China’s War Against Taiwan Has Already Started

How Beijing tries to make a democracy submit without putting up a fight

An illustration composed of ones and zeros that shows a Taiwanese flag with a silhouette of a tank
Tyler Comrie / The Atlantic

In 2018, a typhoon stranded thousands of people at Kansai International Airport, near Osaka, Japan. Among them were some tourists from Taiwan. Normally, this story might not have had much political meaning. But a few hours into the incident, an obscure Taiwanese news website began reporting on what it said was the failure of Taiwanese diplomats to rescue their citizens. A handful of bloggers began posting on social media, too, excitedly praising Chinese officials who had sent buses to help their citizens escape quickly. Some of the Taiwanese tourists supposedly had pretended to be Chinese in order to get on board. Chatter about the incident spread. Photographs and videos, allegedly from the airport, began to circulate.

The story rapidly migrated into the mainstream Taiwanese media. Journalists attacked the government: Why had Chinese diplomats moved so quickly and effectively? Why were the Taiwanese so incompetent? News organizations in Taiwan described the incident as a national embarrassment, especially for a country whose leaders proclaim they have no need for support from China. Headlines declared, “To Get on the Bus, One Has to Pretend to Be Chinese,” and “Taiwanese Follow China Bus.” At its peak, the angry coverage and social-media attacks became so overwhelming that a Taiwanese diplomat, apparently unable to bear the deluge of commentary and the shame of failure, died by suicide.

Subsequent investigations turned up some strange facts. Many of the people who had been posting so prominently and with such enthusiasm about the incident were not real; their photographs were composite images. The obscure website that first promoted the story turned out to be affiliated with the Chinese Communist Party. The videos were fake. Strangest of all, the Japanese government confirmed that there had been no Chinese buses, and thus no special Taiwanese failure at all. But this semblance of failure had been pounced upon by journalists and news anchors, especially by those who wanted to use it to attack the ruling party. This, clearly, was what Chinese propagandists had intended. The anonymity of social media, the proliferation of “news” sites with unclear origins, and, above all, the hyper-partisan nature of Taiwanese politics had been manipulated in order to push one of the Chinese regime’s favorite narratives: Taiwanese democracy is weak. Chinese autocracy is strong. In an emergency, Taiwanese people want to be Chinese.

The incident was notable not because it was entirely new or unexpected but because it was another battle in a long-term campaign that arguably dates back to the founding of modern Taiwan. In 1949, General Chiang Kai-shek moved his Nationalist Party, the Kuomintang (KMT), to the island and established the Republic of China there. Ever since, the People’s Republic of China has seen Taiwan as its ideological enemy, an irritating reminder that not all Chinese wish to be united under the leadership of the Communist Party.

Sometimes Chinese pressure on Taiwan has been military, involving the issuing of threats or the launching of missiles. But in recent years, China has combined those threats and missiles with other forms of pressure, escalating what the Taiwanese call “cognitive warfare”: not just propaganda but an attempt to create a mindset of surrender. This combined military, economic, political, and information attack should by now be familiar, because we have just watched it play out in Eastern Europe. Before 2014, Russia had hoped to conquer Ukraine without firing a shot, simply by convincing Ukrainians that their state was too corrupt and incompetent to survive. Now it is Beijing that seeks conquest without a full-scale military operation, in this case by convincing the Taiwanese that their democracy is fatally flawed, that their allies will desert them, that there is no such thing as a “Taiwanese” identity.

Taiwanese government officials and civic leaders are well aware that Ukraine is a precedent in a variety of ways. During a recent trip to Taiwan’s capital, Taipei, I was told again and again that the Russian invasion of Ukraine was a harbinger, a warning. Although Taiwan and Ukraine have no geographic, cultural, or historical links, the two countries are now connected by the power of analogy. Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu told me that the Russian invasion of Ukraine makes people in Taiwan and around the world think, “Wow, an authoritarian is initiating a war against a peace-loving country; could there be another one? And when they look around, they see Taiwan.”

