The ‘Spy Swap’ That Wasn’t

Those who were hoping that a recent prisoner exchange between Taiwan and China was a sign of warmer ties are deceiving themselves
J. Michael Cole

Two jailed spies for Taiwan’s Military Intelligence Bureau were returned to Taiwan in October after Taipei granted early parole to a Chinese spy in what some foreign media outlets described this week as a “spy swap” and a sign of further détente between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait. As with the “historic” Nov. 7 summit between presidents Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and Xi Jinping (習近平) in Singapore, international media are reading too much into this development and seeing connections that simply do not exist.

The release and return to Taiwan on Oct. 13 of convicted spies Chu Kung-hsun (朱恭訓) and Hsu Chang-kuo (徐章國), after each had served more than nine years of a life sentence in Chinese prison, was indeed a first, as was the parole granted to Chinese spy Li Zhihao (李志豪).

However, as Maj.-Gen. David Lo (羅紹和), spokesman for Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense, told a press conference, efforts to secure the release of the MIB officers had begun in 2008, and their return to Taiwan was not part of a “spy swap.” In other words, spying is a gentleman’s game, and having served enough of their sentences, it was time for the intelligence officers to return home.

That is not, though, how the South China Morning Post described the matter. “Taiwan and mainland China’s spy swap a sign of how far cross-strait ties have improved under Taiwanese leader Ma Ying-jeou’s rule,” read the headline. Not to be bested, Reuters headlined its article “Taiwan, China swap jailed spies after leaders’ historic meet,” a title that succeeds in containing both an anachronism — since the spies were retuned on Oct. 13, they cannot have been set free after the Nov. 7 Ma-Xi meeting — and a connection that doesn’t exist, that is, linkage between the summit and the “spy swap.”

Citing “analysts” — a spokesman-cum-propagandist-par-excellence for President Ma’s office and a Chinese professor at Renmin University in Beijing — the SCMP writes that the development was “testament to Taiwan’s improved ties with the mainland under Ma Ying-jeou’s presidency.” Charles Chen (陳以信), the PO spokesman and hardly an “analyst,” encourages the anachronism by stating that the exchange was “based on a mutual goodwill gesture delivered by the Ma-Xi meeting.” The Reuters article also contains the same quotes by Chen.

For his part Zhang Tongxin (張同新), director of the Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macao Research Center at Renmin University and an apologist for Beijing’s coercive tactics, is quoted in the SCMP saying that “The [spy] swap is a natural fruit of the peaceful development of cross-strait relations over the past years.”

The attempt to create linkage between this development and the Ma-Xi meeting couldn’t be more obvious. Not only do Chen, Zhang, and the SCMP editors give the event more weight than it deserves, they also desperately use it to give the Ma-Xi summit, a largely symbolic affair, more significance than it deserves. The same Professor Zhang had told the SCMP after the Nov. 7 summit that “President Xi and Ma have joined hands and created a new status quo, which is high-level talks between two leaders across the Taiwan Strait to peaceful develop relations, on the basis of recognizing the 1992 consensus,” adding that it has “restricted future leaders — from any party — if they wish to maintain the status quo of peaceful development.” Anyone who knows anything back in Taiwan knows that no such new status quo was created in Singapore, in large part due to the fact that President Ma is on the way out and is in no position to “impose” anything on the future leadership.

Absent deliverables from the Nov. 7 meeting, these minions will retroactively use developments to make the 82-second handshake seem more important than it actually was.

It goes without saying that Mr. Chen will also grasp at just about anything to beautify his employer’s legacy, such as it is.

Moreover, the two articles are devoid of context. Left unsaid is the fact that the situation in the Taiwan Strait remains unchanged: despite nearly eight years of détente, Beijing has not relaxed its threatening military posture, intelligence collection, recruitment, united front work, propaganda efforts, and political warfare against the island-nation — in fact, there is plenty of evidence indicating that such activities have intensified, in part due to the much greater access that Chinese agents now have to Taiwan. (During the same period, military intelligence officers from the Taiwanese side saw their ability to conduct or initiate operations in China severely constrained by political decisions taken by the Ma administration.)

To its credit, SCMP does quote Arthur Ding (丁樹範) of National Chengchi University, who provides the only sensible quote in the entire article by pointing out that China’s military posture continues to threaten the Taiwanese and fuels an “anti-China” sentiment.

As long as China continues to threaten Taiwan with 1,600 ballistic missiles and relentless intelligence operations, and until the day that Beijing has shelved its preposterous “Anti-Secession Law,” claims that a “spy swap” are “a natural fruit of the peaceful development of cross-strait relations” or proof of “how far cross-strait ties have improved under Taiwanese leader Ma Ying-jeou’s rule” will deservedly be treated as farce.

Casual observers might conclude from such articles that peace is at hand in the Taiwan Strait. But it’ll take a lot more than the return of two spies to convince the Taiwanese that the military/espionage threat from China has receded. In fact, as the two societies continue to move away from each other — one towards a deepening mix of nationalism and authoritarianism, the other towards a consolidating liberal-democracy — there is a very high likelihood that Beijing will retain its aggressive posture vis-à-vis Taiwan, regardless of who assumes power in Taipei next year.


J. Michael Cole is editor in chief of Thinking Taiwan, a senior non-resident fellow at the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham, and an Associate researcher at the French Center for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC) in Taipei.

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