March 30, 2023
I spoke to Lin Ping-yu (林秉宥) in early December, 2022, shortly after the local elections in Taiwan. Freshly elected to the New Taipei City Council, Lin studied Taiwan-PRC relations, focusing on the CCP’s United Front Work in Taiwan. He worked as an aide to Democratic Progressive Party council members in Taipei and New Taipei City prior to running office. He served in the Special Forces of Taiwan’s army before as part of the country’s compulsory active duty military service for men. Now as the threat of a Chinese invasion looms large, he has been participating in trainings for national defense readiness. We spoke about China, both its influence operations and the threat of conflicts, as well as the challenges facing Taiwan’s defense.
You may also be interested in our interview with Ho Cheng-hui, CEO of Kuma Academy, a civil emergency response training program for the Taiwanese. Email subscribers will have to view the post on browser to watch the interview.
— Yaxue Cao, editor of China Change
A Full Transcript
Lin Ping-you (at an election rally in November 2022): I sincerely ask for your votes. Lin Ping-yu has prepared for a long time, it’s been difficult and exhausting. So many friends come out on such a bad-weather day to welcome a better future. I feel confident. I’m ready to work hard with you all. I ask you to give Ping-yu an opportunity to serve you all in the legislature. Can we do that?
The crowd: Yes!
From DPP aide to New Taipei City council member
Yaxue Cao: First of all, please introduce yourself, who you are, your background, education, and family background
Lin Ping-yu: I’m Lin Ping-yu. I’ve just been elected a legislator of New Taipei City. I’ve yet to be sworn in. I was born and raised in Yunlin in southern Taiwan. I came from a civil servant family. I studied political science in college, and strategic studies in graduate school, including studies in international relations. I’ve been paying attention to cross-strait as well as international situations.
Since leaving college, I’ve been working as an aide to politicians, including industrial study and municipal affairs. My job suited my interests to some extent. So I’m happy to share my views with you on these matters.
YC: First of all, congratulations for being elected. New Taipei City is the city adjoining Taipei, right?
Lin: New Taipei is actually the area that surrounds Taipei. Taipei is the center of the Taipei basin, which was a lake before. When the water receded, the bottom plain is where Taipei is now, and the city of New Taipei is the area around it with plain, but also hills and coast. Xinzhuang is a settlement on the west of Taipei, a very old settlement along the river and the harbor.
YC: What’s the population of New Taipei City?
Lin: About 4 million.
YC: That’s big.
Lin: Yes, it’s the largest municipality in Taiwan now. Taipei has only about 2.7 million people left, because due to high housing prices and consumer prices, a lot of people have moved to New Taipei City.
YC: How many seats does the city council have?
Lin: 66 seats.
YC: How are the seats divided after this election?
Lin: The Kuomintang (KMT, the Nationalist Party) has 32 seats, DPP (Democratic Progressive Party) 28, the rest are non-affiliated.
YC: I noticed the non-affiliated candidates. What are they like in general, for example their voting tendency, whether they tend to go with one major party, or…
Lin: Individual cases aside, generally speaking, many non-affiliated council members are those who left the KMT to boost their competitiveness. The KMT has party nominations. These candidates may think they have a strong enough competitive edge locally, and don’t need to work with the KMT, so they opt to be independent candidates. But they are still pro-KMT in political character, and in the council they have mainly cooperated with the KMT. In the DPP camp, very few leave the party and go independent. There have been some, but they’re very few in number.
YC: What’s the political background of your family, blue (KMT and the pro-China parties) or green (DPP)?
Lin: I’m from a family of civil servants, and earlier civil servants’ families tended to be blue [KMT-aligned]. But we are also a local Taiwanese family, not [recent arrivals] from the mainland [in 1949]. Our family immigrated to Taiwan three or four hundred years ago from the mainland, and by my generation we are native Taiwanese. Ideologically my father’s generation tends to be KMT supporters because of their jobs, but at the same time they also have a strong sense of Taiwanese identity. They didn’t put too many restrictions on me. By chance, I started working for the DPP.
