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Interview

Taiwan's ex-Sunflower leader wary of Chinese election interference

Lin Fei-fan says he already sees 'military suppression' taking place in Hong Kong

Chinese President Xi Jinping, Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen, and the Chinese Flag. Tsai is leading in opinion surveys for Taiwan's presidential election next month, but many people on the island see China trying to meddle in the poll. (Nikkei Montage/ Source photo by Reuters). 

TAIPEI -- Lin Fei-fan, a former student activist who was instrumental in changing the course of Taiwanese politics in 2014, said he is wary of Chinese interference in next month's presidential election, telling the Nikkei Asian Review that Beijing's meddling is "ongoing."

Lin, who has served as deputy secretary-general of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party since July, said the level of cyberattacks during last autumn's local elections -- swept by the opposition China-friendly Kuomintang -- was "severe."

Speaking in an interview with the Nikkei Asian Review at the DPP headquarters in Taipei, he said he has "reasonable suspicion" that the attacks came from the north, as he believes Kuomintang does not have the capacity to do so. He added that the Chinese characters used in the attacks were mostly in the simplified form used by mainland Chinese, but not on the island.

The 31-year-old said China could also flex its military muscles with drills to create a "sense of fear among people," allowing Kuomintang to make a case for its peacemaking ability with Beijing. "China could splash cash as well," Lin said, by using means such as having pro-Beijing business people -- in collaboration with pro-Beijing media -- put out advertisements and organize chat groups in favor of the opposition.

"Taiwanese people are getting used to these Chinese attack models," Lin said.

Taipei district court on Dec. 3 sentenced former Lt. Gen. Luo Wen-shan to 30 months in prison for having accepted mainland Chinese money to promote a pro-Beijing politician, while two other individuals were charged with espionage.

Lin Fei-fan speaks to the Nikkei Asian Review at the Democratic Progressive Party's headquarters in Taipei. (Photo by Kenji Kawase)

Wang Liqiang, a self-professed former spy for mainland China, recently said he took part in influencing last year's local elections. But Zhu Fenglian, spokesperson for China's Taiwan Affairs Office, stressed in a Dec. 11 news conference in Beijing that "we have never intervened in the elections in Taiwan."

Chinese interference is one of the major issues in the heated campaign, which officially kicked off on Friday. President Tsai Ing-wen holds a wide lead over Kuomintang candidate Han Kuo-yu, but Lin said there was no room for complacency.

Lin gained political prominence by leading the 2014 Sunflower Movement, which led to the scrapping of a proposed trade deal with China. This momentum subsequently contributed to Kuomintang losing the presidency and its legislative majority in the 2016 general election.

Lin admits he has lost some of his original supporters by abandoning his third-party position, but he moved into mainstream politics after sensing a threat after last year's local elections. "If that trend had dragged on, the result of the 2020 election would produce a conservative, pro-Beijing government, and cause progressive reforms to regress. I didn't want to see that," he said.

Eric Chen-hua Yu, an associate professor at National Chengchi University, says Lin no longer holds sway over certain young voters as he once did, but his move has "consolidated anti-Chinese sentiment under the DPP."

Yu, who studies young voter attitudes, said Lin's role strengthens the DPP as anti-China sentiment "is extremely strong among youngsters."

Lin Fei-fan gives a speech inside Taiwan's parliament during a protest to oppose a trade pact with mainland China in 2014.    © Reuters

The threat from China has so far been helping Lin and the DPP. Like many observers, Lin said Chinese President Xi Jinping's Jan. 2 speech reiterating the "one country, two systems" formula to unify Taiwan has "directly provoked Taiwanese people's sensitive nerves on China," and played a key role in reversing the DPP's downward momentum after its devastating defeat last autumn.

The ongoing protests in Hong Kong have enhanced the sense of threat, pushing people to oppose China's hegemony. The apparent dysfunction of the former British colony's "one country, two systems" framework only enhanced the existing rejection of the idea because "the great majority of Taiwanese do not accept it in the first place."

Lin, who is in close contact with young Hong Kong pro-democracy activists such as Joshua Wong, feels there is "already military suppression" in the territory. While no People's Liberation Army tanks have been deployed as they were in the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, he said the level of violence displayed by local police is already comparable to that of three decades ago.

Joshua Wong, secretary-general of pro-democracy Demosisto, has held regular exchanges with Lin and other Taiwanese activisits since around 2012. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

As the protests enter their seventh month, Lin said he feels the resistance will continue until Beijing allows Hong Kong genuine universal suffrage, which is at the core of the protesters' five major demands.

"The issue of genuine universal suffrage is a consensus of Hong Kong society and the most fundamental factor of its contradiction against Beijing," he said. "There is no way to subdue the anger of the people."

Lin and his fellow supporters of the Hong Kong protesters met Wong and two other activists in Taiwan in September as part of regular exchanges that have been ongoing since around 2012 -- a year in which Taiwan's anti-pro-Beijing media campaign and Hong Kong's anti-nationalist education protests coincided.

But many Taiwanese activists are barred from entering Hong Kong as Beijing regards them as persona non grata.

"We are on the blacklist, including myself," Lin said.

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