Supporters of Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-Wen, from the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), wave campaign flags dduring…
Supporters of Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-Wen, from the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), wave campaign flags during a rally in Taipei, Jan. 10, 2020.

STATE DEPARTMENT - The United States is emphasizing free and fair elections as Taiwanese voters head to polls Saturday for presidential and legislative elections. The vote follows months of signs that China is stepping up political influence and disinformation operations on the island Beijing claims as its own.

The U.S. sees Taiwan as part of a network of Asian democracies, calling Taiwan "a democratic success story and a force for good in the world." Informal U.S.-Taiwan ties have improved under U.S. President Donald Trump.

"We've been on record that, certainly, we want to see a free and fair election in Taiwan," David Helvey, principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs, said earlier this week in Washington.

Saturday, Taiwanese voters will choose between Tsai Ing-wen, the incumbent president and ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) nominee;  Kuomintang (KMT) nominee Han Kuo-yu; and People First Party (PFP) nominee James Soong.

Supporters of Kuomintang party presidential candidate Han Kuo-yu attend his election rally in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, Jan. 10, 2020.

"The U.S. takes no interest in who wins; the fact that the process stays sacrosanct is what’s important, as it is in our own election process," a senior State Department official said Tuesday.

Accusations against China

As the January 11 elections approach, Taiwan officials and experts have been warning that the Beijing government is trying to sway the election through a disinformation campaign and military intimidation, an accusation China denies.  

A VOA Mandarin report on Chinese influence operations in Taiwan details some of the fake news and disinformation that appeared on internet and social media apps during the 2020 election campaigns. This includes efforts by the so-called "Dark Web Army" sponsored by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

FILE - Taiwan's 2020 presidential election candidates, from right, Democratic Progressive Party's Tsai Ing-wen, People First Party's James Soong, and Nationalist Party's Han Kuo-yu attend a televised policy debate in Taipei, Taiwan, Dec. 29, 2019.

Analysts warn the interference could make a substantial impact on the vote.

"What’s more of an issue is YouTube, because there are many videos on YouTube now which began appearing from October onward, with many videos from YouTubers connected with China or connected with United Front organizations linked with China. There has been an increase of five or six times in a number of these," said Puma Shen, assistant professor at the National Taipei University's Graduate School of Criminology and director of DoubleThink Labs.

Shen was speaking to New Bloom, an online publication founded by a group of Taiwanese students and activists, on issues regarding fake news and disinformation in Taiwan before the election and efforts to combat it.

Setting the course

China is closely watching Taiwan elections, while the Beijing government is downplaying them as local elections. The two sides split after the 1949 civil war but the Beijing government considers the self-ruled democracy as part of its territory and has vowed to take control of it, by force if necessary.

The U.S. insists on a peaceful resolution between China and Taiwan, opposing unilateral changes to the status quo by either side and encouraging both sides to engage in constructive dialogue on the basis of dignity and respect.

The election is seen as setting the course for how to handle political and military rival China amid fears that Taiwan could be taken by the Communist government or become another protest-wracked Hong Kong.

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Tsai and Han have rejected "one country, two systems," a policy under which Beijing had previously offered autonomy without sovereignty to Hong Kong and Macau.

The nominees have differing views on the KMT-negotiated "1992 consensus," which affirms "one China" but subtly allows Beijing and Taipei to pursue their own interpretations.

On December 31, an anti-infiltration bill that criminalizes political activities backed by hostile foreign forces was pushed through by Taiwan's parliament, the Legislative Yuan.

The bill, similar to the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act, would penalize organizations and individuals for secretly acting on China's behalf. The new law also includes provisions to fight disinformation.

Daphne Fan from VOA's Mandarin service contributed to this report.