Wednesday, Mar 29, 2017, 7:05 PM CST – China

History

Spies in Taiwan

LOST LEGENDS

A resurgence of interest in the fates of Communist Party spies in Taiwan in the 1940s and 50s has elicited plenty of nostalgia, but little introspection

Xiao Minghua graduated from Beijing Normal University in 1948

Xiao Minghua’s last letter to her family

On August 25, China’s State Council proposed to declare September 30 “Martyrs’ Day,” stating that that date should be devoted to honoring China’s war dead.

“To forget the past is a kind of betrayal,” said Major General Luo Yuan of the China Strategy Culture Promotion Association in an exclusive interview with political news portal thepaper.cn.

The State Council announcement triggered discussion of China’s millions of 20th century war dead, many of whom have gone largely unacknowledged beyond the monolithic Monument to the People’s Heroes in Tiananmen Square, the nation’s catch-all cenotaph.

When a photo album depicting former Communist Party of China (CPC) spies on Taiwan emerged online, their story became part of the national discussion. These Communist agents, most of whom were eventually executed by the Kuomintang (KMT) after feeding information directly to Beijing for years, were frequently described as heroes worthy of recognition. Doubtless the Kuomintang would say something similar about the agents who caught them.

According to public historical records, over 1,500 CPC agents left the mainland for Taiwan before the founding of the People’s Republic of China to “continue the fight” against the KMT, which had withdrawn to the island after losing the Chinese Civil War. These agents were all swiftly exposed by KMT counterespionage, and were summarily executed.

As the Chinese authorities keep a tight lid on all records of their spy networks, many of the names of these individuals have, until now, been unknown. Although the remains of their commander Xiao Minghua were returned to the mainland in the 1980s, the records of their deeds have largely remained sealed. Now, a new generation is learning about how the Party attempted to overthrow Chiang Kai-shek’s new regime on Taiwan through espionage, a tale that has elicited nostalgia for the heady early days of the New China.

Sleeper Cell

According to student files kept by Beijing Normal University, Xiao Minghua’s alma mater, the young Xiao was deeply influenced by Western democratic theory and political economics, finding particular inspiration under the tutelage of lecturer Zhu Fangchun who was himself a Communist Party mole using the alias Yu Fei.

Zhu recommended Xiao to join the Party in September 1947, two years before the end of the civil war, and Xiao later accepted an offer of a post at Taiwan University with the intention of working as a sleeper agent for the CPC. That same year, Zhu also went to Taiwan on the pretext of joining the editorial team of the local Mandarin Daily News, but with the actual intention of spying for Beijing.

With their daily work largely unremarkable, Xiao and Zhu joined forces to hold lectures on the CPC’s definition of libertarianism and democracy. These lectures were a front for recruiting other secret agents, and soon the pair had committed 60 members to their cause.

The growing popularity and influence of the group convinced underground CPC spy rings already active on the island to approach Xiao and Zhu. The group was renamed The Youth League for the New Democracy of Taiwan, and, for all intents and purposes, was a tool of the CPC’s espionage apparatus. The pair even entered into a sham marriage in order to facilitate their work, with Xiao allegedly claiming that she would “do anything for the Party.” Both agreed to sever all ties with family on the mainland.

Deployment

Since the end of the 1940s, the CPC had made several attempts to subvert KMT control of Taiwan. KMT agents regularly netted CPC spies, but Beijing still managed to penetrate the heart of Chiang Kai-shek’s shaky new regime. Commander Li Kenong, at the time the highest-level agent working on the mainland, inserted agents into Chiang’s immediate circle, and soon military intelligence was being passed directly to the CPC Central Military Commission.

Xiao and Zhu’s team were instrumental in securing vital information on Taiwan’s topography for use in what both sides assumed was an imminent invasion by People’s Liberation Army (PLA) forces - at the time, most mainland maps of the island were outdated and inaccurate. A Japanese map, however, drawn up during that country’s almost century-long occupation of Taiwan, was so detailed that individual houses, trees and streams were indicated, with particular emphasis given to defensive structures.

The map was kept under KMT guard, with clearance from Chiang’s Chief of the General Staff a precondition for access. Moreover, the map was kept in a sealed room with its two-part key kept by three Chiefs of Staff in turn.

However, at the time, one of Chiang’s chiefs of staff was on the CPC payroll. One day, he managed to secure both parts of the key to the map room after the other keeper went on temporary leave and privately gave his part to him. With his help, three members of Xiao’s team, posing as reporters, managed to enter the map room and photograph the map. However, their lack of experience with low-light photography left them with fuzzy, indistinct images.

Under pressure from Beijing, the team resorted to a desperate tactic. Their mole stole the map and, along with Zhu Fangchun, took it to a local photo studio, where they posed as military officials and asked the photographer to take rostrum camera images of the map, claiming it was a “military emergency.” Despite adopting this somewhat farcical, some might say suicidal, approach, Zhu had completed his mission.

Exposure

It took three months before Zhu could safely pass the photographs on to his superior Li Kenong. However, by that point, both men were already on the run. The CPC’s head of espionage on Taiwan, Cai Xiaoqian, had been arrested, and after a few days in an interrogation room, he had revealed most of the active cells on the island, even providing investigators with a list naming almost a thousand individual agents. Zhu’s cover was blown. 

With Beijing threatening to take back Taiwan and with Chiang still struggling to consolidate his power, the KMT was taking no chances. Within weeks, military police had arrested over 1,800 CPC members based on the list. 1,100 of these were finally executed, including the mole inserted into the KMT, and Xiao Minghua. This single cull effectively eliminated the CPC’s presence on Taiwan.

According to records published by Shanghai Scene magazine, Xiao knew that she and her “husband” were under suspicion, but remained behind to allow him a better chance of escape. At around midnight on February 6, 1950, Xiao was arrested at the home she shared with Zhu Fangchun by KMT officers.

Xiao spent 278 days in prison, where she was tortured by having her arms and legs broken, but records indicate she refused to give up any of her fellow spies. At 5 AM on November 8, she was taken from her cell and killed by firing squad. Her (unverified) last words were: “Long live the Communist Party of China!” She was 28.

Some 30 scraps of writing that Xiao had produced while awaiting her execution still survive. Most are her desire to the freedom and political paeans to the Communist cause, giving a glimpse into the depth of conviction possessed by many Chinese at the time.

The Lost Legend

In September 1982, Xiao Minghua was confirmed as a “revolutionary martyr” by the Chinese government, and her cremated remains were interred in Beijing’s Babaoshan Revolutionary Cemetery. Her tombstone was inscribed with calligraphy penned by Zhu Fangchun - three characters meaning “finally return home.”

Li Kenong has spent his twilight years visiting the families of the agents he lost in the 1940s and 50s. He also wrote a letter to the central government, asking the Party to “take good care of these agents’ family members to console their departed souls.”

In 2013, the Chinese government built a memorial plaza for the heroes who died for the New China, however Xiao Minghua’s name did not appear on the 864 listed. Thanks to a heavily restricted attitude to recording its own history, the victims of the Chinese Civil War and its aftermath have more often than not vanished from public memory.

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