Men in black

Why a TV spy drama may indicate warming ties with Taipei

Men in black

Full of dramatic betrayals

It was early 1948, China was in the endgame of its civil war and Communist forces were poised to take Beijing. But Mao first needed to defeat his arch-foe, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, who held court in Nanjing as the leader of the Republic of China and its Nationalist Kuomintang government.

So the Communists turned to master spies. In one major success, they managed to infiltrate Chiang’s ‘’wireless administration bureau’’ in Shanghai. Suddenly Mao could read the Nationalists’ mail.

The rest is more or less history, although it is being revisited again today, as the inspiration for the latest hit TV series Before Dawn.

WiC has written extensively on the Chinese love of spy stories (WiCs 2, 13, 33 and 64). It’s clearly a well-trodden genre, although that doesn’t seem to have dimmed enthusiasm for the latest TV offering.

What sets Before Dawn apart, critics say, is that it refers only obliquely to larger politics. Rather, the series focuses on relations between two men, who, despite their different ideologies, share a friendship.

Liu Xinjie (played by Wu Xiubo) is the Communist mole planted in the Kuomintang’s intelligence department. The commissioner of the department, Tan Zhongshu (Lin Yongjian) treats Liu like his own brother, as the two had previously fought together against the Japanese. But as Tan begins the hunt to find the informer, he has to face the truth that the man he trusts most is betraying him.

It’s something of a surprise that a Chinese television series is showing someone linked to the Kuomintang in a positive light, says the Beijing Times. In the past, the Nationalists have more usually been portrayed as heartless and corrupt. But Before Dawn strikes a different chord: Tan is a man of integrity and loyalty. Time and again, he questions Liu’s identity, but in the end he chooses to look the other way.

Could the series offer a subtle subtext on cross-strait relations? Zeng Zihang, a well-known culture critic, writes in his blog: “The brotherly bond [between Tan and Liu] is like the relationship of Kuomintang and Communist. Even though the Nationalists exited in this stage of history (by retreating to Taiwan), there is still a strong bond between the two.”

That strengthens suspicions that the TV series may reflect Beijing’s ongoing charm offensive towards Taiwan – once relentlessly denounced as a renegade province. In June, China and Taiwan signed the wide-ranging Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement, or ECFA, which removed many barriers to trade and investment (see WiC67).

Still, despite signs of rapprochement, real life cases of espionage also lay bare the ongoing distrust that persists on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.

One recent case, described by Taiwanese media as the highest level of espionage in the past 20 years, involved Colonel Lo Chi-cheng, a senior officer in the Military Intelligence Bureau (MIB), Taiwan’s CIA. Lo, in charge of building Taiwan’s human intelligence network in China, was later found to be providing intelligence to mainland counterparts, including the names of Taiwanese agents stationed in China, the Taipei Times reports. Prosecutors believe that Lo leaked classified information on at least 12 occasions, and in return received $100,000 in payments.

In February this year, Taiwanese prosecutors also detained two MIB retirees for spying for China. Taiwan’s Apple Daily reported that the suspects went to live in China after they retired from the MIB in 2006, but continued to work for the bureau on the mainland. They also began passing information to Chinese agents. The arrests, says the Jamestown Foundation’s China Brief, prompted a high-ranking official in the MIB to issue a memo warning retired agents to “never go to China”.

Not much sign of repprochement there.

“China still actively uses various channels and methods to collect information from us,” says Chang Kan-ping, MIB head. “Some of our work partners were questioned, arrested or detained when going there.”

Perhaps Before Dawn is not so far-fetched, after all.

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