Taiwan remain unperturbed when China launched missiles in its vicinity in 1996. The reason was official secrets provided by top-ranking PLA official Liu Liankun who was arrested and later executed by Chinese officials in 1999
New Delhi: Tensions between China and Taiwan are escalating with Beijing conducting large-scale military drills and missile strikes in the region.
Something similar to this happened between 21 July 1995 and 23 March 1996 in what was called the ‘Third Taiwan Strait Crisis.’ During this time, China conducted a series of missile tests near Taiwan raising fears of a Chinese invasion of the self-ruled island.
The crisis ended in a ceasefire without any serious military escalation and the credit has mostly been given to a Chinese spy working for Taiwan- Major General Liu Liankun.
He was eventually arrested, court-martialed and executed by the Chinese authorities through lethal injection in 1999. To date, he is considered the highest-ranking Chinese military official executed on charges of spying.
To understand the role played by Liu, it is important to know what led to the crisis and how it became so big that even the US Navy got involved.
Third Taiwan Strait Crisis
Just like in the current scenario, the crisis was preceded by a high-profile visit.
In this case, US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi became the highest-ranking American official to visit Taiwan in 25 years. Back in 1995, then-Taiwanese president Lee Teng-hui was all set to visit his alma mater Cornell University in the US.
China which considers Taiwan its territory and seeks to globally isolate the self-ruled island vehemently opposed the visit.
While the US doesn’t officially recognise Taiwan, it allowed Lee to visit Cornell in June 1995 sparking a ‘military response’ by Beijing.
The ‘response’ which involved missile firings, live ammunition exercises spilled into 1996 which was a crucial year for both Taiwan and the US.
Lee as well as then-US president Bill Clinton were seeking re-election.
By early 1996, Beijing’s message to the Taiwanese people was clear- Vote for Lee and you will have to fight a war with China.
Despite all the intimidation, the Taiwanese president remain unperturbed and on March 7 1996, he revealed the reason behind his calm.
Lee in a public address said that “Chinese missiles are not carrying any warheads.”
The statement turned out to be true and showed that Chinese military drills were only intimidation tactics and posed no real threat of an attack.
What Lee did not reveal was how he got this information. But Beijing began tracking down the source.
Liu who was confirmed as a spy by Taiwan in 2018, was found guilty of selling state secrets to Taiwan for at least $1.6 million, The Washington Post reported.
He was found guilty along with Senior Colonel Shao Zhengzhong on espionage charges. The colonel was also executed.
How did China manage to track down Liu and why did he spy for Taiwan?
The answers are not easy to find.
Despite the case being dubbed “China’s biggest spying scandal,” very little public information is available about Liu.
Born in 1933, in China’s Heilongjiang province, Liu was part of the PLA’s General Logistics Department. He is believed to have passed military secrets to Taiwan for five years. According to The Washington Post, investigators raided Liu’s home and found $500,000 and 900,000 yuan that he received from Taiwan.
Did Taiwanese president compromise the top spy’s identity?
In Taiwan, experts have often blamed Lee who won the re-election in 1996. The Taiwanese president was accused of compromising a spy’s security in a public address.
In his defence, Lee said that “his knowledge” about missiles led him to remark that China was launching unarmed projectiles.
But this did not help assuage the anger of the Taiwanese spy agency the Military Intelligence Bureau.
In 2000, intelligence officer Chang Chih-peng held a press conference claiming that Lee’s “careless remarks” had seriously compromised Taiwan’s intelligence network in China, the Taipei Times reported.
He later told the Taipei Times that a cassette tape with Liu’s voice helped China bust the spy network.
Why Liu spied for Taiwan
While, Liu was paid a hefty amount by Taiwan, the reason why the top military official became a spy was not limited to money.
According to The Washington Post, Liu helped the Taiwanese as he was irked with the PLA after being falsely implicated in an army corruption scandal.
The Voice of America, however, said that Liu was disillusioned with the PLA after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in which security forces brutally crushed anti-government protests.
Unlike the details of his life, Liu’s legacy is clear. He is a traitor in China and a hero in Taiwan where the Military Intelligence Bureau has displayed his statue at its memorial hall in Taipei.
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