Taiwanese ‘won’t dare visit mainland China’ after TV ‘spy confessions’

Minnie Chan
·4-min read

The Chinese government’s targeting of Taiwanese “spies” has scared off cross-strait experts based in Taiwan from visiting the mainland and further damaged non-official exchanges between the two sides, observers say.

Cross-strait scholars, journalists and commentators in Taipei said that a series of high-profile “spy confession” programmes aired by mainland Chinese state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) across three days this month had had a chilling effect in the self-ruled island.

The report said mainland Chinese authorities had uncovered “hundreds” of Taiwanese espionage cases since 2018, though the reports identified just four people accused of spying.

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“I’ve stopped visiting the mainland since the outbreak of Covid-19, and now I definitely won’t go during the ‘espionage saga’,” said Chi Le-yi, a Taipei-based defence expert.

Many other Taiwanese scholars had made the same decision because they “did not feel secure”, he said.

Another cross-strait expert in Taipei, Alexander Huang Chieh-cheng, said there were question marks over the basis for the alleged espionage, given mainland ’s opaque, Communist Party-controlled legal system.

“There is a lack of legal standard on the mainland to define what espionage consists of,” said Huang, a former deputy minister on Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council – the agency responsible for cross-strait relations policy.

“When you see that the retired National Taiwan Normal University professor Shih Cheng-ping – who published tremendous commentaries denouncing the [independence-leaning] Democratic Progressive Party [DPP] and other Beijing-unfriendly parties in media outlets on the mainland and in Taiwan – had been listed as one of the spies and made a confession on CCTV, how dare people risk visiting the mainland again?”

The Beijing government, which claims Taiwan as its sovereign territory, has suspended official exchanges with Taipei since Tsai Ing-wen of the DPP was elected president in 2016 and refused to accept the one-China principle.

“After the halt of official and quasi-official communication between Beijing and Taipei, exchanges between cross-strait scholars became the only channel for basic connection, but the current crackdown ruins everything,” Huang said.

Another Taiwanese ‘spy’ appears on Chinese state TV after Taipei warning

Lee Chih-horng, who lectures in cross-strait relations at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said it was an unusual move for Beijing to disclose espionage activities and turn them into public confessions.

“Theoretically, all spies should be interrogated secretly due to the possibility of leaking state secrets, while being infiltrated is actually a disgraceful issue that should be covered up,” he said.

“I am afraid Beijing will get counterproductive results if it turns those spy confessions into political propaganda to warn Taiwan independence forces. Such a hostile move will only cause disgust in Taiwan.”

Outside mainland China, people would “question whether a crackdown against alleged Taiwanese spies involved wrongful convictions”, Lee said.

The reports of a crackdown on Taiwanese spy rings are not new, however. In September 2018 mainland state media, starting with a CCTV report, said that the authorities had “cracked” more than 100 espionage cases involving the self-ruled island since 2011, including several of them allegedly operated from college campuses.

Huang said the latest crackdown and so-called confessions could provoke Taipei to detain mainland scholars in revenge, compounding the damage to relations.

“If Taipei gives a tit-for-tat response, it will be a disaster for cross-strait communication,” he said.

Targeting Taiwanese would further diminish the already reduced academic and cultural exchanges between the mainland and the island, he said.

Retired Taiwanese officers in probe over alleged spying activities

Chi said recent events suggested the mainland’s crackdown on spying was politically motivated, aimed at coercing the DPP and justified by broad new definitions of conduct punishable under its counter-espionage law, at a time of renewed emphasis by mainland authorities on national security and what the Communist Party refers to as social stability.

“Under the political movement ... the mainland’s national security agencies have been competing to show off their achievements in the Taiwanese crackdown during the mainland’s tensions with the US and with Taiwan,” he said.

Cross-strait espionage has been uncovered sporadically since Taiwan’s estrangement from the mainland at the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949.

In 1999, the Beijing government executed Liu Liankun, a former major general in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) – the most high-ranking mainland officer known to have spied for Taiwan. Liu’s spying activities were exposed after then Taiwanese president Lee Teng-hui told media that the missiles launched by the PLA during the 1995-96 Taiwan Strait crisis did not carry warheads.

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