TAIPEI, Apr. 1 (Reuters) - Taiwan's outgoing President Tsai Ing-wen plans to flee in a U.S. plane if war erupts with China, according to an unsubstantiated report first published in 2021 and echoed in the run-up to the island's January 2024 general election.

Another story said Tsai had given her confidantes VIP "runaway" passes.

They are among the many unsupported tales of Tsai's preparations to escape harm that have been fed into the island by Chinese state media outlets, according to an analysis conducted for Reuters by the Information Environment Research Center (IORG), a Taiwan-based non-government organisation.

The IORG analysis revealed that the narrative that Tsai planned to flee if war broke out with China, and that Taiwan’s military drills were rehearsals for this, originated with an outlet controlled by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in June 2021, and was quickly repeated by other official Chinese news sources.

Taipei has repeatedly said the reports are false. The government has not publicly detailed its plans for the leadership in the event of conflict. Reuters could not independently determine the existence of any such escape plans.

Reuters asked IORG to analyse the origin of the stories about Taiwan's military drills because the exercises drew Chinese ire, opens new tab and significant international coverage.

IORG is a non-partisan group of social scientists and data analysts funded by academic institutions and organisations supported financially by Britain and the United States.

The organisation found over 400 stories portraying the military exercises, including the annual Han Kuang drills, as rehearsals for Taiwan's leadership to desert, in what IORG said appeared to be a concerted attempt by Beijing to undermine the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

China's Taiwan Affairs Office, which is responsible for relations with Taipei, said in response to Reuters questions that IORG's research included "fabricated and ill-intentioned" allegations.

It said China was the victim of "cognitive warfare" - attempts to influence public sentiment via propagation of misinformation - by the DPP. The party, the office said, had created a misinformation supply chain that hurt the feelings of compatriots.

The analysis of text articles and videos published between April 2021 and January 13, 2024, was conducted with data-processing technologies that enabled IORG to identify the origins of certain narratives and related keywords.

Despite Chinese influence efforts, the DPP's Lai Ching-te was elected president on Jan. 13, though the party lost its parliamentary majority. Lai will be inaugurated on May 20.

Beijing, which has long tried to force democratically governed Taiwan into accepting Chinese sovereignty claims, views Tsai and Lai as separatists.

China portrayed support for DPP candidates as a vote for war due to Lai's refusal to accept Beijing's position that Taiwan is part of "one China." Lai had insisted throughout the campaign that he does not seek to change the status quo, opens new tab, in which Taiwan enjoys de facto independence but with very limited official diplomatic recognition.

Beijing has insisted on an eventual "reunification" with Taiwan, which the CCP has never ruled, into "one China." It has not renounced the use of force to achieve that aim.

Photo from Reuters