hong Kong handover from Britain had taken place in 1997—was the only possible future for cross-Strait relations.

In offering no softening of this position, let alone actual concessions, Xi had not anticipated the effect that it would have on Taiwanese public opinion. Tsai answered him within hours, denouncing his definition of the One-China Principle and asserting that the "vast majority of Taiwanese . . . resolutely oppose" OC2S.14 The forcefulness of her rebuttal, and the attention and support across party lines that it received in Taiwan, caught Beijing off guard. It also put the KMT in a bind. Its leaders had to scramble to make clear that their party's version of the One-China Principle differed from Xi's, and that the KMT had no more liking for the idea of unification under OC2S than the DPP did. This retort to Xi gave Tsai a significant boost in the polls that lasted for months.

A second significant event was Han Kuo-yu's decision to seek the KMT presidential nomination soon after he had taken office as mayor of Kaohsiung. This move had unanticipated political consequences. His come-from-behind win in that city had put the pan-green camp on high alert: There would be no complacency in DPP ranks about the 2020 race. Moreover, the cheerleading for Han by the China Times Group and other pan-blue outlets reinforced rumors that Beijing was covertly supporting his candidacy and funneling resources to him. (The rumors grew even stronger when, on a visit to Hong Kong and mainland China in March, Han was warmly received by high-level PRC officials.)

The DPP's own nomination contest took on new heat in March 2019, when former premier William Lai decided to challenge Tsai and weeks were spent arguing over how to conduct the primary. Once the polls were held and Tsai had won, however, the DPP closed ranks. Lai quickly endorsed her, calling the CCP a dire threat to Taiwan's democracy far outweighing any intraparty differences. Motivated at least as much by fear of [End Page 91] a Han presidency as by enthusiasm for Tsai, the DPP went into the 2020 campaign more unified than had seemed possible just six months earlier.

Han had the opposite effect on the KMT. Previous KMT nominees had all compiled long records of public and party service before running for president. Han, by contrast, was a freshly minted mayor with little executive experience of any kind, yet he was trying to leapfrog several other much more experienced contenders. Party power brokers such as former president Ma looked askance at Han as a party outsider with a weak grasp of policy details and a penchant for exaggerated, politically incorrect remarks. What had promised to be a walkover by Han became a struggle. Although he eventually secured the nomination, two of his primary opponents refused to endorse him and instead flirted with third-party runs, adding to the KMT's internal discord.

Third, alongside Beijing's maladroitness and the problems that Han's rise created inside the KMT, the protests that began in Hong Kong in June 2019 swung Taiwan's race toward sovereignty and security issues—ground that favored the DPP. The impression (fair or not) that Han was Beijing's preferred candidate did him no good. His struggles to articulate a careful and consistent cross-Strait policy stance in the face of apparent PRC threats further undercut his appeal. A revealing moment came at the very outset of the Hong Kong protests on June 9, when Han feigned ignorance, then dismissed them as a "parade." He backtracked under a deluge of criticism—later that month, he would vow that OC2S would take effect in Taiwan only "over my dead body"—but the damage had been done.15

Han's campaign strategy was to deflect concerns about the China threat by talking about the economy and Taiwan's diplomatic isolation. This approach faltered as rumors of CCP interference in the race grew louder. By September, his lead in the polls had vanished, and as the campaign entered the home stretch in December, Han's talking points about the cross-Strait relationship appeared increasingly naïve. Beijing's warm embrace had turned into a serious liability, and polls showed him 15 to 30 points behind Tsai.

Fourth, geopolitics gave President Tsai an unexpected economic boost. In response to the U.S.-PRC trade confrontation, Taiwanese firms worried by the prospect of U.S. tariffs on Chinese-made goods began routing investment away from the mainland and back onto the island. As 2019 wore on, economic growth was beating forecasts: It would end up being a surprisingly robust 2.7 percent for the year. This boost was [End Page 92] more than enough to offset a drop in tourism from the mainland and the expiration of Ma-era purchasing and export agreements with Beijing. Taiwan's prosperity suddenly appeared to depend less on PRC benevolence than Han and many others in the KMT were claiming.

