by Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: Vlog心聲/YouTube
A CHINESE YOUTUBE vlogger who has in the past expressed support for Taiwanese democracy surnamed Liu reported last week that his mother has been detained by the National Security Bureau for over four days in his native Suzhou. The disappearance of Liu’s mother should be concerning, not only within Taiwan but to Chinese supporters of Taiwan—even if they live outside of China.
Liu runs a vlog on YouTube with over 20,000 followers by the name of “Vlog心聲”. Liu has been studying in the United States since October of last year and took advantage of being outside of China to critically comment on Chinese politics. With regards to the relation of Taiwan and China, Liu has stated that he hopes one day that China will be democratic and that the 23 million people of Taiwan will be able to freely decide whether they want to be part of China or not.
Video by Liu discussing his mother’s disappearance. Film credit: Vlog心聲/YouTube
This would be a position which is not explicitly supporting Taiwanese independence, simply one that would call for Taiwan’s democratic rights to self-determination to be respected. Nevertheless, this and Liu’s other commentary may still have incited Chinese authorities to take action against Liu’s mother.
According to Liu, after his mother was detained by the National Security Bureau of Suzhou, she withdrew from the family WeChat group. Speaking briefly with his father in a three-minute phone call, Liu stated his father said he had also been questioned and claimed that his mother was safe, but refused to say any more, also mentioning that he was preparing for surgery. In the video that he later released about this series of events, Liu stated that he wished to speak directly with his mother by video, since if he is text messaged by someone claiming to be his mother, he cannot be sure that this is not an imposter. Liu has continued to post on his channel since then.
Unfortunately, this would not be the only case of a Chinese citizen being “disappeared” for supporting Taiwanese democracy. Chinese Weibo and Twitter commentator Tang Yantao, whose Twitter handle was Tang Tang, was “disappeared” in October 2018 after criticizing the Chinese government for “poaching” Taiwan’s few remaining diplomatic allies. Tang had been known for criticizing authoritarian measures instituted by Chinese president Xi Jinping in the past and expressed support for Taiwanese democracy.
The Chinese government has also proven willing to kidnap Taiwanese citizens for advocating democracy in China, treating them as they were Chinese citizens, as observed in the detention and trial of human rights advocate and former DPP staffer Lee Ming-che in March 2017. Hong Kong citizens critical of China have also been “disappeared” from within Hong Kong borders, reappearing in China to face trials, as occurred in the case of five Causeway Bay booksellers who published books critical of China.
Yet “disappearing” the mother of a political dissident, rather than simply questioning them, may be a sign of escalating measures against political dissidents from Chinese authorities. It is to be seen if China will increasingly move to punish the family members of political dissidents for their relatives’ actions, as a means of social control, something which seems to have become increasingly common in past years.
Video by Liu discussing Taiwan and China. Film credit: Vlog心聲/YouTube
In the case of Tang, it may not be surprising that the Chinese government would eventually take action against her, given her posts on Weibo. But Chinese political dissidents sometimes mistakenly have the view that posting on western social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter is relatively safer than posting on Chinese social media platforms such as WeChat or Weibo. This is especially true of Chinese political dissidents living abroad, such as Liu.
Nevertheless, it should be clear that the Chinese government is also monitoring these platforms; that is, assuming the western tech companies which own these platforms have not provided the Chinese government a backdoor into their operations because of a desire to enter the lucrative Chinese market. And the Chinese government generally keeps close tabs on its citizens living abroad.
Liu’s case has received some attention in Taiwanese media, including in the Liberty Times and NewTalk. Voice of America noted that half of the comments on Liu’s YouTube channel are written in traditional characters, suggesting that the commentators are from Taiwan or Hong Kong. Nevertheless, American media has been slow to report on the case, likely because Liu does not appear to be an American citizen. It remains to be seen whether the case will attract more attention.