This post, the fourth in a series that draws on the 12-volume Records of People’s Courts Historical Judicial Statistics: 1949-2016, discusses so-called “Taiwan-related” cases of endangering state security in mainland China.
The self-ruling island of Taiwan has been a thorn in China’s side since the island’s breakaway in 1949. Viewed by China as a territory awaiting reunification, Taiwan is a potential military flashpoint, with both sides of the strait conducting clandestine intelligence operations in each other’s territory.
Since Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen first took office in 2016, spy scandals have re-emerged as an irritant in cross-straits relations. In 2017, Taiwanese news media sources said that there were approximately 5,000 Chinese spies in Taiwan, although the Chinese government dismissed these reports. In September 2018, China’s state security departments announced that over a hundred Taiwanese spy cases had been prosecuted amid its “Thunderbolt 2018” campaign. China accused Taiwan of luring mainland students studying in Taiwan with “money, love and friendship,” as well as using honey traps to recruit them as spies.
The “Taiwan threat” has long been a major part of the Chinese Communist Party’s rhetoric, but how it articulates this perceived danger has varied. This post, the latest in Dui Hua’s series using statistics from the Supreme People’s Court, compares public information sources about Taiwanese espionage cases with court statistics. Much like in its coverage of Hong Kong-related cases, ambiguity and inconsistencies in reporting suggest an opaque system prone to opportunistic interpretations of criminal law.
“Thunderbolt 2018” may be the most publicized recent event, but similar spy allegations have been levelled by both sides since the China-Taiwan divide in 1949. China and Taiwan accuse each other of seeking to carry out “infiltration and sabotage activities.” In China, tens of thousands of “remnants” and alleged spies of Kuomintang (KMT) were sentenced and executed for counterrevolution alongside other class enemies such as landlords, rich farmers, bad influencers, and rightists in the years following 1949.
For almost half a century until the early 1990s, the two sides were engaged in intense “psychological warfare” involving the use of megaphones, radio stations, balloons, and floating carriers containing leaflets to spread rumors and disinformation in order to misdirect enemy plans, encourage political defections, and stir unrest. Taiwan was clearly identified as a major security threat in a notice issued by the Supreme People’s Procuratorate in 1981: about 60 percent of the 3,600 counterrevolutionary correspondences discovered in China in the prior year were sent to Hong Kong and Japan-based KMT agents. In 1989, China also blamed Taiwan for ramping up its psychological warfare and espionage networks with the goal of recapturing the mainland during the political turmoil commonly known as June Fourth.
The threat from Taiwan, however, appears to have been superseded by emerging domestic dissent after counterrevolution was expunged and largely repackaged as endangering state security (ESS) in 1997. Since then, splittism and inciting splittism have consistently accounted for the majority of China’s ESS cases nationwide. Used almost exclusively against Uyghurs and Tibetans, the two ESS offenses do not appear to have obvious connections to Taiwan.
Table 1. Taiwan-related ESS cases concluded in China, 1998-2016
Source: Records of People’s Courts Historical Judicial Statistics: (1949-2016), 2018.
The 12-volume Records of People’s Courts Historical Statistics seems to confirm that the threat posed by Taiwan was rather negligible for a period of 18 years beginning in 1998. Of the 5,804 ESS cases concluded during this period, 37, or less than one percent, were classified as “Taiwan-related.” All but one Taiwan-related ESS case concerned espionage (the single exception was a case of “illegally trafficking in state secrets” in 2000).
The number of Taiwan-related ESS cases cannot clearly indicate how Taiwan is perceived as a security threat to China. Comparing information from public sources about Taiwanese espionage cases with the court statistics suggests that either the court statistics have downplayed the influence of Taiwan by not taking into account all Taiwanese, Chinese, and foreign people accused of Taiwan-related espionage, or that the rhetoric used by China to describe the threat posed by Taiwan is disproportionate to the severity of Taiwanese meddling as noted by its justice system.
The majority of Taiwan-related ESS cases from 1998-2016 were concluded amid the escalating cross-straits tensions of the Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shui-bian presidencies (both are accused of exploiting Taiwanese nationalism and anti-China sentiment to win the elections). Of the 37 Taiwan-related ESS cases, at least 29 were concluded when Lee and Chen were presidents. This number appears to represent only a small portion of what China publicly disclosed within the same period.
