Thanks to an uncomfortable confluence of transnational crime and geopolitics, 2017 ended on a bitter note for Taiwan and its sovereignty. Despite objections from Taipei, on December 15, a Spanish court granted Beijing’s request to extradite 121 Taiwanese suspects to mainland China. Then, on December 18, 44 Taiwanese suspects, previously deported from Kenya and Indonesia, were sentenced to prison in China. Taipei protested both deportations.
These developments are the latest in a string of similar cases; Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Armenia have also deported Taiwanese nationals to the mainland in recent years. This broader pattern and the latest developments — particularly the Spanish case — demonstrate the efficacy of Beijing’s decades-long crusade to isolate Taiwan, a self-governing island that the mainland views as a rogue province.
All of the Taiwanese suspects in question were arrested in connection to large-scale telecoms fraud — an increasingly salient problem that predates current cross-strait tensions. These scammers often impersonate government officials, attempting to dupe their victims into transferring large sums of money. Though this form of telecoms fraud began as a domestic Taiwanese issue, the criminal groups behind these schemes have since expanded their operations across the globe and now chiefly target victims in China, reportedly costing mainlanders more than USD 1.5 billion per year.
Some observers suggest that Beijing’s extradition requests are motivated by Taiwan’s ineffective handling of the telecoms fraud, rather than by a desire to bully Taiwan or its current president, Tsai Ing-wen. President Tsai belongs to the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), a political party that the Chinese leadership is in no rush to treat favorably. Since Tsai came into office in 2016, China has ramped up its efforts to coerce Taiwan, including ending an unofficial diplomatic truce by convincing Gambia to switch its diplomatic recognition to the mainland. China’s extradition requests are likely separate from this broader pressure campaign because, though Beijing and Taipei have cooperated to fight these scams, Chinese authorities have consistently expressed frustration at Taiwan’s “weak” response to transnational telecoms fraud.
Taiwan’s legal system demands more evidence for conviction than China’s, which means that suspects extradited to Taiwan are known to receive light sentences or even walk free, as was the case with 20 suspects deported from Malaysia in April 2016. It then follows that if Taiwan could deal with these criminals on its own, China would have less of a motive to scoop up Taiwanese suspects across the globe. What is more, the countries that extradite Taiwanese nationals to the mainland are often justified in doing so. For example, one Taipei-based lawyer notes that “in the Kenyan case, suspects that flew to Kenya from China, used forged Chinese passports to enter China, or are facing criminal charges in China gave Kenya valid reasons to send the suspects to China.”
This being said, while cross-strait tensions might not be the immediate motive for China’s behavior, its extradition and sentencing of Taiwanese nationals cannot be separated from the ongoing political struggle between China and Taiwan.
Taiwan’s legal system demands more evidence for conviction than China’s, which means that suspects extradited to Taiwan are known to receive light sentences or even walk free, as was the case with 20 suspects deported from Malaysia in April 2016.
These two seemingly distinct phenomena are related because Beijing’s longstanding efforts to diplomatically isolate Taiwan have eroded the island’s ability to tackle transnational crime. In particular, following Taiwan’s expulsion from the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol) in 1984, the mainland has actively prevented Taiwan from regaining access to Interpol resources. As recently as 2016, China ensured that Taiwan be denied observer status in the Interpol general assembly.
Interpol helps law enforcement agencies from different countries cooperate and share information. Without access to Interpol resources — including the I-24/7 global police communications system — Taiwanese authorities have difficulty compiling enough evidence to convict suspects involved in transnational crime. The irony of this situation is that the mainland’s systematic campaign against Taiwan has — in effect — helped to enable the scammers that Beijing complains so loudly about. In this manner, Beijing’s strategy vis-à-vis Taiwan has been effective, but not without unintended and very real consequences; in addition to experiencing crippling financial losses, some mainland victims of Taiwanese telecoms fraud have been driven to commit suicide.
Recent developments, however, can be chalked up as unambiguous political victories for China. Of particular significance is the current situation involving Spain, which demonstrates a deep political and legal acceptance of China’s position on Taiwan. This case began in December 2016 when Spanish and Chinese authorities busted a telecoms fraud ring based in Spain. Of the 269 suspects arrested, 218 were Taiwanese. Prior to the Spanish court’s ruling, Taipei requested that Spain extradite all of the Taiwanese suspects to Taiwan. However, Madrid had already agreed to send them to mainland China — making Spain the first European Union member-state to do so.
Madrid’s compliance with Beijing’s extradition request, a political decision, was not beyond the pale. For example, in 2005 Spain became the first “developed Western country” to sign an extradition treaty with China. More broadly, Spain’s strategy for interacting with China is one of “accommodating mercantilism,” which means that Spain fosters close political relations for economic gain. In 2016, China was Spain’s third-largest import partner and its largest import partner outside of the European Union. Given Beijing’s hyper-sensitivity regarding Taiwan, Madrid had every reason to quickly grant the mainland’s extradition request, especially given the Spain-China extradition treaty signed in 2005. Taiwan, on the other hand, does not even have formal diplomatic relations with Spain.
Following Madrid’s initial deference to the mainland, a Spanish national court handed China another win when it ruled on Beijing’s extradition request in December 2017. The suspect’s lawyer contended that the defendants should be sent back to Taiwan on the basis of their nationality, among other reasons. The court rejected this argument, noting that while Taiwan possesses all of the characteristics of a state, its statehood is not recognized by the European Union nor the broader “international community.” This interpretation is consistent with an established strand of legal thought called constitutive theory. The court also observed that Beijing’s “One China” principle is increasingly accepted in international law.
Though this ruling is not the only legal decision to have denied Taiwan statehood, it could still serve as precedent in future cases — to the detriment of Taiwan and its sovereignty. What is more, compared to Madrid’s earlier political decision, this court ruling is significant because it was an apolitical choice — Spain has an independent judiciary. That a Spanish court has ruled on the basis of the “One China” principle suggests a deep acceptance of Taiwan’s international isolation. In short, this pattern of extraditions demonstrates that China’s campaign against Taiwan continues to produce results in both capitals and their courts, not to mention international organizations like Interpol.