Two Ways of Looking at a Spy

The Zhen Xiaojiang spy network sounds like bad news for Taiwan, but the damage to national security might not be as severe as it sounds
J. Michael Cole

The philosophical questions over what compels individuals to betray their country were raised once again on Jan. 16 when prosecutors unveiled indictments against five Taiwanese and a Chinese citizen on espionage charges. As with other cases over the years, the revelation that members of Taiwan’s armed forces had agreed to spy for Beijing exacerbated the perception that the island-nation’s security apparatus has been thoroughly penetrated, that it is unreliable, and that Taiwanese would sell their country for a dime.

Given the frequency with which spy cases have been uncovered in the past decade, the alarmists are certainly not entirely unjustified in contending that this is bad news for Taiwan and its security relationship with the U.S., though as I argued elsewhere, we do not want to overstate the matter and need to take the propaganda value of intelligence operations — even those that are discovered — into consideration.

At first glance, the latest developments are pretty alarming: Zhen Xiaojiang (鎮小江), a retired captain in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and an intelligence officer, had developed an intelligence network in order to collect classified military information in Taiwan. According to prosecutors, Zhen was an agent for “Mao Shangyu” (毛尚云), a Chinese intelligence officer operating under a pseudonym based in Xiamen. The network reportedly gathered intelligence about Taiwan’s Mirage 2000 aircraft, the long-range early warning radar on Leshan, in Hsinchu County, as well as arms procurement plans — all standard targets if you’re a PLA intelligence officer.

Retired Army major-general Hsu Nai-chuan (許乃權), retired Air Force colonel Chou Chih-li (周自立), a flight instructor at the Air Force Academy with more than 6,000 flying hours on the AT-3 trainer aircraft, retired Air Force pilot Sung Chia-lu (宋嘉祿), Air Force official Yang Jung-hua (楊榮華), and Lee Huan-yu (李寰宇), a nightclub operator in Kaohsiung, were indicted in the case, which according to reports may also involve as many as 10 other individuals.

Hsu, 58, retired from the military in 2007 after serving as garrison commander on the outlying island of Matsu, and subsequently headed the Kinmen County Government’s Social Affairs Bureau. He unsuccessfully ran as an independent candidate for Kinmen county commissioner in the Nov. 29 “nine-in-one” elections. He was taken in for questioning within a week of the election.

News of the spy network first emerged in September 2014 after investigators, tipped off by an active member of the forces, launched raids on the suspects’ residences and brought them in for questioning. Recruitment of the retired officers is believed to have occurred during visits to China, which is standard PLA modus operandi.

So why did they do it? Did they act out of ideological conviction (i.e., support for unification)? Because of low morale in the military? For money? We have since learned that the agents were paid approximately NT$310,000 (US$9,900) each and treated to free vacations in Thailand and Vietnam.

Although we cannot completely rule out ideology, discontent with the state of affairs in the armed forces, where morale is said to be suffering — low pay, an unclear mission, successful Chinese propaganda on “inevitability,” lack of opportunities following service, and unfavorable public perceptions are all contributing factors — is a likelier motivation.

All this notwithstanding, a desire for revenge for being underappreciated is insufficient, in and of itself, to account for their actions. As is most often the case, money and sex are the best recruitment tools, and it is highly likely that those were utilized in the current case. The all-expenses-paid trips to Southeast Asia probably had a “nightlife” component, to put it charitably (and remember, a nightclub operator is among the indicted).

Given the nature of the secrets that Zhen and “Mao” were looking for, however, the payments for services rendered were stunningly low. Less than US$10,000, despite all the risks involved! This is considerably less than what Major General Lo Hsien-che (羅賢哲), who was arrested in early 2011 for spying for China and is now serving a life sentence, was receiving for his services — about US$1 million “on occasions,” plus a romantic relationship with a female Chinese agent. Among other things, Lo was tasked with providing intelligence on the “Po Sheng,” or “Broad Victory,” communications system linking U.S. and Taiwanese military forces.

From this we can probably conclude that the agents in Zhen’s network were in the early phase of recruitment. If true, this means that the damage done in terms of secrets leaked is likely marginal, and that the Taiwanese military’s counterintelligence efforts were successful: The members of the network were caught before they could do serious damage to national security.

