Gottlieb: Protect Taiwan’s Free Press From Beijing’s Encroachment

Posted October 4, 2012 at 11:00pm

For more than 60 years, Chinese military action against Taiwan was considered the biggest threat to the security and independence of the island – a threat the U.S. military has long committed to defend against.

But if recent events are any indicator, both Taiwan and the United States need to pay far closer attention to a new and more potent threat: China’s quiet attempts to gain influence over Taiwan’s media landscape and undercut its robust free press tradition.

If action is not taken, media manipulation by allies of the Communist Party in Beijing may accomplish what 60 years of military threats could not – acquiescence of the Taiwanese people to a future takeover by mainland China.

Standing up for one of Asia’s strongest free press infrastructures, and standing up against China’s increasingly assertive posture across East Asia, should be a no-brainer for the United States. And yet the State Department, Members of Congress, and other U.S. policymakers have been missing in action when it comes to addressing this threat.

The need to begin exploring options to address this growing challenge to one of America’s staunchest allies is becoming increasingly urgent.

This new threat only recently came to light after Taiwanese media outlets ran stories from China’s state news services, and began publishing Chinese-sponsored ads that were disguised as news reports. Following an in-depth investigation, the Taipei Times, Taiwan’s largest daily newspaper, warned that “China has been ramping up its media manipulation” in Taiwan since at least 2010.

Another recent example involves the media giant Want Want Holdings Ltd., which is owned by Taiwan’s richest businessman, Tsai Eng Meng, an outspoken supporter of the Chinese government.

In 2010, Tsai submitted an application to Taiwan’s National Communications Commission requesting permission to purchase 60 percent of China Network Systems – one of Taiwan’s largest cable television providers.

It should be noted that Tsai’s corporate empire already includes extensive print and broadcast holdings such as the China Times, China Times Weekly and the Commercial Times – all part of his China Times Media Group. He also owns a 49 percent share in Antenna Investments Ltd., which broadcasts widely in mainland China and Hong Kong.

In June 2012, the NCC surprisingly approved the Want Want-China Network Systems deal, meaning Tsai’s China Times Media Group was effectively granted control over about one-third of Taiwan’s media marketplace, including 23 percent of all cable subscribers.

Scholars and media experts have reacted with outrage – not just because of the overwhelming control one company will have over Taiwan’s media marketplace but also because many believe Tsai is working at the behest of the People’s Republic of China.

As the International Federation of Journalists noted in a statement following the NCC’s approval of the Want Want deal, “Tsai’s media companies have already accepted advertising revenue from the Mainland without notifying its readers.” And the IFJ pointed out that Tsai “indirectly admitted” the fact that Want Want China Times Group has “made editorial compromises” with its newspapers.

Most recently, the China Times Group falsely reported that a prominent academic research fellow, Huang Kuo-Chang, paid students to protest the Want Want-China Network Systems deal. On Sept. 1, nearly 10,000 journalists and media students took to the streets in Taipei to demand an apology from China Times Group for the blatantly inaccurate reporting.

The China Times Group ultimately issued a public apology, but the damage is done – the Taiwanese people are losing faith in the independence of their country’s media organizations.  

As a nation that extols the virtues of freedom of the press, the Unites States needs to be equally assertive in voicing its concern when those freedoms are in danger of being inhibited.     

U.S. officials and lawmakers of all political stripes should form a united front in opposing China’s efforts to exert control over Taiwanese media. And the next president of the United States should make every effort to ensure the liberal-democratic values of one of America’s closest friends remains secure.

They can start by urging Taiwan’s National Communications Commission to reverse its decision to allow Want Want to purchase a majority stake in China Network Systems and condemning efforts by Beijing’s allies to manipulate the Taiwanese media marketplace.

Stuart Gottlieb teaches international security at Columbia University. He has worked as a foreign policy adviser for Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and speechwriter for former Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.).