Together, these four factors flipped the script of the 2020 campaign. Tsai had closed 2018 looking like she had at best a very narrow path to reelection. A year later, she enjoyed a commanding lead in the polls, with retention of the DPP legislative majority appearing likely as well. Sovereignty and security concerns had swung public opinion behind the incumbent. As the Hong Kong protests continued and more news about the PRC's efforts to interfere in Taiwan's politics broke, Tsai's standing kept rising. In November 2019, an alleged CCP spy defected in Australia and claimed that he had been engaging in anti-DPP activity.16 If it seemed that the CCP was laying siege to Taiwan's democracy, the DPP's answer was clear: Vote for Tsai and stick it to Beijing.17

Even as Han's polling numbers dropped, enthusiasm among deep-blue voters remained high. Han himself charged that the surveys were biased and urged supporters to lie if pollsters called. Many of his followers may have done so, as polls in December showed Han's support falling, implausibly, below 20 percent.18 To keep up belief that Han could win, pundits on CTV and CtiTV even aired a conspiracy theory that the Tsai administration was manipulating the national telephone-number database from which poll respondents were drawn to overrepresent "green" voters. The ten-day polling blackout before the election saw Tsai supporters—some no doubt mindful of the British and U.S. polling "misses" regarding Brexit and the 2016 presidential election—worrying that Han might stage a surprise comeback. Many of Han's most fervent fans remained convinced that he would win, buoyed by the pan-blue media's coverage and the large, enthusiastic crowds that turned out for his final rallies.

Yet within two hours after the polls closed on January 11, it was clear that President Tsai would win easily, though the contest for the legislature was closer. Ultimately, she obtained 8.2 million votes, a record for a presidential candidate in Taiwan (population 23.7 million). Turnout was almost 75 percent, up more than eight percentage points from 2016. Han successfully mobilized the KMT base, but he also drove nearly everyone else to Tsai. Younger voters turned out in droves for her—or against Han. Many of them made long trips back to their hometowns to cast their ballots. In races for the Legislative Yuan, the DPP's party-list vote share dropped nearly ten points, but it retained a narrow majority of 62 seats (or 64 if two allied legislators are counted). The KMT picked up just three seats, failing to reverse its decade-long electoral decline.

That night, Han's concession speech was covered live by all Taiwan's major broadcasters, including CTV and CtiTV. He waited almost five hours after the polls closed to give it, but when he finally spoke he freely acknowledged his defeat, thanked his supporters, called for unity, [End Page 93] and wished Tsai well. Worries that the result would be disputed, or that fervent Han supporters would refuse to accept it, proved mercifully unfounded. The legitimacy of Taiwan's electoral process was not in dispute.

Taiwan's Enduring Democratic Strengths

Why did Beijing's pressure campaign fail to defeat Tsai and the DPP? First, CCP influence operations, such as they were, proved to be surprisingly clumsy and poorly coordinated with Xi Jinping's broader Taiwan policy. It is unclear whether Beijing came to view the elections as a lost cause, holding back some of its covert firepower, or whether it never had the capabilities that some thought it did.19 Whatever the case, most of what was feared—massive vote-buying, disruptions by organized crime, a flood of "dark money" into the campaign—never came to pass. Moreover, the surprising reversals in the race suggest that, even after almost 25 years of trying, the CCP still struggles to understand how best to influence public opinion in Taiwan.

Beijing's use of its more coercive tools typically backfires sooner or later when its meddling is exposed. Its default method of deploying sharp power—engaging only those people whom it likes, and threatening those whom it dislikes—has been counterproductive. The net effect has been to reinforce the idea that the PRC is a hostile foreign power bent on annexing Taiwan and thwarting its people's aspirations to rule themselves by democratic means.

The CCP's ham-fisted efforts to influence the elections also crashed against the rigid partisan divisions over what Taiwanese call the "China question": What should be Taiwan's relationship with the PRC? Should Taiwan formally declare that it is a fully independent country, regardless of the consequences? Should it accept some sort of "special administrative region" status within the People's Republic, like the one that Hong Kong lives under? Or is there some other desired end state between those two poles that Taiwan should pursue? Taiwan's major political parties are highly institutionalized, and each is deeply committed to its particular stance on the China question: The KMT has long favored a more accommodating cross-Strait relationship and opposed de-Sinification, while the DPP has been more skeptical of Beijing, supportive of the "Taiwanization" of political and cultural symbols, and inclined toward independence.

