On October 11, 2020, a special series aired on Chinese state television. The subject was scandalous — the confessions of captured Taiwanese spies in China. Their crimes were numerous, including “harming the Mainland,” “endangering cross-strait relations,” and “defaming China.” Several individuals claimed their orders had come directly from Taiwan’s Military Intelligence Bureau. This televised spectacle was a calculated push, part of China’s Thunder-2020 campaign, a sustained effort by Chinese security agencies to root out Taiwanese spy networks in China. 

The espionage war between China and Taiwan is heating up. By all reasonable metrics, Taiwan is an independent country, possessing an elected government, currency, passport, and military. Yet, the Chinese government views Taiwan as a rogue province. This is the central issue of the espionage war between China and Taiwan: national sovereignty and unification versus independence. 

Zhou Hongxu was a typical Chinese exchange student in Taiwan. In 2009, Zhou arrived in Taiwan as a fresh-faced 21-year-old, enrolling in the business and finance program at Tamkang University. As a young man, he enjoyed the typical activities of youth, eating street food at Taiwan’s famous night markets and playing computer games at internet cafes. In September 2012, he enrolled in the MBA program at the prestigious National Chengchi University (NCCU) and graduated four years later. He returned to China upon graduation.

But Taiwan continued to allure him and in September 2017, he returned, this time on an “investment and business” visa to work at a Taipei firm. 

This was all a ruse according to Taiwanese security officials. Zhou was a Chinese spy, acting directly under the orders of China’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO). Officials from Taiwan’s Bureau of National Security believe that Zhou had been a spy since his first days in Taiwan and had enrolled at NCCU under the direct orders of the TAO. Zhou’s mission was complex: collect intelligence on Taiwanese students in the pro-independence movement and recruit students and officials of influence. In August 2016, Zhou attempted to recruit a Taiwanese official in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs with a bribe of $13,000 per quarter. On March 9, 2017, Zhou was arrested by Taiwanese security officers and sentenced to 14 months in prison. 

In an interview with Global Times, a Chinese state-run media outlet, Zhou denied his role as a spy. He claimed the charges were framed by pro-independence elements of the current Democratic Progressive Party administration. He minced no words, calling judges and prosecutors “hoodlums” and the trial a farce by the “so-called democratic and free Taiwan.” In the interview, Zhou claimed to have loved Taiwan until the 2014 Sunflower Student Movement, a youth-driven movement that centered on a rising fear of Beijing’s influence in Taiwan. Zhou stated that during that time he was discriminated against by his fellow Taiwanese students for being pro-China and this soured his initially sunny impressions of Taiwan. 

Two Chinese state agencies are primarily responsible for China’s unification influence operations: the Taiwan Affairs Office and the United Front Work Department. Both agencies follow a central strategy: co-opting Taiwanese groups and influence operations to counter campaigns seen as dangerous to China’s political ambitions. Internal documents from these state agencies proclaim that their top priority is the pro-China organizations of Taiwan.  

According to Wu Chieh-min, an associate professor at the Institute of Sociology at Academia Sinica in Taiwan, “the Chinese government takes advantage of cross-strait trade relations to build government-business relations. And then uses its on-the-ground allies to promote Beijing’s political agenda regarding Taiwan with the end-goal of merging Taiwan and absorbing its sovereignty.” 

One of these pro-Chin Taiwanese groups is the Concentric Patriotism Association (of which Zhou was a member). Concentric Patriot members are often found in public areas, blaring the Chinese national anthem while waving the communist red flag. They appear a strange group — a band of mostly older men and women, some even dressed in Cultural Revolution Mao outfits. The group is mostly a mix of Chinese spouses who have married local Taiwanese and second-generation mainlanders, all of whom clamor for unification with China. Members can often be heard vocally praising the Chinese system, with one member even stating, “democracy is fake, but a nation’s power is real.” In a 2018 Al Jazeera investigation, reporters infiltrated a Concentric Patriot office and recorded the head of the group on a phone call with an unidentified Taiwanese police officer requesting a list of pro-independence officers in the precinct. 

These mainland connections also extend to pro-unification political parties such as The New Party and the Chinese Unification Promotion Party (CUPP). Both organizations have faced charges from the Taiwanese government on their illegal funding by the Chinese government. Several New Party members, including the spokesperson Wang Ping-chung, were arrested in 2018 for their connection to the student spy Zhou Hongxu. Wang himself had worked for China since 2013, transferring money from Chinese sources and establishing networks. 

It might be reasonable to understand the motivation of an individual like Zhou, a mainlander with an upbringing in Chinese patriotism. But why would local Taiwanese groups support the Chinese government when it encroaches on their own national sovereignty? According to Professor Wu, some of the individuals in these parties “reflect characteristics of a pre-modern, blood-based conception of national identity. They share a strong sense of identification with the Chinese nation, in contrast to a modern-day civic nationalism.” Still, others are likely sympathetic for more pragmatic reasons: they see economic strength in joining China’s authoritarian model. 

Since 2008, Taiwanese authorities have identified 55 cases of Chinese espionage. This espionage struggle will continue until the Taiwan question is resolved as demonstrated by China’s recent aggressive and public televised display of spy confessions. The rise of China’s power to the global stage has fueled a combination of both ethnic and national pride among some pro-unification Taiwanese who believe in the “China model.” Eventually, the Taiwan question will be resolved; the only question is whether it’ll be through integration, independence, or unification with China.  

This article was originally published on February 10th.