China Power

Taiwan Raises Alert Level for Travel to China After New Legal Guidelines Targeting ‘Taiwan Independence’

Recent Features

China Power | Security | East Asia

Taiwan Raises Alert Level for Travel to China After New Legal Guidelines Targeting ‘Taiwan Independence’

The warning came amid signs that China might widen the scope of its legal pressure to include ordinary Taiwanese citizens.

Taiwan Raises Alert Level for Travel to China After New Legal Guidelines Targeting ‘Taiwan Independence’
Credit: Depositphotos

Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) raised the alert level for travel to China, Macau, and Hong Kong to “Orange” on Thursday last week. “Orange” is the second-highest alert level in Taiwan’s four-tier alert system for travel warnings; it warns Taiwanese against any non-essential travel to these places.

Given the large volume of travel that ordinarily takes place between Taiwan and China, whether for business, tourism, visiting families, or other purposes, this is a rare move.

The elevated travel alert came after China announced a series of legal guidelines in late June that included use of the death penalty for “diehard” advocates of Taiwanese independence. Capital punishment is reserved for “ringleaders” of Taiwanese independence, who could otherwise face up to ten years in jail or life in prison. 

The new legal guidelines, then, suggest punishment for Taiwanese political leaders. Experts have taken the view that they are an effort to intimidate. In a congressional hearing on June 27, Daniel Kritenbrink, U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, also expressed concern over the guidelines. 

In the past, China hit out at high-ranking Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) politicians by banning them or their relatives from traveling to China or conducting business with Chinese entities. In September 2021, the Chinese government announced that then-serving Premier Su Tseng-chang, Minister of Foreign of Affairs Joseph Wu, and Legislative Yuan President Yu Shyi-kun would face such bans. But this was mostly a symbolic move, seeing as Su, Wu, and Yu or members of their families were unlikely to travel to China or seek to do business with Chinese entities to begin with. The ban may have also been a warning against Taiwanese who do business with China to not become involved in Taiwanese politics on the side of the pan-Green camp. 

At the time, however, the Chinese government also framed the ban as a response to the “diehard” independence advocacy of Su, Wu, and Yu. The ban was also understood as an attempt to frame DPP political leaders as pro-independence extremists. With China’s recent guidelines, a similar effort may be underway, particularly with the measures announced one month after Lai Ching-te’s presidential inauguration. 

Yet what has further raised alarm is the guidelines also specify punishment for individuals who “extensively distort and falsify the fact that Taiwan is a part of China in the fields of education, culture, history, and news media.” This raises questions as to whether the new guidelines would target ordinary Taiwanese who may not be involved in politics. For example, Taiwan’s standard high school curriculum could potentially be framed by China as a historical “distortion” and, in this way, teachers could possibly be targeted under the new guidelines. 

In this way, the legal guidelines can be seen as expanding on previous moves by the Chinese government. After its ban on Su, Wu, and Yu in September 2021, the Chinese government announced sanctions on Huang Shih-tsung, Lee Zheng-hao, Liu Bao-jie, Wang Yi-chuan, and Yu Pei-chen in May 2024, as well as their family members. Wang Yi-chuan is a DPP politician, and Yu Pei-chen is a retired major general who later became a Taoyuan city councilor. However, Huang Shih-tsung, Liu Bao-jie, and Lee Zheng-hao are media commentators, so their inclusion on the list widened the circle of Taiwanese that China’s government was specifically targeting with sanctions.

Curiously, Huang Shih-chung most often features as a guest on pan-Blue networks, and Lee Zheng-hao and Yu Pei-chan are former members of the KMT. Lee in particular was expelled from the KMT over criticisms of the KMT’s 2020 presidential candidate, Han Kuo-yu. It is not clear whether the Chinese government may have misunderstood something about the political views of these individuals, or if it hoped to show that members of the pan-Blue camp could potentially face sanctions if they did not sufficiently toe the line. 

It remains to be seen if the new legal guidelines, then, build on previous sanctions or bans in expanding the purview of independence-related charges. The pan-Green camp has compared China’s new legal guidelines to the national security law implemented in Hong Kong, warning that it establishes a precedent for future legal actions directed against Taiwanese. 

The Chinese government criticized the Lai administration over its escalation of the alert level for travel to China, claiming that the Lai administration is unnecessarily seeking to stir up fears about China for the sake of politics. 

Nevertheless, according to MAC spokesperson Liang Wen-chieh in comments on a radio program, a Taiwanese businessman is currently detained in China on the basis of the national security law. 

Later comments by the MAC indicate that 15 Taiwanese nationals were detained by China in past years. Details about such individuals are not always known publicly, especially in cases when family members decide not to come forward to the media about arrests or detentions or, in some cases, do not notify the MAC. Still, some of the known cases include pro-unification advocates such as academic Tsai Jin-shu. Other cases involved Chinese nationals who have acquired Taiwanese citizenship, such as publisher and editor Fucha, and reports in late 2023 that a Chinese member of a Tsai Ing-wen support group who acquired Taiwanese citizenship through marriage had been detained in China. 

Reports later indicated that a Taiwanese man named Chen Po-wei, born in 1985, had been questioned by customs when entering Hong Kong. This seemed to be a case of mistaken identity, seeing as the man’s name is the same as former Taiwan Statebuilding Party legislator Chen Po-wei when rendered in pinyin, and he was born in the same year as the former lawmaker. In comments to the media, the Chen Po-wei who was questioned stated that he would not change his name, but that he would reconsider travel to China in the future. 

This case proved unusual, though there have been cases in which Taiwanese activists, academics, and others were blocked from traveling to Hong Kong in the past. 

As of now, it is unclear how the new legal guidelines in China will be applied. Yet the period immediately after the Lai inauguration may be a time of increased sensitivity, with China aiming a show of force toward Taiwan – not only in the form of military exercises as took place in the days after the inauguration, but also legal measures directed at Taiwanese citizens.