China’s Taiwan Affairs Office on Wednesday announced that Shih Cheng-ping (施正屏), a retired National Taiwan Normal University professor, who Beijing says is a spy, had been sentenced to four years in prison for espionage crimes. The news followed last week’s announcement by Beijing that it is compiling a “wanted list” of pro-independence “Taiwan secessionists” that would be used to “punish” those blacklisted under its national security laws.
Taken together, the announcements show that Beijing’s Taiwan policy under Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) is becoming increasingly erratic, uncoordinated and poorly thought out, which raises serious questions about Xi’s leadership ability.
Shih went missing after he traveled to China in August 2018. The retired academic was not seen again until last month, when he appeared alongside four other Taiwanese “spies” on a primetime current affairs program aired by Chinese state broadcaster China Central Television — a three-part series of “exposes” of an alleged Taiwanese espionage ring operating in China.
In each case, the supposed evidence presented against the Taiwanese suspects was quickly pulled apart by analysts and Internet users on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. It was shown to be flimsy at best and, in some instances, laughably amateurish.
As the Mainland Affairs Council told a news conference in Taipei on Wednesday, Shih is guilty of nothing more than engaging in cross-strait academic exchanges.
Shih’s case follows a well-rehearsed pattern of arbitrary arrests of Taiwanese and other foreign nationals in China who disappear in the country’s opaque prison system. They are held hostage without being charged and often without access to a lawyer, until it becomes convenient for the Chinese authorities to wheel them out for a Stalinist show trial.
The Soviet Union’s show trials fooled many at a time when access to information could be tightly controlled, but in the digital age, such ham-fisted theatrics fool no one.
This latest arbitrary arrest, televised forced confession and incarceration of an innocent academic only makes more Taiwanese think twice about traveling to China once COVID-19 travel restrictions are lifted.
Speaking at the Legislative Yuan yesterday, Democratic Progressive Party Legislator Chuang Jui-hsiung (莊瑞雄) said that Shih’s case is likely to make Taiwanese academics wary of traveling to China and cause people to loathe China with an even greater intensity.
The case is even more bizarre because Shih is known to be a pan-blue supporter who wrote articles critical of President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) Democratic Progressive Party administration, but it was not the first time that a member of Taiwan’s pan-blue camp was targeted by China’s security apparatus.
Many have asked: “What is Beijing up to? Surely it is shooting itself in the foot?”
China’s unification strategy, especially under Xi, has aimed to sabotage Taiwan’s economy, and turn the nation into a Chinese client state by poaching talent and persuading as many Taiwanese as possible to suck from the teat of the “motherland.”
Beijing’s “wanted list” and its psychological warfare campaign against Taiwan appears increasingly unhinged. Does China seriously believe that threatening extrajudicial renditions against Taiwanese in China and elsewhere would somehow endear Taiwanese to Beijing’s cause?
China’s constant refrain that Taiwanese and Chinese are “one family” and “fellow compatriots” has never rung more hollow.
Taiwanese are sometimes guilty of assuming that China’s leaders are 10-feet-tall master strategists, when in reality, they are mortals operating within a deeply flawed political system. Each time that Beijing “disappears” an innocent Taiwanese, it hammers another nail in the coffin of its “one China” dream.
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