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China’s influence on Taiwan’s media

China's influence on Taiwan's media

Jonathan Sullivan23 Jun 2014Leave a comment


Written by Ben Goren.

Hsu Chien-jung (2014) China’s influence on Taiwan’s media. Asian Survey 54(3): 515-39

Taiwan’s media freedoms are facing a triple threat. Since the early 2000s, China has engaged in a clandestine media war against Taiwan by encouraging pro-China Taiwanese business tycoons to purchase Taiwanese media outlets, by pressuring Taiwanese media proprietors invested in China to censor their content, and by using embedded advertising and advertorials to influence media and public opinion. The goal of this strategy has been to use business people to surround the Government and to employ President Hu’s strategy of ‘Entering the Island [of Taiwan], Entering the Household, and Entering the Mind’’ (Rudao Ruhu Ru’nao).

These are the claims of Taiwanese scholar Hsu Chien-jung in a timely new paper published in Asian Survey, which seeks to outline how China has sought to shape and influence Taiwanese media. Starting with Taiwan’s democratisation in the early 1990s and charting the subsequent media liberalisation that led to a proliferation of media outlets and respective editorial positions of these media, Hsu identifies how a small proportion of those media, specifically in print and cable TV news stations, came to dominate the market and greatly influence public opinion. The success and growing partisanship of these outlets then made them attractive targets for politicians and parties in Taiwan and China who were seeking to shape public opinion in their favour and sway the outcomes of important elections.

Hsu focuses on three broad areas to illustrate and flesh out an argument that Taiwan’s media environment is facing political pressure to limit or censor its criticisms of China, pressure produced from a conflict between maintaining editorial freedom and the price extracted by Beijing for Taiwanese seeking investment and sales opportunities in Chinese markets. These cases examine the takeover of the partisan pro-KMT China Times Group by Want Want Group Chairman Tsai Eng-meng, examples of Chinese pressure on Taiwanese media proprietors and the rising frequency of illegal embedded advertising, and finally the controversy surrounding the sale of Next Media, the public backlash and Anti-Media Monopoly Movement which it engendered, and the related protests over the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement’s (CSSTA) provisions for allowing greater Chinese investment in the Taiwanese publishing sector.

Hsu’s paper represents an important contribution to the debate on Taiwan’s media freedoms for a number of reasons. First, Hsu is a Taiwanese scholar whose use of primary evidence from interviews with leading figures in Taiwan’s political and media arenas allows him to compile a wider range of empirical material that might not otherwise be available to foreign scholars having to research in a second language.  In this respect, Hsu’s study in English internationalises the academic study of Taiwanese media and politics and provides a significant level of insight and nuance into an important area of Taiwan studies.

Second, Hsu’s work demonstrates that the media environment in Taiwan, whilst still relatively ‘free’, is far from ‘independent’ in terms of alignment to partisan editorial positions. Whilst he identifies the overwhelming dominance of pro-KMT and pro-China media in the news markets in Taiwan, Hsu does not absent or exclude analysis of those media firmly aligned to ‘pro-Taiwan’ or pro-DPP positions. In fact, Hsu’s paper devotes a large part to analysis of how these pro-DPP media outlets have come under significant external and internal economic and political pressure to modify or censor content in return for opportunities for access to the Chinese market.

Third, Hsu’s paper is right up to date, and perhaps pioneering, in tying together a wide range of developments in media censorship, ownership, public protest, and the strong civic backlash against declining media freedoms, including not only the 2012 Anti-Media Monopoly Protests but also this year’s 318 Movement’s protests against the CSSTA.

Analysts of Taiwanese politics will find in this paper much to discuss, including a number of illuminating anecdotes and pieces of primary evidence. I was unaware, for example, of the extent of late DPP Legislator Chai Trong-rong (蔡同榮)’s intimate relationship to FTV and the internal competition for influence and editorial freedom between the business and news departments in the TV station. In addition, whilst many Taiwanese and foreign analysts and activists strongly suspected Tsai Eng-meng of exercising direct influence upon China Times Group’s editorial line, Hsu adds flesh to the bones to build a strong case for confirming such a suspicion as illustrated in this quote regarding the sale of the group to Want Want:

…on November 16, 2008, Tsai gave three orders to the senior managers of the China Times Group: to strongly support the Ma Ying-jeou administration, to improve cross-Strait relations, and to avoid discussing unification and independence in the Group’s media. However, these senior managers interpreted Tsai as saying that the China Times Group must suppress reporting on Taiwan independence.

…and …

During the negotiation of the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA), a key preferential cross-Strait trade accord, Tsai Eng-meng gave an order that the China Times could not publish any news or comment against either ECFA or the 1992 Consensus.

