Of Elections, Fake News and China

The island nation of Taiwan, claimed by China as a ‘renegade province’, has just held its presidential elections.

If Unites States politics has been riven in recent years by questions of Russian involvement and interference, the Chinese have been at this for a very long time in Taiwanese politics, trying to push Taiwan’s unification with China and conducting disinformation campaigns in both traditional and social media on the island.

To counter Chinese-sponsored fake news and disinformation on its platform, Facebook had to launch a ‘war room’ in Taiwan on the eve of the presidential elections working closely with the country’s election commission, law enforcement agencies, political parties, and the presidential candidates themselves.[1]

In India, entities as AltNews and Boom, for example, do their best to counter the massive volume of misinformation that floats through WhatsApp groups and other forms of social media in India, but the brazenness with which politicians spout blatant lies or contradict themselves suggests that these efforts need to be widespread and more thorough. Indian citizens could perhaps learn much from the Taiwanese election campaign, where various civic groups actively fact-checked each candidate’s speech and confronted them in real time over inconsistencies and inaccuracies.[2]

While fake news or misinformation have a huge role to play in drumming up support for the Indian central government’s actions — demonetisation, for example — careful observers will also note that often the problem is not so much fake news as narratives focusing selectively on only the positives or the negatives of an issue. Thus, the government’s narrative about the National Register of Citizens (NRC) posits it as a positive act of enumerating all Indian citizens – as “just a process”[3] – without taking into account the sheer scale of discretion available to lower levels of bureaucracy and its negative impact on a still largely uneducated, if not illiterate, population unable to put together the requisite documentation or on minorities and other vulnerable groups.[4]

Domestically-generated propaganda and fake news are only one part of the problem in India, however. Important as civic consciousness and getting the authorities to respect constitutional values might be, anticipating and countering threats to these values from the nature of the country’s economic structure and its openness to global capital, including from China, are equally important.

Consider, for instance, the fact that critical Indian telecom infrastructure is almost entirely manufactured by foreign companies. Or the reality that most social media and other apps that are also widely used in India are foreign ones and much of the data of its citizens is also thus stored in other countries.

It is in this Indian environment — including also questions about the security of the data of Indian citizens on the government’s own Aadhaar platform[5] – that Chinese private companies supported by their Party-state have slowly built up their dominance.

Four out of the top five mobile telephone manufacturers in India are Chinese[6] and a recent report points out that while in 2017, only 18 of the top 100 apps listed on Google Play were Chinese, the number increased to 44 in 2018.[7] These apps include well-known ones as Tik-Tok and UC Browser and others like Camscanner and WeChat used by professionals and businessmen alike. Chinese companies also have substantial investments in major Indian new age tech companies like Paytm, Ola, Zomato, Swiggy and Byju’s, to name just a few.

Therefore, if its record in Taiwan and elsewhere is any indicator, China will also actively seek to shape the media environment in India.  Already, as a former Indian correspondent in China, Ananth Krishnan, points out in an upcoming paper for Brookings India, Chinese investors have found a way around the limits on foreign ownership of print and television media to put their money in news apps which do not face such restrictions. Chinese major ByteDance, for instance, has picked up a stake in Dailyhunt, a Bengaluru-based news aggregator that offers content in 14 Indian languages.

Chinese investments in Taiwan’s media have been specifically targeted at influencing the latter’s domestic politics and to push opinion towards the island’s unification with China. This in turn prompted the Taiwanese government to introduce an ‘anti-infiltration’ Bill, which was subsequently passed at the end of last year. The new legislation focuses on limiting political intervention by ‘a foreign hostile force’ in the form of donations, lobbying, disrupting social order, and elections interference among other things.[8]

From an Indian point of view, it is worth pointing out that while the Taiwanese legislation is about introducing greater transparency in political donations, India’s own electoral bonds system, launched in 2017, does the opposite — there are essentially no restrictions on corporate donations to political parties, including by foreign ones. Worse, these donors can remain anonymous.[9]

Meanwhile, traditional media outlets in India, are already guilty of publishing misinformation and propaganda by the Chinese embassy under the guise of paid advertisements — take for example, the annual Tibet Day supplements by the Chinese embassy in major Indian newspapers. The Chinese ambassador in India also seems to be able to publish op-eds at will in Indian newspapers,[10] a privilege denied to his Pakistani counterpart in New Delhi, and one that the Chinese State-owned press denies the Indian ambassador in Beijing.

In the Taiwanese elections, the China-leaning Kuomintang candidate was eventually defeated easily by Tsai Ing-wen, the incumbent Taiwanese President and candidate of the Democratic Progressive Party. The coalition led by her party also retained power in the national parliament, if by a narrower margin.

The Taiwanese people, particularly its youth, had reacted strongly to obvious Chinese efforts to constrain Taiwan’s international diplomatic space and to influence its domestic politics. It remains to be seen if Indian citizens will be similarly vigilant about their freedoms and domestic politics.

This article was originally published as Jabin T. Jacob, ‘Taiwan shows how to check Chinese influence’, Moneycontrol, 21 January 2020.


[1] https://www.taiwannews.com.tw/en/news/3847551

[2] https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/russias-disinformation-campaign-in-the-us-has-nothing-on-chinas-efforts-in-taiwan/2020/01/08/3400200a-231a-11ea-b034-de7dc2b5199b_story.html

[3] https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/nrc-process-to-be-carried-out-in-entire-country-home-minister-shah-in-rajya-sabha/articleshow/72141784.cms

[4] https://scroll.in/article/948969/the-nrc-is-a-bureaucratic-paper-monster-that-will-devour-and-divide-india

[5] https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/there-is-a-need-to-secure-full-aadhaar-ecosystem-experts/articleshow/63459367.cms

[6] https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/gadgets-news/here-are-the-top-5-indian-smartphone-brands-in-india-for-2019/articleshow/69311054.cms

[7] https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/the-surveillance-state-v-china-inc-the-dilemma-of-indias-app-users-59873/?amp

[8] https://taiwantoday.tw/news.php?unit=2,6,10,15,18&post=168755

[9] https://www.huffingtonpost.in/entry/rbi-warned-electoral-bonds-arun-jaitley-black-money-modi-government_in_5dcbde68e4b0d43931ccd200

[10] https://www.moneycontrol.com/news/india/policy-reading-between-chinese-lines-4432641.html

Published by Jabin T. Jacob

China analysis from an Indian perspective

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