by Brian Hioe

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Photo Credit: [email protected]西北/WikiCommons/CC

MOVES BY China to upgrade benefits currently enjoyed by Taiwanese similar to those enjoyed by Chinese citizens, as a way of luring Taiwan into its fold, would be another attempt by China to divide and conquer Taiwan from within. It remains to be seen how successful these strategies prove to be.

Photo credit: Kentaro Iemoto/WikiCommons/CC

China notably leverages on Taiwanese businessmen working in China, known as taishang, as a political force which it counts on to vote for pro-unification policies in Taiwan, because such individuals fear that the deterioration of cross-strait ties will negatively affect their businesses. China also attempts to lure Taiwanese—particularly young start-up founders in the tech industry—by offering them benefits such as subsidized funding, housing, and other resources, which they may lack in Taiwan due to the Chinese government and Chinese investors having vastly more resources than the Taiwanese government. And so upgrading benefits to Taiwanese to the same level of Chinese citizens is nothing new, though still a large upgrade of these existing “United Front” strategies.

Under new policy changes, Taiwanese will be allowed to apply for membership of industrial groups and certification previously only allowed to Chinese, invest in Chinese businesses, as well as to apply for government subsidies and tax breaks, bid for government projects, and participation in the “Made in China 2025” initiative. Taiwanese films will also be allowed into China without caps, as existed previously. Indeed, these changes are actually large enough that one wonders if China may actually be opening a can of worms for itself if it sees large investment by Taiwanese companies in an unregulated manner and the Chinese government eventually comes to see these companies as less than absolutely loyal to the Chinese party-state, particularly since they would in the end still be based in Taiwan, outside of the full reach of the party-state.

It is interesting to note that if the same occurred in reverse, with Chinese being granted these rights in Taiwan, this would no doubt lead to a large outcry, much as occurred with the Sunflower Movement occupation of the Legislative Yuan against the CSSTA trade bill in 2014, seeing as this would have allowed for Chinese investment in the Taiwanese service industry. However, China is of course confident that by virtue of its size, it does not need to worry about being swallowed by Taiwan. This is probably a correct assessment, although Taiwanese companies such as FoxConn and Pegatron already have much investment in China, and when some of these companies have proven highly exploitative of their Chinese workers, this has led to domestic backlash against the Chinese government for its close cooperation with such companies. On the other hand, with an increased amount of Taiwanese films being allowed into China, one wonders whether incidents of nationalistic Chinese citizens becoming enraged by what they perceive to be pro-independence sentiment in Taiwanese films will increase, and whether this will lead to increased incidents of self-censorship.

Chinese human rights worker Lee Ming-che while on trial in China. Photo credit: Weibo

China seeks to present the image that it is welcoming Taiwan with open arms through such new policies, while also hoping to paint the Tsai administration as the guilty party which went out of its way to worsen cross-strait relations in refusing to acknowledge China’s bottom line of the 1992 Consensus. However, Taiwanese have reason to be wary of closer relations with China, even if this means that Taiwanese are accorded the same rights as Chinese citizens.

Last year, China detained Taiwanese human rights NGO worker Lee Ming-che without any due cause, although this was likely due to Lee sharing the experience of Taiwanese democratization with Chinese friends and expressing hope that China could follow suit. Along with the experience of Hong Kong booksellers kidnapped for publishing tabloid-style books critical of Chinese political leaders including Xi Jinping, freedom of speech has certain been one negative example of what Taiwan stands to lose if Taiwanese citizens are treated the same as Chinese citizens, and in that way, subject to arbitrary detention for public and private statements. Lee and these booksellers would both later surface in China and confess to lurid crimes on television in what were likely forced confessions.

It has long been raised as a possible danger for Taiwan if China begins to treat Taiwanese citizens abroad as Chinese citizens and is able to strong-arm other countries into complying. This has been raised in cases of Taiwanese telephone fraud suspects being arrested abroad and sent to China, instead of China. Although China is in its legal rights to do this by international law because telephone fraud victims may be Chinese, this has raised anxiety nonetheless, and China has taken advantage of international law as a means of intimidating Taiwan.

Gui Minhai. Photo credit: CNN

Similarly, the kidnapping of one of the Hong Kong booksellers, Gui Minhai, took place in Thailand. This kidnapping likely would not have been possible except with the cooperation of Thai authorities and Gui was a Swedish citizen at the time of his arrest. By Chinese law, Chinese citizens give up their original Chinese citizenship when they naturalize to another country, but China chose to disregard this in the case of Gui—again, another warning for Taiwan that China could simply take to disregarding Taiwanese citizenship and treating Taiwanese as Chinese.

Yet reactions against the Lee Ming-che kidnapping have been primarily among activists already concerned with such issues, with lackluster responses from the government and public. It sometimes quite unknown as to whether Taiwanese are, in fact, sufficiently aware of dangers stemming from Chinese treatment of Taiwanese. In particular, taishang themselves often have a rosy view of China which comes from only inhabiting highly developed, urban areas of China, and considerations about democracy drop out of the picture. Some even seem to think that China has sufficiently democratized that there is no need to worry—that as long as they keep their head down and avoid politics, that they should be fine.

However, this would be an incorrect view. The Chinese party-state’s constant wariness of potential threats leads to continually shrinking limits for free speech, leading even those who attempt to avoid politics to end up being caught in the dragnet. And so the dangers of Taiwanese being treated as Chinese citizens are certainly there.

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