by Brian Hioe

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Photo Credit: Ptrump16/WikiCommons/CC

RETIRED TAIWANESE academic Shih Cheng-ping was sentenced by the Chinese government to four years in prison on espionage charges earlier this week. Shih originally taught at National Taiwan Normal University and worked as an economist for the Chinese state-run Huaxia Group.

Shih was among the Taiwanese that confessed to spying on a Chinese television program of forced confessions from purported Taiwanese spies broadcast last month. The confessions broadcast on the program were likely extracted by force. While the Chinese government has claimed that Shih’s legal rights were protected during the trial, Shih’s trial was not public, with Chinese authorities claiming that this was because the trial touched on sensitive political matters. Shih was also deprived of political rights for two years and properties worth 20,000 yuan were confiscated from him.

Shih Cheng-ping. Photo credit: Shih Cheng-ping/Facebook

In particular, the Chinese government is attempting to reinforce the narrative that the Taiwanese government is engaged in spying operations against China, as well as that Taiwanese political interference was behind protests such as those that have taken place in Hong Kong for over the past year. The program broadcast last month also included confessions from Taiwanese academic Tsai Jin-shu and Taiwanese businessman Morrison Lee Ming-chu, with broader claims in the program that the Chinese government has uncovered hundreds of Taiwanese spies as part of a crackdown.

It is unknown how many Taiwanese citizens may be detained in China. Last year, Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) revealed that there are 149 Taiwanese citizens currently missing in China, with the MAC unable to confirm the whereabouts of 67 individuals. Although some individuals may have suffered accidents, some may be currently imprisoned on political charges.

It proves difficult to know the total number of Taiwanese that may be detained by the Chinese government on political charges. Indeed, Shih’s disappearance in China did not emerge until last December, after having originally been detained in China in August 2018. In other words, Shih had been imprisoned for over one year and three months before news of his kidnapping by the Chinese government broke.

Namely, Shih’s family originally sought to keep quiet about the incident, telling friends that Shih was simply traveling. Shih’s family feared that he would become known as a “second Lee Ming-che” if news of the incident broke and did not hope to stress his ill mother.

Tsai Jin-shu. Photo credit: Tsai Jin-shu/Facebook

This would not be the first time that the families of individuals kidnapped by the Chinese government have sought to keep quiet publicly, perhaps hoping that the Chinese government would be quicker to release the kidnapped individuals if they did not seek to draw attention to the issue. One notes that this was the case with Tsai Jin-shu’s family and some members of kidnapped Taiwanese human rights advocate Lee Ming-che’s family. Tsai’s kidnapping did not emerge publicly until close to one and a half years after it took place. However, unlike the other two cases, Shih’s family also sought to keep the Taiwanese government in the dark about Shih’s kidnapping.

The Chinese government has, in particular, claimed that Shih was conducting espionage for Taiwan in China under the pretense of academic exchanges. It may be that Taiwanese academics will be a particular target of Chinese political crackdowns going forward, much as with Tsai Jin-shu.

Otherwise, some ambiguities exist regarding why the Chinese government sought to target Shih. Shih was far from a pro-independence advocate. Shih was, in fact, a member of the KMT, a second-generation waishengren from a KMT family, and a staunch member of the pan-Blue camp, though he advocated for the localization of the party.

Shih’s KMT membership did not prevent him from working as an official under the DPP Chen administration, serving as Chen Shui-bian’s agriculture and trade representative to the United States. That being said, Shih remained a firm critic of the Tsai administration, penning columns highly critical of the Tsai administration in the China Times. Ironically, it is thought to be his column in the China Times that may have gotten him in trouble with the Chinese government, specifically after an article in which Shih wrote on the use of the CCP’s internal disciplining process for party members as a means of targeting People’s Liberation Army members.

Photo credit: Yinan Chen/Public Domain

The Chinese government has made it clear that it intends to take aim at Taiwanese advocates of independence going forward, claiming that it intends to compile a list of independence advocates. Though the idea has been floated before in the past, Chinese government spokespersons have asserted that they intend to publish this list of Taiwanese independence advocates next year. The Chinese government may try to detain individuals on this list if they travel through China. To this extent, Taiwanese living in China, in particular, may find themselves easy targets for the Chinese government.

Yet at the same time, it is clear that one can be targeted by the Chinese government while, in fact, being a member of the pan-Blue camp. Apart from that Shih was a member of the KMT, one notes that another one of the four Taiwanese known to be detained in China on charges of violating state security include Tsai Jin-shu, a pro-unification academic.

Tsai was, in fact, an active advocate of political unification between Taiwan and China as the chair of the Southern Taiwan Union of Cross-Strait Relations Associations and the director of the Kaohsiung Cross-Strait Exchanges Research Association. At the same time, this did not prevent him from being kidnapped by the Chinese government. More generally, one stands to be targeted by the Chinese government for simply being Taiwanese, then.

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