Discover more from SpyTalk
Taiwan is Losing its Spy Wars with China
The communists have long had an espionage advantage over the nationalists, but widespread Taiwan defeatism adds to their leverage.
If you follow developments in Beijing’s worldwide espionage and influence offensive, you’ve probably heard that the FBI opens a case regarding China every 10 hours (the 2020 figure) or 12 (2021). Doing the math, 8,760 hours per annum means something like 876 new cases a year, or in the updated version, 730.
These are only the new cases, not the total figure for open investigations—which could add up to several thousand, as such inquiries can last for months or years without resolution, public or private. Beyond the small number of cases the Justice Department brings to indictment and trial each year, it does not say how many cases it has closed.
The numbers suggest an overwhelming challenge, even as the Bureau bolsters its efforts to combat Chinese counterintelligence, counterespionage, tech transfer, and other matters—not to mention its drive to recruit special agents with Chinese language skills.
But if you think America has a tough nut to crack, consider our brethren in Taiwan. There, the Republic of China, as it’s formally known, is battling an astounding onslaught of Beijing’s spies. Such subversion raises the question of whether Taiwan will really be able defend itself during an invasion until help arrives from the U.S.—or even whether it will fight.
In 2017, Taiwan’s National Security Bureau publicly estimated that 5,000 mainland spies were operating in Taiwan. When SpyTalk interviewed former ROC senior intelligence officers in Taipei in May, one of them said the real number is closer to 2,000 to 3,000. But even that more modest figure is a lot of spies for Taiwan, an island the size of Belgium with a population of 24 million.
Whatever, these numbers are not universally accepted, nor is evidence offered to support them. But occasional revelations do not contradict Taipei’s official claims, and some of those cases are alarming. One involved a former Taiwanese Navy rear admiral, and another earlier this year implicated a retired Taiwanese Air Force colonel and six accomplices. Other significant cases were described in a 2021 Reuters investigation.
Flood the Zone
There are clues to Beijing’s spycraft in the history of the Chinese Communist Party. They show that the CCP prefers to flood the landscape with spies, saboteurs, and influence peddlers—at least when the circumstances allow.
The first time that CCP’s spymasters had an opportunity for massive infiltration of the enemy was during the darkest days of World War Two in the Pacific. In early 1942, only weeks after the December 7th, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, Japan’s invasion and occupation of the Chinese mainland was at its high tide. China’s defenders had been driven far inland, leaving only scattered Nationalist and Communist guerilla units in the coastal provinces.
But the CCP civilian intelligence organ, led by legendary spymasters Pan Hannian, Li Kenong, and their infamous boss, Kang Sheng, had just spent two years rebuilding CCP Intelligence in the safety of their headquarters in Yan’an after the party’s spy apparatus was nearly destroyed in the 1930s. And they had renewed resources for recruitment: students and others who fled to the Communist headquarters from Japanese-occupied zones as well as provinces still held by the notoriously corrupt Chinese Nationalists, led by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. At a conference of the CCP Southern Bureau in January 1942, Mao Zedong’s right hand man, Zhou Enlai, told assembled cadres that the party was inserting more than 5,000 intelligence agents and CCP activists into Sichuan, Guizhou and Yunnan provinces, all areas largely controlled by the Nationalists, to pursue organizing and propaganda tasks (“underground” work) and espionage. It was just another stage in their long running civil war, no matter the brutal Japanese occupation.
Communist spy rings behind Nationalist lines multiplied as Chiang’s forces grew weaker over the 1940s, with CCP agents finding increasing success in recruiting moles in the opposition. One prominent example: Nationalist General Yan Baohang.
Yan was, by day, a military strategist for Chiang Kai-shek, but he led a double life as a CCP intelligence asset controlled by Zhou Enlai. By some accounts he was part of a joint operation between Zhou and a Russian military attaché. Yan’s group passed along military and other secrets to Mao’s headquarters in Yan’an, including a warning of Germany’s plans to invade the Soviet Union shortly before the Nazis launched their attack on June 22, 1940.
