The role Taiwan’s criminal gangs play in China’s unification agenda is in the spotlight over a recent clash between Taiwanese students trying to stop a cross-strait pop concert in Taipei, the “Sing! China: Shanghai-Taipei Music Festival,” and members of Taiwan’s Chinese Unity Promotion Party (CUPP) that left students injured.
The CUPP is headed by “White Wolf” Chang An-le, a former leader of Taiwan’s notorious Bamboo Union gang, who does not hide his loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party. Chang spent years in exile in China, returned to Taiwan in 2013 and has been working for unification since. His son, Chang Wei, was one of the CUPP members attacking the students.
Prior to the latest incident, the CUPP had shown its ugly side during the anti-unification Sunflower student movement in 2014, at protests by anti-unification high-school students against the Ministry of Education in 2015 and at an attack against Hong Kong democracy activist Joshua Wong when he visited Taipei in January.
A phenomenon since the beginning of this decade, black-clad gang members usually form the unofficial security detail for Chinese delegations visiting the island.
Gang members have always been involved in Taiwanese politics for financial gain as opposed to a display of political affiliation, but it’s new that Taiwan’s government is openly speaking about China’s manipulation of organized crime groups on the island.
Following media reports alleging that the Chinese Ministry of State Security in Xiamen in Fujian Province established an intelligence operations center for political warfare and covert espionage activities that supports organized crime groups in Taiwan, Taiwan’s Minister of the Interior Yeh Jiunn-rong vowed to deal with the matter.
This comes amid China stepping up its military movements near Taiwan, with Chinese jets and ships now circling the island on a routine basis, in an effort to heap more pressure onto Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party to recognize that the island is part of China.
“The government will not tolerate such manipulation and the infiltration of Taiwan’s democratic society from abroad,” Yeh said at a legislative hearing. “We are resolved to take action and face the problem, and will conduct a full and in-depth investigation.”
According to the Taiwanese daily Liberty Times, the Xiamen office is tasked with monitoring Taiwanese organized crime groups that have business and other activities in China, with the aim of recruiting and manipulating the groups into working for the Chinese side.
The report also claims that the office has successfully built up a good working relationship with the Bamboo Union as well as with its peer, the Four Seas Gang.
The office allegedly is supporting Chang and the Bamboo Union with RMB5 million (US$750,000) and RMB30 million a year respectively to fund their activities in Taiwan.
In the aftermath of the “Sing! China: Shanghai-Taipei Music Festival” incident, investigators said they had identified people associated with the CUPP who form the core of a semi-paramilitary unit controlled by the Bamboo Union.
Police arrested dozens of Bamboo Union and Four Seas Gang members, confiscating their weapon depots containing homemade bombs, handguns, bullets and other weapons.
According to Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS University of London’s China Institute, China will use “patriotic” gangs to attempt to influence politics in Taiwan as it has done in Hong Kong, but the effectiveness of such efforts remains to be seen.
He noted that so far there is no real evidence of gangsters creating fear among Taiwanese politicians and their families in an effort to affect their cross-strait stance to the benefit of China’s unification agenda.
As to whether these gangs could eventually play the role pro-Russian militias played in the Ukraine, enabling China to start a proxy war within Taiwan and thereby avoiding getting its regular military directly involved, Tsang believes that while anything is possible, Beijing’s objective over Taiwan is different from that of Russia in Ukraine, as it wants the whole of Taiwan, unlike the Russians who meant to pocket parts of the Ukraine only.
“But Beijing can be expected to get help from the gangs if it should use force against Taiwan,” Tsang said. “This is not so different from the other forms of infiltration that Beijing would employ anyway.”
Rick Fisher, senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center, for his part, pointed at a new book, The Chinese Invasion Threat by Ian Easton, a China affairs analyst with the Project 2049 Institute.
The book outlines how China could invade Taiwan across the 180-km. Taiwan Strait perhaps in the early 2020s and argues that China is currently on a stage of using non-lethal means – psychological, diplomatic, propaganda and informational warfare – and once these are exhausted, the plan for large-scale amphibious assault could be carried out.
According to Fisher, China will likely use many possible subversive groups to assist their future invasion including criminal gangs, Chinese-controlled businesses, Chinese students and Chinese tourists.
“An invasion across the Taiwan Strait requires so much just plain luck that for the People’s Liberation Army any tool that can increase their chances of success means they will use it,” Fisher said. “Given that so much could go wrong beyond their control, there is no doubt that the PLA will use a broad range of subversive groups to assist their invasion operations.”
Jens Kastner (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a longtime regular contributor from Taiwan to Asia Sentinel