YC: Was there something special that defined your political choice?
Lin: Not really. I must say that when I first started I didn’t rule out working for the KMT, because all I wanted was to serve the country. Of course, every party has its political agenda, but I’ve never been very partisan. For me, I just want to serve. But regrettably, the KMT doesn’t give young people opportunities.
YC: Is that so?
Lin: That’s right, by and large the KMT doesn’t give young people opportunities. Shortly after I finished graduate school, an older alumnus who worked for DPP asked me if I was interested in working for a DPP council member. I took the job happily and have kept it since.
YC: Your father supported you.
Lin: He didn’t, opposing it rather strongly at first. Because in the rural area where I grew up, the ecology of that local council isn’t very healthy, still rather primitive. Whether on issues or development, it’s not very healthy. A lot of representatives still use rather crude methods to connect with voters, such as by giving money or other favors. My father opposed it because he thought it was not an honorable job. I told him that the council member I served had good credentials and a good track record. My dad was not completely convinced, but he respected my decision.
Later I moved from Taipei City Council to New Taipei City Council. The council member I worked for was also highly regarded and respected. My father began to have a positive view of political work and supported me, including my decision to run for election. He simply said, we were an ordinary family after all, could offer you financial support, and you would have to rely on yourself.
YC: Are your parents happy about your election?
Lin: They are happy that I’ve found a job. I’m still young, but I also have family and kids. If I’m suddenly jobless, they would worry about my livelihood.
So it’s a job. I wouldn’t say it’s a family honor, but we hope to serve the people in good standing. My father feels that I’ve worked hard, and didn’t do anything to deserve criticism. So he is at peace. After all, politicians are easily subject to criticism. People often say, when you run for election, your family cemetery might be desecrated, and that’s what he fears most. I think I’ve handled things well enough to put my parents at ease.
YC: What’s your platform in this election victory?
Lin: Most of my ideas are on local construction, including some resource redistribution mechanisms. I think we should strive for more equitable and balanced regional development in public construction, because Xinzhuang (新莊) is actually very large, and distribution of resources between communities is uneven. Then there is the matter of tradition: because Xinzhuang is an old town, its roads and buildings were not planned, but developed organically. As a result, traffic jams are an issue as the population grows, not to mention other inconveniences in life. These are the things I hope to address after I take office.
In addition, I’ve been involved in promoting whole-society civil defense work. Taiwan’s grassroots civil defense system has long been neglected. I hope that based on the future threats that Taiwan may face, I can do something to help strengthen it, maybe by introducing new education and training, getting more funding, so that this work can be revitalized and can make new progress. That’s probably what I’d like to do on the side, including amending some of the regulations. To examine war preparedness, the media like to look at air-raid shelters, but Taiwan’s air-raid shelter regulations are outdated, and its management mechanism does not meet modern needs. On top of that, it’s not operationally up to date either. These all have to be improved. So if there is an opportunity, I’ll make an effort to revise regulations in this area.
China’s United Front Work and disinformation campaigns in Taiwan
YC: Friends who helped find contacts said you studied Chinese infiltration, I’d like to hear from you, what you can share with me.
Lin: Because of my personal interest, I actually took part in some cross-strait exchanges, and I got to know some of their methods. But due to long-time ideological separation from China, even when Taiwanese took part in these United Front activities, they knew they were taking advantage of the opportunities only, not agreeing with China’s ideology.
In earlier years, the KMT had all these exchange channels, and most of China’s United Front Work was done through the KMT. It is the KMT’s political dividend. But with the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement in 2014, Taiwanese realized that the KMT was too eager, too quick to cozy up with China in expanding and deepening economic interdependence – in fact making Taiwan dependent on China. That’s how the Sunflower student movement broke out. Before, Taiwanese didn’t feel threatened by these exchanges. They were not too intense, not too frequent, and could be handled. But if the floodgate was opened all of a sudden, people were afraid that Taiwan would be swept away. That was why the Sunflower student protests broke out.
