Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The strange case of the tourist who spied

Ma Zhongfei (馬中飛), the Chinese tourist who on Monday was arrested on charges of spying on a military facility in downtown Taipei, was released on his own recognizance by the Taiwan High Prosecutors Office on Tuesday. Prosecutors also did not bar him from leaving the country. Here’s the little we know about the case: Ma, who is reported to be chairman of a “high-tech” company in China, was apparently invited by a Taiwanese “firm” to visit Taiwan for nine days. On Monday afternoon, Ma reportedly left a group of Chinese tourists at Taipei 101 and somehow found his way to the Armed Forces Recruitment Center on Keelung Road in Taipei. Ma claims he was going to Sindian (新店), Taipei County, to pay his respects to a deceased Taiwanese friend.

Ma entered the computer warfare command area — a restricted area — through a back door and began taking pictures. Soon afterwards, he was apprehended by guards and the case was transferred to the prosecutors’ office. Accompanied by prosecutors, he then went back to the recruitment center, where he was asked to “reconstruct” his activities.

The odd bits and holes:

Ma apparently walked down Keelung Road to the recruitment center, about 2km from Taipei 101. His purported destination, Sindian, is about 10km from the skyscraper, which means that it would take more than one hour by foot to get there. As Chinese tourists have yet to be allowed to go off on their own (aside from free time at locations such as Taipei 101), there is no way Ma would have been able to rejoin his group before it moved elsewhere, especially if he had walked. The recruitment center, meanwhile, is located next to the Liuzhangli MRT station on the Muzha Line (brown). From there, Ma would have had to take the MRT down to Zhongxiao Fuxing and transfer onto the Banan Line (blue) to Taipei Main Station, and thence transfer onto the Xindian Line (green). If his aim was indeed to go to Sindian, it would have been far more efficient for him to walk from Taipei 101 to Taipei City Hall (about five minutes) and take the MRT there directly to Taipei Main Station and transfer onto the green line. (Ma never mentioned taking a bus.)

At this writing, prosecutors have yet to confirm whether Ma’s camera was seized, or if the contents were erased. They have also been less than forthcoming with regards to the name of the high-tech firm where Ma is purportedly chairman (reporters also didn’t seem to bother asking). A Boolean search on the Internet ([“Ma + Zhongfei”] + chairman) returned the following:

Ma Zhongfei, Board Chairman of the silver branch of the China Chamber of Commerce of Metals, Minerals & Chemicals Importers & Exporters (CCCMC) and General Manager of Precious Metals Dept. of China Minmetals Nonferrous Metals Co., Ltd). [Information dates from October 2005. It is impossible to determine whether the two individuals are the same.]

Searches in Chinese were to no avail. As CCCMC is not a high-tech sector company, I kept looking and used other venues. I was eventually able to gather the following:

The name of the company where Ma is believed to be chairman can be loosely translated as Guangdong Sikeda Technologies Co Ltd (廣東思科達信息技術有限公司). I have so far been unable to locate the company Web site.

Why did Ma do what he did?

At this point, Ma’s behavior raises many possibilities:

(a) He acted alone and was misguided into believing he could access a restricted area;
(b) He acted alone and, out of curiosity, sought to test guards at a restricted area;
(c) He acted alone and was hoping to access classified information to sell/pass on to Chinese authorities;
(d) He was under guidance (a “conscious” source) and was asked to test readiness and/or obtain classified information
(e) He was under guidance and is part of a scheme to overload sensitive areas with repeated “attacks” (in other words, using tourists as the overloading element);
(f) His company may serve as a front and Ma is something else (e.g., a spy);
(g) The firm in Taiwan that “invited” Ma may also have served as a cover

In and of itself, the Armed Forces Recruitment Center is not a high-priority or highly sensitive target for espionage. Furthermore, whatever information was deemed valuable from that target could easily have been obtained with far more professionalism than that displayed by Ma, which leads to the conclusion that the “attack” was not directed by Chinese authorities or was only meant to test readiness and/or overload. Furthermore, the recruitment center itself is open to the public, which means that Ma was not breaking any law by being there or taking pictures (he even asked for permission to do so).

Ma’s accessing the restricted computer warfare command area, however, is more troubling, given China’s interest in computer warfare. While Ma would not have had time to steal classified material, he may nevertheless have been able to identify, and take photographs of, hardware for future exploitation. More than anything, this makes it essential that whatever pictures Ma took were either seized or destroyed, especially now that he has been released and will be able to return to China.

Soon after it was announced that a far greater numbers of Chinese would be allowed to visit Taiwan, I pointed out that Chinese authorities could exploit the opening to conduct espionage. Maybe Ma was just a fool who “accidentally” entered an armed forces recruitment center and restricted area. His composure after he was arrested, however, undermines that theory. But if he was a spy — self-made or guided — the present case would just be one instance, and probably not the first. Ma was caught. How many weren’t?


Gilman Grundy said...

Interesting to read the opinion of a former professional in this field.

Just one question, not related to the story; why use traditional characters to render mainland names on an English language blog?

J. Michael Cole 寇謐將 said...

FOARP: It helps with Internet searches, especially when different systems are used for transliteration (e.g., Mao Tse-tung versus Mao Zedong; Li Teng-hui versus Lee Teng-hui, etc). It's also out of respect for people out there whose mother tongue is not English and may only know the individuals by the traditional Chinese characters.

vin said...

I'm wondering, Mike, if this arrest was played up to show that the KMT is protecting Taiwan's core interests and sovereignty -- wondering, in other words, if the whole thing was staged. If not, is it possible that China wanted someone to be "caught" because it understands more fully than the KMT does that Taiwanese suspicions of a sell-out need to be alleviated? I saw nothing but the TT photo, but if the guy maintained such composure, it is, as you say, odd. Couldn't all kinds of other espionage be successfully done while a few well-compensated fall guys get caught?

J. Michael Cole 寇謐將 said...


Thanks for the comments.

I hadn’t thought of the possibility of this being staged. I saw some footage, as well as a few Liberty Times photos of Ma, and in every single one of them he looked composed and even smiled. Somehow my gut feeling is that this wasn’t staged, but at the same time it doesn’t look like a well-crafted operation either. As a scheme to alleviate fears in Taiwan, or paint the KMT in a good light, I don’t know. You’d have to see how it’s played by pan-blue media. And I don’t see how Beijing would gain from seeing Chinese tourists portrayed as spies. It think, therefore, that what we saw was minor pinprick “attack.” If it was state-sponsored, it was merely testing the waters, nothing major. Ma’s tradecraft was obviously poor, and the Chinese intelligence apparatus can do much better. I think his composure and body language had much to do with the relatively low severity of the incident and the knowledge that the repercussions would be minimal (if one thing, this paints the KMT in a bad light, as the guy got off scot-free. Can you imagine if a Taiwanese had tried the same thing in Beijing? We’d have another Wo Weihan on our hands!)

Gilman Grundy said...

No problem with using Chinese, but the names are mainland ones - why not use simplified? Probably a stupid question.

TicoExpat said...

My two cents:

Maybe it was a "patriotic dare", you know, like the guy who wrote his name on a national monument here, and was hereby celebrated as a hero on his hometown.

"Look what I did to those nipponphiles..."

Gilman Grundy said...

Or maybe it is exactly what it seems - a guy taking photos of something which the folks back home would find pretty strange. Speculation takes you nowhere.

TicoExpat said...

Yep, folks back home would find signs of "Do not enter" strange, indeed.