But there is another similarity. So powerful were the Russian narratives about Ukraine that many in Europe and America believed them. Russia’s depiction of Ukraine as a divided nation of uncertain loyalties convinced many, prior to February, that Ukrainians would not fight back. Chinese propaganda narratives about Taiwan are also powerful, and Chinese influence on the island is both very real and very divisive. Most people on the island speak Mandarin, the dominant language in the People’s Republic, and many still have ties of family, business, and cultural nostalgia to the mainland, however much they reject the Communist Party. But just as Western observers failed to understand how seriously the Ukrainians were preparing—psychologically as well as militarily—to defend themselves, we haven’t been watching as Taiwan has begun to change too.

Although the Taiwanese are regularly said to be too complacent, too closely connected to the People’s Republic, not all Taiwanese even have any personal links to the mainland. Many descend from families that arrived on the island long before 1949, and speak languages other than Mandarin. More to the point, large numbers of Taiwanese, whatever their background, feel no more nostalgia for mainland China than Ukrainians feel for the Soviet Union. The KMT’s main political opponent, the Democratic Progressive Party, is now the usual political home for those who don’t identify as anything except Taiwanese. But whether they are KMT or DPP supporters (the Taiwanese say “blue” or “green”), whether they participate in angry online debates or energetic rallies, the overwhelming majority now oppose the old “one country, two systems” proposal for reunification. Especially since the repression of the Hong Kong democracy demonstrations, millions of the island’s inhabitants understand that the Chinese war on their society is not something that might happen in the future but is something that is already well under way.

Like the Ukrainians, the Taiwanese now find themselves on the front line of the conflict between democracy and autocracy. They, too, are being forced to invent strategies of resistance. What happens there will eventually happen elsewhere: China’s leaders are already seeking to expand their influence around the world, including inside democracies. The tactics that the Taiwanese are developing to fight Chinese cognitive warfare, economic pressure, and political manipulation will eventually be needed in other countries too.

The strange story of the nonexistent buses at Kansai airport did have one unanticipated consequence: It inspired the Taiwanese activists Ttcat and Puma Shen to co-found Doublethink Lab, a nonprofit research group. Ttcat (the name is an alias) is a high-school dropout who played a lot of video games, eventually got accepted at a university to study computer science, dropped out again, and then drifted into the world of environmental campaigning. That résumé was excellent preparation for what he does now: track and identify Chinese information operations, and design programs to educate the public about them. It also means that he and Shen, a lawyer and criminologist, can work on behalf of Taiwan while keeping their distance from the Taiwanese government. No one can accuse an activist with a background in video games of climbing some kind of political career ladder.

Ttcat told me that the airport story forced him to think harder about how to counter that kind of non-attack attack. The episode wasn’t merely a lie, after all. It was a very well-planned attempt to insert a story of Taiwanese weakness into the Taiwanese political debate. After it happened, he and Shen put together a team that now works in exactly the kind of space you would imagine: a few dark, scruffy rooms, filled with very young, hyper-online people. They showed me a presentation, based partly on their recent work on Chinese propaganda about Ukraine. Among other revelations: Weirdly, quite a few Chinese stories are built around a random Ukrainian tourist who turned up in Hong Kong during the mass political demonstrations there in 2019. The man’s photograph appears over and over again in Chinese and Taiwanese media, with special attention paid to his tattoo, a far-right symbol. He is alternately described as a neo-Nazi or as a provocateur, sent by someone—the CIA?—to aid the Hong Kong protesters. The idea is to evoke fears of disorder, chaos, and extremism, and to connect them to Hong Kong as well as to Ukraine. Chinese state actors have also pushed conspiracy theories about nonexistent biolabs in Ukraine—the same stories used by Russia and by the international far right to explain and justify the Russian invasion that began in February.

Doublethink isn’t the only team identifying and analyzing propaganda campaigns against Taiwan: Another monitoring organization, the Information Operations Research Group—also made up, once again, of young people with a background in online activism—has put together a report on the Chinese media and Chinese influencers who sought to sway conversation on the island during the coronavirus pandemic. In 2021, the Chinese first pushed the idea that the U.S. was preventing Taiwan from getting vaccines, then that the Taiwanese were falling behind the rest of the world in vaccines, then that Taiwanese residents were surreptitiously getting their vaccines from China. These narratives now look quite thin and unconvincing in light of the disastrous Chinese lockdowns of 2022, but some of them had traction in Taiwan at the time.

