Taiwan voters go to the polls on Saturday in local elections that will likely indicate the level of popular support for President Tsai Ing-wen and for any move towards independence, after two years of growing tension with Beijing.
Some 19 million voters will be voting for more than 11,000 local officials, including mayoral races in the capital Taipei and the southern port city of Kaohsiung, amid concerns over growing interference in the island's democracy by the Chinese Communist Party.
"Tomorrow is polling day, and once more I call on the people of Kaohsiung to help us fight a wonderful campaign," mayoral candidate for the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Han Kuo-yu told a political rally on Friday.
"Whether or not I am re-elected, I think the sun will shine on this election, and that it will prove to be model election that will go down in Taiwan's history," Han said. "We can all study it and see."
But strategic analyst and political commentator Wang Li, identified on his Facebook page a bewildering network of money and political influence through which Beijing exerts influence through campaign funding, and even to the point of fielding its own, puppet candidates.
"There are all kinds of tricks and channels," Wang wrote, adding that some of the funding flowing in from Beijing's overseas United Front operation is hidden "three layers thick," so its origins will be hard to spot as "red."
"I just wanted everyone to know that this is an extremely complete network, and not one that can easily be beaten by a team of online volunteers from Taiwan," Wang wrote of his funding "map" detailing the financing of candidates who favor rapprochement and eventual "reunification" with the People's Republic of China, which has never ruled the island.
Wang's map, translated by East Asia analyst Paul Huang, details funding routed from the Chinese Communist Party's network of United Front organizations, via state-owned enterprises and laundering operations and crowdfunding overseas, to pro-unification politicians and organized crime.
The laundered funding also finances a huge wave of disinformation targeting Taiwan ahead of the elections, according to Wang.
Taiwan's voters will also cast ballots on 10 referendums, including one on whether to amend the civil code to include same-sex marriage — which was legalized last year — and on whether they would like to enter the 2020 Tokyo Olympics as "Taiwan" instead of the moniker "Chinese Taipei" insisted on by Beijing.
China mobilizes cyber operatives
The IOC has warned that no name change will be possible, but a vote for "Taiwan" could test the level of support for formal statehood for the island.
Taiwan's national security director Peng Sheng-chu told lawmakers earlier this month that his agency is now monitoring comments on social media platforms including Facebook, and that one of the key topics monitored was President Tsai Ing-wen.
National security sources have told local media that China has mobilized some 300,000 cyber operatives to target the island's internet users ahead of Saturday's polls, spreading disinformation through social media, including Weibo, Facebook and YouTube, as well as targeting its mainstream print and broadcast media.
The elections are being used as a "testing ground" for Beijing's plan to influence the 2020 presidential election in its favor, away from the DPP, which has declined to play along with Beijing's demands that it acknowledge that Taiwan is part of China.
Former mainland Chinese blogger Zhou Shuguang, who recently immigrated to Taiwan, said the reports of Beijing's United Front operations are entirely credible to him.
"Of course they would do that," Zhou said. "As someone who has come here from mainland China as an immigrant, and a blogger experiencing a democratic society for the first time ... I would like to see this society become even more democratic, and for this democracy to become even more transparent."
"But China isn't democratic, and has been doing everything it can in recent years to extend its influence, which includes trying to influence the democratic process in other countries," he said.
Illegal funds from mainland
Tsai's administration in September approved plans to raise fines for illegal funds flowing in from mainland China, as part of a package of new rules aimed at tightening national security in the face of growing tensions with Beijing.
Her cabinet approved a plan to raise the maximum fine for unauthorized Chinese investments to more than U.S.$800,000, in a bid to target funding that may be political in origin with sanctions against companies that "evade, refuse, or try to block" government inspections of their situation.
Chinese national Xu Qihong, a former county-level deputy to the People's Congress in the eastern province of Zhejiang, said he had come to the island to witness "the political carnival" of a democratic election.
"I thought we'd come here to see it, given that we wouldn't be able to watch it in mainland China," Xu told RFA. "It really is ordinary people who are in charge here," he said, adding that Beijing is very concerned about the growth of pro-independence sentiment in Taiwan.
China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) is gradually preparing for a possible invasion of Taiwan, according to a military analysis published by the Pentagon in Washington earlier this year.
Armed forces under the Chinese Communist Party "continued to develop and deploy increasingly advanced military capabilities intended to coerce Taiwan, signal Chinese resolve, and gradually improve capabilities for an invasion," the U.S. Department of Defense said in an annual report on China's military capabilities.
Taiwan was ruled as a Japanese colony in the 50 years prior to the end of World War II, but was handed back to the 1911 Republic of China under the nationalist Kuomintang government as part of Tokyo's post-war reparation deal.
When the 1911 regime fled to Taiwan in 1947 after losing a civil war to Mao Zedong's communist troops, the Republic of China government ceased to control most of China, though it continues to be the official name of the Taiwan government.
The island began a transition to democracy following the death of Chiang's son, President Chiang Ching-kuo, in January 1988, starting with direct elections to the legislature in the early 1990s and culminating in the first direct election of a president, Lee Teng-hui, in 1996.
Recent opinion polls indicate that there is broad political support for self-rule in Taiwan, where the majority of voters identify as Taiwanese rather than Chinese.
But Beijing regards the island as part of China, and has threatened to invade if Taiwan seeks formal independence.
Beijing has meanwhile succeeded in isolating Taiwan diplomatically by insisting that its diplomatic partners break off ties with Taipei under the "One China" policy.
Reported by Mai Hsiao-tien for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Chung Kuang-cheng for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.