The Battle for Hearts and Minds: A Dive into How Taiwan’s Pro-China Media Depicts Ukraine and Russia
In this week’s post, we consider how the pro-China media in Taiwan has been covering the war in Ukraine.
If you’ve been reading our newsletter for a while, it may surprise you to learn that there’s pro-China media in Taiwan and that it supports Russia. But Taiwan’s media landscape is bitterly polarized, and has been since at least the Chen Shui-bian era of the early aughts, when Albert recalls people living in completely separate universes. The gulf has only widened in the past two years, as the COVID crisis has pushed China to ramp up its disinformation and propaganda campaigns in an attempt to sway Taiwanese public opinion—public opinion being a sterile term that fails to capture one of the most important issues today: the battle for the hearts and minds of the people.
These are fires that have smoldered for some time, of course, and they’re not unique to Taiwan. Just as the polarizing rhetoric of a Fox News in the U.S. can break up families and sever relationships, the media diet of millions of people here and in the diaspora, through TV shows and YouTube channels, is making it possible to occupy different and increasingly unreconciled realities. This is an issue everyone deals with—every scholar, every family, every cab driver we’ve spoken to—and it tracks the major fault lines of our global political disorder: democracy versus authoritarianism, a rising Chinese hegemony versus a declining American one, disinformation versus truth.
We watched hours of pro-China media in an effort to understand this trend better (and so you don’t have to). We’ll never get these hours of our lives back, but if you read and share this post—and if you try, whenever you’re in a position to do so, to steer someone back toward reason—they won’t have been entirely wasted.
Let’s start with a disconcerting fact: pro-Chinese news sources in Taiwan outnumber their pro-Taiwan counterparts by a factor of almost ten. This was a finding by Puma Shen and Lin Bing-you, two of Taiwan’s foremost experts in Chinese disinformation, based on their analysis of news across media platforms, and a cursory YouTube search confirms it. Type in “Ukraine” and “war” or “Zelensky” and the top results will be videos from pro-China, or “pan-Blue,” sources.
On the first page of hits, we found only one video from SET, the main pro-Taiwanese (“Green”) channel. The rest, like CTWant and TVBS, are pan-Blue. The most explicitly pro-China outlet among them is Chung T’ien (CTi TV), which is owned by the same media group that owns Taiwan’s major pro-China, pro-unification print newspaper China Times. Since 2007, Want Want China Times Media Group has received up to half a billion dollars in subsidies from the Chinese government. According to the media watchdog group Watchout ( 沃草), in 2019 Chung T’ien devoted over half its television programming to political content.
In 2020, in a highly controversial move, Taiwan’s National Communications Commission refused to renew Chung T’ien’s broadcasting license, citing repeated violations ranging from disinformation to biased reporting. Chung T’ien and its supporters cried foul, calling this a major blow against freedom of speech by the ruling DPP party. Before it was taken off the air, the CTi TV cable news channel had yearly revenues of 70 million USD, and profits of over 10 million USD. CTi TV also hosted the top two political talk shows in Taiwan.
Now banned from Taiwanese TV, CTi has found a home on YouTube, where its main channel has more than 2.7 million subscribers. In 2021, reports estimate, it garnered more than forty million views a month. (Taiwan has a population of 25 million.) CTi begins all of its shows with a plea for support from viewers, asking for small monthly donations to “protect freedom of speech and democratic checks and balances.” Its mascot is a cute, unironically cheerful surveillance camera.
As is customary for Taiwanese media, the screen is often overloaded with text and photos, creating a somewhat dizzying effect. (If somebody can enlighten us on the origins of this frenetic approach to graphic design, please let us know.) During live streams, viewers add to this visual chaos with heart, pepper, and thumbs-up emojis.
Here are the main Blue (pro-China) media strategies we’ve inventoried so far.
1. Delegitimize Zelensky.
Pro-China news sources portray Ukraine’s president as a troublemaker who roped his country into an unnecessary war and who is engaging in a reckless strategy of escalation by “emotionally blackmailing” the West. (The analogies to Taiwan here are unmistakable: the consistent messaging from the pan-Blue media is that Taiwan’s president shouldn’t be a provocateur who leaves China “no choice” but to retaliate.)
In our recent interview (see part I and part II here), Oleksandr Shyn told us that the pro-China media has been spreading disinformation, since the beginning of the war, about Zelensky fleeing Ukraine. Indeed, a CTi TV clip from February 26 parrots the Russia Today report that Zelensky had left the capitol.
