TAIPEI/HONG KONG (Reuters) - When Taiwanese businessman Jhang Yun-nan wanted to find buyers for his company’s new cleaning products in China, he turned to an unconventional channel: A Taiwanese party that advocates the unification of China with the self-ruled, democratic island.
A senior member of the Chinese Unification Promotion Party (CUPP) said the group would “have a word” with officials from Guangdong’s Administration for Market Regulation to help Jhang’s China-based Yi Yuan Ji Biotechnology Co Ltd - on one condition.
The member, Lin Guo-cing, told Jhang in the presence of Reuters that a “correct ideology” was needed to do business in China, touting access to dozens of Chinese officials in Guangdong.
“I support peaceful unification across the strait,” Lin told Reuters, echoing the view CUPP expects Taiwanese it works with to embrace. China views Taiwan as a wayward province to be brought under Beijing’s control, by force if necessary. The defeated Nationalist government fled to Taiwan in 1949 after losing a civil war with the Communists.
To assist with “reunification,” Beijing is cultivating networks of supporters in Taiwan and ramping up campaigns to lure Taiwanese with lucrative business opportunities in exchange for backing Beijing’s agenda.
They see one key as convincing businessmen like Jhang that accepting that stance is a small price to pay for access to Chinese markets and other assistance.
The other is using pro-Beijing networks to build sympathy and support for the mainland; Wen Lung, a CUPP policy adviser, said the organization plans to hold seminars and rallies across the island to expand its “red troops.”
The Taiwanese government said such efforts are dangerous - but not illegal.
“Only by strengthening our laws can we strengthen our national security system,” Chiu Chui-cheng, the deputy minister for Taiwan’s Ministry of Mainland Affairs, told Reuters.
Chinese state agencies deployed to build support for unification include the Taiwan Affairs Office and the United Front Work Department, whose aim is to unify Taiwan by co-opting local groups and conducting influence operations against overseas campaigns contrary to China’s political agenda.
Internal documents from the two Chinese groups, reviewed by Reuters, including annual work reports and meeting minutes, show a campaign centered around pro-China organizations in Taiwan, which were described as a “priority focus.”
“We will continue to enhance our support to pro-unification groups and figures in Taiwan, to reinforce and strengthen the force of ‘anti-independence’ within the island,” reads a passage in the 2016 work report from an arm of Taiwan Affairs Office in Shanghai.
In the neighboring province of Zhejiang, a United Front unit said in a 2016 internal report it had deepened contacts with Taiwan groups through “active invitation” such as economic and cultural programs on the mainland.
During a visit to China in April 2016, the Taipei-based Alliance for the Reunification of China was “greatly praised” by a senior Chinese official for “advancing the great work of motherland reunification,” according to minutes from the Taiwan Democratic Self-Government League, one of the few nominally independent political groups permitted in China.
“Which country in the whole world would treat you as nice (as China does)? I would rather be a target of the United Front. At least they care about you, regardless of whether they are sincere or not,” said Lin, who in October joined the China Overseas Friendship Association, which is affiliated with the United Front.
The documents reviewed by Reuters did not show any funding link between such groups and the Chinese government, but potential ties have raised concerns in Taipei.
Two officials working at a Taiwanese state security agency, who declined to be named due to the sensitivity of the matter, said the groups were “threats” to Taiwan.
A Taiwan security source, who declined to be named as the matter was not made public, said CUPP was at the top of his agency’s watch list because of its size - it has 60,000 members - and its ability to mobilize members.
“If there’s ever a war across the strait, they become a massive uncertainty, which is very terrifying,” the source said.
Neither China’s United Front Work Department nor its Taiwan Affairs Office responded to a request for comment.
The home of CUPP leader Chang An-lo and the group’s headquarters in Taipei were raided by Taiwan authorities last August for suspected Chinese funding, an accusation they deny.
It is illegal in Taiwan for political groups to take money from the Chinese government. Both Chang and Lin told Reuters they were former members of Bamboo Union, which Taiwan’s National Police Agency says is a criminal gang. Chang said he was the organization’s former leader.
No one was charged in connection with the raid.
Chang, in an interview with Reuters in Taipei, said he did not take money from China. But he said it was vital for Taiwan to re-unify with the mainland.
“Our God is China,” Chang said in his office, which has a golden statue of former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. “In spirit, they definitely support us, but not materially.”
He and other unification advocates said they saw an opportunity to gain influence in the wake of President Tsai Ing-wen’s pro-independence ruling party’s recent poll defeat amid frustrations over its economic and cross-strait policy.
They say they want to steer the vote away from Tsai, who they say is nudging Taiwan toward formal independence, a red line for China. Taiwan’s presidential election is in January.
Zhang Xiuye, a senior member of Taipei-based Chinese Concentric Patriotism Party, which promotes unification, said its priority this year was to bring to rural areas a message of “one country, two systems,” as a model of autonomy for Taiwan, similar to Hong Kong’s system.
The China-friendly opposition party in Taiwan, Kuomintang (KMT), whose presidential primaries made front-page headlines in April after Foxconn chairman Terry Gou joined the party’s highly competitive race, will have the support of CUPP and the Chinese Concentric Patriotism Party.
“We will concentrate our firepower to support KMT,” CUPP’s Wen said, citing KMT’s support for the 1992 consensus, an agreement that year by KMT and the Chinese Communist Party that both sides are part of “one China,” a cherished principle in Beijing.
KMT spokesman Dragon Ou-Yang told Reuters that the party welcomed such support.
“There’s a reason why pro-unification groups support KMT - we tackle cross-strait issues on an equal and reciprocal basis,” Ou-Yang said.
Pro-China groups have made a point of promoting business opportunities for Taiwanese youth in the island’s south, a demographic labeled a “top priority” in the documents from the Chinese agencies.
More than 70 “entrepreneurship bases” aimed at Taiwanese start-ups were set up across China in 2016, according to a Reuters review of work reports from China’s Taiwan Affairs Office. They often include perks like cash and tax breaks.
One incubator was in Beijing, and an arm of the Taiwan Affairs Office concluded in a 2016 report, seen by Reuters, that the effort had contributed to “closer and dearer ties between the people in Beijing and Taiwan.”
Wen runs a similar campaign. He’s recruiting Taiwan youth for a 5 million yuan ($724,259) project in Guangdong, in which he and several CUPP members won a 10-year contract with state-backed tax breaks to build an “agricultural entrepreneurship base,” including farms and hotels.
“It’s not a problem if they don’t support unification,” Wen said of Taiwanese joining the project. “We want to earn their trust first and then their identity.”
For some Taiwanese, who have seen the average wage grow merely 3.5% in the past decade, according to government data, the Chinese market is simply too good to miss.
31-year-old farmer Jhang Hong-si, who was once reluctant to work in China, is now a technology officer for Wen’s project, which is gearing up to sell produce to supermarkets in Hong Kong and Macau.
“I want to build a brand that belongs to the Chinese. They have the biggest market,” Jhang said. “As long as we are ruled by Chinese - either the Chinese Communist Party or the KMT - it makes no difference to me.”
Reporting By Yimou Lee and James Pomfret; Additional reporting by Jessie Pang in HONG KONG and Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; editing by Gerry Doyle