Thursday, April 9, 2020

China’s Criminal Trial Statistics: Taiwan-Related Cases, Part II

In China’s Criminal Trial Statistics: Taiwan-Related Cases, Part I, Dui Hua discussed Taiwan-related cases of endangering state security as well as alleged espionage charges involving Taiwanese and Chinese nationals. Part II, the latest entry in a series that draws on the 12-volume Records of People’s Courts Historical Judicial Statistics: 1949-2016, looks at foreign nationals accused of Taiwan-related espionage before examining the political implications of select cases and events.

Taiwan resident Lee Ming-cheh and Chinese national Peng Yuhua were sentenced to five and seven years in prison, respectively, for subversion by the Yueyang Intermediate People’s Court on November 28, 2017. Image Credit: Sina News
From Taiwan’s breakaway in 1949 until the early 1990s, Taiwan and China were engaged in intense “psychological warfare,” and Taiwan was clearly identified as a major security threat to China in a notice issued by the Supreme People’s Procuratorate in 1981. Ma Ying-jeou’s ascension to the Taiwanese presidency in 2008 marked a clear drop in the frequency of publicly disclosed espionage cases in the mainland. Since Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party took office in 2016, spy scandals have re-emerged as an irritant in cross-strait relations. 

Dui Hua has noted discrepancies between public sources about Taiwanese espionage cases and the court statistics (which are detailed in Part I). 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. Regardless, these discrepancies suggest that either the court statistics do not take into account all Taiwanese, Chinese, and foreign people accused of Taiwan-related espionage, or that the concept of Taiwanese espionage is inflated or used opportunistically. 

Chinese state security departments and news media sources have clearly included Taiwan residents, Chinese nationals, and even US citizens and green card holders when labelling a case as Taiwanese espionage. Based on open-source materials for the same period of 1998 to 2016, Dui Hua’s Political Prisoner Database (PPDB) has information on over 100 individuals who were convicted of “Taiwanese espionage.” Among the “Taiwanese spies” with information in the PPDB, only two dozen were Taiwan residents. The PPDB has information on 81 Chinese nationals who were sentenced for Taiwanese espionage from 1998-2016.

Foreign nationals

An alleged case of Taiwanese espionage can also involve Chinese-born foreign nationals, but it is unclear whether these cases are classified as Taiwan-related in the court statistics. 

One such case is that of US citizen Li Shaomin (李少民), who was accused of working for a Taiwanese NGO that Beijing said was a spy agency. When asked to substantiate the charge against him, a presiding judge only presented a one-page memo from the state ministry that wrote, “We verify that this alliance is a spy agency.” Li was ordered to be deported after the case was decided in half an hour on July 14, 2001. 

Also convicted in the same year were US permanent residents Gao Zhan (高瞻) and Qin Guangguang (覃光广). Although they were both sentenced to 10 years in prison for collecting intelligence for Taiwan, they were released days ahead of a visit to Beijing by then-US Secretary of State Colin Powell. 

The second US citizen charged with spying for Taiwan was Dong Wei (董维), who received a sentence of 13 years’ imprisonment in April 2004. Dong was taken into custody in Guangzhou on September 28, 2003, while on a trade delegation, and accused of lobbying the US government on Taiwan’s behalf. Dong was released in September 2012 after his sentence was reduced by a total of four years. 

The clemency given to them was made possible largely due to improved US-China relations in the early 2000s. Both countries started cultivating regular high-level visits and exchanges of working level officials, resumed military-to-military relations, cooperated on counter-terrorism initiatives, and worked closely to restrain North Korea’s nuclear activities. Dui Hua lobbied for the release of Li Shaomin and Dong Wei. 


Every country has its reasons for developing counter-espionage networks, but in China charges of endangering state security (ESS) are often used against dissidents. For instance, US permanent resident Wang Bingzhang (王炳章) has been serving his life sentence for espionage and “organizing and leading a terrorist group” for almost two decades since his detainment in 2002. According to the judgment, Wang collected and provided military secrets for Taiwan. Wang, however, is also a well-known political dissident who founded two political parties, which are banned in China, and a pro-democracy magazine critical of the Communist Party. 

Hong Kong resident Ching Cheong (程翔) was also charged with spying for Taiwan. Observers believe that he faced reprisal for attempting to obtain a manuscript copy of interviews with Zhao Ziyang, the late reformist icon of the Communist Party who was placed under house arrest from 1989 until his death in 2005. In 2006, Cheong, a veteran journalist, was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment in Beijing. He was released in early 2008 after spending 1,000 days in prison.

China’s overarching national security objectives and arbitrary classification of state secrets also call into question allegations concerning espionage. This issue can be demonstrated in the following two Taiwanese espionage cases:
  1. Long Jianbin (龙建斌) was sentenced in 2009 to five years’ imprisonment for Taiwanese espionage in Zhuzhou, Hunan. The official account charges Long with collecting information about leadership changes and political, military, and economic developments for someone he “should have known” was a Taiwanese agent. 

