Lamentable though it may be, news last week that Central Police University associate professor Wu Chang-yu (吳彰裕) had been taken in on suspicion of passing information about dissidents to China was not shocking. However, this incident did bring into sharp contrast the dawn of a new era of Chinese “espionage” in Taiwan.
There is nothing new to espionage operations by China targeting the Taiwanese military, security apparatus, political parties and high-tech sector. Over the years, a number of Taiwanese have been caught spying for Beijing. The arrest and sentencing this year of General Lo Hsien-che (羅賢哲) for providing military secrets to China is but the latest and most prominent case in a long series of spy operations.
While it is difficult to gauge the severity of Chinese spy activity targeting Taiwan, as we only know of the cases where an agent was caught, it is safe to assume it is serious.
What is now changing — and Wu’s arrest could be the opening shot — is the context in which Chinese espionage is occurring. From 1949 until the beginning of the 21st century, China had limited opportunities to conduct human intelligence gathering on Taiwan.
This was mainly the result of policies by Taipei that substantially constrained opportunities for contact in Taiwan. As such, recruitment usually occurred in a third country. As Taiwan slowly opened to Chinese visitors and investment from the 1990s on, the opportunities for contact increased commensurately.
Following his entry into the Presidential Office in May 2008, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) forced the gates open and allowed an unprecedented number of Chinese, from tourists to senior Chinese Communist Party officials, to visit Taiwan, while quickly intensifying contact between almost every sector of government, society and business. So sudden was the shift that Taiwan’s national security apparatus did not have the wherewithal to address the new challenges created by this policy. As a result, not only did the opportunities for Chinese intelligence officers to conduct espionage in Taiwan grow exponentially, the sheer number of potential acts of espionage made most of them impossible to detect by a counterintelligence apparatus that remains configured to deal with a threat matrix that no longer exists.
We should also note, as author David Wise shows us in his book Tiger Trap, that Chinese espionage differs substantially from how it is understood in the West. The Chinese intelligence apparatus rarely pays for information and its approach to data gathering is much more subtle. Rather than have one agent collect information on a target, China will send 1,000 individuals and ask each to pick up a grain of salt, to refer to the analogy often used to describe Chinese espionage. Each grain is then added to the others and analyzed after it is returned to China.
More often than not, “sources” are not even aware they are providing Beijing with sensitive information, given that a large share of Chinese intelligence collection takes place in a business or academic context. China, furthermore, is very patient in collecting information and adopts a strategy of gradualism with its “sources,” taking them a little deeper one seemingly innocuous question at a time.
Defending his actions, Wu told prosecutors that the information he passed on to his handlers was not confidential. However, the “common” information he gave the Chinese was likely only a small component of a target picture Chinese intelligence was drawing of its targets.
As more Chinese visit, invest and study in Taiwan, China’s ability to penetrate Taiwanese society and gather intelligence will only rise. How a nation detects espionage when it doesn’t even look like espionage is a challenge Taiwanese will have to learn to deal with. Alarmingly, this is a challenge that very few countries have succeeded in addressing successfully.
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