Rather than merely passing their analyses of Chinese tactics to the government, both organizations also work on countering them. Doublethink produces videos that seek to help viewers understand where the information they are reading is coming from so that in future they can do the detective work themselves. IORG runs workshops—more than 180 so far—to help Taiwanese middle- and high-school teachers create programs on disinformation in their classrooms. One of IORG’s co-directors, Chihhao Yu, told me that the point is not just to help students find tidbits of false information but to teach them to understand broader narratives: how pro-Chinese media and social media string together information—which can be either true or false—to make people doubt whether their country has allies, whether it has the ability to stay separate from China, whether it has a future at all. Yu himself has no doubts about Taiwan’s future. His website describes him like this: “Taiwanese. Hacking things. Build a new nation.”

Unusually, the most famous member of this amorphous world of online activists is now part of the government. Audrey Tang, Taiwan’s first digital minister, doesn’t just promote the world of digital activism; she helped create it. A child prodigy who was programming in Silicon Valley at the age of 19, she participated in the Sunflower Revolution of 2014—a youth movement organized around opposition to a trade deal with China—and describes herself both as a “conservative anarchist” as well as “post-gender.” (She has said she is unbothered by which pronouns anyone uses.) On the day she and I met, Tang was wearing a T-shirt bearing the Ukrainian trident, and she told me she has been in touch with Ukraine’s own innovative digital ministry. She reminded me that her commitment to openness is absolute: Every interview she gives, including the one I did with her, eventually appears online.

Tang’s philosophy is one of asymmetric warfare: Taiwan, she believes, cannot play by the same rules as China. The centralized, heavy-handed, thuggish tactics of the Chinese Communist Party can only be repulsed by something completely different: decentralized grassroots groups that use open-source software and remain as transparent as possible. In accordance with that philosophy, the number of actual employees in Tang’s ministry is very small. Instead, a lot of the work countering Chinese narratives devolves to groups like Doublethink and IORG. In Taiwan, she told me, the social sector—co-ops, nongovernmental organizations, social entrepreneurs—enjoys greater public trust than the political parties or the private sector. This dynamic has a history: Civic activists pushed to end KMT’s one-party rule in the 1980s and curtail the island’s economic links to China in 2014, and they still have a lot of clout. Tang noted that one of the country’s most prominent political-discussion forums, a bulletin-board system called PTT, is run by students at National Taiwan University, using “all free software, open source, collective governance, and so on.” She explained, “No political party will say, ‘Oh, let’s shut down PTT.’ If they say that, they don’t get votes.”

Because people remember that activists helped create Taiwan’s modern democracy, she thinks that they now trust them to monitor the tricky, through-the-looking-glass world of Chinese disinformation, or at least more than they would trust the government with that task. Instead of turning to government officials, for example, Taiwanese who are in doubt about something they have heard or read can turn to Cofacts, an open-source website that allows users to contribute their own fact checks to a general debate. The site also deploys some tricks from video games—such as rewards and leveling-up challenges—to keep people engaged. Billion Lee, one of the group’s founders, has written that official influences are kept out of the service on purpose: “When governments get too involved in fighting disinformation, it can look like an infringement on free speech.”

By some accounts, Tang still doesn’t quite have enough influence inside the ruling party to promote all of these ideas—unsurprisingly, a lot of politicians resist the level of transparency that she favors—but she can still point to real achievements. During the pandemic, the digital ministry encouraged a kind of joke competition between people who got the Moderna vaccine and those who got the Pfizer vaccine as a way of promoting vaccination more generally; Tang calls this and other attempts to make conspiracy theories into jokes “humor over rumor,” noting that Taiwan never developed a strong anti-vax movement. Under Tang’s leadership, the government has also experimented with the use of Polis, an online discussion platform, to conduct better public debates. Entry into national debates is limited to Taiwanese; users’ online identity is linked back to their membership in the national health-care system. While some of the conversations conducted using Polis can seem pretty trivial—a national debate over the use of e-scooters, for example—the goals could not be more existential. The idea is that if everyone is talking in a reasonable way, according to transparent rules of online debate, then conspiracy theories don’t spread so quickly.

