China Cracks Down on Espionage, Arbitrarily Arrests Taiwanese Citizens
A Scholar and a Tech Sales Person Among the Targets
On September 27, China reportedly jailed a Taiwanese national on charges of espionage, local media report, as it was cited by the Turkish pro-government Anadolu Agency.
Tsai Chin-shu, a Taiwanese citizen, was reportedly sentenced to four years in Chinese prison on accusations of espionage. Tsai was forerly the chairman of an organization called the South Taiwan Cross-Strait Relations Association, and, Chinese-state media claimed, had confessed to the accusations in 2020. Tsai has reportedly been detained since 2018, and received a sentence on September 27.
The case brings to mind another recent case of China's arbitray arrests that made international headlines: the story of Lee Meng-chu.
When Taiwanese electronics salesman Lee Meng-chu made his regular journey from the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen across to Hong Kong almost four years ago, he found himself selected for a random luggage search — and transformed into an enemy of the Chinese state.
At the bottom of his backpack, the Chinese border officers discovered five small fliers with maps that highlighted Taiwan — the self-governed democracy Beijing claims as its territory — and Hong Kong with the words “Hong Kong and Taiwan stand hand-in-hand together!”
That was all it took to be suspected of espionage. Instead of a quick business trip, Lee, who was 47 at the time, stumbled into a four-year saga in which he was jailed and barred from leaving the country. It was at times absurd, traumatic, and sometimes even tedious.
His story, told to The Washington Post over a series of interviews in advance of his long-awaited departure Monday from Beijing, is a rare firsthand account of how Chinese law enforcement uses coercion, threats, and trickery to build a case against someone they have decided has crossed its national security “red lines.”
China regularly uses exit bans or detentions at border control for political reasons, and the ambiguity of the rules enables Beijing to apply them liberally. It has added to the number of laws regarding exit bans since 2018, according to a recent report from the rights group Safeguard Defenders.
The U.S. State Department this month urged Americans to reconsider travel to China over concerns of arbitrary detention and frequent use of exit bans. It said one of the reasons the Chinese government uses exit bans is to gain bargaining leverage over foreign governments.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken raised three cases of wrongfully detained U.S. citizens when he visited Beijing last month. Among those is Kai Li, a Shanghai-born American businessman detained in 2016 and sentenced to 10 years in prison on spying charges.
In recent years, Chinese police have repeatedly targeted Taiwanese people over vague national security violations too. Yang Chih-yuan, founder of a party that promotes Taiwanese independence, was arrested in China when then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited the island last August, while Shih Cheng-ping, a retired economics professor, was sentenced to four years in prison for espionage in 2018 but still appears to be in China.
Almost four years ago, Lee became another Taiwanese citizen accidentally running afoul of Chinese officials.
This week, Lee was finally free. On Monday, he boarded a plane from Beijing to Tokyo, where he arrived wearing a face mask printed with a Taiwanese flag.
“I almost cried when I passed through immigration just now,” Lee told The Washington Post, at Haneda airport in Tokyo, where he spent some time decompressing.
“I’ll never return there," he added, referring to China.
China’s Ministry of Public Security, the Supreme People’s Court, and the Taiwan Affairs Office did not reply to requests for comment about Lee’s case, and phone calls to these departments went unanswered.
On that day in August 2019, when the Chinese border guards found the fliers in Lee’s bag, he was thoroughly searched, then shoved into a van and taken to a nearby hotel, Lee said in conversations with The Post. His version of events is impossible to verify — he was the only person there.