The Sunflower Movement forced a change in Chinese cooperation with the KMT. China realized that its old way of doing United Front work didn’t work. From then on, China’s Taiwan Office apparatus and national security apparatus have come up with a new United Front work plan. They’ve strengthened direct school exchanges. They had a term called “three middles and youth”, that is, the middle class, the midland and the south, the lower-middle class, and young people. They enhanced exchanges with these four groups, and saw immediate success. Back then the Chinese economy was in good shape, so it was easy to attract business and investment, it was very easy to get these people to buy into China’s development and China itself, they were also quite sentimental about China. Naturally, they accepted the benefits they could get from China, and would come back to Taiwan to talk about how great China was. The [CCP] found great success this way, and got a foothold.
In the 2016 presidential election, the DPP won, but that in part was because the KMT had issues with nominating their candidate. By the 2018 local election, the DPP suffered big losses. That was when I started my political involvement. Out of my own interest, I did some analysis on online information and marketing. We discovered that, in that election, the so-called “Han Wave”, or support for Kaohsung’s KMT mayor Mr Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜), was very loud both online and offline. Our analysis found that much of its influence came from China, and it’s not limited to bots commenting or interacting, but integrated with offline entities. Some groups, like the middle-aged or elderly people we often find in parks, were not necessarily active online. How their groups were infiltrated and influenced became the interest of our research. Some of us investigated offline, others online, then we incorporated and cross-examined our findings.
We gathered a large number of cases that reflect patterns of China’s united front work in Taiwan, as well as indicative cases, and their influence in Taiwan politics. At the time there were discussions of united front activity in public temples and among neighborhood executives, all of which we did field work on with scale. We learned that some of them were drawn not to China’s ideology, but its money. This is one type. They must say certain things in order to make that money.
Another type is Taiwanese doing business in China who were not very successful, but the Chinese government helped save their business. In exchange, they were asked to do propaganda work in Taiwan.
After we pushed back, first against disinformation on a few traditional platforms, we made progress. For example, content farms that were active until recently have since disappeared. An important reason is they plagiarized others’ original content, and secondly they were disinformation platforms, which prioritized high numbers of views on search engines. We worked with government bodies and platform providers to block these things. It’s been successful.
But later on China’s United Front Work in Taiwan became more and more refined. We think they began to adopt more open and diverse approaches, allowing Taiwanese to make their own proposals. Of course we had our counter-measures. We knew what grassroots organizations China was looking for, and what they were doing. The problem was, when we found out about it, how we dealt with it via a legal process.
Honestly, Taiwan is not dealing with it well, because after all we respect human rights and the rule of law. On national security, we’ve not established clear statutes, often having to apply general laws. When establishing requirements for charges, you can have a sound legal argument but in practice it’s hard to achieve. The DPP lost big in this election, some people say that rampant disinformation hurt the DPP and affected many Taiwanese’s voting decisions.
I said to them that, over the past years, our handling of Chinese subversion has been ineffective, and lacked concrete action. This worries me.
Fortunately, COVID-19 brought cross-strait physical exchanges to a halt. Each side has been busy dealing with the pandemic, China has not been able to do their united front work, and our work has stopped too, and the successful model of infiltration has ceased to exist. Of course they’ve tried new things, but because fewer people are available to carry them out, we could easily discover their acts, instead of being inundated by too many instances. In any case we’ve established a few specific indicators, so when something appears in those locales, we see them. After all, China’s infiltration follows certain logic, whether online or on the ground. Most definitely so. Once we’ve learned the pattern, it’s not hard for us to find out. The hard part is how we identify its harm to our national security, and how we deal with it. The government must do the latter. Civil society can only investigate it and expose it.
YC: When you said “we”, is it a group of young people, or…
Lin: We are a group of young people, volunteers. For us it’s been an exploration, and we have cooperated with other entities. But I think the government hasn’t paid enough attention to it, and in the future of the cross-strait relations, I think Taiwan must make greater efforts to deal with it. But honestly, I think the DPP administration hasn’t done enough.
Xi’s Taiwan ambitions and the many variables of cross-strait tension
YC: What about the KMT? Are they the direct target of the United Front Work?
