An Assessment of the PRC Fifth Column Network within Taiwan

An Assessment of the PRC Fifth Column Network within Taiwan

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An Assessment of the PRC Fifth Column Network within Taiwan

The concept of a “fifth column,” originating during the Spanish Civil War, refers to covert groups within a nation engaged in espionage, sabotage, or subversion to undermine national stability and aid external enemies. From 2008 to 2016, amidst extensive cross-strait exchanges, China intensified its united front operations and intelligence activities in Taiwan, embedding operatives across the fields of economics, media, culture, religion, industry, and politics. This period saw the establishment of a robust fifth column network within Taiwan’s national security apparatus, political landscape, and civil society. 

Rooted in the principles of Zhou Enlai (周恩來)“use the united front to drive intelligence and embed intelligence within the united front” (以統戰帶動情報, 寓情報於統戰中)—the fifth column network can be considered as one of the foundations of China’s political warfare strategy against Taiwan, providing more toolsets for Beijing to coerce Taiwan not only externally—economically, diplomatically, and militarily—but also internally through infiltrations, disinformation campaigns and cognitive warfare to divide and undermine Taiwan’s overall resilience. This article provides a preliminary examination of the characteristics and scale of China’s fifth column networks within Taiwan’s national security agencies since 2008, and forecasts likely trends in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) fifth column operations during the upcoming term of President-elect Lai Ching-te (賴清德).

Cross-Strait Engagement Facilitates the Establishment of Fifth Column Networks 

Strictly speaking, the term fifth column (第五縱隊) does not appear in PRC official documents, but is more commonly found in the memoirs of former underground Chinese Communist Party (CCP, 中國共產黨) members (中共地下黨), referring to those who infiltrated the Kuomintang (KMT, 國民黨) during the years in which those two parties struggled for control of China. Considering the convoluted history between the KMT and the CCP since the 1920s, infiltration and subversion of the enemy by fifth columnists represented a fundamental strategy during the CCP’s struggle against the KMT—and extended to the PRC’s Taiwan policy after the effective end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949.  

From 2008 to 2016, during a period of comprehensive cross-strait engagement during the administration of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), Taiwan’s openness to Chinese tourists, students and officials facilitated numerous Chinese visits to Taiwan for tourism, education, employment, and commerce. The PRC seized opportunities for “people-to-people exchanges” across the strait and significantly increased its united front operations and intelligence activities. Consequently, the PRC has established an extensive pro-Beijing fifth column network within Taiwan, spanning various sectors including economics, media, culture, religion, industry, and politics. [1] 

These efforts have particularly targeted Taiwan’s retired and incumbent military and intelligence personnel. This phase marked the PRC’s extensive infiltration into Taiwan’s national security agencies, during which the PRC’s espionage operations escalated in terms of both quantity and the rank of military personnel involved. The primary focus remains on traditional espionage activities aimed at collecting classified military intelligence. [2] 

Estimating the scale of the fifth column within Taiwan is challenging due to its covert nature. These networks are evolving to become more comprehensive, stealthier, and increasingly grassroots-oriented. In a 2019 public presentation, Gen. Vincent W. F. Chen (陳文凡), then Deputy Director-General of Taiwan’s National Security Bureau (NSB 國家安全局), revealed that China has created a network comprising 24 business, media, and semi-official representatives. He also noted that 22 pro-China organizations and political parties, linked to organized crime, are extending their influence over local entities, Taiwanese businessmen in mainland China, and Taiwan’s media. Between 2000 and 2020, 62 espionage cases were recorded, targeting military personnel, Taiwanese businesspeople, media professionals, and political figures. [3] Notably, in 2023 alone, at least 16 espionage cases have come to light. 

While these spy cases do not fully represent the extent of the PRC’s infiltration into Taiwan, they highlight the areas of highest focus, as seen below.

