Beijing using ‘cognitive warfare’ to sway Taiwan public opinion by feeding it misinformation, warns report

·4-min read

Mainland China has been waging “cognitive warfare” against Taiwan, using weapons such as misinformation and an army of online trolls in an attempt to sway public opinion in Beijing’s favour, a local think tank has warned.

The report said that so far the effect had limited due to relatively strong anti-Beijing sentiment, but it urged the government to remain on guard in case it started to influence public sentiment to the extent that it influenced policy decisions.

According to the Institute for National Defence and Security Research, a government-funded think tank, Beijing has been launching a new type of cognitive warfare against Taiwan by using its troll army to try to change the paradigm of thinking and eventually the behaviour of the Taiwanese public.

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It said it was trying to use both official and unofficial channels, including mainland, Taiwanese and international media organisations and social media, to feed the public misinformation in an attempt to stoke resentment towards President Tsai Ing-wen’s government.

“The cognitive warfare launched by the Chinese Communists became more aggressive in 2020 as reflected by its employment of social media platforms to spread misinformation and create cognitive confusion through stepping up of military intimidation,” the think tank said in its annual report issued in late December.

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Beijing considers Taiwan part of its territory that must be reunited with the mainland, by force if necessary, and is concerned by the growth of pro-independence sentiment on the island and waning support for the one-China policy.

The think tank said although the Covid-19 pandemic diminished the effectiveness of Beijing’s tactics because of its mishandling of the initial stages of the outbreak, the Tsai government must find ways to counter such warfare.

Analysts said the impact so far has not been as hoped, with anti-Beijing sentiment on the island increasing and Tsai – who has angered Beijing by refusing to accept the one-China principle – easily winning re-election last year.

Beijing tried to sell Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” as a model for cross-strait unification – a mission mainland leader Xi Jinping hopes to accomplish before he leaves office – but seeing what has happened to Hong Kong has scared Taiwanese away and undermined the efforts to sway opinion, Su Tzu-yun, a senior researcher at the institute, said.

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen has refused to accept the one-China principle. Photo: AFP
Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen has refused to accept the one-China principle. Photo: AFP

“The growing military intimidation of Taiwan and the introduction of the national security law that abuses human rights and sabotages the so-called ‘one country, two systems’ in Hong Kong serves only to create a counter effect as people in Taiwan become more resentful of Beijing than ever,” said Su.

He said the government should set up a comprehensive fact-checking system to prevent misinformation.

Alexander Huang Chieh-cheng, a professor of international relations and strategic study at Tamkang University in Taipei, said: “Cognitive warfare is part of the ‘grey zone conflict’ targeting the human brain to deceive, alter the enemy’s perceptions, and crush the will to defend via cyberspace, traditional media and shows of force (short of waging war).”

He said the growing anti-Beijing sentiment in Taiwan had expanded the psychological distance across the Taiwan Strait.

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“However, cognitive warfare has not only generated fear and defeatism, but also disturbed trust and solidarity in Taiwan,” he said.

Huang said Beijing does not intend to send forces to invade Taiwan in the near future because it does not believe it is the right time.

“People have said: Buying Taiwan is cheaper than attacking Taiwan and terrifying Taiwan is even cheaper than buying Taiwan,” he said.

“The 2021 Communist Party centennial and 2022 Party Congress are too important to be distracted by a war with an unknown outcome and, though growing fast in capability, the People’s Liberation Army is not ready for a war in the case of Taiwan, especially if third parties intervene.”

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