China-origin disinformation campaign stoke Taiwan fears over microchips - SOAS China Institute

//China-origin disinformation campaign stoke Taiwan fears over microchips

China-origin disinformation campaign stoke Taiwan fears over microchips

Photo credit: Peellden (Wikimedia Commons)

By Neal E. Robbins | 02 August 2023

Back in 2021, a couple of academics proposed a shocking way to prevent World War III: destroy a site in Taiwan that is essential to world trade. Critics weighed in, but Chinese propagandists reportedly saw the novel approach as something they could fashion into a weapon.


By massively seeding messages on social media and spreading claims such as U.S. attempts to “hollow out” the facility in question, the PRC-linked sources fired off their disinformation rounds, while disguising their identity and aims, according to a report from Doublethink Lab, an independent Taiwan research group. With the help of unwitting netizens, the shot snowballed into a long-running campaign of similar to those orchestrated, according to public policy research organisation RAND Corporation, by secret propaganda units of the People’s Liberation Army.


Over more than a year the texts have infected many levels of discourse. In May, U.S. Congressman Seth Moulton was dragged into the vortex by reportedly saying the U.S. would “blow up” the critical infrastructure, prompting Taiwan Defence Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng to deny any such thing could happen. Moulton later accused the Chinese Communist Party of taking his words out of context to undermine the U.S.-Taiwan partnership.


Beijing has vowed to take control of Taiwan, by force if necessary, and a soft war is already underway. A key weapon is the “disinformation campaign” that fit half-truths and lies around a core of plausible, verifiable information to kill the possibility of rational debate. This one has partly succeeded. These are the facts:


Essential background: Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, or TSMC, makes more than 90 percent of the world’s most advanced semiconductors, or microchips, used in everything from mobile phones to cruise missiles. As many countries depend on TSMC, it has become a fulcrum of global power. To reduce dependence on Taiwan, both China and the U.S. are “de-risking,” investing billions to make their own high-end microchips.


The shocking proposal: In the November 2021 issue of Parameters, a U.S. Army War College Press journal, international security scholars Jared M. McKinney and Peter Harris published “Broken Nest: Deterring China from Invading Taiwan,” which proposed “threatening to destroy facilities belonging to the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company” to show China that invading Taiwan “would trigger the imposition of unacceptable economic, political, and strategic costs upon Beijing.” They hoped the threat would make China reluctant to invade, and thus avert World War III. Critics quickly called the idea badly judged in that China, having already baked in its economic loses in a Taiwan invasion, would only be deterred by a strong U.S.-backed defence of Taiwan.


The disinformation campaign: Beginning in December 2021, just after the “Broken Nest” article came out, Doublethink Lab found a flurry of 2,900 items of “suspicious information” from Chinese actors or accounts.  Many texts focused on TSMC: “The United States will blow up TSMC” and “The United States first thinks of its own benefit and has no intention to defend Taiwan”.  Other messages sought to undermine faith in the Taiwan government, in U.S. support for Taiwan and in the possibility of resistance against Chinese military superiority, all common themes of Chinese propaganda.


Disinformation renewed: More social media texts aimed to undermine Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party, the DPP, appeared in the run-up to the November 2022 local elections. In April 2022, Doublethink found messages such as “The United States is hollowing out TSMC” and “As soon as the political risk in the seas near Taiwan is high, the U.S. government will start moving TSMC to the United States.”


The plot thickens: In October 2022 a Bloomberg article reported the U.S. has been doing “purely hypothetical” planning for worst case scenarios, including “evacuating Taiwan’s highly skilled chip engineers.” The article quotes TSMC officials as saying the company could not be controlled by force. The academics’ “scorched earth” scheme to destroy TSMC was “not something under consideration,” it added, but former officials with Pentagon ties said the Biden administration should devise such a plan.  Still, the idea fell short of policy, which is how fact seems to have been recast as half-truth.


Follow-up disinformation: After the Bloomberg report, more fabrications were cycled in Chinese ahead of the 2022 elections. Doublethink found: “An airplane taking TSMC to the United States takes off,” “TSMC supplies secret materials to the United States,” “The DPP sells TSMC to the United States.” Did voters believe all that? The pro-independence DPP did poorly in the polls, possibly for unrelated reasons, but during elections the TSMC claims were discussed, even in Taiwan’s legislature. China’s disinformation scenarios were also later pushed out in crudely produced English-language China Focus (CNF) YouTube videos.


Infections: Foreign Policy magazine in November 2023 was swept up too, reporting, “In recent months, [TSMC founder Morris] Chang has sounded the alarm that Taiwan’s chip sector is being hollowed out at the expense of its security.” The iconic phrase came from a Chinese headline in The China Times, a Beijing proxy newspaper in Taiwan. China has tried to paint Chang as a pro-China ally by repeating his concerns about Taiwan losing its edge in chip production and his doubts about the feasibility of quickly building a supply chain less dependent on Taiwan. In March 2023, however, he clarified his stance: “The U.S. started their industrial policy on chips to slow down China’s progress. I have no quarrel and I support it.”  That seems to address the propaganda.


All this shows how a disinformation campaign makes picking apart truth and lies a messy task. While falsity and misrepresentation come out with a bit of checking; less expected are the extent to which they are intertwined persistently erasing nuances and redirecting focus. But corrupting debate is not the end, but the means. This barrage of disinformation from China was an act of war targeting morale in Taiwan. The first casualty of war is truth, it is said, but when propaganda war is waged during peace time, it causes another kind of collateral damage, undermining the legitimate debates that might remove the need for war.  

Neal E. Robbins (MA Taiwan Studies 2023, SOAS University of London) is a journalist based in Cambridge, England. He was formerly a foreign correspondent in Hong Kong, Taiwan, India, and the United Kingdom.

The views expressed on this blog are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of the SOAS China Institute.