TAIPEI -- Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen is rushing to pass a law that would criminalize political activity backed by Chinese funding before the presidential and legislative elections on Jan. 11.
Tsai hopes to get the so-called anti-infiltration bill approved by the end of this year, as she seeks to block Beijing's influence on the self-ruled democratic island. Her Democratic Progressive Party holds a majority in the legislative yuan -- at least until the election -- making it likely the bill will pass.
"We are aware that China is infiltrating Taiwan, China is expanding its influence on Taiwan," the president said in a Dec. 18 policy presentation, citing cases of spying that have even involved "Taiwanese retired generals."
"The new anti-infiltration law completes the last piece of the puzzle. We need to build a safety net of national security and we only have very limited time."
The president and her party are selling themselves to voters as the best protectors of Taiwan's young democracy against Beijing's ambitions for unification with what it considers a renegade province. This has helped Tsai and the DPP recover from serious defeats in local elections last year and become the odds-on favorites in the upcoming polls.
The proposed law would punish those who help "external counterforces" organize political activity, disrupt social order or lobby lawmakers. The external forces are not specified, but analysts say the legislation clearly targets Beijing propaganda campaigns.
If anything, Chinese President Xi Jinping's calls for unification have strengthened the resolve of pro-independence Taiwanese and boosted Tsai's political fortunes. Many in Taiwan also see the unrest in Hong Kong as a cautionary tale against accepting the "one country, two systems" model.
Support on the island for unification fell to 10.4% in mid-2019, from 15.9% at the end of last year, according to data from the National Chengchi University Election Study Center.
"If, as expected, Tsai wins reelection, it will be in no small part due to the so-called China factor and the Hong Kong protests," Sean King, a scholar at the University of Notre Dame Liu Institute for Asia & Asian Affairs, told the Nikkei Asian Review.
"More Taiwanese voters apparently trust her, and her DPP party, to more zealously safeguard Taiwan's territorial integrity and distinctiveness from the mainland," King said. "This also taps into local identity issues where a sense of being exclusively Taiwanese is again on the rise."
Tsai's administration has already amended five laws this year to crack down on Chinese espionage in Taiwan. Retired government and military officials are now prohibited from taking part in political-related activities in China; cyberspace has been made a national security category; and former officials and public servants who have helped Beijing espionage operations face prison terms.
The U.S. has openly shared Tsai's concerns about Beijing propaganda and backed her efforts to fight it.
"We are aware of China's attempt to influence Taiwan's democratic progress," Brent Christensen, director of the American Institute in Taiwan, Washington's de facto embassy on the island, told reporters in late November. "The U.S. and Taiwan stand closely together to combat disinformation."
Wu Jun-deh, assistant research fellow at the Taiwanese government-sponsored Institute for National Defense and Security Research, said, "We are aware that China has many ways, sometimes very subtle ways, to spread the information they want Taiwanese people to hear."
Wu said Beijing uses fake news and sponsors trips by Taiwanese religious groups or village chiefs to China to build connections on the island. The Committee to Protect Journalists says China's sway over Taiwan's media and social networks has grown thanks to sponsored content.
The death of Su Chii-cherng, Taiwan's representative in Osaka, illustrates the dangers of disinformation. In a suicide note, he lamented the pressure fake reports blaming his office for doing nothing to help Taiwanese tourists trapped in Kansai International Airport during Typhoon Jebi in 2018.
China flatly denies any interference in Taiwan affairs. Zhu Fenglian, spokesperson for Beijing's State Council Taiwan Affairs Office, told reporters on Dec. 11 that "China never attempts to meddle in Taiwan's elections."
As for the anti-infiltration law, Zhu said: "We have noticed the ruling DPP has amended laws to reach political goals and to restrict the ordinary [cross-strait] exchanges... It has caused a lot of unrest among Taiwanese people and the business community.
"The DPP's move is just to punish and to horrify Taiwanese people who participate in cross-strait interactions. That is a green horror. We don't think the Taiwanese people will be on their side."
Within Taiwan, Tsai's new bill does face some resistance.
The China-friendly opposition Kuomintang, the People First Party and the new Taiwan People's Party led by the popular Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je have all voiced concerns that the legislation could hurt democracy. Some business executives have also spoken out against it.
The Kuomintang's legislative caucus whip, William Tseng, said the DPP's drive to ram the bill through this year suggests it is motivated not by national security but by the upcoming elections.
"We already amended five existing bills to better prevent disinformation. What's the need to hurry to pass a new bill ahead of the elections?" Tseng told Nikkei. "Not to mention the bill lacks a clear definition of external forces but comes with heavy penalties. We fear the bill would hurt Taiwan's freedom of speech and freedom of press."
Taipei's Mayor Ko focused on the bill's vague language and how it pertains to existing exchanges with the mainland. "Anyone could just violate the law without knowing it," he said. "That sounds quite dangerous to many people and it could cause unrest among Taiwanese people and businesses."
Tsai rejects these arguments. "The anti-infiltration law is essential," she told reporters last Friday, stressing it has been thoroughly discussed and that "no one would accidentally violate the law." Prosecutors, she added, "will be fair in dealing with these cases."
Steven Butler, Asia program director for the Committee to Protect Journalists, is concerned about whether it is a good idea to criminalize disinformation. But he applauded initiatives led by Taiwanese Digital Minister Audrey Tang, such as countering viral fake news posts by flooding social media with the opposing, more convincing narrative.
"Taiwan so far has managed to essentially roll with the punches," Butler said at a news conference in Hong Kong. "They are trying to be creative in how they combat fake news, they are not resorting to draconian laws like in Singapore where fake news has been criminalized."
Additional reporting by Eduardo Baptista and Zach Coleman.