During a regular press conference on Wednesday, An Fengshan, a spokesman for the State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO), was asked by a reporter whether there indeed existed, as reported in Chinese media a few days ago, a “blacklist” of Taiwanese “separatists” who could be targeted for punitive action by China.
Responding to what undoubtedly was, as per tradition at such functions, another leading question meant to increase the pitch of China’s psychological warfare against Taiwan, An responded with the usual vague platitudes — neither confirming nor denying, but just enough to create the impression that such a plot could exist. (See, for another example of this, An’s response to a question about an upcoming military drill last month.)
“Any obstinate and ‘wrongheaded’ supporter of ‘Taiwan independence’ will be condemned by the people and punished by history,” An proclaimed, adding that “separatists” will “never hide from what they did and said.” Then the Chinese Communist Party-owned Global Times, as expected, amplified the psychological warfare by quoting an “academic” at the Beijing-based Research Center on Cross-Strait Relations, who observed that An’s remarks were a “warning and deterrent to Taiwan secessionist forces.”
As to the “blacklist” in question, it appears to have originated on the Chinese WeChat social media platform, where a user suggested that a list of Taiwan “separatists” should be compiled “to enable their punishment,” and their names added to an “international wanted list.”
Although we cannot prove or disprove the existence of such a list, the very idea of an international wanted list targeting a number of Taiwanese is a chilling prospect. It is even more worrying because of the tendency, in recent years, for an ultra-nationalist Chinese civil society and netizens to take the lead in compelling state actors to act on such sentiment. There have been several instances in the past two years in which artists from Taiwan and Hong Kong have come under fire and were blacklisted after civic groups, among them the Communist Youth League, decided to target them for their alleged “separatist” activities. South Korean entertainers have also fallen victim to such activities.
The troubling part is that although it is hard to imagine that President Xi Jinping is orchestrating all this (he couldn’t possibly), he nevertheless has created an atmosphere that encourages and empowers ultra-nationalism from below, while implementing a set of laws and institutions that make it possible for officials at the local, provincial, and perhaps even state level to act upon those pressures. I for one remain convinced that this is what landed Taiwanese democracy activist Lee Ming-che, who was kidnapped in China last year and subsequently sentenced to five years imprisonment for “subversion of state power,” into trouble initially. Lee was the first Taiwanese national to be sentenced under the new National Security Law, which passed on July 1, 2015 and stipulates that preserving the national sovereignty and territorial integrity of the People’s Republic of China “is a shared obligation of all the Chinese people, including compatriots from Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan.”
Equally worrying is the fact that China has already begun to use extraterritoriality to seek the capture and repatriation of its political opponents abroad. Since 1999, Dolkun Isa, a prominent exiled Uyghur leader and German citizen, had been the object of a “Red Notice” alert — an international wanted person alert — filed by China at the international policing organization Interpol. (Since 2016, Interpol has been headed by Meng Hongwei, former vice minister for public security in China.) As reported by Radio Free Asia, the activist faced harassment, detention, and arrest by authorities in South Korea, India, the United States, Turkey, and Italy. (In a rare positive development, Interpol announced in February this year that the “Red Notice” against Dolkun Isa has been removed.)
Other precedents of extraterritorial harassment against foreign passport holders include the several instances in which Taiwanese citizens were detained in a foreign country — Kenya, the Philippines, Cambodia, and Spain among them* — and despite strong condemnation by Taipei, sent to China to stand trial for alleged telecommunication fraud crimes. Another example was that of publisher Gui Minhai, a Swedish passport holder who was kidnapped by Chinese agents in Thailand (presumably with help from the military junta) and forced back to China to stand trial.
Having set all these precedents of extraterritoriality, it is but one more step for Chinese authorities and overzealous officials to begin pressuring various countries into arresting Taiwanese nationals for “separatist” activities under the (intentionally vaguely worded) National Security Law. The “legal” instruments exist, and there is no disincentive for driven, nationalistic Chinese officers to act on them, especially if the pressure from below (civil society and/or netizens) compels them to take action. Combine this with states that have no real rule of law and which are keen to ingratiate themselves with the Chinese in return for investment, and we suddenly find ourselves with the very real possibility that Taiwanese travelling abroad could be nabbed and dispatched to China for the “crime” of “separatism.”
Even if this never becomes an actual policy in Beijing, the prospects of such a scenario would be enough to have a chilling effect on the freedom of Taiwanese “blacklisted” by the Chinese to travel abroad. And, as with the Lee Ming-che case, once a Taiwanese is abducted, it is highly improbable that the central government in Beijing would decide to release them, as this would mean acting against the very laws it itself implemented and constitute a severe loss of face with the very ultra-nationalists the CCP depends upon to sustain its legitimacy.
In recent years China, and various ultra-nationalistic actors at different levels within Chinese society and the government apparatus, have begun to impose their values and “laws” outside China, a form of extraterritoriality that has a particularly worrying traction in countries with a poor legal system and a rapidly growing relationship with Beijing. As the Belt and Road Initiative spreads Chinese influence to every corner of the world, it’s not hard to imagine how political pressure on targeted countries in South and Southeast Asia, Central Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe, and Southern America to comply with China’s domestic laws — as international airlines and firms are now ordered to do — would increase. As a result, a number of countries could become complicit in actions taken by China to defend its “territorial integrity” against “separatists.” Critics of Beijing, wherever they are and regardless of which passport they hold, especially if they are of, as Beijing sees it, “Chinese stock” like the Taiwanese, could eventually feel that their world, and their ability to travel, have suddenly been severely constrained.
Does the “blacklist” exist? Is it official? We do not know. But precedent, and the bottom-up feedback mechanism that we have observed in recent years, certainly makes the very idea of one a terrible prospect for the Taiwanese. Unless the international community takes a firm stand against state-sanctioned kidnapping and extraterritorial harassment, I fear that the day when such a nightmare becomes reality may come sooner than we think.
J. Michael Cole is editor in chief of Taiwan Sentinel. He is also a Taipei-based Senior Fellow with the China Policy Institute/Taiwan Studies Programme at the University of Nottingham, UK and associate researcher with the French Centre for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC).
*An earlier version of this story included Greece on this list. Greece has detained Taiwanese nationals, but did not send them to China.