Media coverage of the recent forced deportation of 45 Taiwanese nationals from Kenya to China has largely neglected two important issues. First, Taiwanese and Chinese money-launderers, online gambling syndicates, and fraudsters who target Chinese businesses, government officials, and ordinary citizens from bases in third countries represent a very real problem for China. Second, the Kenya incident fits into a broader trend in Chinese law enforcement: gaining custody of Chinese living abroad (and in this case Taiwanese nationals as well) by legally dubious, if not overtly extralegal, means.
The numbers are staggering. In June 2011, Chinese and Taiwanese police teamed up with their counterparts in Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand to nab 598 suspects linked to international internet and telephone scams that targeted Chinese. Among the suspects were 411 Taiwanese and 180 Chinese. In May 2012, 482 suspects, including 286 Taiwanese and 177 Chinese, were arrested in Thailand and Malaysia for allegedly swindling mainland Chinese out of 73 million RMB (11 million USD) through telephone scams. More recently, hundreds of Chinese and Taiwanese criminal suspects have been swept up by an anti-telecom crime campaign launched by China’s Ministry of Public Security and Ministry of Industry and Information Technology last November.
Chinese officials have expressed dissatisfaction with what China sees as the Taiwanese government’s ineffective efforts to combat gangs of transnational telephone and internet fraudsters and claw back stolen funds for victims. Since Kenya deported the first group of Taiwanese nationals to China, Chinese and Taiwanese officials have shown interest in improving cooperation on fighting telecommunications fraud rings. Nevertheless, reports this past week that China urged Malaysian authorities to deport Taiwanese nationals being held in Malaysia on suspicion of involvement in a telephone scam to China rather then send them back to Taiwan shows that more work needs to be done to rebuild trust and cooperation on crime-fighting between Taiwan and China.
Although it is possible that Beijing’s renewed interest in prosecuting Taiwanese citizens in China is in some way related to the recent ascendance of the Democratic Progressive Party in Taiwan, no definitive evidence of this widely speculated hypothesis has yet come to light. What is clear is that the long arm of the Chinese law is now more than willing to reach across borders to grab wanted men and women. In cases like the Kenya deportation incident and the apparent abductions of Hong Kong residents with European passports from Thailand and the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, matters of citizenship, due process, and jurisdiction have not prevented China from taking whatever actions it sees fit to take. Likewise, over the past few years China has succeeded at obtaining the deportation of hundreds of its Uyghur citizens from Southeast Asian countries despite strong opposition from human rights groups who have claimed that such deportations violate the principle of non-refoulement.
If China and Taiwan are truly willing to work together to strengthen their crime-fighting cooperation, there could be a happy ending to the Kenya deportation story. Taiwan and China could help each other combat these virulent crime syndicates that have deprived the Chinese government of the financial resources it needs to build a better country and robbed ordinary Chinese citizens of their hard-earned money. More important (albeit less likely), Taiwan could assist China with the development of its legal and penal systems. China could obviate the need for aggressive and controversial tactics to gain custody of criminal suspects abroad if it were to strengthen the rule of law at home and develop a more humane penal system. A commitment to far-reaching reforms could help China win more material support for its crime-fighting campaigns from the international community. Eventually, the reform path could help China secure extradition treaties with countries like the United States that are currently not comfortable forming such agreements with China.
There is no reason that this current friction in cross-Strait relations must foreshadow dark days ahead. Leaders on each side of the Taiwan Strait can choose to turn this current spat into an opportunity to enhance communication and cooperation.