Taiwan charges Chinese grad student with spying

A member of a pro-China group displays China's national flag in front of the Presidential Office Building in Taipei, Taiwan on June 26, 2017.
A member of a pro-China group displays China's national flag in front of the Presidential Office Building in Taipei, Taiwan on June 26, 2017. PHOTO: EPA

TAIPEI (AFP) - A Chinese graduate from one of Taiwan's top universities was charged with espionage on Thursday (July 6) as prosecutors accused him of attempting to recruit spies for Beijing.

The indictment comes as officials warn of growing intelligence threats from China at a time of increasingly frosty ties between Taipei and Beijing.

China still sees the island as part of its territory to be brought back into its fold even though Taiwan has been self-governing since the two sides split after a civil war in 1949.

Relations have worsened since Beijing-sceptic President Tsai Ing-wen came to power last May.

The Taipei District Prosecutors office said on Thursday that a man surnamed Zhou - who came to Taiwan to study in 2012 - violated the National Security Act.

Local media identified the man as Zhou Hongxu from Liaoning province in north-eastern China, who graduated from the National Chengchi University in Taipei last year.

Prosecutors said Zhou was recruited by a mainland official he had met at an event promoting cross-strait exchanges in Shanghai in July 2014. The official asked Zhou to build a spy network in return for remuneration.

Zhou was told to "introduce politicians, officials in the military, police, intelligence and diplomacy units and other influential people in society to Chinese local officials in destinations abroad", they said.

The Chinese government would pick up the tab for any meetings arranged with local mainland officials, to be held in locations abroad, Zhou was allegedly told.

Zhou then unsuccessfully attempted to recruit a Taiwanese official on multiple occasions between August 2016 and March this year, the prosecutors said.

The unidentified Taiwan official - who may have access to diplomatic documents - was reportedly told he could be paid as much as US$10,000 (S$13,900) a quarter if he agreed to work for the Chinese government.

Zhou also said he could arrange for the official to meet with mainland government representatives in Japan under the pretense of a holiday, according to the prosecutors.

National Security Bureau director-general Peng Sheng-chu said in Parliament in March that Chinese espionage is "more serious than before".

Local media reports claim that up to 5,000 people may be spying for China on the island.

Taiwan's Cabinet is seeking to tighten existing restrictions on travel to the mainland for former high-ranking Taipei officials to "protect national security and interest".

Cross-strait relations have rapidly deteriorated since the inauguration of President Tsai, who refuses to acknowledge that both sides are part of "one China". Beijing has cut all official communication with Taipei.