At the Taiwan Election, China Has Entered the Global Meddling Game | Opinion

When Western governments think of election meddling, fingers usually point to Russia. But if Moscow took the interference playbook to a new level of sophistication, other autocracies and dictatorships have begun to borrow from it. China is no exception and last weekend's Presidential election in Taiwan was a testing ground for Chinese meddling.

Beijing's efforts backfired, with the incumbent President winning with over 57 percent of the vote. The will of the Taiwanese people was clear and all freedom-loving democracies should defend its citizens' democratically chosen path.

Beijing's response to the Hong Kong protests has hardened the viewpoint in Taiwan that China is incompatible with democracy. The "one country, two systems" model, where Hong Kong was promised the retention of its more fundamental rights, lies in tatters. Taiwan's democracy is not compatible with China's One-Party State.

Beijing's efforts to sway the outcome of Taiwanese elections are not new. In the first direct election in 1996, it used military intimidation firing missiles into waters surrounding Taiwan as a threat should they elect Lee Teng-hui. The action backfired then as well and strengthened support for Teng-hui.

Beijing resorts to more insidious tactics today than in 1996, aimed at dissolving confidence in Taiwan's democracy from within. This includes a mix of illicit financing and information warfare.

Taiwan experienced a taster of these tactics during local elections in 2018. Taipei found evidence of candidates for more pro-China parties receiving indirect funding from Beijing, with Taipei closing two underground money exchanges through which election donations had been flowing. Even the illegal betting market has been flooded with mainland Chinese money to tilt the odds for pro-China Communist Party candidates as the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy highlighted in a recent report.

Disinformation is also rife. In the University of Gothenburg's annual analysis of democracy, Taiwan and Latvia experience the worst scores for the level of foreign government dissemination of false information.

The cases are often as obscure as they are insipid. One disinformation campaign showed a large pile of pineapples rotting in a dam. The story was that Taiwan's position towards China was putting pineapple farmers out of business. The picture was of a Chinese dam.

Taiwan is a fertile ground for information warfare. Its open and saturated media market is constantly looking for news copy, which has led journalists to repeat in mainstream media stories posted online. Social media use is also prolific, with Facebook, a chat app called Line and an online bulletin board called PTT most widely used. And although Facebook is blocked in the People's Republic of China, its disinformation agents are happy to use it as a tool in influencing political debate in Taiwan.

Stories published on PTT have had other tragic consequences. After a typhoon hit Japan and knocked out a bridge to Osaka airport, a report published on PTT—with an IP address in China—claimed that Chinese nationals were being evacuated and if Taiwanese citizens identified as Chinese, they too would be rescued. Taiwanese officials were heavily criticized for failing to respond, with one official even committing suicide. It turned out that the Chinese were just as stuck as the Taiwanese, and the story was fake news.

Taiwan was just the latest to follow in the footsteps of the USA in 2016, France in 2017 and a number of other democracies whose free and fair elections have been challenged by spoilers. Taipei took a number of steps to prepare itself, introducing a rapid rebuttal team, and collaborating with fact checkers for swift reactions to disinformation. All democracies should learn from Taiwan, which is why the foundation that I created, the Alliance of Democracies, had a team on the ground during the final days.

This threat we face is not to a single country, but to the entire democratic world; which is why the democratic world should unite to stand up for Taiwanese democracy.

Taiwan's democracy is strategically important to China. It has a stake in seeing this democratic project fail. If the West allows that to happen, we would not only let down 24 million Taiwanese, but those campaigning for more freedom in Hong Kong and elsewhere around the world.

The people have spoken, and now the EU and USA should support their democratic choice. In the EU the strongest show of support would be to re-start political talks on a Bilateral Investment Agreement. After all, China should not dictate Europe's investment policies.

Despite the resilience of the Taiwanese people, we have seen how elections in the 2020s will continue to be defined by foreign meddling. We are still learning how best to respond and defend democracy without impeding critical freedoms such as free speech. However, a good place to start would be to say that if we believe in democracy at home then we should have the backs of those who stand up for their democratic rights abroad.

Anders Fogh Rasmussen was NATO Secretary General (2009-14) and Danish Prime Minister (2001-09).

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​