EXCLUSIVE: China lures hundreds of Taiwanese politicians with cheap trips ahead of election

TAIPEI, Dec 1 (Reuters) – Beijing has offered hundreds of Taiwanese politicians low-cost trips to China, according to Taiwanese sources and documents that have unnerved authorities over a widespread campaign of “election interference”. .

President Tsai Ing-wen and other Taiwanese officials have warned that the election could try to sway voters toward candidates who want closer ties with Beijing, which could define the island’s ties to China. But the scale of the Chinese move has not been previously reported.

Beijing, which says it rules Taiwan democratically, has stepped up military and political pressure on the island to accept its sovereignty, calling the January 13 presidential and legislative elections a choice between “peace and war” and the ruling party. Dangerous separatists and urging Taiwanese to make the “right choice”.

Taiwanese law bars election campaigns from receiving money from “hostile foreign powers” including China, and this week prosecutors in southern Taiwan said they would prosecute 22 people, including grassroots politicians, for violating election and security laws.

Taiwan’s security agencies are considering more than 400 visits to China in the past month, mostly led by local opinion leaders such as mayors and village chiefs, a Taiwanese security official who monitors China’s activities told Reuters.

The agencies believe the trips were subsidized with discounted accommodations, transportation and meals by divisions under China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, said the person, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

The Chinese office did not respond to a request for comment. It has previously said it respects Taiwan’s “social institutions” when commenting on elections.

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When asked for comment, Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council, China’s top policy body, referred Reuters to its minister Chiu Tai-chan’s comments this week. He said Beijing’s attempts to sway Taiwan’s elections by means including free trips to politicians “show themselves clearly”.

“They have already made it clear that there should be a so-called ‘correct election,’ which means choosing the candidates the Chinese Communist Party wants,” he told reporters without elaborating.

‘Election Interference’

Those taking these trips usually pay their own airfare, but other expenses are covered by Chinese authorities, officials looking into the matter said.

“Election interference has begun in the name of group tours,” said a second Taiwanese security official briefed on the matter, adding that Beijing plays a key role in shaping public opinion by targeting politicians important to the island’s governing bodies.

More than 300 mayors or village chiefs from populous central Taiwan alone have participated in such trips to China in the past few months, he said.

More than 20 municipal leaders from a district in the capital Taipei joined their families on a China-sponsored trip to Shanghai in September, while more than 10 from an association of local politicians in neighboring New Taipei City joined a trip this week. Two security reports were reviewed by Reuters.

Compared to elections four years ago, Taipei County’s turnout was “significantly increased” and registrations were “very enthusiastic,” according to a report. “Some metropolitan leaders have become a window of communication for certain Chinese factions in Taiwan.”

So far this year, more than 1,000 mayors or village heads have joined such trips, more than last time, the second official said, as China targets constituencies where support for candidates campaigning for closer Chinese ties is strong.

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Making a legal case is difficult

At the hearing in the southern city of Kaohsiung, prosecutors said they believed the five trips from there were fully funded by China’s Taiwan Affairs Office.

Chinese authorities asked participants to support certain political parties and “oppose Taiwan independence,” prosecutors said in a statement.

“There is no such thing as a free lunch,” Attorney General Hsing Tai-chao said Thursday. He also urged Taiwanese not to accept offers or instructions from Chinese officials when traveling there, saying outside powers are trying to influence citizens in an “unprecedented way”.

Defense officials said it is challenging to build criminal cases against tourists because it is difficult to establish a trail of money to Chinese state-owned companies behind the tours, which Chinese officials often charge far below the market rate.

Taiwan suspended group tours to China through travel agencies after the COVID-19 pandemic, but there are no restrictions on individual visits.

A recent government probe prompted some politicians to be more circumspect about such trips, with the two officials arranging some separately and then meeting in China.

“They now avoid sitting in seats next to each other during their flights.”

Reporting by Yimou Lee; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing: William Mallard

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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Yimou Lee, a Reuters senior correspondent, covers everything from Taiwan to critical Taiwan-China relations, including China’s military aggression and Taiwan’s important role as a global semiconductor powerhouse. A three-time SOPA award winner, her reporting from Hong Kong, China, Myanmar and Taiwan over the past decade has included Myanmar’s crackdown on Rohingya Muslims, Hong Kong protests and Taiwan’s battle against China’s multi-pronged campaigns to annex the island.

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