Deportation sets a dangerous precedent

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 15 February, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 15 February, 2011, 12:00am

Taiwanese people see an ominous precedent in the deportation of 14 of their compatriots to the mainland and a further erosion of Taiwan's sovereignty.

On February 2, the Philippines deported 24 people, 10 from the mainland and 14 from Taiwan, suspected of swindling 140 million yuan (HK$165 million) from 450 mainlanders through telephone fraud. The deportation came despite a strong protest from Taiwan's representative in the Philippines and an order from a Manila court to send the 14 back to Taiwan.

It was the first time that Taiwanese citizens have been forcibly sent to the mainland by a foreign government. Manila said the crimes were committed on the mainland, the victims were on the mainland and the case would be better settled there.

In an angry editorial, Taiwan's China Times said the case set a dangerous precedent. 'It will cause the misleading judgment that China can take care of Taiwan's legal issues. This would harm the status and interests of Taiwan as an independent and sovereign country and make the international society think that China can 'represent' Taiwan affairs. We absolutely cannot accept this,' the paper said.

The act was 'a violation of the jurisdiction principle of nationality', said Matthew Lee, director general of the East Asian and Pacific affairs department of Taiwan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Minister Timothy Yang Chin-tien said Manila had refused direct government-to-government talks over the case, falsely said that none of the 14 had their Republic of China passports and, before the deportation, assured Taipei that only two outcomes were possible - trial in the Philippines or repatriation to Taiwan.

Most Taiwanese people believe that the Philippines made the decision for political reasons; a team of mainland police officers went to Manila and asked for the deportation. Having to choose between the interests of Beijing and Taipei, it chose the former.

The Republic of China has diplomatic relations with just 23 countries. In addition, it has representative offices in 58 countries using the name 'Taipei'. They perform many functions of an embassy, but their staff do not have diplomatic status or immunity.

A Taiwanese abroad who needs help will turn to one of these embassies or representative offices. He can also ask the nearest Chinese embassy, which will be happy to help - like the 40-plus Taiwanese tourists who took a Chinese charter plane out of Egypt last month.

It is in exceptional situations that host governments are forced to choose between Beijing and Taipei. What if Taiwanese members of Falun Gong were arrested during a protest in a foreign country? Would they be sent to the mainland?

Countries that have diplomatic relations with Beijing sign a declaration saying that Taiwan is part of China, giving them a legal basis for saying that Beijing has authority over citizens of Taiwan.

The deportation sparked strong criticism of the Taiwanese government, with people saying that it had acted too slowly and indecisively. It was the biggest diplomatic setback of Ma Ying-jeou's term in office, said Tsai Ing-wen, head of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party and a front runner to stand against him in the presidential election next year. 'In order to please China, the Ma government has belittled and limited Taiwan's sovereignty and identity,' she said.

The Taipei Times went further, saying the sending of Taiwanese people to the mainland from Egypt and the Philippines was 'a clear sign that the 100th anniversary of the Republic of China - this year - may be one of its last'.

Mark O'Neill worked as a Post correspondent in Beijing and Shanghai from 1997 to 2006 and is now an author, lecturer and journalist based in Hong Kong