There are presidential elections in Taiwan tomorrow. Enabling re-unification with China is one of the principal goals of the Chinese intelligence services (CSS). China is not strong enough to achieve this by military means, so influence operations are the main hope. Undermining the current president, Tsai Ing-wen, would be a major step forward for China. The Taiwanese are aware of this and this has led to a degree of paranoia in certain sections of the Taiwanese population.

In November, Wang Liqiang, a Chinese “businessman”, caused a minor storm when he sought political asylum in Australia and claimed that he had been recruited by Chinese intelligence services to undermine democracy movements in Taiwan and Hong Kong. In return, the Chinese claimed that he was a convicted fraudster who had fled the country and was simply spinning a tale in order to get asylum. The evidence is conflicting. ASIO officially commented that it was taking his allegations seriously, but went no further than that. Tsai Ing-wen ordered Taiwanese security services to investigate as a matter of urgency, but then this suits her re-election campaign. In contrast, experienced Taiwanese intelligence officers have cast doubt on details in Wang’s story saying that they do not fit usual CSS practice.

Two days ago, the story took a further twist. Australian publication The Age claimed that Wang had been forced to recant his story on video by Chinese agents who told him that he would be killed if he did not. The two agents are supposedly Alex Tsai, deputy secretary of the Kuomintang party (generally seen as pro-China and the opposition to President Tsai) and a Chinese businessman named Sun. The Age quoted an anonymous source who claimed that Australian security officials are investigating. If the allegations are found to be true this would further assist President Tsai – and Wang’s asylum application.

We have spoken to someone with experience of Chinese operational methods. She doubted the veracity of the story. She cannot see what the Chinese could hope to gain by such threats since they are so easy to expose. The story is possible, but, on balance, it is more likely to be a slur for personal and political ends.

We will not know for sure until either ASIO or the Australian Federal Police comments officially.

Update: Tsai was returned with a thumping majority in a clear snub to China. What part Wang’s story had in stirring up anti-Chinese feeling is unclear.

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