BEIJING (NYTIMES) - China has accused intelligence agencies in Taiwan of targeting mainland students on the island, drawing accusations of hypocrisy from Taipei as it investigates possible espionage by Beijing.
The accusations against Taiwan were first made on Saturday (Sept 12) by the state broadcaster China Central Television, and at least six other news outlets followed with reports on Sunday and Monday. They included The Global Times, a nationalist tabloid owned by the Communist Party's official newspaper.
The reports cited cases from as far back as 2011 and said that in addition to students, a hotel employee and a driver for a travel agency had been targeted to provide information.
The news reports come at a time of increased Chinese pressure on Taiwan, which China's Communist government has never ruled but claims as part of its territory. Taiwan is scheduled to hold local elections in November, which will weigh reactions to the first two years of President Tsai Ing-wen's leadership.
Beijing is hostile toward Ms Tsai, whose party is sceptical of closer ties with China, and it has stepped up pressure on the island since she took office, increasing its military activities near Taiwanese waters and airspace, and poaching some of Taiwan's few remaining allies.
In a statement on Sunday, Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council, which handles cross-strait policy, blasted China's accusations as hypocritical.
"Aside from strengthening its internal control requirements," the statement said, China "has also continually extended espionage activities beyond its borders."
"Taiwan calls on China to rein itself in from this precipice as quickly as it can," it added, "otherwise it will produce an even more unfavourable impact on cross-strait relations."
For seven decades, Beijing has sought to absorb Taiwan, where Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist government fled after losing the Chinese civil war. It has not renounced the use of force to achieve this goal.
Few in Taiwan are in favour of unification with China, which would in theory be under a "one country, two systems" arrangement similar to the one in Hong Kong, where the influence of the central government in Beijing is eroding local semiautonomy.
"Due to the presence of 'Taiwan independence' forces on the island, the Taiwan authorities have increased the number of spies that they have dispatched to the mainland, and their activities have become more frequent and arrogant," The Global Times article said.
"This makes our enemy situation on the hidden front more serious and the anti-espionage task more arduous."
The article also said the United States had "repeatedly tried to clash with the mainland's red line on the Taiwan issue, which may further destabilise the Taiwan straits."
With relations between the United States and Taiwan improving under the Trump and Tsai administrations, the Chinese state news media has increased its attacks on Taipei, declaring that Beijing would go to war over the island.
Ms Tsai briefly stopped in Houston and Los Angeles in August, despite vehement opposition from China, and received a slightly warmer reception than previous leaders of Taiwan had.
In a statement on Sunday, An Fengshan, spokesman for China's Taiwan affairs office, said that Chinese national security organs had started cracking down on possible espionage by Taiwan.
"We demand that the relevant parties in Taiwan immediately stop their infiltration and destruction of the mainland and avoid further damage to increasingly complex and serious cross-strait relations," Mr An was quoted by Xinhua, China's state-run news agency, as saying.
China-Taiwan relations had improved under the previous administration in Taipei, and educational exchanges progressively increased. Beginning in 2008, students from designated parts of China were allowed to study in Taiwan for up to a year, up from four months. A 2010 law then allowed Chinese undergraduates to pursue degrees in Taiwan, after the island provided some safeguards.
The number of nondegree-seeking Chinese students in Taiwan grew to 34,114 in 2015 from 823 in 2007, according to the Ministry of Education in Taipei. The number of Chinese studying for degrees rose to 7,813 in 2015 from 928 in 2011, the first year they were allowed to go to Taiwan.
In comparison, the number of students from Taiwan attending universities in mainland China was 10,536 in 2015, China Daily reported, citing Ministry of Education figures.
But China suspended official contact with Taiwan in 2016 over Ms Tsai's refusal to recognise the "one-China" principle, and last year Beijing halved the number of students allowed to study in Taiwan.
The Global Times, citing an unidentified national security official, said that students in the fields of politics, economics or national defence were the most frequent targets of Taiwan's spies, in the hope that they would gain important positions in mainland China with access to confidential files.
The article identified and published the photographs of three people it said were Taiwanese spies, two of whom it claimed worked for Taiwan's military intelligence bureau. It said they had befriended students before asking them to provide sensitive information from the mainland.
One of them initiated a sexual relationship, the article said, while another helped a student find people to interview for his thesis. A third entertained a political science student and her friends.
The article did not say if any of the three had been arrested.
In its statement on Sunday, the Mainland Affairs Council questioned the credibility of the Chinese accusations.
"How could average exchange students possess confidential materials and intelligence," it asked, "and what would an intelligence officer gain from setting a honey trap for them?"
The governments of China and Taiwan have spied on each other regularly since 1949. Taiwan is investigating recent allegations of Chinese espionage on its territory, with two high-profile cases involving fringe pro-unification parties.