In cases where greed is the main motivation for espionage, payments and the commensurate expectations on the part of the handler are key to understanding how deeply involved a source has become. In other words, the higher the payment, the greater the risks. And needless to say, the greater the value of the intelligence obtained. Source cultivation is an art.

Successful handlers rarely if ever initiate a relationship by asking a source to provide highly sensitive information. In most cases, doing so would scare off a potential agent. Source recruitment must therefore be escalatory, slowly whittling away at the source’s innate defense mechanisms against betraying his or her country. The slope must be lowly inclined, starting with small betrayals. And it must be regular enough that betrayal becomes the “new normal.” Bill Ko-suen Moo (慕可舜), arrested in the U.S. in 2005 for attempting to sell advanced defense technology to China (including F110-GE-129 turbofan engines as well as an AGM-129 cruise missile and AIM-120 air-to-air missile), didn’t engage in espionage spontaneously, nor did he start by targeting big ticket items. His likely was a long cultivation, starting when he was an international sales consultant for Lockheed Martin and other defense firms in Taiwan.

Small gifts, in the form of a good time at the piano bar, free vacations abroad, or limited financial rewards, are the way to proceed. Once an agent has chosen this path, it becomes very difficult to pull out — first because of the promise of more substantial rewards (in return for more sensitive secrets), and second because the recruiter can use evidence of the small betrayals as blackmail to ensure that the recruit does not terminate the relationship.

In the world of intelligence, US$10,000 is pocket change. Whatever it accomplished, Zhen’s network probably didn’t get too far, or the payments would have been much greater.

Seen in this light, it is possible to conclude that the Jan. 16 indictments were not the catastrophe that some reports want us to believe. Maybe the busting of the Zhan network was in fact a successful counterintelligence operation on Taiwan’s part, preventing a group of individuals from causing serious harm to this nation’s security.

Yes, the fact that servicemen would agree to betray their country for a fistful of dollars and trips to Southeast Asia doesn’t put Taiwan’s military in a favorable light. But then again, no country, no matter how fervent its patriotism, is exempt. There will always be people who will put their interests ahead of those of the country they serve, and intelligence services that are ready to exploit the many foibles of human nature. Palestinians do it, as do Israelis, and theirs is a blood-soaked battle for survival.

We should not forget that as many as 33 American citizens (that we know of) were convicted of spying for the Soviet Union during the Cold War!

Nobody doubts that Taiwan faces a serious espionage challenge. But rather than hit its military on the head at every turn, we might want to make sure that we do not mistake successes for failures, or else we, too, will be guilty of undermining morale.


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.

2 Responses to “Two Ways of Looking at a Spy”

January 28, 2015 at 4:23 pm, aaron said:

We all want to support Taiwan, but this latest spy scandal points to a serious ongoing crisis in Taiwan’s defense and security establishment that shouldn’t be underestimated. Although this article tries to discount it, ideology is a serious factor in Taiwan’s vulnerability. Low morale, discontent, low pay, unclear mission, Chinese propaganda etc. are all listed as likelier motivations than ideology. But why would retired officers, a major-general and a colonel no less, with comfortable positions commit espionage for these reasons? They’re no longer in the military so many of these issues don’t even affect them anymore. The fact that they had so far received little payment also suggests that money was a minor factor in their motivation to commit espionage. Sex could have been a part of it, but they could have easily found this in Taiwan or China. Strong identification with China, and the one-China concept is the most likely explanation for their actions.
It’s true that no country is exempt from traitors, but Taiwan’s problems are worse than most other situations. It may be that 33 Americans were convicted of spying for the Soviets, but that occurred over a greater period of time and Taiwan’s defense establishment is far smaller than that of the U.S. The frequency of Chinese espionage in Taiwan over the last 20 years is greater than it was in the U.S. during the Cold War. The problem is even more concerning when you consider the rapidly increasing power difference between the two sides.


J. Michael Cole

January 29, 2015 at 1:18 am, J. Michael Cole said:

Thanks for the useful comments Aaron. I wouldn’t rule out “strong identification with the ROC,” but “strong identification with China, and the one-China concept” — i.e., support for the PRC — I’m certainly not convinced.


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