CTi has continued to attack Zelensky’s political maneuvers. Take his now-famous March 8 speech to the UK House of Commons, where he invoked Churchill and Shakespeare. Anglophone coverage was overwhelmingly positive: reports by the BBC, the New York Times, and the Washington Post glowed with praise. And SET, the pan-Green news channel, offered news in line with these Western reports. Here’s a screenshot of a SET segment that juxtaposes a picture of Churchill with one of Zelensky:
This CTi TV segment from March 9 strikes a completely different tone. The host, Lu Hsiu-Fang, criticizes what he views as hero worship of Zelensky in the UK, then questions whether his stubbornness—in Lu’s terms, his unwillingness to surrender—is responsible for the massive refugee crisis. A poll asks viewers, “If Zelensky retreats a little, will the war be over?” One of the show’s two guest commentators argues that Zelensky is engaging in “emotional blackmail” of the UK’s MPs. The other openly muses that Zelensky most likely will be assassinated, wondering aloud why Western governments should talk to a government headed for certain doom.
Further down the CTI rabbit hole, a segment from two days earlier questions Zelensky’s loyalty. Former DPP legislator Kuo Jeng-liang reports that Zelensky owns luxury properties in New York worth tens of millions of dollars. (We haven’t been able to verify or debunk this claim, although this report from the OCCRP does show that Zelensky owns a network of offshore companies.) Like Aung San Suu Kyi, Kuo claims, the Western media will drop Zelensky like a dime once the full truth about him is revealed.
In a clear case of disinformation and fake news, also from March 9, 介文汲 (Dale Jieh Wen-chieh), Taiwan’s former ambassador to New Zealand, claims that at the Munich Security Conference on February 19 Zelensky hinted at Ukraine’s desire to develop nuclear weapons. Zelensky’s entire modus operandi before the war, Jieh suggests, was to goad Russia into attacking. You can read Zelensky’s full speech for yourself to see that there’s no evidence whatsoever for such a claim. The only thing Zelensky wants Europe and the rest of the world to develop is a new security framework. He mentions nuclear weapons in the context of Ukraine not having any, but nowhere does he suggest a desire to procure or develop them.
2. Avoid discussing Russia’s role in the conflict, and don’t show images of Russian protests or dissent.
If you search YouTube for “Russia” and “protests,” you’ll find clips from SET like this one:
But we couldn’t find a single CTi TV clip of the thousands of protesters arrested in Russia for demonstrating against this war. Instead, the CTi reporters and commentators frame it as though Russia is fighting a defensive war.
In this clip from March 18, retired Lieutenant General and former KMT legislator Herman Shuai (Shuai Hua-min) claims the war resulted from the U.S. pushing Russia into a corner. America’s goal, Shuai argues, is to let the situation burn out of control so it can swoop in to reap the benefits. He claims the U.S. aims to destroy the Russian economy, just as it did during the Cold War.
Above, Lee Yong-Ping, a former KMT legislator, echoes Shuai’s talking point: the U.S.’s goal is to maintain its hegemony forever, and to smack down any threats to America’s status as the #1 power in the world. If the U.S. wanted the war to end, she suggests, it could bring everybody to the table for peace talks, but it would prefer to bankrupt Russia completely before doing so.
This pivot to a critique of U.S. imperialism meshes with findings by scholars and with our conversations with blue friends. As Shen noted at a panel last week, Russian and Chinese disinformation has become more subtle and multifaceted: instead of praising the glorious achievements of Russia and China, it concentrates on criticizing American and Western liberalism.
3. Avoid showing stories of successful ordinary, everyday Ukrainian resistance or international solidarity with Ukraine.
In nearly all the CTi TV clips we watched, the focus was on the Great Power conflict between Russia and the U.S. and its implications for China’s place in the new geopolitical order. When the commentators discuss the unfolding humanitarian crisis, it’s mainly to criticize Ukrainian leadership for prolonging the conflict. Reports on successful Ukrainian military action tend to depict dramatic examples of Ukrainian military counter offensives. Personal stories of everyday Ukrainian resistance are areas. Images of Ukrainian solidarity, or international solidarity with the Ukrainian plight, are almost entirely absent. Ukrainians, the coverage implies, are fighting this foolish war alone.
