In terms of exposed spy cases, this year probably has been the quietest year in the cross-Strait intelligence “war without gunfire” in the last decade. The most notable events have been Taiwan’s High Court upholding the sentences for the members of a spy ring run by Zhen Xiaojiang (鎮小江) and the hacking of the Democratic Progressive Party’s website to infect the computers of those who visited. Over the last decade, however, Taiwan suffered tremendous losses that damaged the island’s reputation and sowed doubt about its integrity in the face of Beijing’s relentless pressure.
Ten years ago, Chinese intelligence kidnapped two senior Taiwanese military intelligence officers, Colonel Chu Kung-hsun (朱恭訓) and Colonel Hsu Chang-kuo (徐章國), who oversaw operations against the People’s Republic of China (PRC) for the Military Intelligence Bureau, after luring them to Vietnam. Their abduction came amid the capture of a number of Taiwanese spy networks within the PRC, including several senior officers at the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force Command College. The setback for Taiwanese intelligence forced a near operational stand down for clandestine agent operations inside the PRC, severely restricting the kind of information Taipei could collect.
Taiwanese security authorities also proved the old counterintelligence adage that there is no good time to catch a spy. From 2006 to the present, more than 40 Taiwanese citizens were prosecuted for espionage and espionage-related crimes involving China, including serving and retired officials, military officers, and businesspeople. One might interpret these events as indicating that Taiwanese counterintelligence performed well in capturing so many spies, but it more likely reflects the tip of the iceberg, in terms of the relentless pressure applied by China’s intelligence operations in Taiwan. No part of the Taiwan government has been exempt, including the Office of the President, the National Security Bureau, the Ministry of Justice, and the military. Among those prosecuted are the highest-ranking spies since Deputy Defense Minister Wu Shi, who was executed in 1950.
- Brigadier General Lo Hsien-che (Army): At the time of General Lo’s arrest in February 2011, he was the director of Army electronic information. Chinese military intelligence recruited him in the early 2000s when he served in Taiwan’s military attaché office in Thailand. Beijing’s spies reportedly paid the general several hundred thousand dollars for his information over the years. This case is one of the few known cases against Taiwan or any other country that took place entirely outside China.
- Major General Hsu Nai-chuan (Army): General Hsu is the highest-ranking Taiwanese military officer to have committed treason, and the High Court earlier this year reduced his jail term to less than three years. He helped a retired PLA officer, Zhen Xiaojiang, expand his spy network by approaching old friends and colleagues, and it is presumably in these attempts that someone turned him into the authorities.
- Vice Admiral Ko Cheng-sheng (Navy): Admiral Ko, a retired deputy commander of the Navy, was recruited by Chinese military intelligence through an intermediary, a Taiwanese-Australian businessman named Shen Ping-kang. The Chinese Communist Party’s United Front Work Department and the Liaison Department of the former PLA General Political Department approached Shen in 1998 as a channel to the admiral, and both agencies recruited Ko well before he retired in 2003. Ko also tried to recruit fellow naval officers to build a network of sub-sources that would continue to provide intelligence to China after he retired.
- Lieutenant General Chen Chu-fan: General Chen was the deputy commander of the Military Police Command. He was an influential figure in the Kuomintang (KMT), having served as the party’s deputy director of the Taipei chapter as well as in a variety of other liaison roles. Chen’s sentence from 2014 was overturned in May 2016, despite evidence that presented in his prosecution that linked him to senior Shanghai State Security Bureau officers during regular travel to China since 2004.
These higher level recruitments may have been more useful as political sources and propaganda victories, but several other sources, such as retired Military Intelligence Bureau officer Major Chen Shu-lung, did much to damage Taiwan’s intelligence and counterintelligence efforts. These turncoats identified Taiwanese intelligence officers at home and abroad, which provides two benefits for Beijing:
- First, the Chinese security services can monitor these individuals to identify leads to PRC traitors and disrupt Taiwanese operations.
- Second, Chinese intelligence gained targeting lists for future attempts to recruit Taiwanese officials. Continually updating the database of Taiwanese names and their family, school, military, and government connections is what allows China’s intelligence services to find channels to people like Admiral Ko. Some of China’s computer network exploitation against the island has focused explicitly on Taiwan’s local government databases to support this kind of work.
The return of Colonels Chu and Hsu late last year hopefully closed a dark decade for Taiwan in the “war without gunfire.” The cost was not just to Taiwan’s national security, but to its reputation for integrity and probably the willingness of foreign partners to collaborate in addressing shared intelligence and counterintelligence concerns related to China.
Ultimately, Taipei has no way—short of accepting unification—to stop Beijing’s human and technical intelligence operations. Taiwanese people will continue to do business in the PRC, and despite the recent slowdown in Chinese tourists, Chinese from the mainland will continue to travel to and from the island. Managing risks, conducting investigations, and making incremental improvements to security should be pursued as a matter of policy under President Tsai Ing-wen, whichthe Ma Ying-jeou administration failed to do for most of this past decade. Transparency about the damage with Taipei’s closest security partners, such as the United States, may prove a necessary if unpalatable step toward ensuring trusted relationships with genuine potential rather than cautious operational cooperation or intrinsically limited analytic exchanges.
The “dark decade” for Taiwan also revealed the island’s long-term strength. The changing demographics of Taiwan, the growing reluctance of Taiwanese to conceive of a future tied to the PRC, and the emergence of a distinct Taiwanese identity, all militate against the human vulnerabilities that Beijing exploited. One of the most common ways in which Taiwan’s traitors have been uncovered is younger officers and officials turning in senior officers like Admiral Ko and General Chen.
This year’s relative quiet can be interpreted in several ways. The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence and the PRC’s intelligence services may be performing very well and avoiding detection, or they may be performing quite poorly against Taiwan and there are no cases to be discovered. Alternatively, Taiwan’s counterintelligence effort may be functioning once again at a high level and effectively countering China’s efforts before they can bear fruit. None of these interpretations should be surprising.
The main point: Long-term trends—changing demographics, views of the PRC, and Taiwanese identity—strengthen Taiwan’s integrity in the face of Beijing’s relentless intelligence efforts, but President Tsai Ing-wen still needs to ensure Taiwan’s counterintelligence remain vigorous and the island’s partners confident in the island’s security.
 Author’s Interviews, June and July 2012, October 2014.
 Number based on author’s database, see e.g. Mattis, Peter, “China’s Espionage Against Taiwan: Analysis of Recent Operations,” China Brief 14, no. 21 (November 7, 2014).
 Author’s Interview, June 2016.