by Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: Szalai.laci/WikiCommons/CC
CONCERNS HAVE been raised regarding the Chinese government disseminating propaganda and disinformation in Taiwan through unregulated over-the-top (OTT) providers in past weeks by members of the pan-Green camp. OTT providers are online streaming services such as Netflix, as distinguished from traditional cable or satellite networks.
Many OTT providers, such as iQiyi.com and TenCent Video, have been operating in Taiwan illegally for years. Chinese OTT operators entering the Taiwanese market is illegal, but this does not prevent millions of Taiwanese from using them anyway. iQiyi.com has six million subscribers at present in Taiwan.
In particular, it is feared that because the National Communications Commission (NCC) has no way of regulating Chinese OTT providers, they could serve as a means for China to disseminate political propaganda, disinformation, or conduct soft power initiatives directed at Taiwan. Chinese OTT providers have also been known to axe politically sensitive content from Taiwan in the past. In 2017, for example, iQiyi.com abruptly axed the broadcast of Days We Stared at the Sun 2, a Public Television Service television drama, because it is set during the 2014 Sunflower Movement, which was in opposition to a free trade agreement that the then-ruling Ma administration sought to sign with China.
Similar concerns have been raised recently regarding Chinese media outlets renting Taiwanese television studios and broadcasting talk shows from within Taiwan, with the aim of generating perceptions of Taiwan in China amenable to how the Chinese party-state depicts Taiwan. This led to the expulsion of two reporters working for Southeast Television in July, seeing as they violated the terms of their visas, which were for reporting, and not for acting as television anchors for Chinese shows in Taiwan. It has been reported that CCTV and Cross-Strait Television have also set up studios in Taiwan.
Legislation proposed by the DPP aims at targeting third parties and subsidiaries that assist Chinese OTT providers entering the Taiwanese market by imposing fines on them. A draft agreement of laws regulating OTT providers would fine telecoms, Internet service providers, or others that assist Chinese OTT providers operating in Taiwan between 500,000 and 5 million NT, with a particular onus placed on telecoms and Internet service providers blocking Chinese OTTs—though the Tsai administration likely also hopes to take aim at private websites set up to assist Chinese OTT content entering Taiwan, along the lines of many of the privately-run websites which disseminate pirated content in Taiwan.
However, questions of free speech frequently arise regarding attempts to regulate Chinese propaganda or disinformation in Taiwan, seeing as an entire wing of the political spectrum in Taiwan is in favor of political unification with China. To this extent, OTT providers operating in Taiwan will be required to register with the government and publicize their operators. It has been pointed out that the question of whether Chinese OTT providers are to be allowed to operate in Taiwan and their current disregard of Taiwanese government regulations are, in fact, two separate issues.
It is already the case that Taiwanese media outlets themselves serve as vehicles for Chinese propaganda and disinformation. In July 2019, the Financial Times reported that conglomerates that own Taiwanese media outlets such as the Want Want Group, which owns the CTV and CtiTV television networks and the China Times, were directly seeking approval from China’s Taiwan Affairs Office before running some stories. The Apple Daily also reported in May 2019 that the Want Want Group had accepted over 477 million Chinese yuan—just over 2 billion NTD—from the Chinese government between 2017 and 2018. The Want Want Group subsequently sought to sue Financial Times journalist Kathrin Hille, who reported on the story, the Financial Times itself, and other outlets that cited negative reports about it.
To this extent, imposing fines may fail to deter individuals or companies from assisting Chinese OTT providers in continuing to operate in Taiwan. The pro-unification political skew of television outlets such as those associated with the Want Want Group was starkly visible in 2019 in the lead-up to presidential elections, with CtiTV devoting 70% of airtime to coverage of KMT presidential candidate Han Kuo-yu in May 2019 and running constant positive coverage of KMT politicians without fact-checking.
Though this led the NCC to impose a fine of one million NT on CtiTV, this did not deter the network from continuing with such practices. Nor did reports by the Financial Times or Apple Daily deter the China Times or other organs of the pan-Blue camp from continuing to run constant pro-China news coverage that downplayed any negative news reporting on China. Such precedents, then, suggest that using fines as a means of deterring Chinese OTT providers continuing to operate in Taiwan may be limited in effectiveness.