Tang’s vision is supremely rational: Better conversations, better democracy, and more transparency will counter even the most subtle Chinese information campaign. But not all of China’s methods are meant to go unnoticed. When Beijing dispatched warships, airplanes, and missiles to fly around and across the island after Nancy Pelosi’s visit, the point was not just to create insecurity but to provoke terror and alarm.

How to counter this fear? The answer can’t just be to berate the fearful, or to accuse them of cowardice. Fear is a physical sensation, and it is best countered with physical activity, or at least some form of action. In Taipei, I saw what that might look like: three dozen office workers sitting on the floor of a conference room on a rainy, weekday afternoon, learning how to stop heavy bleeding.

Outside, the rush hour was just beginning; inside, managers, assistant managers, secretaries, and even the CEO, dressed in a somber blue suit, were laughing and talking as they wrapped bandages on silicone arms and legs and learned through trial and error that if a tourniquet is correctly applied, it really hurts. Normally, the employees of INA Energy, the company sponsoring the exercise, don’t think about blood or tourniquets; their expertise is in renewable power and energy storage. But “we want to empower our team to have this kind of knowledge,” one of the managers told me, because Taiwan has earthquakes and has typhoons—and, he said, because Taiwan might be the target of a Chinese military attack.

The emergency-response trainers, the silicone limbs, and the bandages were all donated by the Forward Alliance, another civic organization. Its founder, Enoch Wu, has thought a lot about the psychology of resistance, and in particular about the need for civil defense. The Forward Alliance provides training in emergency medicine and evacuation procedures, mostly at churches and schools, all over the island, several days a week. Part of the purpose is pragmatic: If a typhoon, an earthquake, or military attack really were to occur, the island would immediately require people who know about evacuation and emergency medicine. Wu told me that the outbreak of the war in Ukraine convinced many of his compatriots that they must prepare for exactly that possibility: It “really impressed upon average citizens that things can happen, at no fault of your own, at no instigation.” Since February, demand for emergency-response training has “kicked into overdrive,” he said, and not only at his organization. A Taiwanese businessman in September donated more than $20 million to another civil-defense charity, the Kuma Academy—co-founded by Puma Shen, of Doublethink—which plans to offer not only emergency-response instruction but eventually training in the use of weapons. The demand is already strong: The first courses were snapped up just as soon as they went online (“like concert tickets,” Shen told me).

But the point of these exercises isn’t just to teach people how to shoot a gun or bandage a wound. They are also meant to nurture feelings of community and connection, giving people confidence in advance that, in an emergency, they can count on their fellow citizens. These kinds of preparatory experiences have an especially important impact in Taiwan, a nation whose politics are deeply polarized, with members of the blue and green camps suspecting one another of irresponsibility or unreason, not unlike the red-blue competition in the United States. Wu wants his classes not just to provide particular skills but to help create this intangible feeling of trust. “It’s tough to find activities that make you feel like we’re in this together, especially in an urban environment,” he said. The awareness of a threat can make people scared and isolated. With a bit of organization and some silicone limbs, the threat can pull people together, even people whose politics are very different—or that’s the theory.

In practice, of course, both the Taiwanese activists organizing civil defense and those who are trying to counter Chinese narratives are making a large bet. They are wagering that democracy and transparency can beat autocracy and secrecy, that trust can overcome polarization, that society can organize itself, from the ground up, to overcome fear. They are doing so in a country that is linked to its worst enemy in complicated ways—language, shared history, relatives, investments—and has some understandable anxiety about the reliability of faraway allies.

But their fight against China’s cognitive warfare is not just shadowboxing with bots on the internet. The Russians invaded Ukraine in part because they believed, wrongly, that the Ukrainians would not fight back. If the Chinese assume that the Taiwanese will fight back, then they might think twice. In that sense, there’s a deep connection between the work of the broader world of Taiwanese social activists—those who track Chinese disinformation online as well as those who defend judicial independence, campaign for the rights of Hong Kong citizens and ethnic minorities, promote government transparency—and the work of the military, which has its binoculars trained on the Taiwan Strait. By shoring up democracy, by smoothing polarization, by bringing more people into an active engagement with public life, all of them hope to convince China that an invasion is too costly and risky. Taiwan’s future depends on whether they are right.