The recent discovery that a former Chinese university student in Taiwan has likely been spying for the People’s Republic of China (PRC) may at first glance appear to be just another entry in a long list of PRC espionage cases against Taiwan. After all, Chinese espionage against Taiwan has been an ongoing security problem. Some estimates have identified as many as 60 cases of Chinese espionage against Taiwan since 2002, and this may represent only be the tip of the iceberg. However, the March 10 arrest of 29-year-old Zhou Hongxu for breaching Taiwan’s security laws suggests that China is expanding its espionage campaign against Taiwan in a number of ways.
Zhou’s case is the first known instance of a Chinese student being used to spy in Taiwan since the island opened its universities to Chinese students in 2009. Zhou Hongxu first came to Taiwan in 2009 and enrolled in Tamkang University as an exchange student. In 2012, Zhou enrolled in a business administration program at National Chengchi University in Taipei. After graduating in 2016, Zhou left Taiwan in August that same year, but returned to Taiwan shortly afterwards under the pretext of business. After returning, Zhou sought out a junior official in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, whom he had become acquainted with as a student, and allegedly attempted to obtain classified information in return for a free trip to Japan and an unspecified amount of money.
According to prosecutors, it is believed that Zhou was instructed by China’s Taiwan Affairs Office to enroll at National Chengchi University for the purpose of spying. National Chengchi University is an ideal choice for identifying and recruiting future government officials and leaders. The school is one of Taiwan’s top social science universities and produces many of Taiwan’s government officials. It is home to Taiwan’s only diplomacy program, from which over 100 of Taiwan’s ambassadors have graduated, and it hosts a number of professional programs, such as the Master’s Program in National Security and Mainland China Studies, which is reserved for military officers and government officials.
By using Chinese students to recruit spies on Taiwan’s university campuses, China is seeking to plant spies in Taiwan’s government, military, and intelligence agencies. China has undertaken similar efforts against American students studying in China. In 2004, Chinese intelligence officials cultivated a relationship with American student Glenn Duffy Shriver, who was studying Chinese in Shanghai. After completing his studies in China, Shriver was paid $70,000 in cash payments by Chinese intelligence officers, who instructed him to seek employment in the State Department and the CIA. Shriver was ultimately caught in the early stages of his hiring process at the CIA.
This development suggests that China is making a push to recruit younger spies, who can provide intelligence over the course of their careers. Much of China’s spy recruitment efforts against Taiwan have focused on recruiting retired military officers, or recruiting military and security personnel who are well into their careers. Recent high-profile espionage cases involving former ROC Army Major General Hsu Nai-chuan and former Air Force Colonel Liu Chi-ju both fit this pattern, as they were recruited after retirement. More recently, a retired army officer and bodyguard to former Taiwan Vice President Annette Lu has been arrested on spying for China, and according to reports, was also recruited after retirement.
Zhou’s case also indicates that China is increasingly utilizing PRC citizens and agents to conduct espionage operations inside of Taiwan. Until 2015, Chinese efforts to recruit spies in Taiwan relied on using or recruiting Taiwanese citizens who resided in China, or had connections and business interests in China. A 2014 study of Chinese espionage operations against Taiwan concluded that Chinese intelligence agencies would continue to focus their spy recruitment efforts on Taiwanese citizens inside of mainland China, as this was seen as less risky, and less likely to harm cross-strait relations.
This case is the second known instance of a PRC agent operating inside Taiwan to recruit spies. In 2015, Zhen Xiaojiang, a former captain in China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), was caught setting up a spy ring in Taiwan. Zhen, who had obtained Hong Kong citizenship in 2005, traveled regularly to Taiwan using a tourist visa to undertake his spy recruitment efforts. These two cases indicate that China is becoming bolder in its espionage operations against Taiwan, and will likely increase espionage activity by Chinese agents in Taiwan.
Despite China’s increasingly aggressive espionage efforts against the island, Taiwan’s response has often been very mild. In reaction to the Zhou case, Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je downplayed the incident, and took a shot at the United States by suggesting that if China has sent students to collect information on the nation, the CIA must have done so too. Punishment for traitors has sometimes been surprisingly light as well, as in the case of former Major General Hsu Nai-chuan, who was sentenced to only two years and ten months in prison for attempting to aid in establishing a spy ring.
With the ever-increasing threat of Chinese espionage, Taiwan must do more to combat the problem and protect itself. However, it appears that Taiwan’s government and military are not sufficiently prepared to deal with the threat. According to one source in Taiwan’s security establishment, civil servants in Taiwan have a low awareness of espionage, and lack necessary information security systems. Similarly, National Chengchi University Institute of International Relations director Arthur Ding recently suggested that the military needs to reinforce a security-focused mindset and anti-espionage indoctrination. According to Ding, the military’s counterintelligence arm has limited personnel.
The counterintelligence mission appears to have been long neglected by Taiwan’s security organizations. In 2010, an agent at Taiwan’s Ministry of Justice Investigation Bureau (MJIB) was indicted for deleting 113 case files of mainland Chinese who were visiting or lived on the island, and who were deemed “persons of interest.” The agent was in charge of monitoring Chinese in Taiwan and investigating suspected Chinese intelligence officers operating in Taiwan. According to prosecutors, the agent deleted the files in order to reduce his workload, which suggests that the MJIB may not have been devoting enough resources to counterintelligence and monitoring of Chinese citizens in Taiwan. If Taiwan is to successfully combat the problem of increasing Chinese espionage, it must increase funding and resources to its counterintelligence agencies.
It is also critical that Taiwan’s security agencies take steps to educate its students about the potential threat of espionage. The details in Zhou Hongxu’s case demonstrate that students at top universities in Taiwan are now in the crosshairs of Chinese intelligence agencies. Moreover, greater numbers of students in Taiwan are choosing to study at universities in China or participate in educational programs in China. China’s leaders have also recently announced that they intend to attract more Taiwanese students to visit China on study trips as a way of increasing loyalty to China. This could provide China with greater opportunity to identify and recruit potential spies from Taiwan’s student population. The Communist Party of China’s United Front Work Department, an organization which has been involved in espionage operations against Taiwan, is also active in bringing Taiwanese students to China on exchange trips.
With Taiwan’s university students now at risk for recruitment by Chinese intelligence agencies, it is vital that Taiwan’s security organizations offer some level of threat awareness training to those who choose to study in China, especially for those that intend to work in Taiwan government or military positions after graduation. In response to Chinese efforts to recruit Glenn Duffy Shriver as a spy while studying in Shanghai, the FBI produced a re-enactment of how Chinese intelligence agents convinced him to spy against the United States government. Taiwan’s security organizations would do well to undertake a similar effort, which would provide students with a minimum level of espionage awareness, and encourage them to report suspicious activity to Taiwan’s law enforcement and security organizations.
Aaron Jensen is a Ph.D. student in the International Doctoral Program in Asia-Pacific Studies at National Chenghchi University in Taipei, Taiwan.