Analysis: A detailed look into Taiwanese espionage on mainland China

Lin Yi-lin

Lin Yi-lin

Japanese newspaper The Asahi Shimbun has published the first part of a captivating two-part examination into Taiwanese espionage activities in China, authored by Tsuyoshi Nojima, the paper’s former Taipei bureau chief. In the article, Nojima highlights the cases of a number of former civilian agents of Taiwan’s Military Information Bureau (MIB), including that of Lin Yi-lin. The MIB recruited Lin in the late 1980s, during what has been called the modern heyday of Taiwanese intelligence activities in China. Taiwan spies had been active on the Chinese mainland for decades following the Chinese Civil War, but a nationwide counterintelligence crackdown by Beijing in the late 1970s virtually decimated Taiwan’s espionage networks inside China. It took nearly a decade for the MIB to reestablish its informant architecture on the mainland. By that time, the rapprochement between the two rival countries was beginning, with commercial ties rapidly accelerating. The unprecedented ease of travel by business people between the two countries inspired the MIB to initiate a systematic campaign of recruiting Taiwanese business executives as civilian operatives. Unfortunately for these new recruits, they were given little training on intelligence-gathering techniques, surveillance evasion, etc, which resulted in several hundreds of them being arrested in the 1990s, and given espionage convictions by the Chinese government. Lin Yi-lin was one of these arrestees. He was captured in 1994 and returned to Taiwan in late 2009, after spending nearly 15 years in a Chinese prison in Fujian province, ten of which were in solitary confinement. Now Lin is among dozens of former MIB recruits who are suing the Bureau for failing to prepare them for the complexities of their mission, as well as for allegedly abandoning them to their fate.

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T. NOJIMA “Ex-Taiwanese civilian spies break long silence” The Asahi Shimbun [19may2010]

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Expert news and commentary on intelligence, espionage, spies and spying, by Dr. Joseph Fitsanakis and Ian Allen.

4 Responses to Analysis: A detailed look into Taiwanese espionage on mainland China

  1. Kohji says:

    This is a horrible story, very interesting. Good reason why Allies should train Taiwanese intelligence, much more useful then bombs.

    Civilian spies: Should not exist. Civilians are not trained at that sort of work. They do not know what to do and what not to do. If they are used, they need to be extensively trained.

    It is not unlike criminal work. Criminals are civilians. Many engage in criminal activity and are caught because they do not know the lessons of more successful criminals. More successful criminals are mentored. Criminal organizations are able to exist because they have a system of training, a system of rules by which they abide.

    A civilian network of spies can work if that training is in place. There also has to be safeguards, compartmentalization against moles. Never have all your eggs in one basket.

    The entire operations of Taiwan seem to have gone on without any planning or learning from previous mistakes at all. It is absurd and does potentially tremendous danger to their country. It puts to threat every Taiwanese citizen who goes over there by operating such a thoughtless, greedy, short sighted program.

    Civilians turned spies can exist, but they become spies first, civilian by cover only. There has to be professionalism.

    Most civilians have no idea of what to do and what not to do, at all. Sending in an untrained civilian who has a gift of gab without any kind of training is insanity.

    Where in any of this could there be chinese disinformation? Where were the leaks? Mole? Technical? They do not even know now, which is bad news.

    With Russia and the US there were severe reasons why Americans would not become moles and why Russians would not become moles. China-Taiwan are much closer then that, politically, nationally. The situation is far more dangerous for agents turning.

    Taiwan needs to redo their entire approach to intelligence, it sounds like.

  2. intelNews says:

    Good point, I couldn’t agree more. In fact, the case of French teaching assistant Clotilde Reiss in Iran could be seen as another example of why civilian intelligence operatives are ineffective and dangerous to themselves and the countries they work for. [JF]

  3. Kohji says:

    Clotilde Reiss:

    Yes. Though, I do view it as a difficult situation. Historically, citizens have provided their government with important information when abroad.

    Iran’s Counter-Intelligence at work in the Comedy Central-Newsweek debacle:

    A big problem I see here is she did go to anti-government rallies. That alone would tag her as a spy in their eyes. How many ordinary westerners visiting or staying in their country do they have under surveillance?

    She was clearly patriotic, educated, and idealistic. She should have received some training. But how could they do anything strong enough to get her to keep a low profile without effectively making their embassy look like a spy training ground? They probably had no idea who she was. Maybe she was dating some Iranian counterintelligence spy who wanted her to go and get information from her embassy?

    Or can embassies refuse information that may be important from citizens?

    I do not know who the french leaker was claiming she was a valuable spy. What is his motive for making that up? I saw his book title claimed he spent 25 years in french secret intelligence. Yet, when would a covert agent ever be outed by their government? It would endanger seriously everyone they worked with or were aided.

    Was he paid money by Iran to do that? Is he crazy?

    I am convinced she was not a professional covert agent. It makes no sense that if she was she would do something so public as participating in anti-government rallies. That would jeopardize everyone she worked with.

    Maybe she gave her embassy some valuable information. She works in education. Would that not likely mean that valuable information would involve Iranians talking to her? So every Iranian who talked to her then becomes suspect.

    Ugly situation.

  4. Kohji says:

    Oh, a bit of after-post conviction here of possibly perceived or misunderstandable hypocrisy on my part…

    I can state my opinions, but like these people, I am a citizen. I work in corporate computer security. The topics interest me because we see a lot of this espionage problem in our industry. But, at best, I have just read a lot of detective books and intelligence memoirs.

    My flatly stated opinions and such may sound like an inflexible, know-it-all armchair quarterback… but honestly, I do not know.

    Armchair quarterback? Guilty as charged. Lol.

    (I have also done free speech, anti-totalitarian work… so the issue of ‘how to deal with totalitarianism’ including keeping free states out of being police states while doing so interests me a lot.)

    Great site.

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