China to prosecute Taiwan pro-independence politician for ‘secession’

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

Chinese authorities have announced the formal arrest of a leading Taiwanese nationalist politician for ‘secession’ after holding him incommunicado for months, paving the way for a criminal trial over his activities on the democratic island.

Taiwan National Party Vice Chairman Yang Chih-yuan was detained in August 2022 under China’s national security law as U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi left Taiwan following a trip that angered China, which launched several days of wargames around the island in response.

Yang was arrested by state security police in the southeastern coastal Chinese city of Wenzhou and accused of having founded the pro-independence Taiwan National Party, with the aim of “promoting Taiwan to join the United Nations as a sovereign and independent country.”

Yang was placed in “residential surveillance at a designated location” from Aug. 4, 2022, in the eastern province of Zhejiang, meaning that he was held with no access to a lawyer or to family visits for six months.

State media reports accused Yang of “actively scheming” to work towards formal statehood for Taiwan, which split from mainland China in 1949 amid civil war and has never been ruled by the Communist Party.

‘Colluding with separatist forces’

They cited his campaigning for a referendum on independence for Taiwan, a sovereign state still using the name of the 1911 Republic of China founded by Sun Yat-sen, and his founding of the Taiwan National Party in 2011 as examples.

Reports at the time also accused Yang of “colluding with separatist forces to support Hong Kong secessionists” during the 2019 protest movement in the city, but that charge appears to have been dropped.

“Yang Chih-yuan, a criminal suspect from Taiwan, is suspected of the crime of secession,” China’s state prosecutor, the Supreme People’s Procuratorate, said on its official website on Tuesday.

“A few days ago, the Wenzhou Municipal People’s Procuratorate approved Yang Chih-yuan’s arrest on suspicion of secession,” it said. “The case will be passed to the municipal procuratorate for prosecution.”

Lee Ming-cheh, a Taiwanese community college manager who served a five-year jail term in China for “subversion” linked to his activism in the island’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party, said that while some of his activism had connections to China, Yang’s activities had all been carried out in Taiwan.

He said Yang’s arrest and prosecution should sound a warning to any politically active Taiwanese, and not just regarding travel to China, Hong Kong or Macau.

“The risk of something like this happening to Taiwanese people isn’t confined to China, Hong Kong or Macau,” Lee warned. 

“Anyone who is regarded by them as a Taiwan independence activist could wind up getting extradited from any country that has extradition agreements with China or Hong Kong,” he said.

Clear escalation

Lee, who was the first Taiwan national to be jailed for a crime under China’s national security law, said Yang’s case marks a clear escalation in Beijing’s intentions towards pro-independence Taiwanese.

“This is a clear attempt at suppression, and is intended to warn Taiwanese that advocating independence won’t be consequence-free, and that they could face threats and criminal prosecution in China,” Lee said.

“Last year, they were even talking about carrying out trials in absentia, in cases where they couldn’t lay hands on the person,” he said.

China amended its Criminal Procedure Law in 2018 to allow trials in absentia in cases of “crimes seriously endangering national security” and “terrorist activities,” vaguely worded offenses that are typically used to target peaceful critics of the regime.

In 2021, a court in Hong Kong jailed motorcyclist Tong Ying-kit for “terrorism” and “inciting secession” after he flew the banned protest slogan “Free Hong Kong, Revolution Now!” from the back of his motorbike.

Wang Chih-sheng, secretary general of the China Asia-Pacific Elite Exchange Association, said the sort of activities Yang engaged in are totally normal behavior in a democratic environment like Taiwan.

‘Chilling effect’

He said Yang is clearly being used to discourage freedom of speech and political activism in Taiwan, despite the fact that Beijing has no jurisdiction there.

“It’s clear that this could bring with it a new wave of chilling effects,” Wang said. “Taiwanese people could end up self-censoring their political speech and limiting their degree of involvement in activism or even political donations in future, if they want to do business with China.”

He said it’s likely that more cases will follow Yang’s, and cited the recent detention in Shanghai of Taiwan-based publisher Li Yanhe, or Fucha.

“[Yang’s arrest] could make everyone in Taiwan feel unsafe, especially when you add in the impact of the [detention of ] Eight Banners Press editor Fucha, and secret Chinese police stations overseas,” Wang said.

Authorities in New York recently arrested two men for allegedly setting up an overseas branch of the Chinese government’s Ministry of Public Security in Manhattan that was eventually shut down by the authorities last year.

Beijing has shut down a number of the offices in the wake of a September 2022 report from the Spain-based Safeguard Defenders group listing dozens of such operations, sparking investigations and orders to shut down from governments around the world.

Taiwanese Premier Chen Chien-jen called on China to release Yang and let him come home to Taiwan “as soon as possible.”

He also warned Taiwanese to exercise particular caution when traveling to China.

The Taiwanese government agency that deals with China said it has repeatedly called on Beijing to release Yang through various channels, but had received “no positive response.”

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