China accuses Taiwan of manipulating university students to become spies

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(CNN) — China has accused Taiwan's intelligence agencies of recruiting university exchange students as spies, in an effort to "infiltrate" and "sabotage" activities on the mainland.

The accusations, made as part of a massive state media blitz, included claims Taiwanese spies had lured Chinese students into sexual relationships or offered money in an attempt to recruit them as foreign agents.

"(The Taiwanese spies) use money, love, seduction and internet hook-ups to develop spies into mainland China and build the espionage network ... It is extremely vicious to use students for espionage," a report on state media CCTV claimed.

In one alleged example, described in the state-run China Daily, an 18-year-old Chinese exchange student who studied in Taiwan was turned into an informer after entering a sexual relationship with a Taiwanese spy.

"The authorities said that, over three years, the student provided (the spy) with about 100 pieces of information on science and technology related to national defense and was paid about 45,000 yuan," state media claimed.

Taipei has furiously refuted the allegations, saying Beijing's accusations would just create "more doubts and misunderstandings" between the two governments.

Beijing views the democratically self-governed island, which has never been controlled by the Communist Party, as part of its territory. Cross-strait tensions have been rising since the election of Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen in 2016 and Beijing's subsequent actions towards her government. Tsai's party has historically been in favor of full Taiwanese independence.

A statement from Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council accused Beijing of attempting to stop Chinese students coming to the island to study.

"The mainland wanted to use media propaganda and indiscriminately accuse our people without due process of democracy and the rule of law, which could only arouse more doubts about mainland China's motives and purposes," the statement said.

'Prepare for the worst'

The Chinese state media campaign included at least six outlets, including CCTV, China Daily and the Global Times.

In one ominous editorial, China accused Taiwan of jeopardizing cross-strait relations and suggested that "under mounting pressure, the mainland must prepare for the worst."

The editorial added that "those targeted students were supposed to have a promising future. Studying in Taiwan should have been an opportunity to improve themselves. Trapping these young people and ruining their lives, the Taiwan intelligence authorities also committed a moral crime."

The media blitz, which began on Saturday and continued through into Monday, was part of "Thunderbolt 2018," a government-led initiative launched by China's state security department, intended to root out espionage activities.

The CCTV report was required viewing at workplaces and universities across China, according to notices posted on websites and on bulletin boards.

"All departments are required to organize the teachers and students to watch the news broadcast on September 15 and the interviews on September 15 and 16 ... I hope that all teachers and students will be vigilant," a notice posted to the Chinese University of Petroleum website on Friday said.

Tensions across the Taiwan Strait

Relations between Beijing and Taipei are at their worst point in years, as attitudes on the island have increasingly turned against unification with China and towards full independence.

As well as taking an aggressive attitude towards any suggestion of a change in Taiwan's current status, Beijing has also offered some carrots to ordinary Taiwanese people. From September 1, Taiwanese citizens were able to apply for residency permits in China, giving them a range of privileges. According to state news agency Xinhua, 22,000 people from Taiwan had applied for the permit in the first week.

At the other end of the scale, in recent months Beijing has worked to force companies across the world -- including a large number of international airlines -- to stop listing Taiwan as a separate country, by, for example, describing it as part of China (along with Hong Kong and Tibet).

China's Foreign Ministry has also ramped up a decades-long effort to isolate Taiwan diplomatically, significantly whittling down its list of diplomatic allies over the course of 2018, and the Chinese military has held large-scale live-fire drills in the Taiwan Strait.

"(If) the Chinese see the vulnerability of Taiwan, not getting US support, then they would be thinking about starting scenarios where they would be able to take Taiwan over," Taiwan Foreign Minister Joseph Wu told CNN in July.

This story was first published on CNN.com, "China accuses Taiwan of manipulating university students to become spies."