Lin: Well, I wouldn’t put it that way. After all, inside the KMT there are two wings — “the Chinese reunification” and “the red reunification.” The “red” wing thinks the KMT should become part of the People’s Republic of China, while the Chinese reunification wing says we are for one China, the Republic of China, and they hope that Taiwan would help bring democracy to the PRC.
My professor for example thinks that though Taiwan occupies a small island off the mainland, it’s still part of China; in the future Taiwan has a chance to compete for political power on the mainland as a beacon of democracy. Some Taiwanese still entertain this idea. I don’t reject it on principle, but it’s not viable given that the two sides have been separated for so long, and the Taiwanese identity has developed to a certain level.
Taiwan is small only because of its proximity to China. But by PowerIndex, Taiwan is actually a mid-sized country, its military power is about the same as Poland, Australia, or Canada.
Since Xi Jinping took the reins of the CCP, you can see that he has implemented many policies favoring Taiwan. I must say that he’s the CCP leader who really wants to reunify Taiwan. He’s different from his predecessors. His predecessors focused on taking care of the domestic affairs, seeing Taiwan as an absent crown jewel that could be recovered at some point with the right timing. They never fixated on Taiwan. Even when Jiang Zemin took the most aggressive posture [in 1995-1996], was it really the most important thing for him? I don’t think so. If you look at Jiang’s military preparations, you can tell he was not concerned about Taiwan.
But Xi Jinping has really been preparing, militarily, politically, across the board. That’s why the outcome of the 20th CCP Congress is so concerning. They are getting ready, for peaceful reunification requires coordination of all parties, not a unilateral decision by China. Now, Taiwan’s local identity is strengthening, the United States is increasingly moving to strategic clarity. I think for Xi, it’s becoming more difficult to talk about peaceful reunification, military reunification is becoming the likelier option by the day. I think it’s a situation everyone is worried about now.
On the other hand, Taiwan’s preparations are insufficient, to be honest. I read an article criticizing a statement former president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) once made: The first battle will also be the last battle. The author thinks President Ma gave the CCP the wrong message. If the CCP thinks it can afford the price of going to war, it would attempt it.
In our preparations, or our overall narrative of maintaining national security, we still lack clarity, including in our attitudes to our people, to our allies, and towards China. Of course in speeches, like on New Year or on National Day, the President would inevitably mention it, but it’s oblique. Perhaps it’s political art; I don’t think it’s wrong, but so far, while the U.S. is moving to strategic clarity, Taiwan has yet to move to real strategic clarity, and what Taiwan has been doing also tends to be opaque. Needless to say, we don’t want war, so Taiwan has reserved space for cross-strait relations, but the key is, does China see it? I believe China doesn’t. This is an obstacle.
Back to the issue of Chinese infiltration. It’s based on China’s understanding of Taiwan. The CCP focused their efforts on the middle class and downward, middle and southern Taiwan, as well as the youth. But then they realized that democracy in Taiwan was real, so they started deploying their proxies as candidates, and they had the ability. We found out that some candidates, or his or her campaign team, had Chinese backing. This made us very concerned. In other words, China developed this method as one of the means of reunifying Taiwan without a war. We put in some effort to thwart these designs.
There were similar cases in this election. But candidates with Chinese backing didn’t do well this time, and most of them didn’t get elected. It shows that Taiwanese do not favor them even though there are exceptions due to the degree of Chinese manipulation. After all, elections are a complex decision making process.
Perhaps KMT’s victory in this election would slightly postpone the time of a military conflict; but others say, if Taiwan chooses a pro-China political party, it will affect the international community’s attitudes towards the people of Taiwan in the event of conflict. Do Taiwanese really have the will to defend their democracy and freedom, or will they lean towards China when China is stronger, and towards the U.S. when the U.S. is stronger, ignoring their own agency? The international community will assess their attitude.
