Despite little international coverage, a crisis involving the head of Taiwan’s National Security Bureau (NSB), the country’s primary intelligence service, has sparked worries about Chinese misinformation, particularly when it is magnified by domestic media.
Online rumors about NSB director-general Chen Ming alleged covert travel to Thailand first surfaced in mid-September. The screenshots were taken from a deactivated Twitter account with the handle @andreny45652235. Six tweets from the account were insufficient to confirm its legitimacy.
The screenshots later spread around Facebook groups and sites like Baoliao Commune, which frequently publishes rumors and unverified news and has a following of more than 3.2 million. Pan-Blue domestic news networks including the then reported on the screenshots.
Although the NSB said that the tweets had factual errors, it did not say if Chen had truly visited Thailand. It is still unknown if the pictures were taken lately by Chen or if they were old shots that had been digitally altered.
Much of the early framing concerned whether Chen was going on a public-funded sightseeing excursion or whether Chen may be having an affair because he was traveling with a lady. Later, following remarks to the Liberty Times from a national security official who spoke on the record under the condition of anonymity, there was public discussion about the possibility that the screenshots were Chinese disinformation meant to demonstrate the breadth of China’s intelligence services.
Chen could have been going to Thailand to exchange intelligence, as the national security officer claimed, which is typical among intelligence personnel. Given that the photos were taken by Thailand’s customs agency, if they are authentic, this release may have been intended to demonstrate that China had access to photos taken by Thai customs.
If so, this may be due to the current tight ties between China and the Thai government. As an illustration, GuiMinhai, one of the abducted Hong Kong Causeway Bay book merchants, vanished from Thailand. Gui was apprehended by Chinese security forces in Thailand, which is highly improbable to have happened without Thai officials’ assistance.
The idea that the photographs may have been obtained through backdoors in Chinese surveillance technology has also been floated. Although Chinese-made surveillance and telecommunications equipment are extensively used worldwide, it may contain backdoors, especially if data is transmitted through Chinese servers, a problem that Taiwan is growing increasingly concerned about.
Reports imply that Chinese parts are utilized in equipment marketed as Taiwanese, despite government rules intended to phase out the use of Chinese technology, with the Taiwanese government outlawing the use of Hikvision and Dahua Technology in 2020. A Commonwealth investigation claims that some equipment masquerading as Chinese has done this to win government contracts.
The dispute is occurring at a time when Taiwanese groups that strive to combat misinformation, such as the Taiwan Fact Check Center, have issued warnings about a rise in misinformation intended to undermine members of the Tsai government. The November midterm elections in Taiwan are most likely the target of this.
The incident also arises at a time when concerns about China’s influence in Southeast Asia are at an all-time high. A recent surge of Taiwanese incidents of human trafficking in Cambodia brought this issue to light, with some claims indicating thousands of victims. Chinese diplomats in Cambodia intervened after reports of human trafficking instances to indicate that they would be able to help kidnapped Taiwanese in a way that Taiwanese diplomats could not based on intimate relationships with the Cambodian government.
Given that Chen was recently linked to a plagiarism incident involving Lin Chih-chien, the candidate for Taoyuan mayor from the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, Chen would be an easy target. An NTU committee determined that Lin’s master’s degree should be canceled after Lin was charged with copying his master’s thesis from another student. Lin withdrew from the contest, and Cheng Yun-peng, a DPP lawmaker, took her place.
Lin’s thesis was supervised by Chen. During the crisis, he defended Lin by saying that he had given another student access to data that Lin had gathered and that this was what caused false views about plagiarism.
Chen, who once held the position of minister of the Mainland Affairs Council, has previously been charged with giving political supporters free education. There have been calls for Chen to be held accountable following the Lin plagiarism incident. Later, it was revealed that Chen will not be giving classes at NTU anytime soon due to his obligations with the NSB.
Another issue at hand includes requests by certain networks to replace pan-Blue-leaning TVBS with a more recent network, Mirror TV, and transfer it to a less-watched channel slot. Similar to the CtiTV decision, pan-Blue media groups have charged the Tsai administration with exerting pressure on the NCC to try to get Mirror TV’s application approved while keeping TVBS in its current position.