Is China Retaliating Against Taiwan's Investigations into Its Spying?

Is China Retaliating Against Taiwan's Investigations into Its Spying?
Photo Credit: Reuters / 達志影像
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China’s wild allegations of Taiwanese spying may be a direct response to Taiwan’s investigations of China’s own spy network.

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By Brian Hioe

Chinese spying efforts in Taiwan have been under closer scrutiny in past months. This can be observed in several incidents, including an official investigation into Wang Ping-chung (王炳忠) and several other young spokespersons of the reunification-skewing New Party for efforts to establish a Chinese spying ring in Taiwan in collaboration with Chinese exchange student Zhou Hongxu, and what some suspect to be the Chinese financing of “White Wolf” Chang An-lo’s (張安樂) Chinese Unification Promotion Party (CUPP), though Chang denies this.

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Credit: Reuters / TPG
Chinese student Zhou Hongxu is escorted by police as he arrives at the High Court for a hearing on suspicions of attempting to develop a spy network for China, in Taipei, March 26, 2018.

An Al-Jazeera documentary on Chinese influence in Taiwan was also released early this month, becoming a hotly discussed topic as a front-page article in some newspapers. The documentary revealed that the pro-unification Chinese Concentric Patriotic Association (CCPA) has ties within the Taipei city police, claims to be compiling a list of supporters of Taiwanese independence living in China, and is politically monitoring Chinese students studying in Taiwan in order to make sure that they do not step out of line.

In the wave of backlash against the CCPA after the release of the documentary, the CUPP publicly announced it would be distancing itself from the CCPA. This came despite the previous tight alliance of the two groups, with frequent interchanges between members.

However, it proves highly ironic that the Chinese government has taken steps to respond to actions by Taiwan in the past week by accusing Taiwan of engaging in spying efforts in China. This has been a coordinated effort from state-run media, as observed in leaked media directives from China’s central propaganda department outlining that, between Sept. 14 and 17, state-run media would conduct a series of reports about what it claimed to be Taiwanese spying efforts in China.

These reports took the form of television reports on the CCTV programs Xinwen Lianbo on Sept. 15 and Focus Report (焦點訪談) on Sept. 15 and 16, along with news reports in the Global Times on Sept. 17 and reports from the prefectural governments of Fujian, Guangdong, Sichuan, Liaoning, Jiangsu, Shandong, Hebei, and others.

Subsequent television reports cited, among other things, claims that over one hundred Taiwanese spy cases had been discovered in China, along with claims that both male and female Taiwanese spies had engaged in efforts to seduce Chinese students studying in Taiwan with knowledge of sensitive fields related to defense or technology. They also included claims that Taiwanese spies were cultivating young Chinese students studying in Taiwan, manipulating them with hopes that they would eventually end up in high-placed positions in China. As such, these reports urged caution regarding Taiwanese efforts in China.

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Credit: Focus Report / CCTV
A report on alleged Taiwanese spying by Chinese TV program Focus Report.

One observes that China’s claims regarding Taiwanese spying in China resemble the CCP’s other recent warnings against foreign, western spies, including claims that western spies would resort to seduction or claim to be researchers, academics, or journalists. The specific impetus for China’s sudden spate of warnings against purported Taiwanese spying effort, however, remains unknown.

For its part, the administration of President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) has denied that it recruits Chinese as spies. One also observes that the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post, the impartiality of which has been increasingly questioned since its 2016 acquisition by Chinese conglomerate Alibaba, recently put out a report claiming quite fancifully that Taiwan is becoming a surveillance state, in close conjunction with similar Chinese state media reports. Never mind that this is true of China in the present.

Before the release of the reports from CCTV and the Global Times, some in China thought that spying accusations could be intended to smear the ongoing Shenzhen Jasic struggle, which the Chinese government has attempted to paint as being the result of foreign interference, rather than a struggle which developed as a product of genuine labor discontents within China. While such attempts have primarily involved attempts to claim that Maoist student activists involved in the struggle have suspicious ties to Hong Kong, which is close to Shenzhen geographically, this effort has also recently attempted to establish ties between Chinese student activists and Taiwan. Namely, one of the involved students, Yue Xin, previously visited Taiwan and took a photo with Tsai Ing-wen in 2015, which was used to claim that she was a supporter of Taiwanese independence – something that involved activists have denied.

More likely, it could be that such actions by Chinese state-media are retaliation against the Tsai administration’s investigations into the New Party, the CUPP, or Chinese spying efforts in Taiwan conducted by way of tourism or student exchanges. It could even be that these actions by Chinese state-run media are reprisals in light of revelations from the Al-Jazeera documentary, as some suspect.

It could also be that the Chinese government intends to take measures against Chinese students studying in Taiwan. The Chinese government is well aware that a number of Chinese students studying in Taiwan have become active in Taiwanese youth activism and it is not surprising that it may accuse these individuals of being spies for Taiwan. The Chinese government has long been researching such individuals, as observed in a research project at Xiamen University.

It is to be seen whether mark that the Chinese government may intend to take restrictive actions against Taiwanese in China with the justification that they were spying for Taiwan. China could in the near future arrest more individuals and put them to trial, as it did with Taiwanese human rights advocate Lee Ming-che (李明哲) for his communications over WeChat with Chinese citizens about Taiwanese democracy, in order to try and frighten Taiwan.

While Lee so far remains an isolated case, China may take to targeting other Taiwanese with a history of political activism that live or work in China – or even may just be transiting through China. This remains to be seen.

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Credit: Reuters/達志影像
Read Next: We Are All Lee Ming-che

The News Lens has been authorized to repost this article. The original post was published on New Bloom here.

Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)

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