Right now, what can we rely on to maintain peace? Whether or not there will be war is up to Xi Jinping. That’s the most dangerous thing. China isn’t a democracy, and internally the CCP doesn’t even have checks and balances. He alone has the say. The best scenario is that he decides to maintain the status quo; the worst scenario is that he orders Taiwan taken tomorrow. In that case, there is no rationality involved, regardless whether the People’s Liberation Army is ready or not, because he wants it and commands that it be done.
Currently, does the Chinese government, the CCP, have any way to oppose or disobey his order? We don’t know. If Xi really gives the order to assault Taiwan, all of our political and military assessments are meaningless, because we are dealing with an irrational entity. This unpredictable event could deal a huge blow to us of course, for which we will pay a colossal price.
YC: I think the matter of Xi Jinping ordering an attack on Taiwan is still in flux. The answer is not yes or no. The situation we discussed today may change tomorrow. In your opinion, what are the factors at play, whether it’s Xi’s idea of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation or…… But let me tell you one sure thing: Xi Jinping craves Taiwan. No doubts about that.
Lin: That’s right.
YC: He’s determined to have this jewel.
Lin: Most definitely, but whether he has the capability to achieve his goal is fluid. Ability and intent are two things. About his intent, I think at this point he is using Taiwan as a leverage. He may not do it right away. Given that no one wants a war, all he may think he has to do is strike a threatening posture, even if on a smaller scale, and achieve his goal. That’s my opinion.
Still, I believe Xi is more focused on his internal regime stability. Doing too much could actually backfire on him. That’s the ‘intent’ part of it. In terms of ability, it’s complicated, involving China’s capabilities, Taiwan’s capabilities, as well as the ability of the U.S. and its allies. Taiwan falls short if confronting China alone. With the U.S., of course it’s not a problem. But China has a lot of leverage too, economic leverage, or its operation in Europe, Africa, and other countries, with which to influence American political policies. These also have to be taken into account.
All of these issues are interlinked. Kinetic military conflict is definitely the last option. So preceding the military question is the political question, before the political question is the social question, one has to look at a constellation of societies to decide whether war will really break out or not. It’s hard to assess, but we can track some objective indicators, such as troop movements, which can be observed. But while you have this information, whether you have the ability to deal with it is another matter. That’s the realm of military operations, which I’ll not get into.
But I tend to believe that he would likely take a limited approach to achieve his objectives, and the time for doing that won’t be too long. That is, he would launch some kind of military action against Taiwan, but not an all-out invasion. Because as I said before he is rational to a degree, and has concerns about how he’d maintain his political legitimacy and lasting rule in China. Taking Taiwan by all-out war is not a good option, and I don’t think he’d be that foolish. We may paint him as being totally irrational, but I think a large-scale war is not a good option even from his point of view.
Challenges facing Taiwan’s ground forces and civil-military defense cooperation
YC: Let’s talk about Taiwan’s own defense, its military capabilities, equipment, and capacity to defend itself. I imagine you have studied this area too.
Lin: Taiwan actually has a large defense budget, but the military culture and management are rather backwards. This is one of the biggest obstacles. As a result of the longstanding deficiencies in our military culture, society has very low confidence in the military and doesn’t see military service as very attractive. This is Taiwan’s biggest predicament in national defense mobilization.
That’s why I’ve written numerous articles criticizing the Defense Department. The government gave you resources, there are people instructing you, there is good weaponry as well as legislative support. But they’ve remained stuck in the traditions that came over with the Whampoa Military Academy from China. Of course, there’s also been some changes in Taiwanese society, but the military has in my opinion been rather hypocritical, they haven’t made a sincere effort to solve their problems, which adds to the lack of civilian confidence in our national defense system.
So when the government is unwilling to get the general public involved—we aren’t like the Americans who love their guns—it means that our national defense lacks comprehensiveness, it’s scattered. The government will tell you how awesome our military is, how it stands ready to protect us, but it never tells the people what they should do as citizens to help the country. That is to say, in the event that war breaks out in the future, there is no role [envisioned] for civilians. If there’s no role for them to take, they’ll feel helpless and terrified because they don’t know what they are supposed to do or what you could do. If they support our country’s democratic system, but don’t have any skills to help defend it, that’s an awful situation.
