On 31 December 2019, Taiwan passed a law aimed at countering the influence of “hostile foreign forces” within the country, including a provision for misinformation. The anti-infiltration law has caused heated debate, and many view it as an attempt to curb Beijing's influence in Taiwan. After the law was enacted, pro-Beijing media platform MasterChain announced that it would leave the Taiwanese market in protest. While some worry that the law may have a strangling effect on freedom of speech, others interpret the outlet's departure as proof that the anti-infiltration law is indeed deterring “red media”.
The anti-infiltration law mainly prohibits foreign entities from interfering in elections, lobbying, and political contributions, as well as spreading false information about elections in an attempt to disrupt social order.
During the debate of the draft, the New Power Party (which advocates for Taiwan's independence) proposed several amendments directly targeting “red media” outlets. This included prohibiting anyone from following the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) instruction in commissioning, financing, or controlling broadcast media, and conducting political advertising or publicity on behalf of the CCP. In the end, the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) turned them down because they wanted to maintain broader language related to election manipulation by any hostile foreign government and not specifically the CCP. However, the Mainland Affairs Council went on to suggest that the issue of “red media” infiltration should be discussed within the frame of radio and television laws.
MasterChain and the ‘united front doctrine’
Apprehension about Beijing's influence in Taiwan's media environment is part of larger concerns over what Beijing calls a “united front” or an alliance of political, military, religious, media forces to oppose Taiwan's independence.
Cross-straight political ties figure greatly in MasterChain's operations. The platform launched in April 2019 and went on to become the first Taiwanese outlet given permission to set up an office in China. MasterChain's founder, Chuang Li-ping, penned a book that supports the 92 Consensus, also known as the “One-China consensus”, and the company's operation center and business promotion center are headquartered in two large mainland Chinese cities.
The platform's strategy of hiring a number of former Taiwanese officials as senior media personalities is perceived by experts as an attempt to create a cross-strait intelligence network.
Chang Yu-shao, a researcher at the Cross-Strait Policy Association, points out:
Image-making, intelligence and network development are the necessary guiding principles and working principles for the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) “united front” political offensive. Master Chain fulfills those three functions at the same time.
However, there are very few outlets that are as openly pro-Beijing as MasterChain. The majority of pro-Beijing outlets keep their relations to the mainland hidden or indirect, the Want Want Media Group being a typical example.
In the past, Want Want chairman Tsai Yen-ming made statements supporting the CCP's stance and sold pages in his newspapers to the Chinese government. It was even discovered that Want Want group's China Times received subsidies from the Chinese government.
According to sources from Taiwanese independent media platform Up Media, before the January 2020 elections, Tsai Yen-ming told top executives in his media group to stop coverage of the protests against the anti-infiltration law so as to not appear openly pro-Beijing. However, behind the scenes, the media group continued to push the narrative that the anti-infiltration law went against freedom of speech. This was intended to trigger a strong reaction in public opinion and bolster momentum for the pro-Beijing Kuomintang (KMT)'s election campaign.
Although the China Times daily, which belongs to the Want Want group, issued a statement denying any pressure from Beijing, it began to publish a series of editorials before the election condemning the anti-infiltration law, arguing the law was targeting the Want Want Media Group.
Anti-infiltration or anti-red media?
In May 2019, several Taiwanese media outlets were invited to Beijing to participate in the “4th Cross-Strait Media Summit“. The event was considered to be a way for the CCP to strengthen the ‘united front’ in the media sector.
The following month, a march was launched in Taiwan to “reject red media and safeguard Taiwan's democracy”. The initiative came from Hwang Kuo-chang, a member of the Legislative Yuan at the time, who called on the government to review a number of laws and propose a draft of the anti-infiltration law.
Given how close relations are between Taiwan and mainland China, China's business interests can easily be covered up leading many media scholars to doubt the eventual effectiveness of the anti-infiltration law.
In addition, the internet is more difficult to police and Beijing can rely on media agencies in Singapore or Malaysia to influence public opinion in Taiwan without being present on the island.