Last week, a supposed travel itinerary of National Security Bureau Director-General Chen Ming-tong (陳明通) in Thailand was posted online alongside a photograph of him, allegedly taken at Thai customs, as well as screenshots of a customs clearance spreadsheet and a hotel bill. The incident sparked rumors and attracted criticism, with some finding it unacceptable that the whereabouts of the head of national security were exposed, while others speculated that it might be a result of bureau infighting.
However, the infighting idea appears the least feasible. As images of Chen were taken by cameras of Thai customs agencies, there is no way the bureau could have obtained them.
Furthermore, as only a handful of personnel would have information regarding the hotel, it would have been easy to find out who within the bureau had leaked images of the bill.
The most likely possibility is that a Thai national security agency official leaked the information to China, which spread the information on Twitter and Facebook.
The goal was to show that Chinese intelligence agencies had Chen “on their radar,” that there is nowhere Taiwanese can hide from Beijing’s omnipresent tentacles and that it is a matter of time before “independence diehards” are arrested and put away by Chinese authorities.
This would allow China to question the bureau’s competency while showing off its intelligence-gathering prowess, thereby instilling fear in Taiwanese — classic cognitive warfare.
Furthermore, the incident was likely also meant to discourage Thailand’s national security agencies from having exchanges with Taiwan, and to set an example for other countries to suspend security cooperation with Taipei.
Another possibility is that the information systems of Thai customs agencies and the hotel were hacked by Chinese operatives. As Thailand and China are on cordial terms, Bangkok’s use of Chinese facial recognition technology and databases, such as those made by Hikvision Digital Technology and Huawei Technologies, would have allowed China to infiltrate the systems.
This should be a red flag and fuel national security concerns for countries using Chinese technology and telecommunications equipment, and underscore that the West has banned Chinese electronics for good reasons.
The social media accounts that first posted the images portrayed Chen as being on a private trip to Thailand with a woman at the public’s expense, an obvious attempt to spark gossip.
The incident adds insult to injury for Chen, who had just disentangled himself from former Hsinchu mayor Lin Chih-chien’s (林智堅) thesis scandal. Mass negative coverage of Chen’s trip by some media firms in Taiwan played to China’s nasty script.
Separately, United Microelectronics Corp founder and former chairman Robert Tsao (曹興誠) at a news conference a few weeks ago refused to answer a question from a CTiTV reporter and launched into a diatribe against the channel, calling it a “bandit network” and urging people not to watch it.
The channel filed a lawsuit against Tsao, accusing him of harming its reputation.
The best way for a media firm to safeguard its reputation is to rely on its actions instead of the law. If CTiTV wants to remove its “bandit” label, perhaps it should refrain from reporting news from a China-friendly perspective under the banner of press freedom.
Another way to shed the image that it is a tool of Beijing’s cognitive warfare would be for it to also stop fawning on Beijing while directing its fire at Taiwan.
Fan Shih-ping is a professor in National Taiwan University’s Graduate Institute of Political Science.
Translated by Rita Wang
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