A manhunt ensued over the following weeks, with counterintelligence officers spending their Chinese New Year holidays tracking down Cai. It was the year of the tiger, and they were hunting. The trail led them to his rural hometown of Changhua, in central Taiwan, where they finally found him. After being on the run for weeks, Cai was cold, destitute, filthy and homeless. His spy ring was broken and he had lost all his friends.
As dusk drew across the land, he was surrounded in a rice paddy. Armed counterintelligence officers circled and closed in. Seeing no way to escape, Cai's last reserves of courage evaporated and he gave himself up without a fight. Although he could have committed suicide, Cai still had too much to live for. He was desperately in love with a young girl who had been captured by counterintelligence officers.
March 1, 1950, was a pivotal date in the history of cross-Strait relations. That evening, after a long interrogation session, Mao's spymaster in Taiwan cracked under pressure and defected. He became a ROC military officer and, in return, gained his girlfriend's freedom, a huge sum of gold, and a high-ranking position in the military. To earn his generous reward, Cai fingered General Wu Shi and Agent Zhu Fengzhi, and revealed the identities of his other collaborators, exposing every major communist officer on the island.
Cai’s information allowed MND officers to make a clean sweep, clearing out enemy spy rings and underground cells across Taiwan. Life-shaking dramas played out quietly. In Taiwan and on the outer islands, PLA operatives were arrested as they filled out forms in government offices, lounged in military barracks, or attempted to cross military checkpoints.
Chairman Mao was oblivious to the tectonic shifts taking place underneath his feet. He found out when the ROC government went public with the round up, publishing front page newspaper pictures of Wu Shi, Zhu Fengzhi, and two other subordinate collaborators, both before and after they were executed in downtown Taipei by firing squad.
In total, eighty separate communist operations were neutralized and over 400 secret agents were arrested. The survivors fled the island and made desperate escapes back to mainland China. Cai’s once formidable intelligence apparatus on Taiwan had been thoroughly decimated, its demise guided by the hands of its own maker.
The invasion of Taiwan was put on hold until Beijing could figure out what to do. In the end, Cai Xiaogan, the PLA spy turned double agent helped buy time for Chiang Kai-shek's emergency government. The outbreak of the Korean War did the rest. The history of cross-Strait relations would never be the same.
The standoff and the spy games across the Taiwan Strait continue to this day.
Ian Easton is a research fellow at the Project 2049 Institute and author of the new book, The Chinese Invasion Threat: Taiwan's Defense and American Strategy in Asia.
Editor’s Note: The above draws from the author's new book, The Chinese Invasion Threat: Taiwan's Defense and American Strategy in Asia.
This article first appeared last month.