Explosive allegations by Wang Liqiang, who recently fled to Australia and claimed to be a Chinese spy, have rocked Taiwan’s election campaign season as it heads into its home stretch.
Taiwan detained China Innovation Investment Limited executives Xiang Xin and his wife, Kung Ching, on Sunday as they prepared to board a flight in Taipei. Wang told Australian media on Saturday the company was a front for influencing elections in Taiwan.
Taiwanese prosecutors questioned the executives on Tuesday and said Wednesday they would not rule out the possibility of cooperating with their Australian counterparts to attempt to corroborate claims made by Wang.
Wang’s allegations reveal a campaign of infiltration in media and universities in both Hong Kong and Taiwan, including efforts to support Han Kuo-yu, the Kuomintang (KMT) challenger to Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen. China has denied the claims and said Wang is not a spy, claiming he had previously been convicted of fraud.
The allegations have left Taiwan and Australia playing a guessing game. Reuters reported on Monday that three diplomatic and security sources in Taipei said they had doubts over whether Wang was actually a Chinese spy, although they did not discount the content of his allegations.
Tsai said Monday that Wang’s allegations were being probed, according to a statement released by her office, while Cho Jung-tai, chairman of her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), labeled China “the enemy of democracy.”
Han has said he would drop out of the election if it was revealed he had taken money from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and has since bristled when pressed by reporters on the topic. He has said he will sue Wang should he ever come to Taiwan.
The two executives have denied the claims by Wang, who said he began working at China Innovation Investment in 2014 and was eventually asked by Xiang to become involved in its espionage operations.
Xiang said he did not recognize Wang and that he regularly travels to Taiwan to pursue investment opportunities and meet businesspeople. Xiang also admitted that he and his wife own two apartment units in Taipei after prosecutors discovered they had purchased them.
Taipei prosecutors have maintained they retain jurisdiction over the case.
The ruling DPP quickly reacted to Wang’s allegations by proposing an anti-infiltration bill, which would contain articles barring outside influence on the island’s politics.
The bill came after a prolonged period of debate over countermeasures to what the DPP has long said is a sustained effort by China to influence the island’s elections, media, and universities.
Legislators have considered toughened laws in the past to combat “fake news” and have pitched the idea of mandating the registration of foreign agents, similar to the United States’ requirement that organizations such as China’s Xinhua and Russia’s RT declare they are state-funded.
Wang claimed that Taiwan media organizations, along with temples and grassroots organizations, have been infiltrated by Chinese operations to sway opinion in Beijing’s favor.
This led to speculation that media outlets, such as those owned by Want Want, could be complicit. Want Want-owned entities have been fined by Taiwan’s National Communications Commission (NCC) for dedicating too much coverage to Han and broadcasting false claims about the Kaohsiung mayor prior to his presidential run. In July, a Financial Times report said journalists at Want Want-owned outlets had admitted to receiving regular phone calls from China’s Taiwan Affairs Office to give advice on shaping coverage. Want Want has denied those allegations, and even filed a defamation lawsuit against Financial Times for the report.
The NCC said on Wednesday it would work with national security officials to probe the claims made by Wang and find out whether media in Taiwan were accepting funding from China.
Taiwan’s KMT has slammed the proposed anti-infiltration bill. KMT legislative candidate Charles Chen said on Thursday it could be used as a “political tool” to “rush the legislation” and “paint the Kuomintang red,” according to Reuters.
DPP and KMT lawmakers have long butted heads over potential anti-infiltration laws. DPP officials say the laws are necessary to combat Chinese influence operations, while KMT officials counter that the laws would harm Taiwan’s free speech and democracy.
Past proposals by DPP legislators have drawn rebukes from outside observers, such as a June 2018 proposal to penalize those who spread “fake news.” The Committee to Protect Journalists criticized the proposal, which was later scrapped.