China Power | Politics | East Asia

Taiwan Warns Against Travel to China, Hong Kong After Detention of Taiwanese Nationals

Over 1 million Taiwanese nationals could be living or working in China, which remains Taiwan’s largest trading partner.

Nick Aspinwall
Taiwan Warns Against Travel to China, Hong Kong After Detention of Taiwanese Nationals
Credit: Official Photo by Makoto Lin / Office of the President

Travel to China and Hong Kong is not safe for Taiwanese nationals regardless of political affiliation, the island’s ruling party warned recently amid fresh revelations in the cases of two Taiwanese nationals who went missing in China.

Tsai Chin-shu, chairman of an organization promoting cross-strait interactions, has been missing for over a year since traveling to Xiamen in July 2018, Taiwan’s semi-official Straits Exchange Foundation confirmed last week. A talk show commentator had previously alleged that Tsai had been detained for “national security reasons.”

The news came after China’s Taiwan Affairs Office confirmed it had detained Taiwanese activist Lee Meng-chu, also known as Morrison Lee, for alleged “criminal activities that could jeopardize China’s national security.” Lee reportedly participated in a protest in Hong Kong and supported the city’s pro-democracy movement on his Facebook page before entering Shenzhen, where he was detained.

The case of Lee Meng-chu recalled an earlier case of another Taiwanese activist, Lee Ming-che, who went missing in March 2017. Two months later, China confirmed that Lee Ming-che had been arrested. He was sentenced to five years in prison for subversion of state power later that year.

The case of Tsai Chin-shu, who promoted cross-strait interactions as chairman of the South Taiwan Cross-Strait Relations Association, is unique in that reports have indicated he does not support the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), nor does he support Taiwan independence.

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According to the Straits Exchange Foundation, Tsai attended a food industry meeting in Quanzhou, Fujian province on July 20. The following day he disappeared after checking out of a hotel in Xiamen.

Over 1 million Taiwanese nationals could be living or working in China, although there are no official statistics as neither government releases an exact figure.

Despite heightened tensions between China and Taiwan since Taiwan’s DPP took power in 2016, China remains Taiwan’s largest trading partner. Many young Taiwanese seek more lucrative employment across the Taiwan Strait, and Taiwanese entrepreneurs, known as Taishang, regularly invest or do business in China. Last year, the Chinese government streamlined the process for Taiwanese citizens to receive Chinese residence permits in a bit to coax more Taiwanese nationals to move to China.

Tsai’s case has cast severe doubt on a common assumption made by many Taiwanese who live, work or travel in China that they will steer clear of trouble provided they do not publicly support Taiwan independence, the DPP, or other views critical of the Chinese Communist Party.

The cases also highlight Taiwan’s inability to receive information from China on its detained nationals since Beijing severed cross-strait communications with Taiwanese government officials after Taiwan’s 2016 presidential election, during which President Tsai Ing-wen and the DPP, which favors eventual Taiwan independence, swept back to power.

Beijing had maintained unofficial relations with the previous Kuomintang (KMT) government, led by President Ma Ying-jeou, who met Chinese leader Xi Jinping in a historic November 2015 summit in Singapore.

The Straits Exchange Foundation said it asked for help in locating Tsai from its counterpart in China, the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits, in August last year, but it has not received any news of Tsai’s whereabouts.

The Chinese government likewise did not immediately reveal that it had detained Lee Meng-chu, who went missing on August 20 of this year. Some reports have indicated that Lee, who is an advisor to the Fangliao Township Office in Taiwan’s Pingtung County, took photos of Chinese paramilitary troops gathering on the border between Shenzhen and Hong Kong.

Lee Ching-yu, the wife of Lee Ming-che, has said on multiple occasions that the Chinese government has altered or canceled planned visits to her husband, who is imprisoned in Chishan Prison in Hunan province. Lee Ching-yu has said her husband faces deteriorating health and has lost 30 kilograms since he was first detained in March 2017.

Ties between Taiwan and China have become further strained after the Solomon Islands switched its diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing on Monday. Beijing then warned Taipei it would take all of Taiwan’s remaining 16 diplomatic allies should Tsai Ing-wen be reelected in Taiwan’s January 2020 presidential election.

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Taiwanese officials accused the Chinese government of attempting to sway Taiwan’s presidential and legislative elections by coaxing the Solomon Islands into recognizing Beijing. Observers expect the Chinese government to continue its campaign of aggressively limiting Taiwan’s international space ahead of the upcoming elections.