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China Takes Custody of Taiwan Nationals in Kenya

On Tuesday, Beijing took custody of 37 Taiwan nationals in Kenya and flew them to China. This followed China’s taking of eight other Taiwan citizens from that country on Saturday.

Nairobi said the 45 were "deported," but Minister Hsia Li-yan of Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council used the term “rude and savage.” “Savage” may be a bit of an exaggeration, but the apprehension of the individuals, who arrived in China in hoods and handcuffs, appears to have been an “extrajudicial abduction,” as Taipei first termed it. In any event, the incident undercuts the spirit of cooperation embodied in the 2009 Cross-Strait Joint Crime-Fighting and Judicial Mutual Assistance Agreement.

Beijing believes the 45 Taiwan nationals were involved in a massive Kenya-based phone scam that, according to Beijing, stole “tens of billions of yuan”from Chinese citizens in China.

The problem for Beijing is that many of the suspects, prior to their "deportation," were acquitted in a Kenyan court. Beijing has said it will retry the Taiwan detainees who had been found not guilty.

Some commentators believe Beijing’s extraordinary move is part of a campaign to put pressure on Tsai Ing-wen, who on May 20 becomes Taiwan’s president. Tsai was swept into office in January elections that rejected the China-friendly Kuomintang. Not only did the KMT, as the ruling party is known, fail to hold the presidency, but for the first time it lost control of the Legislative Yuan, the national legislature.

Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party rejects the notion that Taiwan is part of “China,” the position taken by both the KMT and the Communist Party of China. And Beijing is clearly worried that Tsai will push the island republic even further from China’s orbit. Chinese officials have been trying, so far without success, to get Tsai to accept the “1992 Consensus,” a loose agreement between Beijing and Taipei that Taiwan and the so-called “Mainland” are both part of the same country.

The Chinese tactic will probably fail as Kenya's 'extradition' of Taiwan citizens to Beijing is already provoking indignation and diminishing support of Beijing in Taiwan. In a somewhat similar case, Beijing’s surreptitious seizures of two Hong Kong booksellers—one from Thailand and one from Hong Kong—triggered anger, panic, and intense criticism of Beijing that has crippled China’s standing in the city.

China’s actions have a chilling edge. In practice and as a matter of law, Beijing often does not recognize the foreign nationality of those born in what it considers to be “China.” Therefore, it frequently has denied consular protection to Australians, Americans, and others who have surrendered their Chinese nationality and taken foreign passports. In the Hong Kong bookseller’s case, China went further, having evidently pressured one of the abducted individuals to give up his UK passport so that Beijing would not have to deal with London over the blatantly illegal seizure.

And it now looks like Washington’s turn to feel the heat. It has been reported that one of those extradited from Kenya may be a US citizen.

China’s Global Times, which is controlled by the authoritative People’s Daily, says the fierce criticism in Taiwan against the Kenya seizures is partisan, “pro-Green,” a reference to supporters of Taiwan identity and self-governance. But the outrage in Taiwan is clearly evident across the political spectrum, from Greens to the still-“Blue” government.

Beijing now has custody of 45 of Taiwan’s nationals, but by taking them it surely will lose the remaining 23 million.

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