A new study on the rising number of retired senior Taiwanese military officers who visit China concludes that retired officials of “mainland” heritage represent the constituency in Taiwan most likely to support unification and could serve as willing conduits for Chinese propaganda intended to manipulate public perceptions in Taiwan.
“Retired Taiwanese military officers have visited China in an individual capacity for many years,” writes John Dotson, a research coordinator on the staff of the congressionally mandated US-China Economic and Security Review Commission in the latest issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s China Brief.
“More organized exchanges between retired Chinese and Taiwanese flag officers — initiated primarily from the Chinese side — have expanded significantly in scale since 2009, he added.
Although the Ministry of National Defense says it does not authorize such visits, it has done nothing to curb the practice, which has raised concerns among US -defense officials over the potential for leaks of sensitive military information or the creation of a back channel for secret negotiations.
A common thread in cross-strait officer exchanges, Dotson writes, is the sponsorship role of the Huangpu Academy Alumni Association, nominally a Chinese civic organization for graduates of the Huangpu (Whampoa) Military Academy.
However, the exchange program is actually a project of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) United Front Work Department (UFWD), he writes.
“[The association] is a thinly disguised front organization operated by the UFWD. It is one of several entities identified by name on a United Front Work Department Web site as organizations managed by the UFWD,” Dotson writes.
The association also shares the same contact telephone number and address with an organization known as the China Council for the Promotion of Peaceful Unification, which describes itself as “a voluntary association of people from all walks of life who support reunification, with an independent legal status.”
“The role of the UFWD in -organizing the exchanges of retired Taiwanese military and intelligence personnel makes it clear that there is more going on than simple reminiscing over friendly games of golf,” he writes. “Chinese officials hope to use the exchanges to achieve a two-track set of goals.”
The first goal, he says, is to “influence opinion in Taiwan’s elite circles of national security policymaking in favor of closer relations — and eventual reunification [sic] — with China,” a facet of the program that has been explicitly acknowledged by CCP officials, he writes.
“The second major goal behind the exchanges is almost certainly an effort to glean information of intelligence value,” Dotson writes, adding that although they are no longer are in active service, retired generals and intelligence officials represent “a highly valuable source of potential information for Chinese intelligence collectors — on areas such as command and control relationships, contingency planning, the status of unit readiness and the personalities of senior officials — whether gained through direct recruitment, or more subtly through targeted elicitation.”
“The exchanges provide an illuminating look at some of the methods by which the CCP conducts intelligence collection and perception management operations directed at Taiwan, as well as its employment of front organizations that masquerade as civil society groups,” he writes.
The department will almost certainly continue to expand its outreach to retired Taiwanese officials, Dotson writes, adding that it will be up to Taiwan’s democratic process “to decide where to draw the line between individual rights of expression and travel in a free society and the national security restrictions required to maintain those same freedoms.”
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