More than a score of Taiwanese will be spending several years in Chinese jails, despite protests from Taipei, after being convicted on Thursday of taking part in a telecom fraud ring in Armenia that targeted Chinese nationals. That is bad news for them and for Taiwan, but not because Beijing was able to convince Armenia to deport 78 Taiwanese, along with 51 Chinese, to China in September 2016, after they were arrested on fraud charges.
The Huadu District People’s Court in Guangzhou, China, convicted 29 of the Taiwanese transferred from Armenia, handing down prison terms ranging from three to 11 years, while the rest have yet to go on trial.
It is bad for Taiwan’s image to be seen as a source of telecom fraudsters and cybercrime, in the way that Nigeria’s name has become almost synonymous with Internet fraud or Russia with social network and media disinformation.
In the past two years, more than 360 Taiwanese who have allegedly been involved in telecom fraud schemes have been extradited to China, including the Armenia group, from as far away as Kenya to as close as Vietnam and Cambodia, joining scores of compatriots extradited on telecom and bank fraud charges years earlier.
China has claimed the right to prosecute not only its own citizens arrested in such cases, but Taiwanese as well, on the grounds that their victims are Chinese nationals, while the deporting nations usually cite the “one China” principle in bowing to Beijing’s extradition demands.
The Philippines began deporting Taiwanese suspects to China as early as 2011, despite strong protests from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the number of nations choosing to cite the “one China” principle and Beijing’s demands has continued to grow.
China has also turned a deaf ear to complaints from the Mainland Affairs Council that its actions are counterproductive to combating cross-border fraud and to furthering cross-strait relations.
For many years, China and other nations were able to argue, and rightly so, that repatriating such suspects to Taiwan meant letting them get off scot-free, because it was almost impossible for prosecutors to indict fraudsters for actions committed overseas. However, in November 2016, the Legislative Yuan amended the Criminal Code to include aggravated fraud on the list of crimes that could be prosecuted in Taiwan, even if it took place “outside the territories of the Republic of China.”
That, along with more aggressive efforts by the Criminal Investigation Bureau to crack down on people in Taiwan suspected of involvement in telecom fraud abroad, has helped. For example, 97 Taiwanese were arrested in January in Croatia and Slovenia after authorities in those nations were tipped off by local officials, with 91 of them repatriated to Taiwan for trial, while raids last month in Taichung led to the arrests of five people suspected of being behind the rings.
Taiwanese engaged in telecom fraud overseas have severely tarnished the nation’s international image, bureau Deputy Director Lu Chun-chang (呂春長) said last month as he announced the raids abroad and in Taichung.
Lu said the police have created a digital platform to track fraud suspects and inform authorities overseas. That is a good start, but the government needs to do more to discourage people from going abroad to take part in telecom fraud rings.
Print and social media campaigns should be aimed at schools and colleges, as well as linked to passport information Web sites, warning that involvement in such schemes could lead to several years in prison — and a Chinese prison at that.
It is not a case of acknowledging Beijing’s “one China” principle, but acknowledging reality. It is no good protesting about deportations to China after people are arrested; the idea should be to convince them not to break the law in the first place.
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