CCTV Airs Disappeared Taiwan Citizens’ Confessions, War Games

In a three-part documentary series focused on Taiwanese , CCTV program Focus Talk broadcast the likely forced confessions of four Taiwanese citizens: Lee Meng-chu, Cheng Yu-chin, Tsai Chin-shu, and Shih Cheng-ping. All four had disappeared after visits to the mainland between 2018 and 2019. The airing of Lee, Cheng, Tsai, and Shih’s confessions are part of what Beijing calls operation “Thunder 2020,” a crackdown on a purported Taipei-organized spy ring. Taiwanese leaders have condemned the aired confessions in the strongest terms, calling them “malignant,” “unbecoming of a world power,” and “a smear campaign.”

An AFP report detailed the allegations against Lee Meng-chu:

A Taiwanese man detained in China and accused of endangering national security appeared on Chinese television on Sunday evening, “confessing” to illegally filming military exercises in a city bordering Hong Kong during protests there last year.

[…] Relatives of Lee Meng-chu had said he went missing after crossing from Hong Kong into Shenzhen on 19 August, 2019.

[…] At the time, thousands of Chinese military police had gathered in a stadium in Shenzhen for exercises with armoured vehicles. The manoeuvres had fuelled speculation that China was going to deploy its forces to intervene in the Hong Kong unrest.

[…] According to CCTV, he went to Shenzhen for the sole purpose of observing the manoeuvres.

He reportedly shot 16 videos and took 48 photos around the stadium. After he shared some on the internet, he was reportedly arrested by state security. [Source]

The 2019 troop buildup in Shenzhen was so noticeable that in the days before Lee’s arrest, news agencies as diverse as the South China Morning Post, Business Insider, Space.com, and Financial Times all ran stories on the topic. On the day of Lee’s arrest The New York Times ran a story featuring extensive footage of the PLA troops videotaped by Reuters.

The South China Morning Post’s Sarah Zheng reported on Cheng Yu-chin’s televised confession, the second in the CCTV series:

Cheng Yu-chin, who previously taught at Charles University in the Czech Republic, was shown on state broadcaster CCTV on Monday evening addressing accusations that he had engaged in Taiwanese independence activities and spied for Taiwanese intelligence agencies.

In the programme, Cheng was said to have been an aide to former Democratic Progressive Party chairman Cho Jung-tai and was accused of using a research institute he established in Prague as a cover to gain intelligence on China and of working to hurt Chinese diplomatic relations in Europe. Cho on his official Facebook account denied that Cheng was ever his assistant.

Taiwan’s relations with the Czech Republic have been in the spotlight after Czech senate speaker Milos Vystrcil travelled to the island in late August, the most senior politician from the central European country to do so in 16 years. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi threatened that Vystrcil would “pay a heavy price” for his actions, and Beijing later issued a travel warning for the Czech Republic amid the tensions. [Source]

Central News Agency, a Taiwanese state-owned media organization, outlined the charges laid against Tsai Chin-she and Shih Cheng-ping in the third part of the documentary:

In the latest episode of CCTV’s three-part “Taiwanese spies” series, Southern Taiwan Union of Cross-strait Relations Association Chairman Tsai Chin-shu (蔡金樹) and retired National Taiwan Normal University professor Shih Cheng-ping (施正屏) confessed on camera to collecting intelligence on China for the Taiwanese authorities for years.

[… Tsai] established an online news website to facilitate contacts with Chinese scholars, which enabled him to learn inside information about the Chinese government and pass the “intelligence” to the MIB in exchange for NT$5 million (US$174,429), the program alleged.

[…] As a renowned scholar, Shih was able to attend cross-strait academic conferences in China. From 2005-2018, he collected confidential information concerning the Chinese government, including Beijing’s One-Belt One Road initiative, which he passed to the NSB in exchange for NT$1.6 million, according to the program. [Source]

CCTV’s habit of airing coerced confessions has led to investigations by U.K. regulators and condemnation by international rights groups. A landmark 2018 report by the advocacy group Safeguard Defenders explored how choreographed admissions of guilt were used to shape Chinese propaganda.

In a blog post this week, Safeguard Defenders analyzed the possible political messages behind the airing of Lee Meng-chu’s confession:

Our research on the type of confession script that foreign victims were typically forced to read also indicated that those featuring foreigners appear to be directed at a foreign audience and aimed at countering criticism or to threaten an overseas government.

While the documentary was likely to appeal to a nationalistic domestic audience, who have an appetite for seeing Beijing taking firm control of the Taiwan issue, as a prime time show, it was also clearly aimed at attracting Taiwan media attention.

The message here came in the last few minutes, with a warning that pro-independence Taiwanese who violate Hong Kong’s national security law could be sentenced from three years to life in prison.

The timing of the documentary was no coincidence. Bearing in mind that Chinese authorities have had Lee for more than a year, the confession was released a day after Taiwan’s national day and while relations across the strait are tenser than normal due to warming ties between Taiwan and the US and Taiwan’s voice of support for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement.[Source]

Cross-strait relations have been so tense in recent weeks that international news organizations have devoted significant coverage to the possibility of war. In Taiwan, a retired lieutenant colonel was convicted of trying to spy for Beijing and sentenced to four years imprisonment; however, he remains free and can appeal the ruling. “Double Ten,” the October 10 anniversary of the 1911 Wuchang uprising which overthrew the Qing Dynasty, is the Republic of China’s national day and a politically sensitive event for the CCP. “Don’t say we didn’t warn you 勿谓言之不预也,” read a People’s Daily commentary published five days after the Taiwanese holiday. Global Times, a state-run tabloid, explained the history of the phrase:

”Don’t say we didn’t warn you.” China’s national newspaper the People’s Daily addressed intelligence agents on the island of Taiwan in a commentary published on Thursday, urging them to cease rampant spying activities on the Chinese mainland or face consequences.

The latest warning came after China’s state security department uncovered hundreds of Taiwan espionage cases against the Chinese mainland under its “Thunder-2020” operation.

“Don’t say we didn’t warn you” was originally a Qing Dynasty phrase, and has become a key phrase used by Chinese official media as the most severe warning previously issued before shots were fired in military operations. The phrase has been used several times before, such as in 1962 and 1978, not long before China’s military operations against provocations by Indian and Vietnamese troops, respectively. [Source]

For The Washington Post, Gerry Shih connected the airing of Lee Meng-chu’s confession with CCTV’s broadcast of a mock-military invasion of Taiwan:

With tensions soaring in the Taiwan Strait, China responded to Taiwanese overtures for dialogue by releasing new footage showing a large-scale military exercise simulating an invasion and a purported confession from a Taiwanese businessman held captive in China on spying charges.

The double-barreled release by the influential China Central Television late Saturday and Sunday signaled a hard line from Beijing on the same weekend that Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen offered conciliatory remarks expressing a desire to hold talks as fears grow that China’s increasing threats toward Taiwan could spill over into military action.

[…] China quickly dismissed Tsai’s outreach. Hours after her speech, CCTV released a two-minute 30-second video and report of a “multidimensional” drill off China’s southeastern coast featuring amphibious landing craft, attack helicopters and land-based missiles. The segment was the most extensive in a recent string of Chinese propaganda videos, featuring stirring music and quick cuts, warning that the military could attack if Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) did not recognize a diplomatic formulation that regards China and Taiwan as part of a single country or if Taipei deepened its relationship with its military and diplomatic backer, the United States. [Source]

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