The election of Lai Ching-te, or William Lai, as Taiwan’s next president despite firm opposition from China is a positive sign that democracy is alive and well on the island nation. Nevertheless, the fact that Lai, whom China has deemed a “troublemaker” and “separatist,” won by a narrow margin, and his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) lost its majority in the Legislative Yuan, will be seen in Beijing as an acceptable outcome, as it restricts Lai’s ability to advance his agenda and reveals the limits of the DPP’s appeal.

Groups like the Taiwan FactCheck Center monitored Chinese efforts to meddle in Taiwan’s January 13 elections. (An Rong Xu/The New York Times)
Groups like the Taiwan FactCheck Center monitored Chinese efforts to meddle in Taiwan’s January 13 elections. (An Rong Xu/The New York Times)

In the year leading up to the January 13 election, Beijing employed a wide range of tactics aimed at swaying Taiwanese voters away from the DPP and toward its preferred Kuomintang (KMT) party. Now that the elections are over, the pressure campaign will likely continue, as Beijing tries to prevent Taiwanese independence and instead convince the people of Taiwan to seek peaceful unification with the mainland.

While the DPP’s party platform has advocated for the establishment of a sovereign Republic of Taiwan since the 1990s, President Tsai Ing-wen’s leadership over the past eight years has reflected a more moderate pro-independence approach, carefully managing cross-strait relations. Lai, who once called himself a “practical worker for Taiwan independence,” is likely to continue the trajectory set by Tsai, emphasizing Taiwan’s distinct sovereignty without formally declaring independence, and reinforcing Taiwan’s determination to resist pressure from China for unification.

The Evolution of China’s Efforts to Influence Taiwan’s Elections

China’s efforts to influence Taiwan’s democratic elections and processes are nothing new. Since Taiwan’s first direct presidential election in 1996, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has consistently employed a dual strategy of carrot-and-stick approaches to shape public opinion in Taiwan and influence Taiwan’s elections, with the overarching objective of promoting unification.

In the lead up to Taiwan’s 2020 elections, China’s overt attempts to influence the political landscape backfired. Rather than achieving its desired outcomes, China’s heavy-handed approach resulted in a historic high vote count for Tsai and the DPP’s continued absolute majority in the Legislative Yuan. In January 2019, Chinese General Secretary Xi Jinping delivered a long speech outlining Beijing’s unification policy, in an attempt to pressure Tsai into accepting the 1992 Consensus — an agreement between Taiwan’s then-governing KMT and the CCP that there is only “one China” — and sway the 2020 presidential election. This, along with the Chinese crackdown in Hong Kong, triggered significant public backlash in Taiwan and a growing wariness of China’s intentions.

China’s attempts to shape Taiwan’s political trajectory include a mix of both formal, top-down policy measures, such as military intimidation and economic incentives, as well as informal influence operations, like infiltrating media organizations and civil society groups to shape the political discussion from the bottom up. While Beijing’s tactics were more nuanced in the latest election, the fundamental strategy remained unchanged: offering incentives to support China’s favored party, the KMT, and employing punitive measures to constrain the ruling DPP.

China’s Use of Carrots

China has offered a range of inducements, or “carrots,” to entice Taiwanese voters to seek closer relations with China by electing candidates from the KMT. The implicit message is that only the KMT can leverage China’s economic prowess for Taiwan’s benefit. For example, in September, the Chinese State Council unveiled a detailed proposal comprising 21 specific measures aimed at fostering economic integration between Taiwan and China’s Fujian province. The centerpiece of Beijing’s initiative, dubbed the “Fujian Plan,” included a proposal to build a bridge connecting Taiwan’s Kinmen islands to the Chinese city of Xiamen, which was identical to a policy proposal KMT presidential candidate Hou Yu-ih had put forth three weeks earlier. This initiative was intended to provide a clear example of the economic opportunities awaiting Taiwan through unification with the mainland, but most Taiwanese voters ignored it.

Beijing tried again on November 6, when China’s Entry and Exit Administration Bureau announced 10 measures that would make it easier for Taiwan residents to travel or potentially relocate to Fujian. In a final push on December 28, the Fujian government revived the Fujian Plan, including the ambitious goal of establishing a “Cross-Strait Integrated Development Demonstration Zone” by 2025. However, the initiative failed to generate substantial discussion in Taiwan.

China’s Use of Sticks

China has also wielded policy “sticks” to pressure the DPP, serving as a stark reminder to voters that Beijing could impose economic hardships on the island if Taiwan’s leaders do not show appropriate deference to Beijing. On April 12, just hours after Lai was nominated as the DPP’s presidential candidate, the Chinese Ministry of Commerce announced an investigation into Taiwan’s trade restrictions on over 2,400 items imported from China. Beijing later extended the investigation by three months, strategically scheduling its expiration on the eve of Taiwan’s presidential election — with the implicit promise that it would be lifted if Lai were defeated. The Taiwanese government dismissed the move as a politically motivated attempt at election interference through economic coercion.