In December 2003, Xinhua News Agency reported breaking a batch of Taiwanese espionage cases in just one year involving 24 Taiwanese and 19 Chinese residents who operated on the mainland. The following year, four Taiwan espionage cases in Zhejiang were widely publicized, with four defendants from Taiwan and one from the mainland. The 2004 cases were linked to statements by Chen Shui-bien, who revealed detailed knowledge about the location and number of Chinese missiles aimed at Taiwan.
Cross-strait rapprochement that began when Ma Ying-jeou became the Taiwanese president in 2008 marked a clear drop in the frequency of publicly disclosed espionage cases in the mainland. The trend is also reflected in Table 1: only five Taiwan-related cases were recorded between 2009 and 2016. Nevertheless, the court statistics are in stark contrast with what was reported by the Global Times in 2014. The report stated that nearly 40 Taiwanese espionage cases across 15 provinces and municipalities had been solved in that year, compared to only one Taiwan-related ESS case reported in the court records. The media reports on Taiwanese espionage cases were mostly related to mainland students who had studied in Taiwan.
A possible reason for such discrepancies between the court statistics and cases reported in news media sources is the murky definition of “Taiwan-related” in the court records. It is unclear if cases designated as “Taiwan-related” refer exclusively to those involving Taiwan residents.
However, Chinese state security departments and news media sources have clearly included both Taiwan residents and Chinese nationals when labelling a case Taiwanese espionage. In some cases, US citizens and green card holders can likewise be labelled Taiwanese spies. Based on open-source materials for the same period of 1998 to 2016, Dui Hua’s Political Prisoner Database records information on over 100 individuals who were convicted of “Taiwanese espionage,” a term court judgments sometimes use when describing a case.
Table 2. Sentence breakdown of "Taiwanese spies" with information in Dui Hua's PPDB.
Source: Records of People’s Courts Historical Judicial Statistics: (1949-2016), 2018.
One notable case is Li Junmin, who was accused of counterrevolution espionage and sentenced to death in 1983. His sentence was subsequently revised to death with two-year reprieve by the Supreme People’s Court. Dui Hua started to intervene on his behalf in 2002. Li was released in 2006 after receiving several sentence reductions.
It must be noted that Taiwanese residents in the mainland are also known to have been recruited as Chinese spies and to have received prison sentences in Taiwan. However, the majority of the alleged Taiwanese spies sentenced in China are not Taiwan residents. Among the over 100 “Taiwanese spies” with information in the PPDB, only two dozen were Taiwan residents. Most of these cases were reported in news media sources in the decade after 1997.
Chinese nationals account for the majority of people sentenced in China for Taiwanese espionage. In the two decades after China’s reform, Chinese nationals accused of espionage have typically been portrayed as unemployed or whiners who developed “dissatisfaction with current reality” after being poisoned by Taiwan’s psychological warfare. In recent years, common allegations against them include illicitly taking photos of military bases and photocopying classified books and internal documents. In 2009, Taiwan lifted the ban on accepting exchange students from China as a goodwill gesture to thaw cross-strait relations. Chinese state news media sources have reported an increasing number of Taiwanese spy cases involving mainland exchange students who returned from Taiwan.
|China’s "anti-spy manual," circulated in 2019, features a Taiwanese espionage case in which a mainland exchange student is said to have been compromised by a Taiwanese woman who works for the military intelligence service. Image Credit: thepaper.cn
Wo Weihan (沃维汉) and Guo Wanjun (郭万钧) are the last known Chinese nationals who were executed for Taiwanese espionage. They were given death sentences in 2007 for allegedly passing information on the mainland’s missile guidance system to Taiwan. Wo’s execution in 2008 was strongly condemned by the European Union and the United States, which had sought a stay of execution.
Since 2008, there has only been one publicly disclosed death sentence for espionage involving a Chinese national: that of computer technician Huang Yu (黄宇), who was accused of selling 150,000 classified documents to foreign agents from 2002-2011. Available sources, however, did not say for whom Huang had spied.
Alleged cases of Taiwanese espionage involving foreign nationals, as well as the possible use of Taiwan-based espionage allegations for political gain, are discussed in Part II available here.