Following my presentation on Chinese espionage at National Chengchi University’s just-opened MacArthur Center for Security Studies on Oct. 15, a member of the audience asked a question that has stayed with me and probably deserves elaboration on the short answer I provided at the time.
“Once relations between Taiwan and China improve,” asked a young man — an undergraduate exchange student from Dongguan, Guangdong Province — “do you think Beijing might, given the importance of the relationship for the Chinese Communist Party [CCP], decrease espionage activity against Taiwan?”
My answer was that regardless of how important Beijing sees its relationship with other countries, its collecting of intelligence continues unabated. In fact, while there is no arguing that China’s most important bilateral relationship is with the US (and increasingly so), the Chinese intelligence apparatus continues to engage in Cold War-style espionage, targeting the government, the military and the high-tech sector in the US. There is, therefore, no inverse correlation between the quality of the relationship and the breadth of espionage activity.
Capability of the People’s Republic of China to Conduct Cyber Warfare and Computer Network Exploitation, a report released on Oct. 22 by the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, said that the Chinese government is ratcheting up its cyberspying operations against the US, using, as the Wall Street Journal wrote the same day, “a carefully orchestrated campaign against one US company that appears to have been sponsored by Beijing.”
In Canada, the then-director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), Jim Judd, told a Senate committee meeting in May 2007 that “China accounts for close to 50 percent of our counter-intelligence program.”
A former Public Security Bureau official in Shenyang, Han Guansheng (韓廣生), who defected to Canada in 2001, has stated publicly that Beijing handles informants in Canada’s Chinese community and gathers intelligence on key economic areas.
Chen Yonglin (陳用林), a former Chinese political consul who defected to Australia on June 4, 2005, told the Toronto Star in June 2007 that “China has a huge network of secret agents and it is working hard to influence governments.”
He also told Australian authorities that Beijing had been overseeing a network of more than 1,000 spies and informers in Australia.
Hao Fengjun (郝鳳軍), a second defector in Australia who is believed to have been a low-level intelligence official, has confirmed that China has more spies in Canada than in any other country.
The UK’s Daily Telegraph reported in July 2005 that a Chinese intelligence defector in Belgium, who had worked at European universities and companies for more than a decade, gave the Surete de l’Etat, Belgium’s security service, detailed information on hundreds of Chinese spies working at various levels of European industry.
Oftentimes, even private Chinese firms that engage in what is ostensibly “pure” industrial espionage are found to have links to the Chinese government, as was the case with the Shenzhen-based company Chitron, which violated US defense export regulations and engaged in money laundering. US federal authorities recently established that Chitron’s main customer was the Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology, which conducts research, development and manufacturing of missiles and rockets.
Apart from its reliance on traditional spies such as academics, diplomats and journalists, China appears to be using private or semi-private companies to conduct espionage abroad. Because many Chinese firms have former CCP officials on the company board or are partly financed by state-owned banks, many can serve as conduits for intelligence gathering. Back in August 2003, a report by the Asia-Pacific Post said that some 3,500 Chinese spy companies, or fronts, had been identified operating in Canada and the US alone, a number that can only have grown in the past six years.
The US, Canada, the UK, Europe, Australia — all are key partners in China’s economic rise. And yet the espionage continues. Despite denials by Beijing, dozens of reports by various countries show that China’s spying is not only becoming more common, but also more refined.
Based on these precedents, my answer to the Chinese student — one of about 30 currently studying for one semester at Chengchi — was that warm relations or not, Chinese espionage in Taiwan would likely continue.
What I should have added was that China’s espionage in other countries, aggressive though it may be, is mitigated by considerations of sovereignty. In other words, China is aware that it is operating in countries over which it has no claim of sovereignty, and this acts as a deterrent, forcing it to limit its activity to prevent overreach.
Taiwan, on the other hand, is a different story, because Beijing claims it as its own. As such, any consideration of sovereignty that applies to countries in which China conducts espionage and which acts as a deterrent against overly aggressive intelligence collection would not, in theory, apply to Taiwan.
Put differently, as China sees Taiwan as a domestic problem like Tibet, Xinjiang or rights activists, it would have no compunction in using the full array of espionage capabilities it has at its disposal to steal economic and military secrets or collect information on “dissidents” — that is, the independence movement or those who oppose unification.
Given that Beijing’s No. 1 domestic priority is stability, it has not refrained from using the full weight of its security apparatus to monitor and repress entire groups of people, arresting dissidents, shutting down law firms, banning publications and monitoring Internet communications. All of this has accelerated under Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤).
Once China gets its foot in the door in Taiwan — something that is happening now that President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration is opening up various sectors of the economy to Chinese institutional investment and allowing Chinese firms, tourism offices and banks to open branches here — it will be far easier for the Chinese intelligence apparatus to gather intelligence in this country.
The firewall that existed in the Taiwan Strait since 1949, which up until a year ago had made it more difficult, though not impossible, for Chinese spies to gather information in Taiwan, is being dismantled. Similar walls were brought down in the past decade or so in countries like the US, Canada and Australia. As we saw, along with investment and firms came Chinese spies; industrial secrets — worth tens of billions of US dollars — were stolen, as were military secrets. (As early as 1997, CSIS and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police published a report, titled Sidewinder, on the subject, which was watered down for political reasons.)
Since Beijing considers Taiwan a domestic issue, every sector of Taiwanese society will be fair game for Chinese espionage, and whatever off-limit areas may exist in other countries targeted by China will not apply. Furthermore, while Beijing is keen on obtaining economic and military secrets from other countries, those goals pale in comparison with the CCP’s mission of “reuniting” Taiwan. That historical imperative, added to the perception of Taiwan as a “domestic” matter, bodes ill for Taiwan as a target of Chinese espionage.
If nothing is done to bolster Taiwan’s counter-espionage capabilities — and so far the signals given by the Ma administration are not promising — the fears raised in Sidewinder and other reports could read like soap novellas.
J. Michael Cole is a writer based in Taipei.
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