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Opinion China’s interference in the 2018 elections succeeded — in Taiwan

Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing in March. (Andy Wong/AP)

While Washington is focused on Russian election interference, China is rapidly advancing its own election-meddling capability using social media, illicit funding and false news. The Chinese government’s massive and successful interference in Taiwan’s elections last month shows Beijing is getting into the game in a major way.

Washington is slowly but surely waking up to China’s multifaceted foreign influence operations. But many here remain skeptical about the threat of Beijing’s direct interference in American politics. The Trump administration said Beijing interfered in the 2018 U.S. midterm elections, but there wasn’t a ton of visible evidence. After what just happened in Taiwan, however, few can now argue that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) doesn’t have the means and the motive to perpetrate such acts.

“CCP attempts to erode democratic processes and norms around the world threaten U.S. partnerships and prosperity,” six U.S. senators, led by Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), wrote last week in a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and FBI Director Christopher Wray. “Allegations such as those surrounding Taiwan’s recent elections must therefore be pursued with seriousness and urgency.”

The senators asked the Trump administration to work with Taiwanese authorities to investigate events leading up to the November elections that saw sweeping losses for the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and its leader President Tsai Ing-wen. Beijing carried out a massive propaganda and social media campaign that spread false news designed to undermine Tsai’s government. The CCP refuses to deal with Tsai in objection to her cross-Strait policies.

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Tsai futilely urged Taiwanese citizens to see Beijing’s effort for what it was — a Russian-style influence campaign. The island’s 23 million citizens were bombarded with anti-Tsai and anti-DPP content through Facebook, Twitter and online chat groups, promoted by China’s “50-cent army” of paid social media trolls. There are also dozens of investigations into allegations that Chinese money went to fund Taiwanese candidates opposing Tsai and the DPP.

“If true, CCP interference in Taiwan’s elections would be deeply concerning not only for Taiwan’s future, but also for fellow democracies around the world where the CCP may choose to interfere,” the senators wrote. “In an era of growing authoritarian interference, we believe such allegations must be taken seriously if free societies are to continue to thrive.”

After the elections, Chinese state media pointed to Tsai’s losses as evidence that her tough stance vis-à-vis China was unpopular and wrongheaded. Beijing’s overall goal is to replace her with a more malleable leader in Taipei as part of its broad effort to exert control over Taiwan and weaken Taipei’s relationships with the international community.

The Chinese government is bribing or coercing foreign governments to break diplomatic relations with Taiwan, pressuring them to evict Taiwan from international organizations. Beijing is also threatening foreign companies unless they literally erase Taiwan from their websites. Their ultimate goal is to dissolve the U.S.-Taiwan partnership and subjugate the island to the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

“The PRC is engaged in an intensifying political warfare campaign that is aimed at isolating Taiwan by suppressing the island’s international space so that all roads in and out must go through Beijing, while directly interfering with the island’s political process by manipulating social and political tensions to subvert its democratic system,” said Russell Hsiao, executive director of the Global Taiwan Institute.

That’s a foreign policy issue that Washington should address for its own sake. But the fact that Beijing is using Russian-style political interference tools should prompt a full-scale national security alarm. The capabilities Beijing is honing in Taiwan could do huge damage if applied to the United States. China is testing them on a country it knows well but preparing for their use around the world.

There’s credible evidence that China is already using cyber campaigns to interfere in the politics of other foreign countries, as was seen in Cambodia this year. There are more and more Chinese government-friendly social media trolls and bots on Twitter, attacking American companies and journalists. Meanwhile, Chinese influence operations on American soil are ramping up as the U.S.-China relationship continues to worsen.

There’s a lot Washington can do. Rubio and Cortez Masto have introduced legislation calling for a comprehensive report on CCP influence operations inside the United States. The Trump administration has done well in calling out the problem, but must do more with allies to share information, develop counter-technology and bolster civil society for resilience.

The U.S. government is always fighting the last battle instead of preparing for the next one. Russian political interference is the short-term emergency, but Chinese political interference is the long-term challenge. Taiwan’s recent experience shows just how bad things can get. The United States can’t wait until it’s too late.

Read more:

David Ignatius: China’s hybrid warfare against Taiwan

Tsai Ing-wen: Beijing must respect our democratic will

John Pomfret: The U.S. makes a new push to bolster Taiwan’s military defenses. China won’t like it.

Jackson Diehl: Taiwan seems to be benefiting from Trump’s presidency. So why is no one celebrating?

Josh Rogin: Trump is failing to counter China’s diplomatic assault on Taiwan