Taiwan begins to deal with its amateur spies caught by China

Businessman Lin Yi-lin knows the perils of being an amateur spy for the Taiwanese government: He was caught and locked up in China’s prisons for 14 years, three of them in solitary confinement.

In the 1980s and ‘90s, many businessmen were recruited by Taiwan’s government to collect intelligence on China, in large part because, at the time, only those doing business in China had permission to travel to the mainland. Lured by large sums of money and thinking it was for a patriotic cause, they did not know the real dangers of their missions.

Many of these civilian spies were arrested, and dozens are believed to remain in China’s prisons, although figures are not revealed.


With no formal diplomatic ties between Taipei and Beijing, they do not get consular visits. Their arrests are often unknown to their families until years later.

Released spies were offered what they considered inadequate compensation. Lin, who operated a tile-making business on the mainland when he was arrested, went to court for fair reparation in October 2008, two months after he was released.

Taiwan’s legislature amended a law last year to stipulate that currently jailed spies and released ones such as Lin are eligible for government compensation.

In early May, the 42-year-old Lin received a letter from Taiwan’s Supreme Administrative Court saying he was entitled to compensation from his spymasters in the Military Intelligence Bureau for his espionage efforts in the 1990s. Based on the years he was imprisoned, Lin said, he was likely to get about $630,000.

“Of course, you can’t put a price on the loss of family, loss of youth, but at least I feel like justice has finally been served,” said Lin, whose wife had divorced him, father had died and two sons had grown up by the time he was released.

The government’s new approach comes as Taiwan’s relations with mainland China are arguably at their best in six decades. Yet there appears to be no letup in espionage between the two rivals, which have been ruled separately since the end of a civil war in 1949.

Last month, a Taiwanese general was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment on charges of spying for China, which still considers Taiwan its territory. The case shocked the public; the general was the highest-ranking military official to be convicted of spying since the 1960s.

In a separate case, a senior military intelligence official has been sentenced to life imprisonment for passing intelligence to China. Col. Lo Chi-cheng had compromised Taiwan’s own spying network in China, leaking a list of Taiwanese spies to Beijing, and receiving $100,000 since 2007, according to local media.

“China has not changed its practice of spying on our military affairs. In fact, they are using the environment of increased exchanges between the two sides to broadly step up collection of intelligence on us using different channels,” said Luo Shou-he, spokesman for Taiwan’s Defense Ministry. “Over the years, they have steadily used methods such as beautiful women or money.”

The ministry doesn’t comment on its own spying on China, beyond acknowledging that it has occurred, but many believe that it also continues, although businesspeople are probably not recruited anymore.

Lin said few would agree to spy for Taiwan today, even if asked. They are more aware of the dangers. And having invested in the mainland for years, few still see China as an enemy.

But Lin, other civilian spies and their families continue to suffer the consequences of Taiwan’s past practice of recruiting businesspeople to gather intelligence.

Taiwan has asked that humanitarian issues such as this be included in talks, but China has not been receptive, said legislator Justin Chou, who succeeded in getting two prisoners released on medical parole last year.

“We hope through our position as legislators or through [the ruling party] KMT, we can help end these families’ misery, but of course we know this issue is very sensitive,” Chou said. “We don’t want to harm cross-strait relations because of this, so what we’re trying to do is increase family visits, get the older ones released first.”

Three years after being freed, Lin still has nightmares, especially of the years he spent in solitary confinement, with no light, no one to talk to, and no sense of time.

“At that time I told myself I had to stay sane. My way of doing that was to set up a daily schedule for myself,” he said. “At a certain time each day, I would remember my wife, my family and I also forced myself to do some exercise.”

He has become an advocate for imprisoned amateur spies, including the eight who were in prison with him, in southeastern China’s Fujian province.

Some of them are in ill health and are not given proper medical care, he said; one died last year of illness.

He said the other prisoners gave him their work credits to help him get released early.

“They wanted me to get out and tell what really happens in China’s prisons,” he said, “because as Taiwanese we don’t have help from anyone.”

Sui is a special correspondent.