TAIPEI - A Taipei think tank and observers in Taiwan say China is trying to influence residents with "cognitive warfare," hoping to reverse opposition to Beijing's desired takeover of Taiwan so it can be accomplished without having to go to war.
Taiwanese attitudes have been drifting away from the mainland, especially among the younger generation, whose members see themselves "born independent" with no ties to China.
China's effort, these analysts say, includes tactics ranging from military intimidation and propaganda to misinformation spread by its army of online trolls in a bid to manipulate public opinion. They say the complexity and frequency of the effort puts Taiwan on a constant defensive.
"Its ultimate goal is to control what's between the ears. That is, your brain or how you think, which [Beijing] hopes leads to a change of behavior," Tzeng Yi-suo, director of the cybersecurity division at the government-funded Institute of National Defense and Security Research in Taipei, told VOA.
Campaign intensifies amid COVID
Cognitive warfare is a fairly new term, but the concept has been around for decades. China has never stopped trying to deter the island's separatists, according to Tzeng, who wrote about the Chinese efforts last month in the institute's annual report on China's political and military development.
Liberal democracies such as Taiwan, that ensure the free flow of information, are vulnerable to cognitive attacks by China, while China's tightly controlled media and internet environment makes it difficult for democracies to counterattack, according to Tzeng.
China's campaign has intensified since the outbreak of COVID-19, using official means such as flying military jets over Taiwan, and unofficial channels such as news outlets, social media and hackers to spread misinformation. The effort is aimed at dissuading Taiwan from pursuing actions contrary to Beijing's interests, the report said.
China has used these tactics to attack Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen's administration, undermine support for democracy and fuel Taiwan's social tensions and political divide, it said.
The South China Situation Probing Initiative, for example, a project run by Najing University in China, has disseminated information about Chinese military activities in the region through its Twitter account, but some of the posts have been found to be false, apparently aimed at intimidating Taiwan's public and weakening Tsai's Democratic Progressive Party government's resolve, according to the report.
Tzeng said China's efforts didn't work in Taiwan's presidential election last January, when Tsai won a landslide victory. The island's growing anti-China sentiments - seem further strengthened by disapproval of China's brutal suppression of pro-democracy Hong Kong protests.
China "set out to [actively] promote the island's reunification with the mainland, its identity as ethnic Chinese or favorable views toward the CCP [Chinese Communist Party]. But now all it can hope for is to curb Taiwan's [growing] pro-independence sentiments" - a trend Beijing has found it difficult to contain, he said.
Tzeng added that he believes China is biding its time and experimenting with new tactics, which it hopes will succeed in influencing the island's future elections.
For example, the report said that China's Communist Party is believed to have played a role in hacking Tsai's office in May to discredit her. Reporters covering her office at the time claimed to have received minutes of internal meetings from an anonymous email account, which accused the president of corruption. Tsai's administration responded by saying that the documents had been doctored and contained fabricated content.
Taiwan should, Tzeng said, stay alert and establish a comprehensive fact-checking system to prevent fake news and misinformation from subverting public opinion.
Taiwan should also "work with regional and global liberal democracies to establish a common defense mechanism" as China's influencing attacks have a global outreach and aren't limited to Taiwan. They constitute the most serious challenge facing democratic societies today, Tung Li-wen, former head of the ruling DPP's China affairs department, wrote in a 2019 essay.
Chinese citizen journalist and blogger Zhou Shuguang, who now lives in Taiwan, said many Chinese have taken to the internet to spread China's narrative. Two groups of such online promoters of China's narrative are known as "Little Pink" and "50 Cent Party," The groups, he said, have formed China's sizable army of online trolls to spread fake news, for example, rumors about Tsai's academic background. Despite repeated clarifications, many kept circling rumors that the president's 1984 doctorate degree from the London School of Economics was fake.
A 2016 study, led by Harvard University data scientist Gary King, found that 50 Cent Party produced 488 million "fake" social media posts a year to distract other internet users from news and online discussions painting the Communist Party in a negative light.
Global propaganda campaign
China has also been aggressive in expanding its global propaganda campaign to "tell China's story well" and disrupt democracy, said Huang Jaw-nian, an assistant professor of National Chengchi University in Taipei, who specializes in media politics.
"[China] is running its global propaganda campaign by expanding its state media abroad and deploying a strategy called 'borrowing a boat out to sea,' that is, buying up foreign news outlets [with better credibility]... The media buyouts are, in some cases, made by pro-Beijing businesspeople," who will likely spin coverage to curry favor with China, Huang told VOA.
However, Li Zhenguang, deputy director of Beijing Union University's Institute of Taiwan Studies, flatly denied that China has launched any efforts against Taiwan or Tsai's administration.
"She [Tsai] is putting a feather in her own cap. She is a nobody to China. I find the accusations nonsense. Why on earth does China want to attack her?" he told VOA over the phone, refusing to elaborate.