China’s execution on Friday of medical researcher Wo Weihan (伍維漢), 59, on charges of passing on “secrets” to a group affiliated with Taiwanese intelligence was a disgraceful act that warrants far more than the condemnation Beijing received from the US, the EU and a handful of rights organizations.
As Amnesty International and other critics pointed out, Wo’s confession that he discussed the health of a senior Chinese official and copied military data from unclassified magazines was made under duress. Even under Chinese law, however, Wo’s alleged offenses were so trivial and so unremarkable that the death penalty could not have been justified.
Apart from failing to modernize its antique definition of “state secrets,” Beijing also missed an opportunity to show Taiwan some of the “goodwill” President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) has been desperately seeking by sparing the life of an alleged Taiwanese intelligence asset. Nothing would have demonstrated that cross-strait relations had turned the page more dramatically than for Beijing to void a death sentence against a man who, if indeed guilty, stood as a symbol of the warring relationship of old, when spies, rather than envoys, defined the state of affairs between the rivals (Wo was arrested in Beijing in January 2005).
By failing to do so, China showed that cross-strait “peace” initiatives will not temper its pursuit of unforgiving objectives, destroying lives and families in the process.
The move did nothing to embellish Beijing’s reputation abroad, where hundreds of Chinese agents, students and businesspeople steal secrets — real secrets, as opposed to health information or articles from unclassified magazines — from Western countries. To give one example, the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, created by the US Congress in 2000 to monitor US-China issues, wrote in its annual report last month that “China is stealing vast amounts of sensitive information from US computer networks,” echoing conclusions from the previous year that Beijing was pursuing new technology “aggressively” through research and business deals and industrial espionage.
Other states have long considered Beijing to be the world’s foremost economic and military spy, whether targeting individuals, groups or governments.
If the West were to sentence to death every Chinese operative caught red-handed in an act of espionage and every employee of Xinhua news agency — long identified by Western counter-intelligence as an arm of Chinese intelligence — death row would run the length of the Great Wall.
To its discredit, Taipei remained silent in the days leading to Wo’s execution. After all, if Wo did work with Taiwanese intelligence, the least Taipei could have done for one of its assets was try to come to the man’s rescue.
If Wo was innocent, as he claimed to the day he died, the Cabinet could have easily established this by liaising with intelligence agencies and placing pressure on the Chinese to do the right thing.
Perhaps, as many states do when sensitive matters unfold, Taipei worked behind the scenes and contacted Beijing in an attempt to have the sentence overturned.
Absent official comment, there is no way of knowing. Still, Taipei could have easily taken the moral high ground on the matter by publicly calling for Wo’s life to be spared.