Wednesday, May 27, 2009

PRC Spy or Clumsy Tourist?

One year when I was in India, long before I ever came to Taiwan, a friend of mine and I took a boat ride through the harbor of Bombay (ironically there was a Taiwanese film crew on board compiling an India travelogue). As the boat crossed the harbor, the guide indicated a direction and said we couldn't photograph off to that side. I took that as an invitation and immediately took several photographs....

The Taipei Times reported today that a PRC citizen who took photos at a military base in Taipei was arrested. AFP reported that he had been released, but the Taipei Times report said he had been taken into custody....
Military police had detained the tourist, Ma Zhongfei (馬中飛), chairman of a high-tech company in China, for taking photos of military property at the Armed Forces Recruitment Center in Taipei. He was placed under arrest late on Monday night and detained for questioning.

Taipei prosecutors said they transferred the case to the Taiwan High Court Prosecutors’ Office at midnight on Monday because the case fell under the High Court’s jurisdiction.

Prosecutor Tseng Chiun-che (曾俊哲) yesterday took Ma back to the recruitment center to question him about the exact locations where he had taken photos and where he had aimed his camera.

This would be important in determining Ma’s reasons for taking the photos, prosecutors said.

Ma told prosecutors that he came to Taiwan on a nine-day tour and had planned to return to China today.

He left his tour group on Monday afternoon saying he was going to Sindian (新店) in Taipei County to pay his respects to a deceased Taiwanese friend. As he traveled along Keelung Road, he stopped at the recruitment center and took some pictures.
There's a story going around that the firm that invited him is just an empty desk, but I haven't been able to confirm it. It doesn't really seem believable that a PRC spy could be so clumsy. The real threat isn't from tourists taking photos of facilities, but from PRC sabotage experts, prostitutes, gangsters, and the like. The PRC already has much better information on Taiwan's defense network than any tourist photos could provide -- although it is true that lax security at Taiwan's military facilities is often identified by outsiders as a signficant problem. As Lawrence Eyton wrote seven years ago....
It also follows the release of an alarming statistic by the Ministry of National Defense according to which more than 3,000 former Taiwan military officers are now either doing business or working in "consultancies" in mainland China.
And of course, at least one of the political parties on Taiwan has formed an alliance with the CCP...

UPDATE: J Michael has an awesome post on this. Note that the alleged tourist has been released on his own recognizance and is free to return to China.

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Unknown said...

I would've titled it, "Ma detained on suspicion of spying for China" but you obviously have greater self discipline.

Gilman Grundy said...

This story does look very suspicious, it could hardly be that this guy could be unaware that taking photographs of military facilities is more than a bit of no-no, especially given the restrictions on photography near military facilities (of which there is an incredibly broad definition) on the mainland. You're also quite correct to point out that the PRC hardly needs to use tourists to gather information.

That said:

1) The 3,000 former ROC officers working on the mainland are almost certainly almost entirely those who switched to working in the engineering/manufacturing etc. sector after leaving the military and now work on the mainland. Hell, my boss at Foxconn was a former officer in the ROC army, that doesn't mean he's selling military secrets. Former senior officers and MND officials are a different matter though.

2) Once again with the old 'alliance' dig. Needless to say that there has been no proof of any such deal - only of talks. Simply having talks does not mean that an alliance has been negotiated, any more than the visits of DPP representatives to the mainland does.

TicoExpat said...

What about if this was a "dare"? You know, like the guy who wrote his name on the stone and was hailed in his Chinese hometown? What if it is more an expression of contempt and disrespect towards Taiwan, that will earn them praise when they go back?

Wait until one of them sits on CKS lap for a pic or pulls any other silly antic with a party symbol. Then we'll have a reaction. (I hope so, if even that doesn't make them jump, we're in trouble)

Tommy said...

From what I have read, China does use its citizens as low-grade spies in many countries. They are not used to get info on maximum security facilities. They simply accumulate boring photos and random data that, when assembled together, gives a very useful broad and updated picture of an element of the country in question.

This might have been one of those "spies" who got unlucky. Or, he might simply be some nationalistic sot who thought he would be doing the motherland some good by bringing back some photos that he thought his country would need. Bluntly put, he might just be a wannabe spy.

I don't buy the fact that he was ignorant though. I have never been to a country that allowed tourists to take photos of military bases and that did not make it clear when tourists were approaching restricted areas.