Many Taiwanese decry these partisan divides as a problem for democratic consolidation. To be sure, it would be better if the country were unified in recognizing the danger of PRC sharp power and supportive of strategies to counter it.20 But polarization over the China question has nevertheless provided Taiwan with the next best thing—it has solidified a large bloc of DPP supporters who are reflexively suspicious of pro-China candidates, messaging, and activities. As a result, attempts [End Page 94] by politicians, media outlets, academics, and other opinion leaders in Taiwan to promote China-friendly messages usually provoke heated counterarguments and insinuations that those individuals are secretly doing Beijing's bidding.21

Second, the Taiwanese state showed that it could respond effectively to the challenge of foreign interference in its elections—particularly once the Tsai administration began to take the threat seriously. For Taiwan's security establishment, the 2018 local elections were a wake-up call. The pace of legal and regulatory changes made to counter potential CCP influence operations quickened after that. Prosecutors' offices went into overdrive during the 2020 campaign, focusing not only on the more traditional types of election malfeasance such as vote-buying, but also on allegations of possible CCP spies and agents.22

The central government also set up a task force to coordinate an interagency response to disinformation and began to work more closely with social-media companies, such as the Japanese messaging app LINE, to stop the viral spread of misinformation and to issue timely corrections. To constrict channels of illegitimate influence, Taiwan's cabinet also introduced regulatory changes. It began barring Taiwanese who held PRC residency cards from running for office, and fining those who failed to report having acquired such cards. It raised penalties for falsifying country-of-origin labels to hide Chinese imports, and it stepped up enforcement. It introduced a ban on government procurement of Chinese communications technology, including services and equipment from Alibaba, Huawei, and Lenovo. Taipei also banned the online-meeting app Zoom. It stepped up monitoring, public shaming, and fines—but significantly, not closures—of media outlets for slanted reporting and failing to fact-check news reports that proved false. And it hiked fines for evading the official review process that is required for mainland-Chinese investments in Taiwan.

After the 2018 elections came changes in laws as well. The DPP used its legislative majority to pass amendments to the Political Parties Act that required all registered parties to issue annual financial statements meeting actuarial standards. A new Foundations Act created a regulatory framework to oversee private foundations that receive public money. Changes to the Civil Servants Act lengthened the time after leaving government during which former public officials may not visit the PRC. Finally and most controversially, less than two weeks before the 2020 elections, the ruling party passed an Anti-Infiltration Act barring Taiwanese citizens from accepting money or taking instructions from foreign "hostile forces" to lobby for political causes, make political donations, or disrupt political processes.

Third, civil society and private companies cooperated to counter the PRC disinformation threat. Facebook in Taiwan has one of the highest market-penetration rates in the world; in 2017, it had an estimated [End Page 95] sixteen-million unique daily users, making it the single most important medium for political communication. In the 2020 campaign, Facebook became more proactive in combatting what it termed "inauthentic behavior" on its platform. In one notable instance, the service shut down more than a hundred fan pages and related accounts linked to Han Kuo-yu for "violating the terms of its regulations."23

Facebook also forged a partnership with a small NGO, the Taiwan FactCheck Center (TFC), to identify and rebut false stories posted to its platform. Facebook users who wanted to read or share stories flagged by the TFC were directed first to a fact-check page that the TFC had written. Other companies, including LINE and Twitter, also appeared to act more aggressively to identify and remove false reports and phony "bot" accounts. Taiwan's experience suggests that, under the right conditions, private social-media companies can successfully counter disinformation campaigns on their platforms.

Finally, Taiwan's system of election management prevented what could have been a dangerous delegitimization of the election results. The conduct of elections is a hidden strength of Taiwan's democracy: The system verges on incorruptible. The voter rolls are taken from household-registration data and updated automatically. Polling stations are plentiful and well marked, and voters rarely face a long wait to cast their ballots. Separate paper ballots are printed for each contest and have a uniform appearance across all jurisdictions. Voters indicate their choice in a clearly delineated box below the candidate's name and picture by using a special stamp provided in each booth. This method minimizes the spoiled-ballot rate, which (at 1 to 2 percent) is among the world's lowest. Poll workers are well-trained and experienced volunteers, typically schoolteachers, and unconnected to political parties or campaigns. The voting procedure is standardized and clearly spelled out by the Central Election Commission (CEC) in regulations issued months before election day, and compliance by poll workers is almost universal. Elections are always held on Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Any member of the public may observe voters cast their ballots and watch the ballot boxes, which are placed in a highly visible location in each polling station.

