Taiwan prosecutors are investigating alleged misuse of a security loophole that has allowed thousands of mainland Chinese including government and propaganda officials to visit the self-ruled island illegally in the past two years.
At least 20 Taiwanese travel agencies have been found to have arranged "exchange visits" to the island by more than 5,000 mainland citizens between 2017 and 2019, using invitation letters issued by a number of shell companies or organisations registered in Taiwan, prosecutors and government officials said on Thursday.
They said a number of the citizens found to have applied to visit under the so-called exchange programmes were officials from the mainland Chinese government and the United Front Work Department - the agency of the Communist Party responsible for promoting its influence around the world.
"We questioned 10 people on Wednesday night, including the operation leader and three travel agents over their roles in the alleged operations," Chen Yu-ping, a spokeswoman for Taipei District Prosecutors Office, said.
She said the 10 were released after questioning, with seven asked to post bail, pending further questioning.
According to the prosecutor's office, the operation's leader, named as Hung Ching-lin, a retired journalist, was found to have used his and family members' names to register more than 100 non-profit groups and shell companies in New Taipei City, including the Water Resources Economic Development Association and Industry Exchange Association.
He had been accused of using the names of those shell organisations to organise purportedly short-term cross-strait exchange programmes for mainlanders seeking to visit Taiwan, the prosecutor's office said, adding that Hung had allegedly earned NT$10 million (about US$330,000) through the "service fees" he charged.
Under Taiwanese law, mainlanders are permitted to visit for sightseeing but need to provide financial statements when they apply to do so. By applying via an exchange programme, they do not need to supply the financial information because the organisation that invites or sponsors them is required to guarantee their expenses while in Taiwan.
Senior mainland government officials who want to visit Taiwan need to go through a strict screening process by a committee made up of officials from the National Immigration Agency, the Interior Ministry, the Mainland Affairs Council and other relevant departments. But background checks required for low-level mainland officials are similar to those for regular mainland citizens.
The National Immigration Agency said it had discovered irregularities in some exchange programmes in 2017 and gathered information before referring the case to the security authorities.
"We are now assisting the prosecution authorities in their investigation and can give no further comments," an official at the agency said on Thursday.
The official said the immigration agency would check whether mainland officials, regardless of rank, were visiting in line with their stated purpose.
The Mainland Affairs Council, the island's top mainland policy planning body, said it would further tighten screening procedures to prevent such irregularities happening in future.
A local travel agent said bogus exchange programmes had been happening since Taiwan allowed mainland Chinese to visit in 2009.
"This was not the first time people were involved in such operations and punished with fines and suspensions of licences," said the agent, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter.
"I suspect that exposing the case … has something to do with the election and the anti-infiltration bill that (President) Tsai Ing-wen's government wants to pass. After all, if the immigration authorities said they were aware of such irregularities two years ago, why has it taken so long to deal with?"
Taiwanese Premier Su Tseng-chang said on Thursday that the island's government was determined to protect the safety and fairness of January 11's presidential and legislative elections.
Speaking during a regular cabinet meeting, Su warned that election security was threatened by offshore funds and false information, as well as vote-buying and violence.
A justice ministry official said after the meeting that crackdowns on underground foreign exchange operations since July had found inflows worth NT$3.3 billion, mainly from the mainland, Hong Kong, Indonesia and Vietnam.
Prosecutors had confiscated or frozen NT$618 million in "criminal income" and placed six of 279 suspects in 66 cases under detention during that period, he said.
Tsai has warned of possible interference in the polls by China, which claims that the self-governed island is its territory.
Additional reporting by DPA
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