Exclusive-Taiwan on high alert for China-funded election interference

By Yimou Lee

TAIPEI (Reuters) – The Taiwanese government has said China will try to interfere in key January elections by illegally funding pro-Beijing candidates using communications apps or group visits, according to three reports. internal security reviewed by Reuters.

President Tsai Ing-wen’s government has repeatedly warned against China’s attempts to sway public opinion on the democratically-ruled island, which Beijing claims as its own territory despite strong objections from Taipei.

Although senior Taiwanese officials, including the head of the National Security Council, Wellington Koo, have warned this year that China may try to influence presidential and legislative elections with influence campaigns, including disinformation, Details of how Taiwan thinks China might use illicit funding were not previously reported.

“They hope to influence the Taiwanese people by reaching out to the grassroots,” said a Taiwanese security official with direct knowledge of the matter. “They hope to influence swing voters who have no particular political affiliation and who would vote for whoever gives them benefits.”

High on the government’s watch list for likely recipients in Taiwan are smaller political parties that support Beijing’s sovereignty claims over the island, local councilors and temples that engage in exchange activities with China, according to one of the classified reports reviewed by Reuters.

Beijing could also offer free trips to China to hundreds of Taiwanese involved in election campaigns before the vote to “influence voting decisions”, according to another of the internal reports, pointing to local politicians such as ward chiefs and village chiefs.

The government this year formed an inter-ministerial security task force dubbed “Ping Shun,” or safe and sound, to investigate possible election interference at home or abroad, according to this person and another official. security with direct knowledge of the matter. Both declined to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue.

According to Taiwanese law, it is illegal for an election campaign to receive money from “external hostile forces”, including China.

According to another of the internal reports, which Reuters has reviewed and which is based on Taiwanese intelligence, China may be sending money through the popular Chinese social networking and chat app WeChat, which allows direct transfers between users and is available in Taiwan.

The Chinese government could “order contestants to create public WeChat accounts and then mobilize users to provide monetary support through ‘viewer donations,'” the report said. WeChat allows individuals to transfer up to 50,000 yuan ($6,971) to others in a single transaction and a maximum of 200,000 yuan per day.

The report, citing intelligence analysis, also said China may work with travel agencies and ask members of group tours to bring cash to Taiwan. The report says that Taiwan’s widely known but difficult-to-regulate underground banking systems could provide currency support.

“The Chinese Communist Party may financially support specific national groups or individuals and give them political donations or funds needed for elections,” a classified third report from the agency said.

The Chinese Taiwan Affairs Office did not respond to requests for comment. China has refused to speak to Tsai or his Democratic Progressive Party, calling them separatists. She cannot run for president again due to term limits.

“China has used various means to actively intervene in the election to interfere with or influence the election results,” Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council told Reuters, adding that the moves were aimed at advancing the agenda. China’s policy, which included “promoting unification” with Taiwan. .

Some Taiwanese have been prosecuted in recent years for receiving illicit support from China during election campaigns. A government unit in southern China sponsored COVID-19 self-testing kits for the election campaign of a candidate for head of a New Taipei City ward last year, which was recognized guilty this month of violating corruption and anti-infiltration laws.

Reports indicate that other possible funding channels include payment cards that use the China UnionPay network, which allows Taiwanese to legally withdraw money from bank accounts in China, as well as through direct transfers to charitable funds. based in Taiwan.

($1 = 7.1717 Chinese yuan renminbi)

(Reporting by Yimou Lee. Editing by Gerry Doyle)

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