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Taiwan on Monday sentenced a major-general to life imprisonment for spying for China, closing a chapter on the most high-profile cross-Strait espionage case in decades.
Lo Hsieh-che, who headed the Taiwan army command’s communications until he was arrested in February this year, was convicted of “conducting espionage activities for the enemy”, and five other counts of bribery.
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The military High Court sentenced Mr Lo to life imprisonment instead of the maximum death penalty because he had confessed to the charges during questioning, the ministry of national defence said in a press release.
Mr Lo was recruited by the Chinese in 2004 while stationed as a military attache in Thailand, and only came under suspicion at the end of last year, when the military was investigating a separate spy case involving a lower-ranking army official. The military maintains that the damage caused by Mr Lo’s spying activities was limited, but observers say that is unlikely given his high rank.
Mr Lo has 10 days to appeal the sentence. He could not be reached for comment.
China and Taiwan have long been political rivals. Beijing claims sovereignty over the island, which has been self-ruled since the Kuomintang party fled to Taiwan in 1949, after losing the civil war in China to the Communists.
Although relations have warmed between the two sides in the past three years, the spy case is a powerful reminder that old suspicions die hard and hostilities remain.
Recent developments have left some scholars and security experts in Taiwan worrying that the democratically ruled island is relaxing its guard against espionage attempts by communist China as cross-Strait economic and trade linkages grow.
York Chen, a professor at Tamkang university and a former senior adviser in Taiwan’s National Security Council, said China had not moderated its hostile military intentions towards Taiwan and warns against more spying attempts, especially as Taiwan last month began allowing individual Chinese tourists on to the island for the first time.
“China has no reason at all to reduce its covert operations against Taiwan, and now the [Taiwan] government is making such operations easier” by allowing Chinese citizens to roam freely on the island, he said.
There have already been several examples of suspected spying activities since Taiwan liberalised group tourism from China in 2009, he said.
In that year, a Chinese tourist was arrested after sneaking into a restricted area at an army recruitment centre, while earlier this year a bus full of Chinese tourists had entered an air force base during an “open day” and were turned away only after they had taken many photos of Taiwanese military planes.
“China will use any and all opportunities to place more spies on the ground in Taiwan”, said Wendell Minnick, Asia bureau chief of Defence News and a long-time observer of the Taiwan military. “This includes using tourist visas.”
Taiwan’s military has long warned against Chinese espionage, though its national security bureau said it had taken appropriate steps to guard against Chinese spies masquerading as tourists.
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