Beijing ‘hunts’ Taiwan citizens overseas, gets hundreds sent to China: report

General

China makes a point of 'hunting' citizens of democratic Taiwan held on criminal charges around the world and insisting they be extradited to the People's Republic of China, which has never controlled Taiwan, a rights group said on Monday.

The overseas-based group Safeguard Defenders said it had documented hundreds of cases of Chinese officials targeting Taiwanese nationals overseas.

"This international persecution of Taiwan nationals amounts to an assault on Taiwanese sovereignty, and is part of the larger global campaign under Xi Jinping to exploit extradition treaties, mutual law enforcement agreements, and other multilateral institutions for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)'s political objectives," the group said in a summary of its report listing more than 600 cases between 2016 and 2019.

The cases involve nationals of the Republic of China founded by Sun Yat-sen in 1911, which has controlled the islands of Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen and Matsu since losing a civil war to Mao Zedong's communists in 1949.

Taiwan issues Republic of China passports to its 23 million citizens, who have never been ruled by the CCP, and who have no wish to give up their democratic way of life for "unification" under Beijing's plan, according to opinion polls in recent years.

Beijing, for its part, insists that its diplomatic partners sever ties with Taipei, and has blocked the country's membership in international organizations like the United Nations and the World Health Organization (WHO).

According to the report, more than 600 Taiwanese nationals were sent to China from countries around the world at Beijing's behest in the three years covered by the study. Most were accused of involvement in telecommunications fraud in countries as diverse as Cambodia, Kenya, the Philippines and Spain. In 2020, the Czech Supreme Court rejected an extradition request from China, citing the risk of torture and other inhumane treatment and rejecting Chinese assurances of consular access as "unreliable and insufficient," the report said.

These forcible transfers often follow the denial of access to Taiwanese consular support or communication in the sending country, and sometimes followed by ongoing denial of contact with Taiwanese officials or family members when the person arrives in China.

"These forced transfers put Taiwanese nationals at risk of severe human rights abuses," Safeguard Defenders said, citing international rules concerning non-refoulement, which means nobody should be sent to a country where they are at risk of persecution or human rights abuses.

"The extradition of Taiwanese nationals to [China] under pressure from Beijing should very much be seen as a violation of their human right to a fair trial, and their right to be free from torture," the group said, calling on the international community to take "immediate steps" to halt the practice.

'Missing in China'

Report researcher Chen Yanting cited the cases of Taiwan democracy activist Lee Ming-cheh and volunteer activity organizer Lee Meng-chu, both of whom went "missing" while in China, and were later accused of spying. 

Lee Ming-cheh is currently serving a five-year jail term, while Lee Meng-chu appeared on state broadcaster CCTV making a televised "confession" to harming state security.

"These two Taiwanese were detained, charged with crimes and sentenced by China through opaque processes," Chen told RFA. "We have reason to believe that the other Taiwanese sent to China met with the same fate."

"In China, everyone is at risk of not getting a fair trial, of exploitation [to suit the CCP's political objectives] and of torture."

Chen said that as Taiwan begins to step up its bid to participate in international agencies, the island's government could be in a better position to protect its nationals overseas.

Shen Po-yang of the Institute of Criminology at Taipei University said many of the countries agreeing to send Taiwanese to China have extradition or mutual assistance agreements in place with China, but not Taiwan.

"Our country should have its sovereignty respected, and its citizens should stand trial here," Shen told RFA. "It's not for another country to force them to atone there."

"There are problems with the use of evidence and the conduct of trials in other countries, and they may be punished inappropriately," he said. "From the perspective of human rights, it's all wrong."

Former Police University professor and current opposition Kuomintang (KMT) lawmaker Yeh Yu-Lan said that many people in Taiwan in fact want the Taiwanese telephone fraud suspects to be sent to China for a lesson.

In the absence of talks with China, which is furious with Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen for promising to defend Taiwan's sovereignty, countries will opt to send suspects to countries with which they have an established relationship, Yeh told RFA.

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.