Also expanded upon are the cases of pro-Taiwan and pro-DPP TV stations FTV and SET, both of which Hsu argues put business with China ahead of politics and national identity, in the process contradicting their own founding principles and overall political stance.  Most of these changes in content, and subsequent self-censorship, came after the election of KMT President Ma in 2008 and as a result of producers in these media outlets prioritising business with China over editorial freedom. It appears that China’s attempts to lure Taiwanese business and media owners with a carrot of economic opportunities were largely successful in convincing many to concede important principles of freedom of media. Although China’s policies were predatory in this respect, they were quite transparent and did not exert an unanswerable pressure. Hsu’s paper suggests then that the main responsibility for declining diversity of opinion in Taiwanese media lies with senior Taiwanese managers and owners of media who made conscious decisions to sacrifice independence of opinion for financial gain. As a result, one of the most critical and popular TV programmes was axed and its charismatic host fired, not coincidently during the run up to the 2012 Presidential election.

Hsu also looks at political advertorials citing an example of twenty-five Chinese advertorials embedded in the pro-China United Daily News and United Evening News in November 2012 alone.  Interestingly, he notes the involvement of the Want Want Group in facilitating such illegal advertising. In addition, he cites academic analysis of the China Times use of embedded advertising :

In 2011, Chang Chin-hwa, a professor in the Journalism Department at NTU, said that ‘‘the China Times accepted embedded advertising from the Chinese government and for reputation for always publishing good news about China and leaving out the bad.’’

Hsu also looks at the sale of Next Media and the resulting Anti-Media Monopoly Movement which emerged in response and which arguably successfully exerted sufficient pressure to dissuade notable high profile pro-Government business tycoons, including Tsai Eng-meng, from carrying through their purchase. Oh note is that Hsu identifies the reason for the sale in the first place being financial losses caused by political pressure placed by Beijing and the Ma administration upon CNS and Kbor to block broadcast of Next TV programmes on their channels.

Finally, the paper briefly examines the potential impacts of the CSSTA and Chinese investment upon the printing and publishing industry in Taiwan. Importantly, Hsu identifies another area of Chinese influence: Internet Service Providers (ISPs) which, given the way citizen movements against media monopolies, the CSSTA, and other issues such as nuclear power, depend upon the internet as the key medium for facilitating information flows, organisation and mobilisation, could become the major battleground for freedom of information into the future.

Hsu concludes by arguing that Chinese influence on Taiwan’s media has been steadily expanding since Ma Ying-jeou came into power in 2008. Possibly the biggest influence, Hsu argues, is by providing a source of revenue and business which Taiwanese media then become reliant upon, in effect making themselves a hostage to fortune and open to manipulation from Beijing.  Ultimately, it is the Taiwanese owners who Hsu finds to be the main facilitators of this influence:

For these media proprietors, particularly tycoons, the market is king: neither Taiwan’s freedom of the press nor its political self-determination is a consideration.

Hsu’s paper is not without weaknesses. It could be argued that in some ways it bites off more than it can chew in attempting to cover such an expansive topic, each case study worthy of a paper in itself. Furthermore, insufficient space is given to examining the political dimensions and power relations of Chinese influence upon Taiwanese media, both in Taiwan and China. For example, a lot more could have been written on the results of KMT-CCP cooperation to narrow the range of opinion available to Taiwanese, on the roles of Taiwanese politicians and the Government in facilitating an environment of self-censorship, and upon the mechanisms and results of that censorship. Also notably absent is mention of the National Police Administration’s moves to more closely ‘monitor’ online opinion and activism and the recent setting up of an NPA media unit to ‘correct misinformation’, sparking accusations of Taipei mirroring Beijing’s methods of information control. Finally, more context is needed to better understand the already partisan media environment prior to 2008 and the KMT’s dominance of media influence, a by-product of the party’s former ownership of news organs and the influence it has maintained post-democratisation and media liberalisation. Whilst Taiwanese media ostensibly liberalised in the 1990s, in terms of its political affiliations it remained deeply pro-KMT providing a fertile breeding ground for Chinese influence and investment via pro-China businesspeople.  Although Taiwanese media became feted for its freedom, it has never been truly balanced or independent and Taiwanese have never enjoy access to an equal number of outlets providing criticisms and support of either DPP or KMT administrations. The lampooning and ridiculing of the China Times Group for its openly partisan and disparaging reporting of major student protests indicates that many Taiwanese are not only aware of the paucity of the integrity of their media but are perhaps also becoming less tolerant and forgiving of bias and sensational reporting designed not to inform but to actively shape public opinion in a way that is antithetical to the supposed role of the media as the fifth column and manifestation of a healthy democratic discourse. Hsu’s paper could be improved by examining the relationship between the integrity of Taiwanese media and Taiwanese democracy, thereby helping the reader better understand why media freedoms are a topic of such importance for Taiwan, and intimately related to concerns that Beijing’s influence is having a wider negative effect across different sectors of the economy and society in general.

Overall, Hsu’s paper is timely, relevant, and fascinating for anyone seeking to better understand why so many people in Taiwan, despite the potentially current outward appearance of relative freedom, are worried about the integrity and independence of media in the present and into the future.

Ben Goren owns Letters from Taiwan. He tweets @BanGaoRen.

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