Retired and Active-Duty Military Personnel

A Reuters report has revealed that, in the course of the past decade, at least 21 serving or retired Taiwanese officers of captain rank or higher have been convicted of spying for China. A significant espionage case in 2023 unveiled a spy network within Taiwan’s military comprising ten officers. This network, established by a retired army major who recruited current military personnel across Taiwan, compromised highly sensitive information, including defense deployment plans, military exercises, US collaboration details, and classified content from top-secret meetings chaired by the president. Notably, the investigation revealed that this spy network persuaded an active-duty pilot, holding the rank of lieutenant colonel, to attempt flying a US-made CH-47 Chinook onto a Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) aircraft carrier, with a promised reward of USD $15 million (half the helicopter’s value) upon successful defection.

Intelligence and Security Personnel

Besides the military, Taiwan’s intelligence and security agencies—including the Military Intelligence Bureau (MIB), which is tasked with collecting intelligence on the PLA—have also been targeted. Incidents in 2010 and 2016 exposed the recruitment of MIB agents by the PRC, and in 2020 three former MIB officers were arrested on allegations of espionage. China’s penetrations extend to high-level security breaches, including one involving Taiwan’s presidential security team. In 2021, a case highlighted the successful infiltration of the team, leading to the conviction of a retired security officer and a serving military police lieutenant colonel for leaking sensitive information to a Chinese intelligence agency. This included details about the team protecting the presidential office and President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) residence.

United Front Work Targets Whampoa Military Academy Graduates

Since 2008, China has leveraged the shared legacy of the Whampoa Military Academy (黄埔軍官學校) between the KMT and the CCP to invite retired Taiwanese generals to China for commemorative events, promoting reunification narratives. [4] A former legislator, retired lieutenant general Wu Sz-huai (吳斯懷), who attended a speech by Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing in 2016, has been highly controversial due to his involvement in that event. In 2023, a retired Navy rear admiral and former legislator faced prosecution for inviting 48 retired high-ranking generals to China across 13 trips, totaling 194 individual visits, to promote the “Whampoa spirit” and pro-unification activities over the past decade.

These cases highlight China’s persistent efforts to undermine Taiwan’s military and security apparatus in order to foster disloyalty and gather valuable intelligence—and perhaps to lay the groundwork for potential decapitation operations against Taiwan’s military and political leaders. The frequent visits to China by high-ranking retired generals, ongoing espionage cases, and the spread of defeatist propaganda have eroded public trust in Taiwan’s military, significantly affecting morale and operational security. This erosion of trust could be strategically exploited by Beijing during military conflicts.

Forecasting Fifth Column Development: Breaking It Down into Smaller Parts

Despite Beijing’s aspiration for extensive cross-strait engagements to facilitate deeper infiltration, it must restrict exchanges under the forthcoming third term in office for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP, 民主進步黨) in order to exert political pressure on newly elected President Lai Ching-te. This will complicate the PRC’s intelligence operations. 

Wang Huning (王滬寧)—the fourth-ranked member of CCP Politburo Standing Committee and the official in charge of CCP united front workreportedly issued instructions during a December 2023 meeting that party operatives should “break [efforts] down into smaller parts” (化整為零) in order to influence Taiwan’s presidential election. Following such guidance beyond the election, the PRC’s fifth column operations are likely to shift their focus beyond traditional national security agencies—and to target various non-security sectors such as media, the legislative branch, and non-national security government agencies. Coupled with more subtle and legal united front work, this strategy fosters local agents at the grassroots level to establish both in-person and online networks, thereby intensifying Beijing’s political and cognitive warfare.

Firstly, the media sector—along with grassroots groups such as religious organizations and local political leaders—could specifically be utilized to subtly manipulate public opinion and sway public sentiment. For example, in the recent presidential election in January, an online media journalist was reportedly directed by Chinese officials to create fake election polls. Notably, Chang An-le (張安樂), the chairman of the Chinese Unification Promotion Party (CUPP, 中華統一促進黨)—and also an organized crime figure known as “White Wolf” (白狼)—stated in a  2021 interview with Chinese official media that he has leveraged his past gangster background to attract young people from central and southern Taiwan to “turn from green to red” (由綠轉紅). The goal was to establish and develop a “red column” (紅色隊伍) to promote “peaceful unification and uprising at the front” (和平統一, 陣前起義).

