The possibility of China arresting Taiwanese on political charges was flagged in late April with news of the detention of Li Yanhe, the editor-in-chief of Gusa Publishing, in Shanghai.
Li is better known by his pen name of Fucha. He was born in China, but later obtained Taiwanese citizenship and has a Taiwanese spouse. Li has been living in Taiwan since 2009, after previously working in the Chinese publishing industry. Li was in Shanghai to visit friends and family, though according to co-workers, he hoped to give up his Chinese citizenship while there. Chinese who have obtained Taiwanese citizenship are required to relinquish their Chinese citizenship within three months.
Gusa Publishing was known for publishing books critical of the Chinese government, with titles on subjects such as corruption in the Chinese Communist Party or Chinese influence on global media. Gusa Publishing also put out translations of English books, ranging from Louisa Lim’s “The People’s Republic of Amnesia” to Jeff Wasserstom’s “China in the 21st Century.”
News of Li’s detention broke after the Chinese dissident poet Bei Ling, who has been living in exile since 2000, posted on Facebook on April 20 that Li had likely been taken in by Chinese authorities while visiting Shanghai. Bei stated that Li had been missing since visiting Shanghai in March, but that news of his disappearance had not broken out sooner because his family hoped to keep quiet on the matter.
Bei urged for going public with the disappearance, stating that in his experience, releases were secured earlier through greater attention on the issue. However, Bei later deleted his Facebook post about the disappearance, stating that he would comply with the wishes of Li’s family.
Gusa Publishing, too, made a public statement urging that the family be given space. The statement pointed to the fact that Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) declined to release details out of respect for the preferences of Li’s family.
A few days later, on April 25, the Beijing Daily reported on the arrest of Taiwanese independence advocate Yang Chih-yuan after an investigation by the National Security Bureau of Wenzhou, Zhejiang. Following this investigation, the Supreme People’s Procuratorate approved the arrest, with Yang held under Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location (RSDL), a form of detention in which prisoners are held in facilities that may not be traditional jails, such as converted hotels. The Chinese government is not required to inform family members of people detained under RSDL.
Yang originally disappeared in January 2022 after traveling to China. Nevertheless, it was only confirmed that he had been imprisoned by the Chinese government in August 2022, after footage of Yang in detention appeared on state-run television. This footage was released in a similar timeframe as the historic trip to Taiwan by then-U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and China’s live-fire drills in response to the visit.
Yang, 32, was the deputy chair of the pro-independence Taiwanese National Party (TNP), though the TNP is obscure among even pro-independence groups. As such, he was arrested on charges of secession. Yang had a history of independence-leaning activism, including participating in the 2008 Wild Strawberry Movement, a student protest movement against the visit to Taiwan by Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits chair Chen Yunlin, as well as the 2013 “Fury” protests against then-President Ma Ying-jeou of the China-friendly KMT. Yang was previously a member of former President Chen Shui-bian’s pro-independence Taiwan Action Party Alliance.
For a pro-independence activist, Yang was also unusually close to the Chinese Unification Promotion Party (CUPP), which is known for its links to organized crime. Yang was reportedly solicited by the CUPP to run as one of its candidates in the past.
It is not clear why Yang was in China, but acquaintances suggest that he may have been in China to participate in a Go tournament.
On April 26, one day after news of the approval of Yang’s arrest by the Supreme People’s Procuratorate, the Chinese government confirmed that it was detaining Li Yanhe.
The timing of both cases was seen as potentially linked in Taiwan. Notably, news of the detentions came mere weeks after Chinese live-fire exercises around Taiwan in reaction to the meeting in California between Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and current U.S. Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy.
The dynamic in which disappearances of Taiwanese nationals are not known until much later on has been seen several times. It is often the case that families are told to keep quiet about the arrest of their relatives, with the suggestion that they will be released faster if there is no open campaign for their advocacy. Before Yang’s appearance in footage released by Chinese state-run media last August, the MAC was not previously aware of his disappearance in China, suggesting that his family did not report his arrest.
Li’s arrest in China has drawn comparison to the kidnapping of the Causeway Bay booksellers, given his status as a publisher. Five workers at Causeway Bay Books in Hong Kong, which published books critical of the Chinese government, disappeared in late 2015. Most of the booksellers disappeared after crossing into China or from Hong Kong, though one of them, Gui Minhai, was kidnapped from his home in Pattaya, Thailand. (In another parallel, Gui’s family has also faced pressure to remain silent about his case in exchange for nebulous promises that it will improve his situation.)
The arrests are also similar to the kidnapping of Taiwanese NGO worker Lee Ming-che, who was held by the Chinese government for over five years after traveling to China in March 2017. Lee’s wife Lee Ching-yu, a fellow NGO worker, advocated openly for her husband’s release but was approached by individuals claiming to be intermediaries for the Chinese government, urging that her husband would be released faster if she dropped her advocacy.
Lee Ming-che is now back in Taiwan following his release. He remains an active figure in Taiwanese civil society, calling for the release of political prisoners facing situations similar to what he previously experienced.
It is unclear how many Taiwanese are being held by the Chinese government on political charges. Cases that are publicly known include the detention of businessman Morrison Lee Meng-chu, who fell afoul of Chinese state security after participating in the 2019 Hong Kong protests and crossing into China. Morrison Lee’s arrest took place at a time in which the Chinese government claimed in response to the 2019 and 2020 Hong Kong protests that it had arrested hundreds of Taiwanese spies who were fomenting tensions.
Other Taiwanese known to be detained in China include pan-Blue academic Shih Cheng-ping and pro-unification advocate Tsai Jin-shu. Shih was accused of espionage charges in 2020 over articles he wrote on the Chinese military, while it is less clear why Tsai was arrested. The arrests show that members of the China-leaning pan-Blue camp can also be targeted by Chinese security forces.
Like many of the other cases, Tsai and Shih’s detentions did not come to light for months because their families sought to keep quiet. The revelation of Tsai’s detention was particularly dramatic, seeing as this took place on pan-Blue firebrand Jaw Shaw-kong’s primetime TVBS talk show, “Shaw-kong’s War Room.”
The MAC stated in 2019 that 149 Taiwanese were missing in China, with the council unable to confirm the whereabouts of 67 people. It is not known how many of those may have been detained on political charges, nor how this statistic may have changed since then.
For its part, China has claimed in the past that it aims to compile a list of Taiwanese independence advocates to target in the future.