Once the polls close, the same workers count the ballots one by one at the polling station itself, in plain view of anyone who wants to observe. The final tallies are then posted outside the entrance, while the pollmaster calls in the results to the CEC. The full count takes, on average, less than three hours to complete for the typical precinct, and it is exceptionally simple, transparent, efficient, and accurate. One would be hard-pressed to find a less "hackable" voting system anywhere in the world.

Thus, as the vote count for the 2020 elections started, the national trend quickly became obvious. When Tsai ran close to Han even in deep-blue precincts, it was clear that she was headed for victory—the only question was how large the margin would be. No disinformation [End Page 96] campaign to delegitimize the results stood a chance in the face of this reliable, localized, low-tech vote count.

A Tricky Balancing Act

The reelection of Tsai Ing-wen and the DPP was a significant setback for Xi Jinping's Taiwan policy. Taiwan's democracy stood up well to a relentless CCP pressure campaign intended to sway the outcome of the 2020 elections. It is not yet clear what lessons Beijing will draw from this setback, or how its strategy of the last four years might change. Most likely, Xi Jinping will attempt to recalibrate Taiwan policy but will not alter its fundamental direction. Beijing could widen the circle of Taiwanese whom it attempts to woo via selective engagement (reaching to figures such as the independent mayor of Taipei, Ko Wen-je) while redoubling the pressure on Tsai, the DPP, and other China-skeptical groups. The same fundamental dynamics of Taiwanese politics will still come into play, however. Public opinion regarding cross-Strait relations ultimately decides most election outcomes, and even Beijing-friendly candidates will still be constrained by the need to court moderate swing voters. The CCP has not found a way to make unification more appealing to the Taiwanese mass public, so CCP efforts to sway elections will probably continue to backfire as long as Taiwan remains democratic.

As for the future of Taiwan's democracy, its resilience in 2020 should not be allowed to obscure some serious, persistent weaknesses. Its media environment is still excessively sensationalist, hypercompetitive, and unprofitable, making it vulnerable to outside manipulation. Its campaign-finance laws remain lax and poorly enforced. Civil society and religious groups are lightly regulated, and many operate outside state scrutiny. Partisan divisions continue to hamper the development of a unified response to PRC threats. Above all, Taiwan's economy remains deeply intertwined with that of mainland China and vulnerable to economic coercion. Shoring up these weak spots will require a tricky balancing act: Taiwan must guard against dangers emanating from CCP-linked groups but also continue to uphold civil liberties, equal treatment under the law, and free cross-Strait exchanges even for Taiwanese who favor unification.

In the months since the January 2020 elections, Taiwan has provided another impressive demonstration of its democratic resilience, capacity, and unity of purpose in the face of dissembling and disinformation from Beijing. Health officials in Taiwan responded quickly in January to rumors of a novel coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, and they began activating health protocols well before most of the rest of the world. By May, Taiwan had effectively stopped all local transmission of the virus without resorting to the draconian city-wide quarantines of the PRC or even the shelter-in-place requirements imposed by many democratic governments. (In an ironic twist, this response also smoothed the way for a June 6 special [End Page 97] election in Kaohsiung, in which residents overwhelmingly voted to recall Han Kuo-yu as mayor after only eighteen months in office.) Despite deep partisan divides on the China question, the Tsai administration's testing, monitoring, and quarantine policies have been broadly supported across party lines. The head of the government's response team, Health Minister Chen Shih-chung, has become the most popular public figure in Taiwan thanks to his straightforward, informative daily briefings. Taiwan's "mask diplomacy" to aid other countries badly hit by coronavirus outbreaks has also helped to raise Taiwan's international standing relative to the PRC, and has even increased international support for Taiwan's renewed participation in the WHO, which Beijing began blocking in 2016 as part of its anti-Tsai pressure campaign.

As both the elections and the pandemic make clear, Taiwan has a good shot at prevailing against the expansionary authoritarianism of the PRC over the long run. That regime's vast propaganda efforts paint a picture of an unassailable juggernaut that will inevitably assimilate Taiwan's political system and its people—but this message conceals a great deal of weakness. Taiwan's best defense against the PRC threat is to continue the long struggle to reform and strengthen its own democratic institutions and practices. [End Page 98]

Kharis Templeman

Kharis Templeman is advisor to the Project on Taiwan in the Indo-Pacific at the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace. He is coeditor (with Yun-han Chu and Larry Diamond) of Taiwan's Democracy Challenged: The Chen Shui-bian Years (2016).


