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Caught in middle of mutual distrust

Times Staff Writer

The Kafkaesque spy world that Taiwanese businessman Song Hsiao-lien says he fell into has left him financially strapped, unemployed and unnerved after nearly four years in a Chinese prison.

Song was further rattled after his release late last year by the discovery in January of a body in Taipei’s Dansuie River that turned out to be that of another former accused spy, Jiang jen-shi.

Song says he and Jiang are among scores of businessmen whose lives have been upended over the years by the historical distrust between China and Taiwan, the shaky nature of Taiwan’s intelligence community and, in particular, the recruitment practices of the island’s Military Intelligence Bureau. By some accounts, 800 Taiwanese are in Chinese jails, many allegedly on trumped-up charges.

Experts, some of whom declined to be identified given their work and the topic’s sensitivity, say the Taiwanese intelligence community has been hurt by high turnover and bureaucratic muddle, prompting it to rely increasingly on businessmen and students, with serious consequences for the quality of information.

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“The intelligence community in Taiwan is in very bad shape,” said Wu Yu-shan, an analyst with the Academia Sinica think tank in Taipei, the capital.

Song, 45, says his problems started in early 2002 with a phone call from someone who seemed to know that he was leaving for China and who said he was a travel agent. Song, who was investing in several real estate projects on China’s southern Hainan island, agreed to meet him at a Taipei coffee shop. The thirtysomething man, who gave only the surname Fan, was soon joined by his boss, a tall, skinny man in his 60s who gave only the surname Huang. A Chinese news release later identified them as Fan Mingjian and Huang Maji.

The pair asked Song to pick up a few routine items in China for them -- some newspapers, a magazine, a map. They advanced him $650 for expenses and he returned with the items a few weeks later.

Song returned to Taiwan every few weeks to see his wife and three children. At subsequent meetings, Fan asked Song to provide information about a Hainan military port, and draw pictures of what he had seen, which Song did. Hainan, a tropical resort island, also has several military bases and is where a U.S. EP-3 spy plane was forced to make an emergency landing after a midair collision in 2001. Song says he was still not suspicious.

At some point, Fan admitted that he wasn’t a travel agent, claiming instead to be a private investigator. Only later would Song learn that the men were with Taiwan’s Military Intelligence Bureau.

The intelligence agency has declined interview requests, although it acknowledges recruiting Song and recently agreed to partially compensate him and others for their ordeals. Some details of Song’s story, including those involving time spent in Chinese interrogation and prison, could not be independently verified.

Song says that around August 2002, the men asked him to check out Hainan’s Lingshui military airport. By then, the situation had begun to seem a bit fishy and Song says he decided to break off the relationship, telling Fan that his mother was ill and that he would be moving back to Taiwan.

That seemed to be the end of it. Then, more than a year later, while on another business trip to Hainan, Song was returning from dinner one evening when he noticed movement in the shadows only seconds before several men forced him into a car.

Initially he thought he’d been kidnapped. He offered the men all the money in his wallet, his watch and anything else they wanted. But it soon became apparent they were Chinese national security officials.

“Do you think you’re a spy?” they asked him repeatedly. When he said no, they replied, “We do, and Chinese justice awaits you.”

For the next two weeks he was interrogated for about 22 hours a day, threatened, made to kneel until his legs went numb, and held in a cell with a platform bed and a small hole for food to be handed through.

Eventually, his jailers seemed to believe he was not a spy and became friendlier. They said they were only “small fish,” but said that no matter the facts, the careers of powerful bosses depended on their finding Taiwanese spies.

A little later, they handed him an indictment, followed soon by a closed-door trial.

He argued his own case in court, but it was no use. He was convicted and sentenced to four years.

A Chinese news release in early 2004 said Song had “confessed to engaging in espionage activities” and traveled around China to gather intelligence on the navy and other military targets, a contention he disputes.

Finally, in late 2007, he was released from custody.

Song learned that he had been one of 36 Taiwanese businessman “spies” arrested about the same time and sentenced to as long as 15 years in prison. The roundup apparently was aimed at humiliating Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian, who in late 2003 had angered Beijing by introducing a referendum on whether China should remove its then-496 missiles aimed at Taiwan. The two sides split in 1949 during a civil war.

Once back in Taipei, Song met with an agent from the Military Intelligence Bureau, who advised him to keep quiet. The agent seemed sympathetic until Song brought up the issue of compensation, at which point the conversation ended.

“Espionage is a dirty business,” said Wendell Minnick, Asia bureau chief with Defense News.

In addition to the mental and physical anguish Song and his family have suffered, the experience has been a financial disaster. The Chinese government won’t let him back in to sell or retrieve his investments, a prohibition that has led to one of his partners’ taking advantage of Song’s absence to “absorb” his share.

Upset and feeling betrayed by their own government, Song and Cheng Jew-yuan, 53, another businessman who says he unwittingly engaged in activities that later led to accusations of spying, hired a lawyer and went public with their concerns.

“These military intelligence officials have no empathy,” said their attorney, Billy Chen of the Chaining Law Office in Taipei. “They lack blood and tears.”

In early March, the Military Intelligence Bureau granted Song $70,000 for four years of his life, the loss of his business and the suffering of his wife and children. And it gave $100,000 to Cheng, who says he lost his food-processing business in China, along with assets in Taiwan that his family had to sell so they could bribe Chinese officials for his release.

Both men say they remain unsatisfied. Song, who says he lives in fear of intelligence officials, is without a job. His friends and relatives avoid him. The Taiwanese government treats him warily, apparently fearful he was turned into a double agent by China.

“I really urge the Taiwanese government not to sacrifice Taiwanese businessmen anymore,” he said. “I am vulnerable and feel nothing can protect me. I really hope tensions will ease between China and Taiwan and the others will be released soon.”

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mark.magnier@latimes.com

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Special correspondent Tsai Ting-I in Taipei contributed to this report.


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