Investigators in central Taiwan have uncovered an unusual case of alleged Chinese industrial espionage that targeted the agricultural sector after arresting four Chinese men working illegally on tea farms in Nantou County. The case is said to be the first one in which social media were used to gather information about the nation’s tea industry.
Officials at the Nantou County Investigation Bureau confirmed yesterday that they arrested four Chinese men, who were hired as “tea pickers” to harvest tea by hand on mountain farms around Nantou’s Jhushan Township (竹山).
The men are suspected of recording their farm work and tea processing techniques with smartphone cameras.
Photo: Copy by Chen Feng-lee, Taipei Times
The head of the group, surnamed Zhou (鄒), allegedly sent the photographs and information via social messaging app Line to a tea company in China’s Fujian Province which had hired him as a spy.
When questioned by investigators, Zhou allegedly admitted that he was hired by the Fujian tea company, which had contacts to place Chinese workers on contract jobs at Nantou’s tea farms.
“I was told to gather top-grade tea samples, learn the tea processing technique and get to know some tea farmers. This information, which they will use for their future tea processing and trading business, was recorded and sent to China using Line,” Zhou reportedly said.
Authorities said photographs were found on Zhou’s phone of tea farms in the mountainous tea-producing regions of central Taiwan, including Alishan (阿里山), Dayu Mountain (大禹嶺), Lugu (鹿谷) and Shanling Creek (杉林溪).
Officials said three of the four men came to Taiwan after applying for visas to visit relatives and were working illegally.
“It may not be so simple. Maybe they had political aims and also undertook other spying activities,” one of the investigators said.
He referred to Zhang (張), one of the four arrested, whose case hinted at a possible Chinese espionage penetration plan going back nearly two decades.
According to the investigator, Zhang, 51, divorced his Chinese wife surnamed Chen (陳) 17 years ago, which enabled her to marry an elderly retired soldier in Taiwan.
The retired soldier died 10 years ago, after which Chen inherited his monthly pension of NT$40,000 (US$1,316). Chen then returned to China to remarry Zhang, her original husband.
This enabled Zhang to come to Taiwan as her spouse and through Chen become eligible to work and live in Taiwan.
Officials suspect Zhang is the key liaison person in the operation, specializing in contacting and hiring Chinese men to work on tea farms in Taiwan.
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