The Chinese regime is building a comprehensive database of Taiwanese citizens that can help it identify targets to spy on or to recruit as agents against Taiwan, according to an expert.
Peter Mattis, a China Program fellow at The Jamestown Foundation, said during a conference on Oct. 11 at the Jamestown Foundation that Taiwan has always been the prime target for the Chinese regime’s hostile intelligence activities, because “China makes no secret about the eventual goal of reunification [with Taiwan].”
Due to the close geographic proximity and the high volume of economic activity across the Taiwan Strait, at any given time there are one to two million Taiwanese citizens in the mainland of the People’s Republic of China. “This is a challenge that no other country faces when dealing with China,” said Mattis.
Mattis said that China might not yet possess the necessary military strength to invade the small yet heavily-defended island nation successfully, and that is exactly why it invests extensively in intelligence warfare against Taiwan.
According to Mattis, Chinese intelligence operations have repeatedly targeted the databases of the various local district governments in Taiwan to collect the personal information of Taiwanese citizens. Most of such attempts have been thwarted, but a few have indeed succeeded in extracting significant amounts of data.
Even basic information such as family relations could lead to the discovery of other personal secrets that can then be used as leverage against a particular individual. Chinese intelligence agents would then attempt to recruit, coerce, or otherwise compromise the individuals they targeted.
Sometimes, Chinese intelligence agents have coerced Taiwanese citizens who have family relatives in mainland China. They have also recruited targets by exploiting their personal weaknesses. For instance, Chinese agents may offer amounts of money that are double or triple the pensions individuals were receiving from the Taiwan government.
Around 40 individuals in Taiwan have been arrested and convicted under the charges of espionage for China over the last decade, according to Mattis. They were predominantly Taiwan government officials and military officers recruited across a wide range of services that included Taiwan’s National Security Bureau (NSB), Military Intelligence Bureau, Taiwan’s Presidential Office, and all three branches of Taiwan’s armed forces. Even the NSB’s Presidential protection squad (the equivalent of the U.S. Secret Service) has been compromised in the past.
Once recruited or compromised, Chinese intelligence would then exploit the Taiwanese agents to perform tasks such as acquiring and transferring classified documents, and identifying other vulnerable service members or officials for future recruitment. Few of these spies last for more than a few years, however, as Taiwan seems to be able to track down the sources of a leak given enough time.
In March 2017 Zhou Hongxu, a Chinese student in Taiwan, was arrested and charged with espionage for China after he allegedly attempted to recruit an official working for Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He was later convicted in September and sentenced to 14 months in prison.
Taiwan’s prosecutors revealed that Zhou was instructed by a Chinese official to specifically recruit Taiwanese working in the government, political parties, and military, police, intelligence, or diplomatic services. While the Taiwan official that reported Zhou to the authorities was his former classmate, details remain unclear as to how Zhou acquired other targets he intended to recruit.
Americans Also Targeted
While Mattis said that Chinese intelligence operations have also tried to recruit American citizens to use them against the United States, they weren’t very successful in getting inside the U.S. government due to cultural reasons and other factors.
“[China] has tried for a number of years to identify people in the CIA and U.S. intelligence community” said Mattis, in response to a question as to whether China is also building a database on American citizens. “But they targeted mainly ethnic Chinese, or those who have family and relatives back in China. So they did not have the same effectiveness as they have been [having] on the Taiwanese.”