Investigators in Taiwan say they have found a number of fake Twitter accounts linked to China posting fake apologies to World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who has accused the democratic island of involvement in a series of personal and racist attacks against him.
Investigators from the ministry of justice in Taiwan said they had uncovered an effort by Chinese netizens to exploit the controversy by falsely identifying themselves as Taiwanese and issuing apologies to Tedros online, the island's Central News Agency reported.
The posts appeared on fake accounts made to imitate the account of Radio Free Asia, and included apology templates posted by an account calling itself "Radio Free Xuzhou."
The messages represented "a grave threat to Taiwan's international reputation," the investigators told a news conference in Taipei on Friday.
Tedros told a news conference on Wednesday that he had been personally attacked, had suffered racist abuse, and had even received death threats, a statement which nobody seems to be disputing.
But the island's government from the president down to the foreign ministry spokesmen and women have said the attacks had nothing to do with them.
"This attack came from Taiwan," Tedros said. "Taiwan, the foreign ministry also, they know the campaign. They did not dissociate themselves."
Taiwan's foreign ministry on Thursday called on Tedros to retract and apologize for the remarks.
President Tsai Ing-wen meanwhile invited Tedros to visit Taiwan and "experience for himself" the country's commitment to international engagement and public health.
Diplomatic pressure from Beijing
Taiwan, which has never formed part of the People's Republic of China nor been ruled by the Chinese Communist Party, has nevertheless been denied membership in international organizations under huge diplomatic pressure from Beijing, which claims the island as part of its territory.
The island, which is a formal sovereign state under the 1911 Republic of China which fled to the island after losing a civil war to Mao Zedong's communists, has repeatedly called on the WHO to allow it to participate as an observer.
But WHO advisers and officials have ignored the requests and refused to discuss the possibility in public, responding that Taiwan is already participating in an unofficial capacity.
The WHO has also come under fire during the coronavirus pandemic for pro-China bias, and for failing to hold the statements of health officials up to closer scrutiny in the early stages of the epidemic in the central city of Wuhan.
China is no stranger to information warfare, having honed its techniques last year on the anti-extradition and pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, as well as the election campaign on the democratic island of Taiwan.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said China "strongly condemns the personal attacks and racist words and actions directed against Dr. Tedros."
Zhao, who has been lauded by state media as a key figure in China's online infowars, continued: "The DPP in Taiwan have continually speculated about Taiwan's so-called participation in the WHO and the World Health Assembly since the epidemic began. Their purpose is to seek independence on the back of the epidemic."
Zhao has recently promoted the idea that the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 didn't originate in China at all, tweeting in March: "When did patient zero begin in US? How many people are infected? What are the names of the hospitals?."
"It might be US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan. Be transparent! Make public your data! US owe us an explanation!" he wrote, triggering a diplomatic spat between Beijing and Washington, which summoned Chinese ambassador Cui Tiankai for a formal protest.
China's overseas propaganda offensive can be traced back to August 2013, when President Xi addressed the National Conference on Propaganda and Ideology, calling on officials and state-run media to "tell the China story well, and make sure China's voice is heard."
China's diplomatic service then swung into action in 2014, setting up social media accounts on Facebook and Twitter for its diplomatic missions around the world.
Social media, while blocked for ordinary people back home, is now seen as a key plank in Xi's drive to reshape China's international image, and experts say Beijing's propaganda specialists have now become adept at targeting different audiences around the world.
Reported by Hwang Chun-mei for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.