At the end of the World War, the CCP infiltrated thousands more of its agents into the weakened Nationalist Party and its army, hastening their defeat on the mainland and final retreat to Taiwan in 1949. Writing from safety in Taipei, Chiang Kai-shek admitted in his memoirs, as documented by the late scholar Frederick Wakeman, that “there was no space that they did not enter” (无孔不入wu kong bu ru). The playbook for penetrating the “renegade” regime had been set. By the looks of the situation on Taiwan today, the strategy has continued to work well for over 70 years.
Who will prevail in the modern espionage and influence struggle between Communist China and Taiwan? The outlook for Taipei, aggravated by several factors, looks grim.
First, Taiwan’s military and justice system are at a disadvantage in resisting the combined onslaught of China’s spy agencies—its Ministry of State Security, the PLA’s Joint Intelligence Bureau, and the CCP United Front Work Department (not to mention official and unofficial hacking and electronic warfare operations). Wendell Minnick, a longtime China defense expert and Taiwan resident, wrote in January that Taiwan’s security is weakened by military retirees who are underpaid, leaving them prey to Beijing's spies. Nor do they have to worry much if they’re caught, he said: Taiwan’s criminal justice system levies only short sentences on former officers convicted of espionage; more severe punishment is reserved for those on active duty.
And here’s an irony that poses another question about Taiwan’s defense readiness: Even as fretting over a potential Chinese invasion reaches a fever pitch in America, a large number of ordinary Taiwanese seem blasé about Beijing’s military might, not to mention the prospect of thousands of spies in their midst. One Westerner with extensive experience across Asia, speaking on terms of anonymity to discuss the sensitive issue, told SpyTalk that he detects little sense of the China threat and urgency among Taiwanese that people in nearby nations express about Beijing’s repeated violations of their airspace and waters.
Does that mean a significant percentage of Taiwan’s people lack the will to resist should an invasion materialize? Our own findings were unsettling.
In numerous interviews conducted on Taiwan in April, we found only three respondents—all former senior military officers—who were optimistic about Taiwan’s population responding to an invasion in the way Ukrainian citizens rallied to stymy Russia’s assault. A Western journalist in Taipei, fluent in Chinese and living on the local economy, guessed that only a third of Taiwan’s population would resist CCP rule if it were forced on Taiwan. A third would accept it, and those in the middle would eventually be persuaded to collaborate.
Polls in 2021 on “willingness to fight” in the event Beijing “uses force to achieve unification” failed to sort out the issue. One, linked to the government, “had 62 percent of respondents say yes and 27 percent say no, while the other survey, with a slight difference in its wording asking whether ‘you or your family’ would be willing to fight, found only 40 percent said yes and 51 percent said no,” according to an analysis published by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
“This led to an ironic scene where Taiwan’s media, pundits, and international commentators cherrypicked whichever of the two polls that best suited their partisan narrative and declared either that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) will have to fight an all-out ‘people’s warfare’ should they invade Taiwan, or that Taiwanese society will surrender in a heartbeat at the first sign of war,” wrote Paul Huang of the Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation.
Pick your poison. If the latter survey is more true, it augurs that Beijing will eschew an invasion in favor of political and economic coercion that softens Taiwan into a ripe fruit ready for harvest. In that eventuality, Washington might well have no more recourse than it has had during Beijing’s digestion of Hong Kong.
Shades of Vichy
One former Taiwan military officer told us that he, personally, would be inclined to fight against a Chinese blitzkrieg should it come, but that most community and business leaders would quickly fold and urge the government to surrender to avoid a calamitous destruction of Taipei and other cities. Such a scenario likens Taiwan’s fate to France in 1940, not Tibet in 1950 or 1959. It will not, in short, be another Ukraine.
The government itself is a part of the problem, according to the same Western journalist living on the local economy.
“Everything you’d think they’d have prepared [for an invasion or wartime scenario], they haven’t,” the reporter said. “For example, in Seoul and Tokyo, air raid shelters were planned long ago and include many subway stations. Taiwan has not done this. Their shelters are basements of buildings, some of which have septic tanks… People will die in these so-called shelters.”
There is also a longstanding issue concerning Taipei’s ability to spy on the mainland. More than one informed source told us that Beijing knows much more about what is happening in Taiwan than Taipei understands events in the People’s Republic. Resident intelligence officers from the so-called Five Eyes countries (the U.S., Canada, Britain, Australia, and New Zealand) joke that if you want Beijing to know something, tell the Taiwan government; it will be on Xi Jinping’s desk the next morning.