1. For more details, see Kharis Templeman, "Taiwan's January 2020 Elections: Prospects and Implications for China and the United States," Brookings Institution, December 2019, 5-8.

2. See "One Country, One Censor: How China Undermines Media Freedom in Hong Kong and Taiwan," The Committee to Protect Journalists, 16 December 2019,

3. Chen Cheng-wei, "China Times Removes June 4 Reports; External Searches Come Up Empty," Central News Agency, 13 June 2019 [in Chinese],

4. Kathrin Hille, "Taiwan Primaries Highlight Fears over China's Political Influence," Financial Times, 16 July 2019,

5. Yimou Lee and I-hwa Cheng, "Paid 'News': China Using Taiwan Media to Win Hearts and Minds on Island—Sources," Reuters, 9 August 2019,

6. Kristin Huang, "Taiwanese Official Criticised for Handling of Typhoon Jebi Evacuation Found Dead in Osaka," South China Morning Post (Hong Kong), 14 September 2018,

7. Matthew Strong, "Taiwan Police Detains Man for Spreading Fake News About President," Taiwan News, 6 October 2018,

8. Gary Schmitt and Michael Mazza, "Blinding the Enemy: CCP Interference in Taiwan's Democracy," Global Taiwan Institute, October 2019, 7-8.

9. "We Sell Drugs, and Taiwan: China's Hold on Taiwan's Radio," Ketagalan Media, 28 June 2019,

10. Templeman, "Taiwan's January 2020 Elections," 8–9.

11. Shelley Shan, "Han Dominated TV Coverage of 2018 Polls: Study," Taipei Times, 6 June 2019,

12. Paul Huang, "Chinese Cyber-Operatives Boosted Taiwan's Insurgent Candidate." Foreign Policy, 26 June 2019,

13. Chris Horton, "Specter of Meddling by Beijing Looms over Taiwan's Elections," New York Times, 22 November 2018; Michelle Tsai, "The China Factor in Taiwan's Local Elections," The Diplomat, 6 December 2018,; Josh Rogin, "Chinese Interference in the 2018 Elections Succeeded—In Taiwan," Washington Post, 18 December 2018; "Even as Taiwan Perfects Its Democracy, China Is Sabotaging It," Economist, 12 January 2019,; Joshua Kurlantzick, "How China Is Interfering in Taiwan's Election," Council on Foreign Relations, 7 November 2019,; Raymond Zhong, "Awash in Disinformation Before Vote, Taiwan Points Finger at China," New York Times, 6 January 2020.

14. See Tsai's full statement at

15. Keoni Everington, "'I Don't Know' Says Kaohsiung Mayor Han When Asked About Hong Kong Protests," Taiwan News, 10 June 2019,; "Han Repeats Stance on 'Two Systems,'" Taipei Times, 17 June 2019, 3.

16. Nick McKenzie, Paul Sakkal, and Grace Tobin, "Defecting Chinese Spy Offers Information Trove to Australian Government," The Age, 23 November 2019.

17. Steven Lee Myers and Chris Horton, "Claims of China's Meddling Roil Taiwan Ahead of Elections," New York Times, 6 December 2019.

18. "Han Kuo-yu Calls for Boycott of Opinion Polls Ahead of Election," Focus Taiwan, 29 November 2019,

19. For one assessment that finds no concrete evidence of a deliberate, centrally coordinated disinformation campaign from the PRC, see the Stanford Internet Observatory report, "Taiwan Election: Disinformation as a Partisan Issue," 21 January 2020,

20. For instance, see Richard Bush and Ryan Hass, "Taiwan's Democracy and the China Challenge," Brookings Institution, February 2019.

21. See also Kharis Templeman, "Blessings in Disguise: How Authoritarian Legacies and the China Factor Have Strengthened Democracy in Taiwan," International Journal of Taiwan Studies 2 (September 2019): 230–63.

22. Steven Lee Myers and Chris Horton, "Taiwan Detains Two Executives of Firm Accused of Spying for China," New York Times, 25 November 2019. KMT supporters in turn complained, with some justification, about overzealous prosecutors investigating people for expressing pro-Beijing sentiments online or for simply having been recent visitors to the mainland. See Sean Lin, "KMT Says DPP Silencing Online Critics," Taipei Times, 5 January 2020.

23. "Han Kuo-yu Fan Pages Removed by Facebook for Rule Violations," Focus Taiwan, 13 December 2019,

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