Secondly, China’s fifth column network is likely to target Taiwan’s legislators, using similar tactics to those recently observed in a UK espionage case. In that case, a former parliamentary staffer was accused of obtaining sensitive national security reports and intelligence on behalf of China. In 2023, controversy erupted over the construction of Taiwan’s first Indigenous Defense Submarine (IDS), which is aimed at strengthening naval defenses against China. The program convener accused KMT lawmaker Ma Wen-chun (馬文君) of the Foreign Affairs and National Defense Committee of consistently sabotaging the project. Allegations claim that the lawmaker compiled over 3,000 files related to the submarine’s design and construction plans, raising security concerns and sparking investigations into legislative interference in sensitive military affairs.

Last but not least, the trend of infiltrating sources and organizations outside of security agencies—such as government databases, and critical infrastructure sectors—is likely to increase. For example, severe data security issues were brought to light by two major leaks in 2023. The first incident involved the potential sale of nearly the entire Taiwanese population’s household registration data on BreachedForum, comprising 23.57 million records from the Ministry of the Interior. Another breach implicated former officials of the National Health Insurance Administration (NHIA), who allegedly accessed and sold extensive health insurance data (potentially affecting up to 133,000 records), with intelligence personnel particularly targeted. Moreover, critical infrastructure sectors like electricity, the water supply, and telecommunications are at risk of sabotage or intelligence gathering, which could cripple Taiwan’s emergency response capabilities during contingencies.


In recent years, experts have engaged in lively debate about China’s readiness to invade Taiwan, with mainstream analysts often focusing on the PLA’s capabilities to predict Beijing’s actions. Many assessments of Taiwan’s own combat readiness overlook its overall defensive resilience—which is undermined by Beijing’s political warfare. Echoing Russia’s miscalculations in Ukraine, Beijing could believe that a swift victory in the Taiwan Strait is feasible, and that it might be able to employ gray-zone tactics in order to “provoke military clashes to coerce negotiations” (以戰逼談). Maintaining deep infiltration at all levels to strengthen fifth column networks within Taiwan is crucial for Beijing to create favorable conditions for a swift resolution during military conflicts.

While collecting Taiwan’s military intelligence remains the PRC’s top priority in its intelligence operations, collecting data on Taiwan’s public opinion, and non-military intelligence, would also be strategically valuable for Beijing during wartime. In light of increased vigilance in Taiwan, the PRC’s fifth column development is likely to shift focus from national security agencies to non-national security sectors—adopting subtler and legally framed influence operations to establish online networks and intensify political and cognitive warfare. This strategy aims to compromise Taiwan’s overall defense resilience through espionage, sabotage, or subversion, thereby serving Beijing’s ultimate strategy: one rooted in China’s strategic culture of “winning without fighting” (不戰而勝). 

The main point: With increased vigilance in Taiwan’s government, China is likely to shift pro-Beijing fifth column network development toward Taiwan’s non-national security sectors, coupled with gray zone and united front operations, to intensify its political and cognitive warfare against Taiwan. The incoming Lai Ching-te Administration must prioritize raising public awareness, building social consensus, advancing comprehensive national security reforms, and strengthening international cooperation. These efforts are crucial for exposing fifth column networks and countering Beijing’s political warfare.

[1] Francis Yi-hua Kan, “Cross-Taiwan Strait Relations after President Ma’s Inauguration,” 38th Taiwan‐U.S. Conference on Contemporary China, The Brookings Institution, 2009.

[2] Singaporean expert Wu Shang-Su estimated in 2015 that over 3 million Chinese visited Taiwan in 2014, presenting the PLA with an opportunity to deploy “undercover” troops before a potential invasion. 

[3] “間諜兵學之理論與實踐:以中共對台諜報工作為例(2000-2020年),” [“The Theory and Practice of Military Spycraft: the Case of Chinese Communist Spy Work Against Taiwan (2000-2020)”], Graduate Institute of International Affairs and Strategic Studies, Tamkang University, January 2021, pp. 326-332.

[4] The Whampoa Academy was originally founded in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, in 1924, and it played a significant role in training military officers for the Second Sino-Japanese War. After the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government relocated to Taiwan following the Chinese Civil War, Chiang Kai-shek re-established the academy in Fengshan District, Greater Kaohsiung. Notable alumni of the academy include former Chinese vice premier Lin Biao and former Chinese premier Zhou Enlai.