On December 21, the Chinese State Council announced the suspension of tariff cuts for 12 Taiwanese products under the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement, effective January 1. Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) has blamed the DPP’s pro-independence stance and its failure to accept the 1992 Consensus for the trade measures. The move, strategically timed three weeks before Taiwan’s presidential election, was mostly symbolic and politically charged, aimed at steering voters away from the DPP. Politically, TAO escalated its rhetoric in December with TAO spokesperson Chen Binhua calling Lai a “disruptor of cross-strait peace” and “instigator of potential conflicts in the Taiwan Strait.”

In a last-ditch attempt to influence the slate of election candidates in October, Beijing initiated a tax inspection of Foxconn, a major Taiwanese electronics manufacturer owned by then-presidential candidate Terry Gou. This was largely viewed as a strategic maneuver to pressure Gou into withdrawing from the race, as Beijing perceived Gou’s candidacy as further splitting the opposition votes needed to defeat Lai. Gou ultimately dropped out of the race, but China’s attempts to affect his candidacy generally fell flat.

In addition, as part of Beijing’s psychological warfare campaign, China sent a flurry of high-altitude balloons across the Taiwan Strait median line in the weeks before the election. Some of these balloons flew over Taiwan and near major military bases. These actions served as yet another reminder of China’s overwhelming military power, while also inciting public criticism of the Tsai administration’s failure to respond.

China’s Bottom-Up Influence Efforts

China has also employed more subtle channels of influence and interference. The CCP has infiltrated Taiwan’s political parties to back pro-China candidates and bribed Taiwanese business leaders to support Beijing’s preferred candidates and positions. Further, Beijing has manipulated the media environment to shape Taiwanese public opinion in favor of pro-China candidates, paid for fabricated polls favorable to pro-CCP candidates, spread pro-China disinformation online aimed at Taiwanese voters, organized reduced-price trips for hundreds of Taiwanese politicians to visit China and infiltrated democratic grassroots networks, political parties and military units in Taiwan, just to name a few examples.

How is Taiwan Protecting the Integrity of its Elections?

Unlike in 2020, Beijing today appears to have a much clearer understanding of the limits of its ability to destabilize Taiwan’s democratic system or decisively sway Taiwan’s election. China’s economy has slowed and no longer serves as the beacon of opportunity it once did. And China does not want to repeat its mistakes from 2020, when excessive and overt pressure on Taiwan backfired. Yet Beijing will continue to seek new and more effective ways to influence Taiwan’s political landscape, even as Taiwan’s ability to counter that interference is also improving.

An important development in this regard was the enactment of Taiwan’s Anti-Infiltration Act in January 2020, a key component of the “Six National Security Acts.” Designed to prevent “hostile foreign forces” from infiltrating Taiwan’s central and local elections, the legislation prompted increased investigations by Taiwan’s Ministry of Justice Investigation Bureau and National Security Bureau into foreign interference leading up to the 2024 election. Notably, the Supreme Prosecutors Office reported a substantial rise in the number of cases investigated under the Anti-Infiltration Act, growing from zero four years ago to 117 cases involving 287 individuals as of January 11. The impact of these efforts is underscored by the October 2023 indictment of the chair and vice-chairman of the Taiwan People’s Communist Party for colluding with Chinese communist elements to try to influence local elections.  

Taiwan has also taken proactive steps to tackle the spread of fake news and disinformation on social media, implementing a range of measures to safeguard the integrity of information. In 2018, the Ministry of Justice’s Investigation Bureau established a big data and public opinion task force to address the proliferation of misinformation. The collaborative efforts of security institutions, including the Ministry of National Defense and the National Security Council, have resulted in the formation of response groups dedicated to countering Chinese disinformation. Taiwan took another significant step in August 2022 with the creation of the Ministry of Digital Affairs, specifically tasked with combating disinformation. In addition, the Central Election Commission frequently issues election-related information to educate the public and counter the spread of false news promoted by the CCP.

Taiwanese citizens remain concerned about censorship and have limited some government efforts to control information flow. Civil society groups, however, have emerged as key players in the fight against disinformation and election influence. These groups have developed innovative tools, including chatbots, to assess suspicious material and identify viral and misleading posts on social media platforms, as well as offering public trainings on media literacy.

What Next?

While Beijing’s interference did not decisively impact Taiwan’s 2024 elections, China will likely continue both the pressure campaign and the charm offensive in the years to come. The election results, with a majority of voters favoring a party other than the DPP, suggest a broad openness to exploring different approaches to cross-strait relations. Beijing will likely seize the opportunity to influence the debate around these alternative approaches.

China’s evolving tactics signal a readiness to explore new avenues for shaping Taiwanese public opinion toward a more favorable view of China. Beijing’s multipronged approach, incorporating both overt and subtle channels of influence, is expected to continue. This sustained pressure and interference in Taiwan’s electoral processes, even through more discreet means, is likely to reinforce Taiwan’s resolve to safeguard its de facto independent status and distance itself from China’s considerable influence.

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