Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) denied reports on Monday that the release of two of the country’s spies was part of an historic “spy swap” negotiated with Beijing.

Hailed in pro-unification newspaper China Times as a historic icebreaker and gesture of good will from Chinese President Xi Jinping, the release and repatriation of high-ranking intelligence officers Chu Kung-hsun and Hsu Chang-kuo was the result of close to a decade of diplomacy, MND spokesperson Major General David Lo said.

Both Chu and Hsu were given life sentences for espionage while carrying out their official duties in 2006, and were released on October 13 after spending more than nine years in prison.

ROC Air Force Honor Guards. Photo: See-ming Lee via Flickr.

According to the China Times report, Taipei subsequently agreed to grant early parole to Chinese spy Li Zhizao in the first-ever spy swap to take place across the Taiwan Strait.

In a statement from the office of Taiwan’s president, spokesman Charles Chen said the release was “based on a mutual goodwill gesture delivered by the Ma-Xi meeting” that took place between Taiwan and China’s heads of state last month.

The news prompted questioning from the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, whose legislators urged the MND to reveal whether the nation’s interests had been sacrificed to secure the release of two of the highest-ranking intelligence officers ever to fall into Chinese hands.

According to Maj-Gen Lo, however, Chu and Hsu’s release was the result of a long-standing government effort launched in 2008, and not a breakthrough achieved by the meeting between President Ma Ying-jeou and Xi Jinping on November 7, after the pair’s release.

Lo added Li Zhizao had served part of his term and had requested parole multiple times before it was finally granted in late October.

In linking the deal to his meeting with Xi, DPP Legislator Tsai Huang-liang accused Ma of “trying to take credit for something he should not be credited for — it is shameful.”

According to the China Times, China still holds more than 100 Taiwanese spies in its prisons.

Ryan Ho Kilpatrick

Ryan Ho Kilpatrick is an award-winning journalist and scholar from Hong Kong who has reported on the city’s politics, protests, and policing for The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, TIME, The Guardian, The Independent, and others