Chinese agents highly active in democratic Taiwan, dissidents say

2 exiled dissidents say they have been approached and followed multiple times since fleeing to the island.
By Hsia Hsiao-hwa for RFA Mandarin
2024.05.19
Chinese agents highly active in democratic Taiwan, dissidents say Chinese exchange student Li Jiabao seeks assistance from the Taiwanese Human Rights Association after denouncing Chinese leader Xi Jinping online, March 13, 2019.
Hsia Hsiao-hwa/RFA

On Jan. 13, 2023, Guangdong dissident Xiao Yuhui crossed the 10-kilometer (6-mile) stretch of water from China to Kinmen, a small island that is still controlled by Taiwan, paddling across on a surfboard.

But Xiao's bid to escape the influence of the Chinese government didn't end there.

He believes the ruling Chinese Communist Party under Xi Jinping is now focusing closely on "cleaning up" opposition voices overseas, and has spotted people he believes to be Chinese agents a number of times at public events in democratic Taiwan.

According to a former Chinese agent who spoke recently to Australian broadcaster ABC, this is exactly what's going on. Former Chinese spy "Eric" told the station that he has been involved in surveillance, abductions and the silencing of targets around the world since 2008.

The Spanish-based group Safeguard Defenders, which has warned the world about China's secret police stations, its network of "consular volunteers" and its targeting of dissidents and activists overseas, has now launched a "one-stop shop" legal advice center to help fight transnational repression by Beijing.

"The Chinese Communist Party kidnaps and threatens people at home, and they do the same thing overseas," Xiao said, in response to a question about the ABC report.

The sight of unidentified people he suspected were agents of the Chinese state filming and recording at pro-democracy events in Taiwan worried him enough that he now stays away from protests, rallies and other public events that are seen by Beijing as "anti-China."

He's not the only one who's worried, either.

"Both the Taiwanese government officials and the human rights groups who have assisted me have said they hope I won't take part in so many activities or give public interviews, which could lead to my whereabouts being exposed," Xiao told RFA Mandarin in a recent interview.

"They told me this because [China] has so many political collaborators in Taiwan," he said.

Strange behavior

Li Jiabao, a former exchange student from China who applied for political asylum after speaking out against constitutional amendments allowing Xi to abandon term limits for his own job, said he has been continually targeted by authorities in China since then.

One unidentified person approached Li as he took part in a documentary in 2019 about his life story and situation, demanding that the director delete all footage, he said.

"[The director] didn't even know whether he had captured the person following us or whether he was just a very suspicious sort of person," Li said. "The man seemed very nervous and panicky, and behaved unacceptably, threatening us."

On another occasion, Li spotted someone who appeared to be following him in a park near his home. The man would watch him, but then looked at his phone if Li looked in his direction.

ENG_CHN_TAIWAN SPIES_05152024.2.jpg
Chinese exchange student Li Jiabao shouts ‘defend freedom of speech’ and ‘defend Taiwan's sovereignty,’ at a protest in Taiwan's southern port city of Kaohsiung, April 7, 2019. (Hsia Hsiao-hwa/RFA)

Li noticed people exhibiting similarly strange behavior at rallies he attended in Taipei to mark the anniversaries of the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen massacre, he said. Shortly after his denunciation of Xi, someone contacted him claiming to be a journalist, and sent him emails in a bid to have him download an app to his phone.

"He used a disposable account," said Li, who later realized what had likely happened after reading media reports of Chinese agents posing as journalists. "Turns out he was phishing me."

"The main thing they want is to get access to your contacts ... as well as the Telegram, Facebook and other chat records commonly used by dissidents," he said. "They can also be used to track your location at any time, to know who you are meeting, what you did and what activities you took part in."

Money for spying

Li has also been approached and offered money to spy on fellow dissidents in Taiwan, he revealed.

"Someone asked me how much you can make a month in Taiwan, said I must be short of money, and told me to go and film the Falun Gong, and the next day to film dissidents, including asking them how they're doing," he said.

"They told me just to live my life, and that they would contact me via a Hong Kong account if I thought it was too sensitive," he said. "The Chinese want to find out if you're willing to do stuff for them for money. I always refuse."

Xiao said the Chinese agents clearly knew of his love of photography, because he remembers being approached in October 2023 to take photos of planes taking off and landing at Taipei's Songshan Airport, home to a Taiwanese Air Force base that runs the flying service for the president and vice president of Taiwan.

"They give you some simple tasks to do and some financial support, to see if you can be bought, then more work would follow," he said.

Xiao smelled a rat at the time, and turned down the offer.

Threats to family members back home are another key part of the Chinese state security police playbook, according to dissidents overseas.

Li said he once received a message from his family asking if he was "being used by overseas or foreign forces."

Xiao said the authorities back home had visited his mother at her home and tried to get her to call him and find out his whereabouts and future plans.

Abduction threats

Sometimes, the goal is to get the target to a location where they can be handed over to the Chinese police, the former Chinese agent, who gave only the pseudonym "Eric," told ABC.

During the program, it emerged that RFA political cartoonist Rebel Pepper, whose real name is Wang Liming, was one of the targets, with Eric detailing a plot to lure Wang to Cambodia, using a Chinese-owned conglomerate that has become one of the fastest-growing companies in Cambodia – the Prince Group – to carry out the scam. 

RFA has verified that Prince was the company used for the recruitment and has also spoken to “Eric.”

Li has already encountered a similar situation, as his Chinese passport is due to expire in October, and he will soon be undocumented.

ENG_CHN_TAIWAN SPIES_05152024.3.jpg
Guangdong dissident Xiao Yuhui paddled across from China on a surfboard, yet continues to be targeted by Chinese agents in democratic Taiwan. Undated file photo. (Hsia Hsiao-hwa/RFA)

He was recently contacted by someone with China connections offering to renew his passport if he traveled to Hong Kong, Malaysia, Thailand or elsewhere in Southeast Asia.

"[They told me] as long as you're willing to leave, we have the connections to renew your passport here," he said.

"He and some of his staff also tried to get me to try walking the line into the United States, via the Netherlands and Ecuador," Li said. "The reason I didn't go is that at least I'm safe in Taiwan."

"Once I leave, who's to know if someone would report my whereabouts to the Chinese Communist Party," he said. "I could be threatened, kidnapped or killed along the way, despite not needing a visa to go [to Ecuador]."

Deception

Li said he is very careful about who he is in contact with, as even fellow democracy activists are suspect these days.

"They sometimes pretend to be democrats who care about China, and try to deceive you ... so I'm usually very careful not to meet with strangers unless it's necessary," he said. 

"The best way to be sure is to talk to them over time, because no matter how good their cover is, sooner or later they will have to carry out work given them by the Chinese Communist Party, so they will be exposed eventually."

Li said he wasn't surprised by the ABC expose about “Eric", and warned: "Be careful not to accept money or contacts from unknown sources."

Xiao believes that Taiwan still isn't nearly tough enough on Chinese spies operating in its territory, saying that sentences handed down to Chinese spies are typically far too lenient, and not enough to be a deterrent.

Taiwan, despite being a democracy, has plenty of people willing to travel to China and be in contact with authorities there, he said, while certain political parties and civil groups actively campaign for closer ties with Beijing.

Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.

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