On the other hand, SET has reported on the viral story of the mother who successfully shielded her newborn from shrapnel during a missile strike. From what we could find, SET was also one of the only channels to report on Taiwanese volunteers flying to Ukraine to join the foreign legion, offering either military or humanitarian assistance.
The genius of this propaganda has been to orchestrate a powerful sense of political awakening in Taiwan and the diaspora. It’s certainly worked on our friends, who are critical of U.S. foreign policy in a way I’ve never seen before, repeatedly invoking the disasters of American interventionist policies since the end of the Cold War. What makes everything even more confusing is that Albert and I agree with these critiques—indeed, there are enough kernels of truth within these disinformation campaigns to make us reflect on our own assumptions. What is the range of possibilities for weak powers in the international system? To what extent should the U.S. intervene in the future?
More immediately, though, what is the cure for such polarization? We’re still thinking through this question, and we welcome your ideas. We do think, in the cases of clear disinformation, that YouTube should take down offending videos and libel law should be mobilized. But some cases are murkier than others.
Ultimately, when people live in alternate media realities, it’s actual reality—the streets, public space, civil society—that challenges us to co-exist, to interact, to live together. That’s why it’s crucial to safeguard, nurture, and grow these spaces: we must continue to get out of our bubbles. We have to create conversations involving difficulty and dissent. We have to nurture social bonds, from sports to music to continuing education, that link us together so a baseline mutual respect will prevail, even in the midst of disagreement.
In a free country, people have the right to disagree: this principle is the beating heart of democracy, and we cherish it. But the tragedy we’re witnessing here is that the circulation of opinion isn’t always homegrown; in more and more cases, it’s purchased by authoritarian governments that don’t respect free exchange at all—that would in fact repress it if they could. So far, thankfully, Taiwan remains free.
We welcome your stories of polarized news. How has it impacted you? How have you dealt with it? What, if anything, have you found helpful in bridging alternate realities?
Here’s a very good thread on the tropes that Chinese disinformation employs:
Here’s a powerful essay about Ukrainian survival by Andrey Kurkov, which opens with a bombing that killed thirteen workers at a bakery. “We remembered the murdered bakers, the postal workers, the animal shelter workers,” he writes, “and there will be justice.” Here he describes the importance of bread:
I have long since run out of words to describe the horror brought by Putin to Ukrainian soil. Ukraine is the land of bread and wheat. Even in Egypt, bread and cakes are baked using Ukrainian flour. It’s the time of year to prepare the fields for sowing, but this work is not being done. The soil of the wheat fields is full of metal – fragments of shells, pieces of blown-up tanks and cars, the remains of downed planes and helicopters. And it’s all covered in blood. The blood of Russian soldiers who do not understand what they are fighting for, and the blood of Ukrainian soldiers and civilians who know that if they do not fight, Ukraine will no longer exist.
Congratulations to Lisa Hsiao Chen and Jeffrey Greene, whose books are being released in the coming week. Lisa, whom we’ve been delighted to meet through our book club, wrote a stunning novel Activities of Daily Living that explores caretaking, the passage of time, the Taiwanese performance artist Tehching Hsieh and his yearlong, provocative projects from the 1980s. Michelle read the novel in two sittings and loved it deeply. And, our dear colleague Jeffrey Greene wrote a nonfiction book called Masters of Tonewood, which describes the "hidden life" of stringed instruments, from violins to mandolins. He takes us to the forests in Italy, France, Switzerland, Austria, Romania, Poland, and the Czech Republic. We can’t wait to read it.
Thank you for this labor, which was undoubtedly draining. I think platforms like YouTube rely on user reporting to identify misinformation, but they are so good at recommending content that confirms your own biases that the users who would report this content would likely never see it. On the other hand, when it came to COVID-19, platforms invested in boosting high-reputation sources, and the UN launched a "Verified" site to publish their version of the truth. Seems like they're using the site again to combat misinformation about Ukraine. https://shareverified.com/
While not about Ukraine specifically, the disinformation tactics listed here might explain some of the anti-American sentiment I experienced from coworkers back when I was still working in Taiwan, because they were influenced by whatever outlet they consumed. The sentiments usually just came in the form of casual non sequiturs, none of which led to any arguments though, because as the only American national in the company I never felt those comments were directed at me personally but at the U.S. government 🤷🏻