How China tries to indoctrinate Taiwan’s youth

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Days after Taiwan elected a new government intent on preserving de facto independence from China last month, Tim Chen and other students from the country were enjoying a trip to wintry north-east China, paid for by Beijing.

Chen experienced snow for the first time as he visited museums and factories and made new friends in China. “I quite liked it,” said Chen. “At some point, I want to study or work there.”

That is very much the desired outcome for his hosts — the United Front Work Department of China’s Communist party, which organises such trips to try to foster Chinese patriotism and promote unification among young Taiwanese.

A century-old Communist concept, so-called United Front work seeks to influence people or groups outside the party. Now, after Lai Ching-te won an unprecedented third term in power for Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive party, which strongly rejects Beijing’s claim of sovereignty over the island, United Front activities directed at the country and its people are kicking into overdrive.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping has strengthened the department’s role, and the CCP has expanded United Front operations in the past few years, targeting grassroots Taiwanese society by cultivating village-level elected officials, splinter parties, temple societies and even triad gangs.

After Lai’s victory, Beijing’s Taiwan affairs office pledged to “resolutely oppose ‘Taiwan independence’ separatist activities” and said China would “work with relevant political parties, organisations and people from all walks of life” in Taiwan to deepen exchanges and co-operation.

Lai Ching-te, centre, celebrates his election victory with supporters in Taipei in January
Lai Ching-te, centre, celebrates his election victory with supporters in Taipei in January © Chiang Ying-ying/AP

Taiwanese government officials and many experts warn that the CCP is trying to marginalise the government by winning over other parts of Taiwan’s society.

“Some people may think that China deserves praise for expressing readiness for dialogue, that they are showing goodwill,” said Lee Kuo-cheng, director at the Taiwan Industrial and Economic Advisory Association, a group set up by a veteran DPP politician close to Lai.

“But while normal dialogue goes in both directions, the United Front seeks to indoctrinate. Its engagement is a one-way street,” said Lee, who researched China’s youth exchanges with Taiwan for a PhD at Peking University.

The young Taiwanese visitors to the winter camp in Jilin province got a taste of that. “Compatriots on both sides of the Taiwan Strait are connected by blood and culture,” Lou Shaohua, deputy head of the provincial party committee’s United Front Work Department, said at an opening ceremony on January 23.

“I hope that the majority of young people in Taiwan will grasp this historical trend and uphold national righteousness,” he added, welcoming them to “contribute youthful energy to promote the great cause of reunification of the motherland”.

Such language is alien to young people from Taiwan, where less than 10 per cent of the population would consider becoming part of China even in the indefinite future. Chen said he was not bothered by the propaganda.

“Their officials have to say that, but beyond the formal programme I had very interesting informal exchanges with local students,” he said. Last year he went on a similar United Front-organised trip in the south-west province of Guizhou. “For me, these are just great opportunities for tourism.”

Ever since Taiwan started allowing its citizens to visit China in the late 1980s, United Front cadres have been working to impress Taiwanese tourists, convince students from the island to view China as their motherland, and coerce Taiwanese businesspeople on the mainland to mobilise support in elections back home against the DPP.

Frequently Taiwanese who live in China and are urged to participate in conferences or social gatherings are photographed and subsequently presented in party media as having promoted unification. “I have been burnt by this before, and I will only go to meetings that are strictly closed-door,” said a Taiwanese shoe factory owner in southern China.

The seemingly unstoppable shift of political identity in Taiwan away from China suggests that United Front efforts have so far largely failed. Still, since large parts of the Taiwanese public are tired of the DPP after eight years in power and Lai will be leading a minority government, officials in Taipei are concerned that United Front work could gradually have an effect.

“Their attempts to divide Taiwan from within cannot be dismissed,” said a national security official.

In December, 18 village chiefs who had made discounted trips to China on the invitation of CCP authorities in the run-up to the election were charged by Taiwanese prosecutors with violations of the election law and anti-infiltration law.

Two weeks ago United Front Work Department officials met Taiwanese students and businesspeople in Beijing ahead of the annual meeting of China’s rubber stamp parliament next month. They discussed, among other issues, how to “make use of the positive impact of new media on cross-Strait relations”, a phrase that Taiwanese officials view as code for influencing Taiwanese youth through the short-video app Douyin.

For Taiwan’s government, countering the CCP’s charm initiatives is difficult. It had planned to reopen group travel to China in March after an almost complete halt during the pandemic.

But since Beijing did not respond to calls to allow a resumption of Chinese tourism to Taiwan and unilaterally changed a flight path in the Taiwan Strait, Taipei reversed course and ordered Taiwanese travel agents to stop group tours to China.

Chen, the student, is critical of the move. “Taiwan seems to become more and more closed,” he said.

For DPP supporters, such views prove the effectiveness of Beijing’s United Front tactics.

“They convince those who engage in dialogue with them that China is acting reasonably and that the DPP government should adopt significant restraint in response,” said Lee of the Taiwan Industrial and Economic Advisory Association. “That creates a force within Taiwanese society which has a certain constraining effect on Lai Ching-te’s government.”

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