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Could Taiwan's 'separatists' face death penalty in China?

Yuchen Li in Taipei
July 9, 2024

Beijing has unveiled new guidelines against what it says is "a very small number" of "diehard" advocates for Taiwanese independence — but others say these laws could apply to nearly everyone in Taiwan.

A Taiwanese coast guard member looks at a Chinese coast guard ship
China has engaged in increasingly aggressive military maneuvers near Taiwan in recent years Image: TAIWAN COAST GUARD/AFP

Chinese authorities have recently announced legal changes that could impose harsh sanctions, including the death penalty, on individuals working "at separating Taiwan from China." Beijing sees the self-ruled island as part of its own territory and has hinted at the possibility of using violence to subdue any attempts at pursuing indepedence.

Former Taiwanese legislator Chen Jiau-hua, already blacklisted by Beijing as one of the "stubborn separatists," told DW she was not intimidated by the new measures. Instead, the set of guidelines revealed last month simply made her grow "even more resentful" towards China.

"I think Taiwanese people shouldn't be afraid and threatened by these guidelines. Nor should they surrender to an authoritarian regime," Chen said.

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Some of the legal changes, however, are not easily dismissed. Beijing courts can now pass sentences, including life imprisonment or the death penalty, to "Taiwan independence" supporters who are convicted of conducting or inciting secession.

China says its new guidelines are targeting a "very small number of diehard 'Taiwan independence' separatists."

What are the guidelines?

This might include politicians like Chen, or other outspoken independence leaders such as Taiwan's current Vice President Hsiao Bi-khim and former Foreign Minister Joseph Wu.

But the 22 guidelines seem to intentionally employ vague language, with analysts describing them as legally ambiguous.

They list five "accurate identification of crimes," which include "attempting to alter Taiwan's legal status as part of China" and "advocating for Taiwan's participation in international organizations limited to sovereign states," but the last item on the list simply described the offense as "other acts aimed at separating Taiwan from China."

Penalties for "splitting the state" may include capital punishment if the crime causes "particularly grave harm" to the state and the people or "if the circumstances are particularly serious."

The guidelines also allow Chinese courts to hold trials in absentia for suspects not available in the country.

People who are already listed as Taiwanese separatists might not face immediate risk of arrest, Taiwanese legal scholar and consultant to the Taipei-based Straits Exchange Foundation, Wu Se-chih, told DW. However, they could be tried in absentia and have bounties imposed against them.

Most Taiwanese could be at risk

Taiwan's President Lai Ching-te, whom Beijing has publicly disliked and called "a dangerous separatist," reacted by saying that "China has no right to pursue cross-border prosecution of Taiwanese people."

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Wu told DW that, given the broad definition of the crimes, around 90% of Taiwan’s population could potentially be criminalized — a figure Lai also reportedly shared with his party's central committee during a meeting.

"Before the 22 measures, the target for [people advocating] Taiwan independence was broad. Now it's even broader," Wu said.

Wu warned that retired members of the Taiwanese military, its government personnel, employees of sensitive high-tech companies as well as educators are all among the high-risk groups, based on new laws and previous cases.

Such cases include Beijing charging Taiwanese activist and vice chairman of the Taiwanese National Party with "secession" last year after the official was detained in China for nearly eight months.

China dismisses travel concerns

Taiwanese authorities responded to the new laws by raising the alert level for travel to China. At the same time, foreign companies in China are considering relocating Taiwanese employees, according to the Reuters new agency.

In response to the travel alert, Beijing accused Taiwan's Lai administration of "maliciously smearing judicial documents" and issued a statement reassuring that most Taiwanese had no reason for concern and could visit China "in high spirits."

Will Beijing go after Taiwanese 'separatists'?

Beijing was already capable of punishing "Taiwan independence" advocates with the existing laws, according to Chao Chien-min, director of the Graduate Institute for National Development and Mainland China Studies at the Chinese Culture University in Taiwan.

However, Beijing chose to unveil new measures one month after Lai took office — which indicated its intention of targeting "more radical pro-independence individuals in the new government" rather than ordinary citizens, Chao said.

In addition, according to Article 17 in the guidelines, defendants or suspects abroad are to be handled by national and public security units instead of China's Foreign Ministry. Chao said this showed that Beijing was unwilling to "escalate the matter to an international level."

"Forcibly extraditing [suspects] to mainland China for trial would cause a huge international shock," Chao added. "I think given China's current international situation and diplomatic status, they probably haven't considered going that far."

Lessons from Hong Kong

In recent years, the Chinese government has passed or amended a series of national security-related laws, including an anti-espionage law and a law on guarding state secrets. The 22 guidelines are considered part of Beijing's efforts to expand its "legal toolbox."

Wu Se-chih believes that the latest move is a clear attempt to "make Taiwanese people feel a certain degree of self-restraint in their speech and political expressions," hoping to replicate the suppression methods used in Hong Kong.

Beijing imposed a national security law on the former British colony in 2020. A large number of pro-democracy figures, dissidents and journalists have been arrested since then.

"Hong Kong is almost completely in a state of self-censorship over the past four years," Wu said.

Chen, the Taiwanese politician sanctioned by Beijing, said that what China did to Hong Kong was "a very tyrannical approach."

"I think Taiwanese people will feel more aversion [towards Beijing]," if the same methods are applied to Taiwan, she said.

Edited by: Darko Janjevic

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