BOOK REVIEW | “Media Warfare: Taiwan’s Battle for the Cognitive Realm” by Kerry K. Gershaneck

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Can the People’s Republic of China (PRC) invade and conquer Taiwan? Experts differ, but 99% of the current debate only considers the military balance – and whether the PLA has the weapons, equipment, and capabilities to disembark, defeat the Taiwanese military, and force Taiwan to surrender.

The military clash is important, but half the picture – and half the PRC’s strategy against Taiwan is missing.

Professor Kerry Gershaneck’s new book, Media Warfare: Taiwan’s battle for the cognitive domain (Independent, October 2021) details and explains a key part of this “other half”: the PRC’s use of “media warfare” to psychologically fracture and demoralize Taiwan and facilitate conquest. Or better yet, for Taiwan to give up without a fight.

Gershaneck is well versed in the subject, having extensive experience in Asia and practical experience in strategic communications at all levels of the US government. He also has particularly useful counter-intelligence training.

In 2020, he published a seminal work on political warfare in the PRC: Political warfare: strategies for combating China’s plan to “win without a fight” (Marine Corps University Press, 2020).

The Battle Between the Ears: The Chinese “Media War” Against Taiwan (And Everyone)

This time, Professor Gershaneck focuses on what China has done and is doing in Taiwan on the “media war” front. Equally important, it explains how Beijing is waging the same type of insidious war around the world – especially against Taiwan’s main ally, the United States.

For Chinese strategists, media warfare (and the broader political war effort of which media warfare is a part) is just as important as building the PLA into a force capable of defeating the US military. Indeed, the kinetics and the “informational” are considered as mutually reinforcing lines of attack.

Media warfare – also known as “public opinion war” – exploits all instruments that inform and influence the public and government opinion of an adversary. The objective is to weaken, divide, corrode, confuse, co-opt and demoralize an opponent.

What are the instruments? The old standards, like television, radio and newspapers, of course. But there are also books, textbooks and, for the past three decades, the internet and social media.

Indeed, the Chinese Communists make full use of all of this. And they are particularly aggressive on internet / social media vectors.

It’s logic. With newspapers, television and radio, a propagandist must somehow attract the intended target in order to receive the message. With social media and internet it is possible to scramble the message in the target without interruption ー 24/7/365. And given that 90% of the Taiwanese public is active on social networks, this democracy presents an environment rich in particularly targeted targets.

Deliver messages

What does the PRC’s media war campaign against Taiwan look like? In order to get its messages across, the Chinese entities have bought Taiwanese television stations and newspapers and are using the bait of advertising dollars against independent media.

Another key part of the effort to shape the views of as wide an audience as possible is the aggressive use of social media platforms to influence, confuse and deceive. This is often accomplished through effective profiling of users to better target messages.

How successful is Beijing? In 2018, the PRC deployed media warfare ploys – including heavy use of social media – to organize the election of an outright Kuomintang Party (KMT) candidate Han Kuo-yu ー as mayor of Kaohsiung, the second largest city in Taiwan. Many KMT members support Communist China’s plans to annex Taiwan.

Han’s surprise election to this powerful town hall was neither a small feat nor a minor problem. Kaohsiung has always been a stronghold of the ruling Progressive Democratic Party (DPP), which strongly opposes annexation by China.

As part of the efforts to elect Han Kuo-yu, pro-Chinese Communist Party (CCP) media in Taiwan and Communist propaganda outlets in China have relentlessly attacked DPP leaders, including Chairman Tsai, with many disinformation and false allegations. This relentless interference in the campaign was enough to raise doubts among voters, not least because there was no effective way in Taiwan to detect and counter the media war attacks.

Han Kuo-yu ran for president two years later, once again with pro-CCP Taiwanese and Chinese-based Communist media warriors working hard on his behalf.

Taiwan and beyond

Han had a good chance of winning. However, two things happened.

First, the Taiwanese government has recognized the threat of media war and concocted defenses effective enough to derail and expose Beijing’s strategy. Second, the Chinese Communists’ crushing of the pro-freedom movement in Hong Kong a few months before Taiwan’s election awoke much of the Taiwanese public to the Chinese threat – and inoculated many into Chinese subversion.

Professor Gershaneck provides a concise but detailed introduction to the media war in Taiwan, but with broader implications. It guides the reader through confusing and redundant terminology and explains how media warfare fits into the larger Chinese political war strategy – intended to defeat an enemy by all measures other than outright kinetic warfare.

While using Taiwan as the central theme of his latest book, the professor points out that what the PRC does in Taiwan, it also does in the United States and other free nations.

The professor wrote his most recent book to help Western countries “better detect, deter, counter and defeat” Chinese media warfare – and political warfare at large. And it provides a set of practical recommendations for the government of Taiwan that apply to any country attacked by the PRC media war.

For example, the Chinese state-controlled media (which are all media entities operating in China) have formed strategic alliances with Western media. The New York Times, Washington post, and even the “conservatives” and “tough on China” the Wall Street newspaper door China daily media war inserts for several years.

Gershaneck also describes how the Chinese government is taking control of newspapers and broadcast media serving the Chinese “diaspora” in many, if not most, countries.

And, at the same time, the PRC is flooding the United States with “journalists” – it makes life miserable in China for the few foreign journalists still allowed to operate there.

And the American and foreign media regularly censor themselves to avoid angering Beijing.

You too have been influenced

Professor Gershaneck paints a grim picture of China’s massive, well-funded and effective media war effort against Taiwan and the world.

Many – if not most – people will say that they are too smart, too well educated and too perceptive to be swayed by the propaganda induced by the Chinese Communist Party’s media war. May be. But if you have ever said or thought any of the following things, you have been “swayed”.

  • COVID 19 couldn’t have come from a lab.
  • China wants to “reunify” with Taiwan.
  • The US must have help from China on “climate change”, North Korea and (fill in).
  • We just need to be invested in the Chinese market.
  • To make China an enemy, treat it like one.
  • China is no longer a communist. It is capitalist.
  • China’s rise to power is “peaceful” and “inevitable”.
  • China has never attacked its neighbors.
  • China is not expansionist.
  • China is just doing what all the great powers are doing.

Professor Gershaneck’s book is indeed alarming, although one reluctantly admires China’s diligence and persistence on the “non-kinetic” fronts of media / public opinion / psychology.

Are democracies responding?

But surely the US government has its own media war and political war effort to match and defeat anything Beijing does?

If only. Unlike previous administrations, the Trump administration understood the problem, as well as China’s political warfare efforts. He’s had limited success in exposing and suppressing here and there – with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (to whom the book is dedicated) and Deputy National Security Advisor, Matthew Pottinger being particularly effective. But they ran out of time.

The US government is once again back to doing nothing as China unleashes itself on the crucial “cognitive” battlefield Professor Gershaneck explains so well in this important book.

This is not surprising, we suppose. The recent collapse of the Afghan government and army was as much a political war victory for the Taliban as it was a military victory.

America’s military and civilian leaders did not seem to notice.

It is hoped that they will take the Chinese version of the threat of political and media war more seriously. And then do something about it.

Reading Professor Gershaneck’s books would be a good start.

ABOUT THE BOOK

Title: Media Warfare: Taiwan’s battle for the cognitive domain

Author: Professor Kerry Gershaneck

Editor:Independent (October 2021)

ISBN 13: 979-8483789291

Formats: To print

To buy the Book and find out more: Visit the bookseller on this link.

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Author: Grant Newsham

Grant Newsham is a retired United States Marine and a former diplomat and business executive who spent many years in Asia. He is a senior fellow at the Center for Security Policy.

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