by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: Financial Times/Screenshot

A RECENT Financial Times report has made waves in Taiwan, seeing as the report states that the Want Want Group-owned China Times newspaper, as well as the Want Want-owned CTV and CtiTV television networks, are directly seeking approval from China’s Taiwan Affairs Office before running some stories. According to a whistleblower from the China Times, the Taiwan Affairs Office calls the China Times daily and has a say in both the angle that news stories take and whether certain stories are front-page stories. The Taiwan Affairs Office does not interfere in all stories but primarily does so with regards to stories related to cross-strait relations.

Interestingly enough, such allegations are actually not entirely new. In May, the Deputy Director of the National Security Bureau, Chen Wen-fan, stated that he had heard of Taiwanese media outlets seeking approval from China before publishing articles. Chen stated this after being questioned by DPP legislator Luo Chih-cheng during a meeting of the Foreign and National Defense Committee. The emergence of this fact was, however, relatively under-discussed at the time and Chen did not state which outlets were doing this, though the incident led to the Association of Taiwan Journalists to release a statement expressing concern for Taiwan’s media environment if this was taking place.

Want Want’s logo on the China Times building. Photo credit: Solomon203/WikiCommons/CC

International media outlets’ reporting on Taiwan in itself becoming a news story is nothing new. Due to Taiwan’s international isolation and general obscurity, in many cases, it becomes noteworthy to Taiwanese news outlets that international media would report on Taiwan to begin with.

However, that it took a Financial Times report for it to become a major news story in Taiwan that Want Want Group-owned media outlets are directly taking orders from China’s Taiwan Affairs Office may have its causes. Some have suggested that Taiwanese reporters in Want Want Group-owned outlets may have been wary of leaking this fact to pan-Green camp media outlets because of deep political polarization among Taiwan’s media outlets, or that there may have been lacking means to allow whistleblowers to disclose this to other publications. That being said, in Taiwan’s media environment, there are, in fact, many cases of reporters moving between pan-Blue and pan-Green media outlets through the course of their career and a journalist working for a pan-Blue or pan-Green media outlet is not always necessarily an indicator of their personal views.

The Want Want Group is owned by Tsai Eng-meng, Taiwan’s second-richest man, who has made no secret of that his aims in owning Taiwanese media outlets are to promote positive views of China in Taiwan. Concern over the Want Want Group’s efforts to promote positive views of China in Taiwan led to the outbreak of the Anti-Media Monopoly Movement in 2012, one of the major political movements in the years leading up to the 2014 Sunflower Movement.

Attempts by the Want Want Group to back Tsai Eng-meng’s preferred KMT presidential candidate in 2020 elections, Han Kuo-yu, have led the group to face repeated fines from the National Communications Commission in the last year. 70% of CtiTV’s airtime was about Han in May, shortly before KMT primary polling, and, in the lead-up to 2018 nine-in-one elections last year, close to 57% of CtiTV headlines on some days were found to be about Han.

It is not the first time that it required international media outlets reporting on issues of Chinese political interference which are generally known or suspected in Taiwan for there to be public discussion of such issues.

For example, it was broadly suspected that pro-China groups such as the China Unification Promotion Party (CUPP) or China Concentric Patriotism Party (CCPP) had ties to triads, within the Taiwanese police force, and were paying demonstrators to protest. But it took an undercover Al-Jazeera investigation for this issue to exclude out into the open in September 2018, something that led the CUPP to declare that it would be cutting ties with the CCPP in an effort at damage control. Similarly, a recent Foreign Policy article led to increased focus of the question of whether Han Kuo-yu’s meteoric rise from obscurity to superstardom was due to Chinese disinformation efforts, despite that this had long been discussed.

Kaohsiung mayor Han Kuo-yu, who will be the KMT’s 2020 presidential candidate. Photo credit: Han Kuo-yu/Facebook

Namely, given the culture of political mudslinging prevalent in Taiwanese media, accusations about China ties are often dismissed as propaganda by one political camp or another, or attempting to inflame political fears by raising the specter of China. Reports by international media outlets, then, are perceived as more objective because international media outlets do not have vested interests in Taiwan’s political landscape the way that Taiwanese media outlets themselves do. But consequently, because of Taiwan’s culture of political mudslinging claims about China links have also sometimes been dismissed out of hand by western experts as political propaganda, as actually did occur with rumors about Taiwanese media outlets seeking Chinese approval before running stories in past years.

Indeed, sometimes it proves difficult for Taiwanese media outlets, or even the Taiwanese government itself, to provide the smoking gun that can prove allegations that political groups or media outlets have ties with China. It is also hard for media outlets to avoid accusations of false reporting against rivals or the government to avoid accusations that it is carrying out acts of political persecution against political rivals.

Consequently, taking a stand can be risky. The Apple Daily currently faces a lawsuit from the Want Want Group after reporting that the Want Want Group received over 477 million Chinese yuan—just over 2 billion NTD—from the Chinese government between 2017 and 2018.

One also notes that backlash was actually quite strong against initial attempts by the Tsai administration to detain and question young spokespersons of the New Party involved in establishing a media outlet aimed at forming a Chinese spy ring in Taiwan, due to the fact that police first attempted to do so without a warrant. This sparked fears that police actions could be a violation of civil freedoms, even from post-Sunflower Movement youth activists who otherwise have little in common with the New Party.

Fear of such backlash may be why actions against Chinese disinformation by the Tsai administration have, in many cases, been confined to going after the relatively low-hanging fruit of obscure media outlets that appear to be run by China from afar. While it recently made the news that 23 Taiwanese media outlets were directly copying and pasting text from the Taiwan Affairs Office without even bothering to convert simplified text to traditional text, as reported on by the Apple Daily, these were generally obscure media outlets.

To this extent, many rumors about pan-Blue media outlets have circulated for years, but without positive proof. For example, it has also been rumored that it may not only be the Want Want Group, but also other pan-Blue media outlets such as the United Daily News that are receiving money from China, though it is sometimes hard to draw the line between legitimate donations or investment from funding and funding that comes directly from the Chinese government. It has also been rumored that the CUPP and CCCP, too, have direct links to the Taiwan Affairs Office and are in direct communication with the Taiwan Affairs Office.

List of participants in the May media event in Beijing organized by the Want Want Group. Photo credit: 林雨蒼/Facebook

The Want Want Group seems to generally have played a leading role in building closer ties between Taiwanese media outlets and the Chinese party-state. Over 70 representatives from Taiwanese media organizations visited Beijing in May for an event co-organized by the Beijing Newspaper Group and the Want Want China Times Media Group.

Participants at the event were urged to aid the political unification of Taiwan and China, and participant organizations signed a cooperation agreement. Among the Taiwanese participants in the event were Fan Ling-jia, the editor-in-chief of the United Daily News, Huang Qing-long, the president of Want Daily, Wang Feng, president of the China Times, Chen Hong-jin, chair of the Taiwan Broadcasting Association, Ding Wen-qi, chair of the Taiwan Radio and Television Program Association, and Qiu Jia-yu, the chair of CTV. Wang Yang, chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference National Committee also gave a speech at the event, attempting to dissuade Taiwanese participants of any guarantees that America would intervene on behalf of Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion.

It remains to be seen whether positive proof for such allegations regarding ties between Taiwanese media outlets and the Chinese government will emerge in the near future, although one also expects the Tsai administration to tread lightly on the issue.

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