On the morning of Tuesday, April 12, 2016, the news broke in Taiwan that eight Taiwanese fraud suspects had been deported from Kenya to China the previous Friday (Mainland Affairs Council officials said they knew at midnight on Friday). That group was quickly followed by the deportation of another 37 to China. This caused a media firestorm. Commentators as varied as pro-Taiwan commentator J. Michael Cole, to former UN Ambassador John Bolton, to Elizabeth Economy at the Council on Foreign Relations, along with many media outlets, immediately read this action in terms of the conventional media framework for understanding cross-strait relations: everything that happens relates to the sovereignty issue between Taiwan and China. China, they told us, was signaling to incoming President Tsai Ing-wen from the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) that things were going to be tougher, and tensions were rising. This reading of events sells papers and attracts clicks, but it is fundamentally wrong. In reality, though China was signaling Taiwan, it had nothing to with Tsai Ing-wen or China’s desire to annex Taiwan.
In December of 2014, the Kenyan police arrested 77 persons (45 Taiwanese, 31 Chinese, 1 Thai; 13 of the the 77 were females between 19 and 25) following a fire that revealed their equipment. They were tried in several different groups. One of group of 10, including the batch of eight Taiwanese, was convicted of being in Kenya illegally and did a year in prison, which ended in March 2016. They were all eventually tried on three charges of telecoms equipment violations and business violations. All were acquitted of the latter. As the Kenya government later explained, the men were deported to China because they had entered the country illegally, and Guangzhou was their last port of embarkation.
China became involved immediately. In December 2014, a police team arrived from China to help investigate the case, and in January 2015, the Chinese government formally requested that Kenya send the suspects to China. China wanted to try the suspects on fraud charges, while the Kenya government tried them only on telecoms equipment and business violations. This withholding of the fraud charges suggests that the two governments agreed on how to handle the case over a year before Tsai Ing-wen was elected. It is thus highly unlikely that the Chinese government was planning to signal the incoming DPP administration on cross-strait sovereignty issues.
What was China’s motive? As the Chinese government was saying back in January 2015, the men were said to be part of an international fraud ring which, Beijing alleged, had defrauded its citizens of millions. Beijing maintained that it had every right to demand that the men be sent to China for prosecution (this was acknowledged by officials from the Taiwan Ministry of Justice and Mainland Affairs Council). Moreover, as Chinese security officials announced when the firestorm of protest broke in Taipei, Beijing was fed up with Taipei’s attitude toward alleged scammers, and had obviously planned to send Taipei a message that it would no longer tolerate Taipei’s habit of giving scammers light sentences which they could commute to a fine, or no time at all, as happened to the 14 Taiwanese sent to China by Manila in 2011, who were later extradited to Taiwan for trial. This was sheepishly acknowledged in numerous media reports. Indeed, a legislator for the current ruling party was asked by a reporter whether the deportations were a message to Tsai Ing-wen, but denied that interpretation: “We have to face reality as well,” he admitted. “We had given light sentences to the fraudsters after they were extradited back to Taiwan, which had resulted in certain consequences.”
Though it is seldom mentioned in the international media, one of the key beneficiaries of the cross-strait agreements between Taiwan and China is cross-strait organized crime. In addition to robust trafficking in money, drugs, weapons, art, and human beings, Taiwanese and Chinese gangs have created an empire of fraud which nearly everyone with a phone in those two countries has experienced, giving daily life an unremitting background noise of fraud that few outsiders encounter or understand.
Operating across Southeast Asia, these scammers are well organized and highly professional. If one has a discerning ear and a good phone, in the background of scam phone calls it is often possible to hear a number of people in the same room reading from the same script to different callers. On several occasions fraudsters have called this writer saying that his son had been kidnapped and demanded that ransom be deposited in a certain account. Indeed, waves of such calls occur each fall when students enter new schools — local media alleges that the scammers purchase lists of incoming students from corrupt school officials. Calls from crisp female voices looking for bank account PINs and credit card information are common. Almost everyone in Taiwan has friends and family members who have lost money to these criminals.
With Taiwan wary and China wealthier, scammers have focused on the latter nation. In the wake of the deportation scandal, the Taipei-based China Post reported that for a six month period in 2015 alone, scammers made 4.7 billion phone calls from Taiwan to China — nearly four calls for every man, woman, and child in China. Thus, over the last few years China has been ramping up pressure, deporting thousands of Chinese from Southeast Asia back to China for prosecution. In response, the gangs have been moving farther afield, with China in hot pursuit.
In 2014, a group of Taiwanese scammers were busted and later jailed in Egypt. That should have been a signal to Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) that Africa would become a new area of operations for Taiwanese scammers, but MOFA missed the boat. MOFA also appeared to be slow to grasp that Taiwanese nationals were on trial in Kenya. After the news broke in Taiwan, legislators and government officials pilloried Beijing in a storm of nationalistic fervor. Nobody criticized MOFA, however. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that at least one function of that nationalist outburst over sovereignty worries was to redirect energies outward toward China instead of inward at the government’s seemingly inept and dilatory handling of the affair. Indeed, an opportunity for the pro-Taiwan side to normalize judicial exchanges as international exchanges under international law was lost in the static over sovereignty.
The wide but erroneous evaluation of the affair of the Kenyan phone scammers as a move by Beijing to pressure Tsai Ing-wen simply shows how the frameworks the media uses to understand the China-Taiwan relationship conceal and distort the complexity of that relationship. They are easily hijacked by partisan commentators: in this case, pro-Taiwan commentators portraying it as a move against Tsai in order to heighten the sense of threat to the island nation, while their opponents used it to show how electing Tsai was a bad idea, since it angered China. Finally, these frameworks make observers lazy. Anyone could have learned the truth with a simple internet search of the Kenyan newspapers, but too many pundits had the answer already at hand: if it is happening between Beijing and Taipei, it can only be about sovereignty.
Michael Turton blogs on Taiwan politics and culture at The View from Taiwan.