China Central Television’s (CCTV) prime-time current affairs program Focus Talk this week aired a three-part series of “exposes” on alleged Taiwanese spies operating in China. The programs signal the opening of a new front in Beijing’s information war against Taiwan — and its own people.
In each case, the backstories concocted by the Chinese Communist Party were riddled with holes.
Sunday’s program focused on Morrison Lee (李孟居), a pro-independence native of Hsinchu County, who went missing on Aug. 20 last year after entering Shenzhen from Hong Kong. Lee had traveled to Hong Kong to support pro-democracy protests engulfing the territory. The program claimed that Lee is a township-level political adviser, inferring that he had links to the central government.
It provided no evidence to show which organization he was supposed to have been spying for, and during his filmed “confession,” Lee stated that he went to Hong Kong to distribute posters, because he “believed Taiwan’s government supported the movement.”
If this was supposed to be a smoking gun, it backfired. An excerpt from a Line app group conversation was also shown — hardly the communication method of choice for a trained spy.
According to the program’s own narrative, Lee made a spur of the moment decision to travel to Shenzhen, after hearing rumors that the People’s Armed Police were amassing at a sports stadium. He used his cellphone to film from a street near the stadium. Rather than being a professional spy, Lee appears to be just a rather naive individual, passionate about supporting Hong Kong protesters, and perhaps motivated by achieving notoriety within Taiwan’s pro-independence community by bringing back evidence of an armed police buildup.
Monday’s program featured Cheng Yu-chin (鄭宇欽), with the evidence against him just as flimsy. During his filmed “confession,” Cheng claimed to be an aide to former Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) chairman Cho Jung-tai (卓榮泰). The DPP has said that Cheng was never employed as Cho’s aide.
Another supposed piece of evidence was that Cheng had written a thesis on the Chinese Ministry of State Security while studying at Tamkang University’s Graduate Institute of International Affairs and Strategic Studies.
Tuesday’s program featured Southern Taiwan Union of Cross-strait Relations Association chairman Tsai Chin-shu (蔡金樹) and retired National Taiwan Normal University professor Shih Cheng-ping (施正屏), both of whom went missing in 2018. The program claimed that they had been recruited by the Military Intelligence Bureau and National Security Bureau respectively, and were collecting “sensitive information.” It turns out that the sensitive information was publicly available: chicken feed.
To an outside observer, the propaganda campaign appears exceptionally clumsy. To a Chinese national without access to alternative news sources, the slickly produced “investigative journalism” format of the shows — which included interviews with pixelated security officials, a timeline of events and confiscated “evidence” — would seem credible.
In Lee’s case, the program seems designed to reinforce the idea that the unrest in Hong Kong is being fomented by Taiwanese provocateurs. The intention is to deflect criticism from Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) handling of the territory, and to blacken Taiwan’s reputation.
As with all high-profile show trials in China, the programs also sent a clear warning to the domestic audience: Big Brother is all-seeing and all-knowing. Foreign spies, dissidents or Taiwanese sympathizers who dare to challenge the party’s paramountcy will be rooted out, publicly humiliated and left to rot in jail.
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