This is something I’ve always emphasized, which is to empower the general public. But our government’s attitude is that if you do this, it means it’s preparing for war, and that will provoke China. I think there are problems with this thinking. Yes, the government is responsible for the people’s welfare in peacetime, but it has to do two things simultaneously: ready to protect citizens’ lives and property and take steps to avoid war. It’s not a zero-sum problem. But there are always people who see it as zero-sum, I think they’re wrong.
It’s often said that Taiwanese society has a culture of opportunistic hedging, which makes sense given that Taiwan has always been sandwiched between authoritarian powers, so it’s prone to flip-flopping. In its search for survival, Taiwan might not always choose a path of active resistance, with a solid concept of preserving self-identity. This is a characteristic of Taiwanese culture. I think that as we gradually establish a concept of nation, we’ll be able to move away from that culture of shallowness. Honestly, I think we’ve just gotten started.
YC: You must have served in the military.
Lin: Yes, I did.
YC: For two years?
Lin: Just one year, because I was in the first round of conscripts after the draft reform shortened it from one year and four months. Then they shortened it again to one year right after I was drafted.
YC: What kind of training did you get?
Lin: I served in the Army’s Special Forces. I was an Army paratrooper.
YC: How were you selected?
Lin: You sign up voluntarily.
YC: So you chose it….
Lin: Yes, I opted to join the airborne troops.
YC: Special Forces training must be very intensive.
Lin: It’s physically demanding.
YC: People say that because Taiwanese young men all have to serve, with few exceptions, every Taiwanese man, young and middle-aged men, they all have military training.
Lin: Virtually everyone does.
YC: Then maybe the government should organize regular training sessions, for example, if you served 20 years ago and are 40 now, you are still in your prime, and the country may need you one day. The government could establish these training sessions, say, two days a week, or even…
Lin: Yes, it’s a militia system. Actually this ties into the problem we talked about just now, the lack of confidence our society has in the military. The army is so backward in its training and institutions that few want to take part, this is the main issue. If the army’s training matched the level of military modernization, people would want to be a part of it, because they’d feel like it’s worth putting in time. Our military as it is now, especially the ground forces, the air force and navy are different because they require specialists, so usually the draftees go serve as infantry. I have to say that the ground forces are really out of shape, they’re terrible.
YC: Why is that?
Lin: I think this can be seen in several respects, including how the militaries of other countries think about us. I’m talking about the cultural genes of the military. It is an army that has not fought for a long time. In fact, it has lost the ability to assess the modern battlefield and understand modern military operations. So I made severe criticisms in an article I wrote yesterday. They think they’re getting stronger, because now they’ve extended the mobilization of a reserve force from one week to two weeks. I’ll be very blunt: you had one pile of crap before and now you have two piles of crap, it’s still crap. It won’t be a tasty meal just because you have two helpings, not at all. If you’re not doing it right, you won’t improve by doing it twice. If they don’t fix the root problems, but just extend military service, there’s no point in forcing people to take part.
The key is whether you’re offering people something useful, to make them confident that the training they’re getting will really make a difference in defending the country, that it will help them when they enter a warzone. Only then will they want to serve. But the military has a certain mentality that they are the experts. Now, I don’t want them to tell me they alone know better. In fact, there is so much information available now, I can learn more advanced skills than what the army can offer by watching YouTube videos, and what I learn will be more practical and useful.
But the army refuses to change, so who can blame the public for not wanting to join? What the government should do is to reform the military, but it has tried over a decade, 20 years without success, because the military culture is wrong. I often give scathing criticism, because the army sucks and its poorness has had societal repercussions. I don’t think our navy and air force are as bad, actually they’re pretty good. But in terms of defense, the last line of defense requires a whole-of-society effort. In this our land forces are disappointing.
Taiwan Interview Series (1): Ho Cheng-hui, CEO of Kuma Academy, February 20, 2023.
A Good Country, A Good People – Thirty Days Around Taiwan, Yaxue Cao, December 31, 2022.