All kidding aside, U.S. officials have criticized Taiwan’s espionage efforts against the communists from the very beginning, according to the late James Lilley, the legendary CIA China Hand and former American ambassador to Beijing. In an interview with me back in 2004, Lilley characterized Taiwan’s intelligence operations on the mainland in the 1950s and ‘60s as largely ineffective, due partly to lack of will and skill and partly to Beijing’s constant public anti-spy campaigns, all of which made China the hardest of targets.
More recently, says a former senior officer in Taiwan’s military service, successes by Taiwan’s intelligence services further declined with the January 2016 election of the Democratic Progressive Party government under hardliner Tsai Ying-wen, which prompted the CCP to cut off informal contacts with Taiwan officials who might recruit spies or facilitate the defection of Chinese officials.
Alone at Home
Finally, there is this factor that sets Taiwan apart from other targets of Beijing’s state security organs: It’s culturally and linguistically Chinese, an agreeable clime for spying and political influence operations. While neither side has embassies or consulates offering diplomatic cover (Taiwan being merely a “renegade province”), Beijing’s “illegals” would seem to have the upper hand over Taiwanese agents on the mainland—just as they did in the 1940s and decades beyond. Favored covers include posing as business people from Guangdong, Macau, or Hong Kong, in various industries including electronics and book sales.
Another fruitful espionage enterprise for Beijing, a former Taiwan military intelligence officer told me, has been to set up romance matchmaking agencies in Taiwan that purport to introduce lonely island men to mainland beauties. “People accept this without thinking,” he said in mock wonderment.
Beijing’s spycraft, he said, is very good. “To communicate, they stay off of phones and the web. They often use couriers carrying secret writing inside physical objects.” It’s a practice with roots in party hagiography, harkening back to the early days of CCP Intelligence, specifically the legendary 1934 theft of Nationalist battle plans for the encirclement and annihilation of Mao’s Red Army. CCP Intelligence agents employed invisible ink to copy the plans onto paper hidden inside the binding of a set of school books and smuggled them across enemy lines to Communist headquarters. With that information, the Red Army was able to break out of the Nationalist trap and begin its “Long March” to Yan'an, Mao’s legendary strategic retreat to China's northwest.
Today, Beijing’s spymasters look for recruits amid “retired people [who] have lots of time on their hands, a wealth of experience, wide-ranging contacts, and reduced incomes…,” said the former Taiwan military intelligence officer. In 2021, four retired military intelligence officers—including a major general— were indicted on charges of spying for China.
Particularly when recruiting Han Chinese with roots on the mainland, “they aim to assemble a team, that is, a spy ring who know and trust each other, cultivated and developed over meals and friendship.” There’s fierce competition among China’s multiple spy agencies for such juicy targets, he added. “There is no turf—State Security, the United Front, and the Joint Intelligence Bureau compete with each other and collect everything they can.”
It’s a given that U.S. security agencies are helping Taiwanese intelligence compete with China’s, but the details are closely held. In 2021, the Wall Street Journal revealed that two dozen U.S. special forces soldiers and an unspecified number of marines had been secretly training Taiwanese counterparts for over a year. Certainly, American military advisors have been present in larger numbers than in previous years, according to other news reports, particularly in the southern city of Kaohsiung, Taiwan’s principal port. The American Institute in Taiwan, a downgraded version of the U.S. embassy after Washington and Beijing established diplomatic relations in 1979, has a Defense Department contingent and an FBI representative, both presumably augmented by a considerable CIA station.
No amount or manner of American support, of course, can rescue Taiwan if its people and leaders are unwilling to fight. And that’s a problem that no fleets of U.S. aircraft carriers or warplanes can solve. Taiwan’s battles will be won or lost in the trenches, as has been true since the beginning of recorded history, but today those trenches are increasingly dug under the aegis of each side’s spy services.
SpyTalk Contributing Writer Matthew Brazil is co-author, with Peter Mattis, of the authoritative Chinese Communist Espionage: An Intelligence Primer. SpyTalk Editor-in-Chief Jeff Stein contributed to this piece.
This piece has been updated with Taiwanese polling data.
SpyTalk is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support our work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.