Asia Pacific | FOCUS

Pro-China groups step up offensive to win over Taiwan

by Yimou Lee and James Pomfret

Reuters

When Taiwanese businessman Jhang Yun-nan wanted to find buyers for his company’s new cleaning products in China, he turned to an unconventional channel: a Taiwanese party that advocates the unification of China with the self-ruled democratic island.

A senior member of the Chinese Unification Promotion Party said the group would “have a word” with officials from Guangdong’s Administration for Market Regulation to help Jhang’s China-based Yi Yuan Ji Biotechnology Co. — on one condition.

The member, Lin Guo-cing, told Jhang in the presence of Reuters that a “correct ideology” is needed to do business in China, touting access to dozens of Chinese officials in Guangdong.

“I support peaceful unification across the strait,” Lin told Reuters, echoing the view that CUPP expects Taiwan to embrace.

China views Taiwan as a wayward province to be brought under Beijing’s control, by force if necessary. The defeated Nationalist government fled to Taiwan in 1949 after losing a civil war with the Communists.

To assist with “reunification,” Beijing is cultivating networks of supporters in Taiwan and ramping up campaigns to lure Taiwanese people with lucrative business opportunities in exchange for backing Beijing’s agenda.

They see one key as convincing businessmen like Jhang that accepting that stance is a small price to pay for access to Chinese markets and other assistance.

The other is using pro-Beijing networks to build sympathy and support for the mainland. Wen Lung, a CUPP policy adviser, said the organization plans to hold seminars and rallies across the island to expand its “red troops.”

The Taiwanese government said such efforts are dangerous — but not illegal.

“Only by strengthening our laws can we strengthen our national security system,” said Chiu Chui-cheng, the deputy minister for Taiwan’s Ministry of Mainland Affairs, in an interview.

Chinese state agencies working toward unification include the Taiwan Affairs Office and the United Front Work Department, whose aim is to unify Taiwan by co-opting local groups and conducting influence operations against overseas campaigns contrary to China’s political agenda.

Internal documents from the two Chinese groups, including annual work reports and meeting minutes, that were reviewed by Reuters show a campaign centered around pro-China organizations in Taiwan, which were described as a “priority focus.”

“We will continue to enhance our support to pro-unification groups and figures in Taiwan, to reinforce and strengthen the force of ‘anti-independence’ within the island,” reads a passage in the 2016 work report from an arm of Taiwan Affairs Office in Shanghai.

In the neighboring province of Zhejiang, a United Front unit said in a 2016 internal report that it had deepened contacts with Taiwan groups through “active invitation” such as economic and cultural programs on the mainland.

During a visit to China in April 2016, the Taipei-based Alliance for the Reunification of China was “greatly praised” by a senior Chinese official for “advancing the great work of motherland reunification,” according to minutes from the Taiwan Democratic Self-Government League, one of the few nominally independent political groups permitted in China.

“Which country in the whole world would treat you as nice (as China does)? I would rather be a target of the United Front. At least they care about you, regardless of whether they are sincere or not,” said Lin, who in October joined the China Overseas Friendship Association, which is affiliated with the United Front.

The documents did not show any funding link between such groups and the Chinese government, but potential ties have raised concerns in Taipei.

Two officials working at a Taiwanese state security agency said the groups are “threats” to Taiwan.

A Taiwan security source said CUPP was at the top of his agency’s watch list because of its size — it has 60,000 members — and its ability to mobilize members.

“If there’s ever a war across the strait, they become a massive uncertainty, which is very terrifying,” the source said.

The home of CUPP leader Chang An-lo and the group’s headquarters in Taipei were raided by Taiwan authorities last August for suspected Chinese funding, an accusation they deny. It is illegal in Taiwan for political groups to take money from the Chinese government.

No one was charged in connection with the raid.

Chang, in an interview with Reuters in Taipei, said he did not take money from China. But he said it is vital for Taiwan to re-unify with the mainland.

“Our god is China,” Chang said in his office, which has a golden statue of former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. “In spirit, they definitely support us, but not materially.”

He and other unification advocates said they saw an opportunity to gain influence in the wake of President Tsai Ing-wen’s pro-independence ruling party’s recent poll defeat amid frustrations over its economic and cross-strait policy.

They say they want to steer the vote away from Tsai, who they say is nudging Taiwan toward formal independence, a red line for China. Taiwan’s presidential election will be next January.

Zhang Xiuye, a senior member of Taipei-based Chinese Concentric Patriotism Party, which promotes unification, said its priority this year is to bring to rural areas a message of “one country, two systems” as a model of autonomy for Taiwan, similar to Hong Kong’s system.

The China-friendly opposition party in Taiwan, Kuomintang (KMT), whose presidential primaries made front-page headlines in April after Foxconn Chairman Terry Gou joined the party’s highly competitive race, will have the support of CUPP and the Chinese Concentric Patriotism Party.

“We will concentrate our firepower to support KMT,” CUPP’s Wen said, citing KMT’s support for the 1992 consensus, an agreement that year by KMT and the Chinese Communist Party that both sides are part of “one China,” a cherished principle in Beijing.

KMT spokesman Dragon Ou-Yang said in an interview that the party welcomed such support.

“There’s a reason why pro-unification groups support KMT — we tackle cross-strait issues on an equal and reciprocal basis,” Ou-Yang said.

Pro-China groups have made a point of promoting business opportunities for Taiwanese youth in the island’s south, a demographic that has been labeled a “top priority” in the documents from the Chinese agencies.

More than 70 “entrepreneurship bases” aimed at Taiwanese startups were set up across China in 2016, according to a Reuters review of work reports from China’s Taiwan Affairs Office. They often include perks like cash and tax breaks.

One incubator was in Beijing, and an arm of the Taiwan Affairs Office concluded in a 2016 report, seen by Reuters, that the effort had contributed to “closer and dearer ties between the people in Beijing and Taiwan.”

Wen runs a similar campaign. He is recruiting Taiwan youth for a 5 million yuan ($725,000) project in Guangdong, in which he and several CUPP members won a 10-year contract with state-backed tax breaks to build an “agricultural entrepreneurship base,” including farms and hotels.

“It’s not a problem if they don’t support unification,” Wen said of Taiwanese people joining the project. “We want to earn their trust first and then their identity.”

For some Taiwanese, who have seen the average wage grow merely 3.5 percent in the past decade according to government data, the Chinese market is simply too good to miss.

31-year-old farmer Jhang Hong-si, who was once reluctant to work in China, is now a technology officer for Wen’s project, which is gearing up to sell produce to supermarkets in Hong Kong and Macau.

“I want to build a brand that belongs to the Chinese. They have the biggest market,” Jhang said.

“As long as we are ruled by Chinese — either the Chinese Communist Party or the KMT — it makes no difference to me.”