Last week, a total of 45 Taiwanese, shortly after some of whom were acquitted in a Kenyan court, were handed over to Chinese police. The fallout from what otherwise should be mere case of cross-border cooperation in combating organized crime network was depressingly predictable. Kenyan authorities washed their hands, Chinese praised Nairobi for upholding the “One China” policy, Taiwanese cried foul, and pundits elsewhere began asserting that Beijing must be sending some message to the incoming Tsai administration.
However, despite what many experts argue, we are looking at a badly managed case rather than a deliberate assault on Cross-Strait relations. Kenyan authorities gave preference to political contingency over upholding proper procedures. They carried out an extradition poorly disguised as a deportation, which usually does not involve handing deportees over to foreign law enforcement. Unless Nairobi wants us to believe that the group of Taiwanese citizens was merely forced to board the earliest flight out of the country, which was by coincidence a China Southern Airlines flight full of uniformed Chinese policemen.
With the imagery of hooded detainees surrounded by Chinese policemen on board of a plane, it is not terribly surprising that the Taiwanese public and media talk about kidnapping. Chinese authorities could not stop themselves from thanking Kenya for upholding “One China” policy when Nairobi was merely jettisoning some uncomfortable aliens. In the eyes of those predisposed to suspicion, China naturally confirmed that the case is politically motivated and a signal to the incoming government in Taiwan.
Taiwan is trying to occupy a higher moral ground in the eyes of world opinion. However, among the many unpleasant realities the Taiwan government, legislature, and general public need to ponder is why so many Taiwanese are involved in organized crime abroad. Moreover, Taiwan has not been a reliable partner in prosecuting such crimes. Granted, evidentiary standards are arguably higher and presumption of innocence is taken more seriously in Taiwan, but the problem is there. As local politicians admitted this week while attempting to craft new laws, Taiwan has routinely been giving accused fraudsters light sentences or even releasing them as soon as they arrive. To underscore that criticism, this week 20 alleged scammers from Malaysia were repatriated to Taiwan, and promptly released for “lack of evidence”.
Beijing naturally argues that the case is purely matter of seeking justice for wrongdoing on Chinese citizens. It may have a point. This is not an isolated event. Cases where Taiwanese and Chinese citizens have faced charges for phone scams directed from third countries at victims in China, Taiwan, and Chinese-speaking communities across the Indo-Pacific region, are fairly common. One could cynically argue that these are some of the tangible fruits of Cross-Strait cooperation: gangs find it easier to work together. In this respect, comparisons to the “mysterious” disappearance of Hong Kong booksellers and their expected reappearance in custody of Chinese police are unfortunate. These are two different issues. The proper context is not missing booksellers, but China’s ruthless pursuit of phone scammers across Southeast Asia for the last several years.
Beijing is not sending any message to President-elect Tsai. Not this time. What message could Beijing possibly be sending to Tsai? That if she does not say “One China” then Beijing is going to keep its Taiwanese gangsters? That is hardly a punishment for Taipei. Granted, the message could be more ominous, aimed at any Taiwanese citizens everywhere. But how often does Beijing want to see world media headlines accusing Beijing of kidnapping people abroad? How many countries would be willing to apprehend innocent tourists and hand them over to Beijing? What cost would that impose on Taiwan, Tsai’s government, and the Taiwanese people? The only victim of such approach would be Beijing’s effort to win over already unfavourable public opinion in Taiwan. Occam’s razor should be applied: the simplest explanation is usually the correct one. The Kenya case is first and foremost a criminal case, and the message China is sending to Taiwan is likely purely judicial: if you don’t prosecute these people, we will.
This is a longer version of an editorial published in the South China Morning Post on 18 April, 2016.
Michal Thim is a Taiwan defense specialist, a Research Fellow at the Prague-based think-tank Association for International Affairs, a member of CIMSEC, an Asia-Pacific Desk Contributing Analyst for Wikistrat, and a founder of Taiwan in Perspective. Michal tweets @michalthim.