Editorial: 5,000 spies like us

(By Associated Press)

Taiwan has been a welcoming place for foreign students, but one recent bizarre turn of events raised suspicions from the public.

A student from China was unmasked as a spy who approached Taiwanese politicians, officials and academics in an attempt at creating a network to provide him, and his handlers back home in the mother country, with key information about the island.

While the practice seems to have become routine for Chinese spies, his identity still came as something of a shock. Technically speaking, the suspect was no longer a student, since he graduated from National Chengchi University last year and had re-entered Taiwan under the pretext of business.

Public opinion in Taiwan had only barely processed the news, or it suffered a further shock as media reports revealed Thursday that a military police officer who once served as a bodyguard to former Vice President Annette Lu had turned into a spy for China.

One cannot expect that a bodyguard shares the political views of the politician he is supposed to protect, but nevertheless the realization that even someone who worked that close to the top of the island’s government hierarchy could become a spy for the nation’s biggest enemy, gives one cold shivers.

It has to be noted though that the man apparently only started working for Beijing after he left government service in Taiwan and traveled to China to do business. In other words, it is not believed that he would have been likely to abuse any access to confidential documents at the time of his work for Lu.

He reportedly became a spy by a common ruse, with a Chinese official approaching him during a visit to China, promising money, a sum exceeding his Taiwanese retirement pension, and trips to Southeast Asia as holidays or to meet Chinese agents.

The incidents with the student and the ex-bodyguard gave rise to the vague allegation that China had 5,000 spies working in Taiwan.

Of course, it is always difficult to stick a credible figure on the number of spies, since the nature of the job is that you don’t know how many spies the opposition has, and you are not going to reveal your own statistics and let the other side know.

In this sense, the figure of 5,000 might be a rough estimate wide off the mark, or even worse, a radical underestimation of the true figure.

Every country will have spies in countries it perceives as enemies or even as friends, and Taiwan would be downright stupid if it did not have any spies in China.

Even Japan has sent spies to the island, as a recent story about an elderly Japanese man featuring on a picture with a Taiwanese legislator showed. The man, while specialized in China, had moved to Taiwan as both countries were about to break off diplomatic relations in 1972, reports said. He wrote in a book that his official cover was as an economic adviser to the Japanese representative office.

On Thursday, the Mainland Affairs Council denied any government department had ever come up with the figure of 5,000, and warned against mass paranoia about the presence in Taiwan of Chinese students and tourists.

Nevertheless, “just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you,” as author Joseph Heller wrote in his novel “Catch-22.”

Of course, spies should not be sought among Chinese tourists snapping pictures in a group behind a guide waving a flag. As most cases have shown, the danger is less likely to come from obviously Chinese visitors than from Taiwanese working for the other side for financial or ideological reasons.

The latter might even be scarier since they are not foreigners, they blend in, and are not noticeable by different looks or accents, while they are able to rely on connections inside the military, academic or political establishment.

The government has been addressing the problem and working on legislation to protect defense secrets, yet some critics have accused the proposals of threatening basic human rights.

In order to meet the concerns, the original version was withdrawn and is being reshaped as a law to prevent infiltration, but the recent cases have shown that action is highly necessary.

One aspect has been restrictions on retired military officers from attending official ceremonies in China, an obvious measure since these are the people most likely to hold important knowledge about Taiwan’s military situation and become the target of recruitment by Chinese intelligence services. Any officer who has sworn allegiance to the Republic of China must remember that the other side of the Taiwan Straits is still a communist dictatorship with a growing arsenal it could one day use against Taiwan.

The island’s biggest enemy could be its own officials’ naïve and lax attitude, revealed by other problems as well, such as the recent discovery of drugs at a Taichung military base.

One move certain to help address the problem was the proposal from the ruling Democratic Progressive Party’s legislative caucus to raise the maximum prison sentence for spying from less than five years to a period ranging from three to ten years.

Elements like the relatively positive law-and-order environment and the virtual absence of international terrorism have made officials, police officers and civilians alike complacent about the risk of enemy infiltration. A stronger awareness of one’s surroundings and a higher level of confidentiality are absolutely necessary, even before legal amendments are passed and enforced.