    Long’s conviction stemmed in part from government inaction. After taking on initial assignments, Long reported what he had done to relevant government bodies, perhaps concerned that he had gotten involved in illegal matters. Receiving no reply from the government, however, Long continued to collect materials, many of which appear to have been publicly available. The so-called internal publications that Long collected, such as Dispatches from the General Office of the Communist Party of China, contain articles that can be freely viewed online.

  2. Dui Hua’s research into online judgments uncovered the case of Li Quansong (李权松), a Chinese national who was sentenced in 2013 to 10 years’ imprisonment in Shantou, Guangdong, for illegally trafficking in and providing state-secrets for Taiwan. The allegations against Li included collecting two dozen files of state secrets, which were obtained at least partly by taking photos of the Shantou naval dock and vessels and recording information about landings and take-offs of military aircrafts.

    The severity of Li’s punishment was exacerbated by a list of so-called classified books he had purchased from the Beijing National Library, including a catalogue of books ordered by mainland universities and a limited distribution compendium of news and opinion pieces sold principally to government bodies and work units known as Selected Internal Reference. In this case, Li bore the sole onus even though the alleged harm to China’s security was created in part by its own bureaucratic loopholes: it was the Beijing National Library that sold him the so-called secret books.
A 2010 issue of Selected Internal Reference, which bears a confidential secrecy status for a period of six months, is a classified document said to be illegally acquired by “Taiwanese spies.” These internal publications are sometimes available in public libraries or sold to scrap recyclers. Image Credit:
The fact that the court statistics did not record a single Taiwan-related ESS case in 2013 appears to suggest that Chinese nationals accused of providing state secrets to Taiwan are excluded from the criteria that make a case Taiwan-related. This omission of a vast number of Chinese nationals renders the court statistics much less useful to gauge the perceived “Taiwan threat” posed to China. Were the Taiwanese, Chinese, and foreign nationals accused of Taiwanese espionage classified as Taiwan-related, then the number of Taiwan-related ESS cases would be substantially higher.

A renewed threat 

The hostility between the Communist Party and the Kuomintang (KMT) was suspended following the historic handshake between former Chinese leader Hu Jintao and then-KMT chairman Lien Zhan in 2005. China no longer sees the Beijing-friendly KMT as a major state security threat. Instead, the KMT is now seen as a potential partner in what China considers the “unification” of Taiwan with the mainland.

Hostility has resumed since Tsai Ing-wen of the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party began her first term as president in 2016. Both sides have exchanged fiery rhetoric and called each other a threat to national security and social stability. In July 2019, Xi said he would not rule out using force to stem Taiwan’s independence and achieve reunification. Tsai’s landslide re-election victory in January 2020 is widely viewed as a response by Taiwanese voters to threats from China. In response to Tsai’s re-election, China’s top diplomat Wang Yi remarked that separatists will “leave a stink for 10,000 years.”

Although the meaning of Taiwan-related ESS cases remains ambiguous, the number is almost certainly expected to rise amid the souring of cross-strait relations. Taiwan residents are also at heightened risk of arbitrary detention in the mainland. The most well-known victim is Lee Ming-cheh (李明哲), a former worker for the Democratic Progressive Party who was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment for subversion in Hunan in 2017. Observers believe that Lee was politically pursued because Beijing sees Tsai’s refusal to accept the “one China” principle as a provocative move to promote independence. A conspiratorial view even suggests that Lee’s imprisonment was retaliation for Taiwan’s arrest of a former mainland student for espionage earlier in March 2017.

Lee may not be alone in facing retaliation. In September 2019, Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council reported that 67 Taiwan residents had been held incommunicado in China since 2016. Among them, at least three are currently held for ESS charges.

Strong US support for Taiwan in recent years has likely contributed to China’s more aggressive stance. On March 26, 2020, President Trump enacted the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative (TAIPEI) Act, which aims to help Taiwan gain participation in international organizations and to discourage Taiwan’s allies from cutting ties with the island due to pressure from Beijing. Global Times responded that the legislation “demonstrates the US’s consistent plots to contain China’s development and obstruct the country’s reunification by playing the Taiwan card.”

The ambiguities in how courts classify Taiwan-related cases make it difficult to understand how cases of alleged Taiwan espionage are dealt with in the legal system and by the media. Discrepancies between what is reported in the court statistics as opposed to other public records also suggest that China’s mobilization of the “Taiwan threat” is motivated by political interests at least as much as by concerns for mainland security. Taiwan, on the other hand, is facing increasingly threatening rhetoric from an opponent that openly speaks of its annexation, be it peaceful or not, as inevitable.

Tsai’s successful re-election, combined with the strong US-Taiwan ties, has coincided with the Chinese government’s escalation of rhetoric to address the “Taiwan threat.” Under such circumstances, China is more likely than ever to exacerbate its clampdown on Taiwanese spies in the name of safeguarding state security. The sweeping crackdown will not only involve Taiwan residents, but also Chinese or foreign nationals who may be unlucky enough to be scapegoated as Taiwanese spies.