By Yimou Lee
TAIPEI (Reuters) – China has launched a misinformation campaign that includes news reports Taiwan’s president has an “escape plan” in the event of a Chinese invasion, aiming to sap morale as Beijing presses the island to accept its sovereignty, Taiwan officials said.
Taiwan is on high alert for what it sees as China’s attempts to sway public opinion on the democratically governed island, including through illicitly funding Beijing-friendly candidates in the run-up to a presidential election next year, according to security reports reviewed by Reuters in June.
Taiwan will later this month hold its most important annual military exercises, known as the Han Kuang drills, that will include for the first time the temporary shutdown of its main international airport in a simulation of repelling enemies, as China ramps up military pressure on the island.
Starting in May, news reports that include misinformation on military activities by Taiwan and its main ally the United States have surfaced in Chinese state media, part of a campaign to sway opinion in Taiwan, according to several Taiwan officials with direct knowledge of the matter.
China’s Taiwan Affairs Office did not respond to a request for comment.
At least a dozen of the news reports have said the Han Kuang exercises were in fact an “escape rehearsal” for Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen and evacuation drills for U.S. citizens in the event of a Chinese invasion, said the officials, who declined to be identified due to the sensitivity of the matter.
“They want to portray the Han Kuang exercises into a rehearsal for an escape plan,” said one of the officials familiar with Taiwan’s security planning, adding that Beijing’s aim was to create panic and weaken public trust in Taiwan’s leadership.
The de facto U.S. embassy in Taipei declined to comment.
Some of the media reports were first published by online news sites run by China’s Taiwan Affairs Office before appearing in media outlets in Taiwan and Hong Kong, according to the officials and a Reuters review of the reports.
The officials said the Chinese campaign was overseen by Beijing’s Central Leading Group for Taiwan Affairs, which is chaired by President Xi Jinping, and carried out by various government units including the Taiwan Affairs Office in Beijing.
Taiwan’s China policy-making Mainland Affairs Office said in a statement to Reuters that Beijing is always trying to “damage the prestige of our government, divide Taiwanese society and weaken the support of the international community”.
“The government will immediately clarify false information, and use specific actions to show its determination to defend itself,” it added.
The Taiwan officials also dismissed as “propaganda” at least 10 reports by Chinese and Taiwan news outlets in recent weeks that have said Beijing is capable of destroying an entire U.S. carrier group in the Pacific with 24 ballistic missiles, citing a research paper based on a computer-generated war simulation published by a Chinese university linked to the People’s Liberation Army.
Researchers who work closely with security officials in Taiwan have spent weeks trying to verify the report with computer-aided simulations but failed to recreate similar results, the sources said, calling the reports part of “Chinese propaganda” ahead of Taiwan’s military exercises.
“They want to sell fear,” said one of the sources, a senior official familiar with Taiwan’s security planning.
“They want us to give up making preparations and surrender right away.”
(Reporting By Yimou Lee; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Rob Birsel)
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