by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: Lai Ching-te/Facebook

CHINA’S TAIWAN AFFAIRS OFFICE (TAO) announced sanctions on five Taiwanese citizens, as well as their family members, earlier this week. These five individuals are Huang Shih-tsung, Lee Zheng-hao, Liu Bao-jie, Wang Yi-chuan, and Yu Pei-chen.

This is not the first time that the TAO has announced sanctions on Taiwanese citizens, with others sanctioned in the past including Minister of Foreign Affairs Joseph Wu, incoming vice president Hsiao Bikhim, former premier Su Tseng-chang, and former Legislative Yuan president Yu Shyi-kun, all of which are DPP politicians. The sanctions included an entry ban to China, as well as a ban on their or their relatives doing business with Chinese entities.

The sanctions announced against Wu, Su, and Yu was with the claim that the three were “diehard” supporters of Taiwanese independence and that these were reciprocal measures. The Chinese government has actually announced sanctions against Hsiao more than once, perhaps reflecting displeasure with Hsiao’s role in facilitating stronger ties between the US and Taiwan in past years as Taiwan’s representative to the US.

Through the sanctions, China may have sought to frame such individuals as dangerous provocateurs to cross-strait stability, in emphasizing how it considers members of the DPP to universally be supporters of Taiwanese independence. This is despite the fact that the DPP has backed away from a pro-independence position under the Tsai administration and instead moved toward emphasizing the status quo. The move was mostly symbolic, as such high-profile pan-Green politicians and their relatives would be unlikely to try and enter China or to conduct business with China.

This time around, the sanctions were conducted on the basis of the five individuals purportedly spreading disinformation about cross-strait relations, in that these individuals are mostly political personalities or commentators. Huang Shih-tsung, Liu Bao-jie, and Lee Zheng-hao are frequent media commentators, while Wang Yi-chuan is a DPP politician, and Yu Pei-chen is a retired major general who later became a Taoyuan city councilor. Some have interpreted the sanctions as showing how China is now targeting not only politicians, but also political commentators.

Photo credit: Undefined/WikiCommons/CC BY 3.0

Nevertheless, what proves unusual is that many of these individuals in fact have pan-Blue political backgrounds. Huang Shih-chung usually appears on pan-Blue networks, while Lee Zheng-hao and Yu Pei-chan are former members of the KMT. Lee in particular was expelled from the KMT over his strident public criticisms of the party’s 2020 presidential candidate, Han Kuo-yu.

The inclusion of members of the pan-Blue camp in this list of sanctioned individuals is unclear. For one, it is possible that the Chinese government misunderstands political views in Taiwan. There have been times in which statements or views that would hardly be perceived as pro-independence in Taiwan are misunderstood by China as pro-independence. One famous incident in point was when the Taiwanese member of K-pop group TWICE, Chou Tzu-yu, came under fire from Chinese netizens for a perceived pro-independence stance for waving the ROC flag in a promotional clip–something that would hardly be read as pro-independence in Taiwan. Chou was made to apologize for this in a video released by TWICE’s management, stoking outrage.

Or the sanctions could be a message to the pan-Blue camp that certain views, or lack of success, will not be tolerated. Indeed, among the Taiwanese currently detained in China on political charges, while some are known to be pan-Green in political stances, a number are actually pro-unification advocates. This has not prevented their arrest on charges of seeking to subvert the state, sometimes because their views still run afoul of the Chinese government, or for unclear reasons.

Either way, sanctions against Taiwanese citizens are still largely symbolic, and for the sake of signaling more than anything. The sanctions are an effort to mimic the Magnitsky-style sanctions rolled out by the US against Russia and China.

While sanctions are one thing, it is to be seen if the Chinese government widens the scope of retaliatory action directed at Taiwanese, such as by kidnapping Taiwanese in China.

To this extent, one notes that the Chinese government has floated the notion of a ban targeting all Taiwanese independence advocates for years. Such a ban would be difficult to enact, given the difficulty of determining a list of all Taiwanese supportive of Taiwanese independence, drawing up such a list, and checking that list at the border. More outlandishly, there has even been the suggestion that China would draw up a kill list of supporters of Taiwanese independence for use in the event of an invasion, but this would be difficult to carry out in practice for the same reasons, and the idea has mostly been floated as a form of intimidation.

As such, it was more likely that the Chinese government might target several high-profile political figures and attempt to use them to set an example for other Taiwanese. This may be what is the case here, given that the timing of the announcement is shortly before Lai Ching-te is set to take office on May 20th.

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