Elections Taiwan

New Atlanticist

December 19, 2023

What to know about China’s meddling in Taiwan’s upcoming election

By Lev Nachman and Wen-Ti Sung

Join Global China Hub for expert insight and analysis on the global implications for Taiwan’s upcoming presidential race.

Now that all the candidacies have been finalized, and pan-opposition unity talks have broken down, Taiwan’s 2024 presidential election has coalesced into a three-way race with each party in it to win. No more playing nice.

As in the past few months, the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) presidential candidate, Lai Ching-te, still leads with a plurality in the polls. Meanwhile, the established opposition party Kuomintang (KMT) and the relatively new Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) are locked in a battle for second place, though the KMT increasingly seems to have the upper hand.

PRC misinformation in Taiwan’s elections

It is never a question of if the People’s Republic of China (PRC) will try to influence Taiwan’s elections, but how the PRC will try to influence Taiwan’s elections. For decades, China has tried to sway Taiwanese voters through local institutions, such as temples and online campaigns. Messaging from the PRC in the past has sought to portray Beijing in a positive light, appeal to Taiwanese voters to vote for pro-PRC candidates, and even push Taiwanese voters to not vote at all.

In 2020, researchers documented perhaps the largest quantity of PRC misinformation campaigns ever seen during a Taiwanese election, all aimed at trying to dissuade voters from supporting Tsai Ing-wen and the DPP. Yet in the 2020 election, Tsai won her presidential campaign in a landslide victory over the KMT’s Han Kuo-yu. This then poses two important questions: How effective is PRC misinformation on Taiwanese voters? And under what conditions does PRC misinformation actually change Taiwanese voters’ minds?

The silver lining is that blunt campaigns from the PRC that try to change Taiwanese voters’ minds seem notably ineffective. Political science research suggests that only under certain conditions—mainly when voters are largely disinterested in politics and do not have previous party affiliations—are they more likely to be susceptible to PRC misinformation swaying their voting behavior. If voters are already in the DPP-leaning or KMT-leaning camps, then the PRC’s rather unsophisticated online campaigns are not usually effective.

Why, then, does the PRC continue to pursue these campaigns if they do not necessarily work? From Beijing’s perspective, there is no harm in trying every means possible to sway Taiwanese voters away from the DPP, who the PRC views as emphatically unacceptable as a ruling party in Taiwan. So far, the PRC’s approach to misinformation has been to try as many means as possible.

The concern from Taiwan’s perspective for the upcoming election is that the PRC’s approach has become more subtle and more effective. Rather than a blunt “don’t vote for Tsai” message or portrayals of the PRC in a positive light, misinformation campaigns for this election have focused on spreading skepticism about the United States or trying to intimidate Taiwanese voters through violence, whether it is PRC fighter jets flying in Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone or Taiwanese citizens getting arrested in the PRC. Whether or not these tactics will be more effective compared with 2020 is something both academics and policymakers are keenly following.

One point to pay attention to before the January 13 election is how parties discuss the PRC’s intimidation tactics and many of the talking points that have been pushed by PRC misinformation campaigns, such as stirring up skepticism about the United States’ continued support for Taiwan.

The Taiwanese art of tactical voting

The KMT and TPP share overlapping constituencies. In this three-way presidential race, the election is already becoming a fierce battle for second place. This gets into a time-tested Taiwanese tradition of “tactical voting.”

KMT and TPP voters share a common goal of removing the DPP from power. But only one of the two opposition candidates will be seen as viable in the closing weeks of the campaign. On election day, the third-place candidate’s supporters may switch their votes to the second-place candidate in the hope of joining forces to vote against the ruling DPP. Voters do not want to “waste” their vote, so even if they, for example, prefer the TPP’s Ko Wen-je, many may vote for the KMT’s Hou Yu-ih (or vice versa) for the sake of stopping Lai from winning so that their votes don’t get “wasted.” This style of “tactical voting,” has seen spectacular successes in some previous elections, including the 1998 Taipei mayoral and the 2012 presidential elections.

Subsequently, the KMT and TPP have both been making public their otherwise secretive “for internal reference only” opinion polls that respectively show themselves to be in second place and the other opposition option in third place. In doing so, they hope to shape perceptions of their respective viability to convince voters to side with their party on election day.

And what about the DPP? As the KMT and TPP focus on fighting over their shared voter base, the DPP is largely laying low. For the frontrunner, no news is good news—the DPP would rather avoid the emergence of any new campaign issues. The DPP’s Lai is an important part of Taiwan’s current domestic status quo. While opposition candidates argue for wholesale supplantation of the existing policy structure, Lai’s policy proposals are largely promising a continuation of Taiwan’s present. His new platforms focus on piecemeal expansion, especially in terms of promising new subsidies and new initiatives for currently underserved segments of society. For example, Lai has announced tuition waivers for all high school students (targeting middle-aged parents still paying off their mortgage who often lean KMT). This unexciting incrementalist playbook minimizes controversy, but it is not great for energizing voter passion—what it may mean is that the DPP is prioritizing a safer ride to the presidency over retaining a legislative majority, the latter requiring a large turnout on election day.

Lev Nachman is a nonresident fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub and an assistant professor in the College of Social Science at National Chengchi University. He holds his PhD in Political Science from the University of California Irvine and is a former Taiwan Studies Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Harvard Fairbank Center for China Studies.

Wen-Ti Sung is a nonresident fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub. He is a sessional lecturer in the Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific, and a member of the Australian Centre on China in the World.

Further reading

Image: Lai Ching-te, Taiwan's vice president and the ruling Democratic Progressive Party's (DPP) presidential candidate, interacts with supporters during an election campaign event in Taipei, Taiwan December 7, 2023. REUTERS/Ann Wang