Spies Among Us

3 minute read

Outrage at a professor’s death

For Wen-chen Chen, 31, life in the U.S. was splendid. He had just signed a new three-year contract to teach statistics at Carnegie-Mellon University. He and his Taiwanese wife Su-jen, both certified “permanent residents,” owned their Pittsburgh house and doted on their year-old son Eric. In May, as the school year ended, Chen and his family flew home to Taiwan for their first visit since he came to the U.S. in 1975. Six weeks into that sentimental journey, Wen-chen Chen was picked up for interrogation by Taiwanese security police and questioned for 13 hours about his “anti-Taiwan” activities in the U.S.; the next morning his battered body—13 broken ribs, a fractured pelvis, ruptured internal organs—was found on the grounds of National Taiwan University in Taipei.

The Taiwan government suggests that Chen committed suicide. Colleagues and compatriots in the U.S. suspect that he was killed by the government—and fear they might be next. Says Lu Wang, 40, a data-processing analyst in New York City: “The Chen case has hit us like a tornado. In every heart there is fear. The case is not an isolated instance.”

Chen’s death aroused congressional concern that the repressive government of President Chiang Ching-kuo maintains a web of spies, especially on campuses, to keep an eye on the 500,000 Taiwanese living in the U.S. At a hearing last week, a House foreign affairs subcommittee heard testimony that Taiwanese headed for the U.S. are warned not to speak out against the Chiang government. Most obey, aware of the ubiquitous informers. Said Iowa Republican Jim Leach: “Without question, agents of the Taiwan government have engaged in harassment, intimidation and monitoring of U.S. residents.” He called on the U.S. Government to investigate Chen’s death and to determine whether campus spies are violating the Foreign Agents Registration Act. There is growing evidence that other governments intimidate their nationals in the U.S. Last year a Libyan student in Colorado, critical of the Gaddafi regime, was wounded by an assassin. In Utah two weeks ago, a Libyan student was killed.

Authorities in Taipei contend that Chen raised funds for a dissident Taiwanese magazine. Friends say he was not especially active in politics, though he believed Taiwan was overdue for democratization. It was apparently too much for his government. “The problem is you just don’t know what it takes to get on the blacklist,” says New Yorker Wang. “They’re so paranoid it doesn’t take much.” Says a businessman who demanded anonymity: “I still consider Taiwan my home, but I wouldn’t go back. I don’t want to become the next Dr. Chen.”

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