TAIPEI - Taiwan prosecutors say they have detained 10 people, including a former staff member of the China-friendly opposition party, and are investigating them on suspicion of falsifying documents to bring thousands of mainland Chinese to Taiwan, possibly including some who spied on the self-ruled island claimed by Beijing.
The investigation comes just weeks before presidential and legislative elections in Taiwan in which Beijing has been accused of intervening in hopes of unseating independence-leaning President Tsai Ing-wen.
The suspects allegedly sent letters containing false information that allowed at least 5,000 people to visit Taiwan from China between early 2017 and June this year, according to Chen Yu-ping, spokesman for the Taipei city prosecutor's office.
The letters issued by Taiwanese front companies and civic groups let the Chinese citizens enter for "professional exchanges" as a way around the stricter vetting required had they applied to visit as tourists, Chen said.
Some of the visitors were "high-level" Communist Party officials and intelligence operatives "who would otherwise be barred from visiting," the Taipei Times newspaper reported Thursday. It said two were connected to the Communist Party's United Front Work Department dedicated to infiltrating civic groups, ethnic minorities and Chinese communities abroad.
The chief suspect, Hung Ching-lin, worked for the director of the Nationalist Party caucus of New Taipei City, the biggest in Taiwan, in 2008, a party media liaison said. Any work he did after that year was unrelated to the party, the liaison said.
The prosecutor's office would not rule out Thursday that some arrivals had worked for the government or for China's Communist Party, Chen said.
He declined to say whether prosecutors were investigating the suspects for evidence of spying or other activities that might hurt Taiwan politically.
China and Taiwan have been separately ruled since Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists retreated to the island during the Chinese civil war in 1949. Beijing insists that the two sides eventually unify and has threatened to use force to bring that about, despite government opinion polls in Taiwan that show that almost 80% of the people on the island reject the idea of unification under China's authoritarian one_party Communist government.
The risk of spies runs high because hundreds of thousands of Taiwanese invest in China, and mainland Chinese blend in inside Taiwan due to ethnic and linguistic similarities.
Taiwan has allowed tourists from China for the past 11 years as a way to stimulate its economy, but frowns on giving entry to Chinese government officials who could take back sensitive information. Those who visit for professional exchanges, however, can avoid background checks aimed at identifying state or party officials.
Since 2016, Taiwan's armed forces have stepped up development of submarines and aircraft that could be used to repel any attack from the more powerful China, but the island's defense remains highly dependent on the armed forces of chief ally, the United States.
Despite their violent history with China's ruling Communists, the Nationalists advocate close relations with Beijing and advocate eventual unification. The ruling Democratic Progressive Party officially advocates Taiwan's formal independence and Beijing has sought to increase economic, diplomatic and military pressure on the administration since Tsai took office in 2016.
Taiwanese authorities may never know what the thousands of Chinese did on their trips because they went home months or years ago, analysts said.
"You need to see who each person was and check each one, plus these people already left so there's some difficulty in checking them out," said Liao You-lu, professor of department of criminal investigation at Central Police University in Taiwan.
Police also raided three travel agencies in Taiwan before prosecutors took the case this week, Chen said. Hung's wife and a daughter were among those detained for questioning. Other suspects were connected to travel agencies.
The suspects had earned a combined NT$10 million (US$330,000) by charging NT$1,000 to NT$2,000 fees to get the letters, domestic media said.