Spy scandal rocks Taiwan ahead of weekend elections
Allegations in the Australian media that a Chinese spy was pressured to smear the Taiwanese ruling party with bribery charges has prompted accusations of meddling in the Taiwanese election.
The island of 23 million is already on high alert for any signs of Chinese interference in its presidential and legislative polls on Saturday, amid mounting fears of targeted disinformation campaigns to undermine Tsai Ing-wen, the incumbent president who Beijing deeply mistrusts. China denies trying to do so.
In the latest allegations of dirty tricks, reported in The Age, Wang Liqiang, a self-confessed Chinese intelligence operative seeking to defect to Australia, was warned in December that he could be sent back to China and killed if he did not publicly recant his story.
In November, Mr Wang sparked an international furore by claiming that he had worked for a Beijing-directed operation to target independence and democracy movements in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and to promote Communist Party influence.
Beijing immediately dismissed his story and said he was a convicted criminal, and Taiwan’s main opposition party, the Kuomintang (KMT), whom Wang said Beijing was supporting, has strongly denounced the claims, as has Han Kuo-yu, its presidential candidate.
The KMT favours stronger trade ties with China although it maintains it will not do so at the cost of Taiwanese sovereignty. The island, which China claims as its own territory and threatens to annex, functions as a de facto independent nation.
However, the Australian Security Intelligence Operation issued an earlier rare statement to say it took the claims of foreign interference seriously.
Security agencies later uncovered a list of threats against Mr Wang on Christmas Eve, the Age reported.
He was allegedly asked to recant his accusations by Alex Tsai, a senior KMT official, and directly threatened by a Chinese businessman.
He was reportedly told that his family would be spared punishment if he backtracked on his spy claims.
It is also claimed he was provided with a script and told to record a video message in which he would falsely claim that Taiwan’s governing Democratic Progressive Party had bribed him to lie with “a large sum of money.”
Speaking to reporters in Taipei, Alex Tsai, the KMT official named in the story, confirmed he had spoken to Mr Wang, but denied threatening him or offering inducements. “It has nothing to do with Taiwan’s elections,” he stressed.
"Wang Liqiang is not a spy. That is sure,” he said, claiming that he had contacted Mr Wang to negotiate to clear the name of a Chinese businessman he had implicated in his espionage accusations.
“Both are not Communist spies. Some people say that they're spies working to infiltrate Taiwan, but they've got the wrong person. It's a serious violation of human rights,” he said.
The DPP, which has repeatedly warned throughout the election campaign that China wants to impose authoritarian rule on Taiwan, expressed shock over the controversy and accused Mr Tsai of not revealing the whole truth. “This is an international scandal,” Kuan Bi-ling, a DPP legislator said.
In Australia, the federal police force told local media that it was “aware of threats made against a man currently residing in Australia.” A spokesman added: "The AFP takes threats of this nature seriously and has commenced an investigation."