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Detention of two Taiwanese in China sparks concern about personal safety


Taipei, Taiwan — Taiwanese photographer Lin Jai-hang never thought a seemingly routine business trip to China would turn into a 12-hour detention at a Chinese police station.

Lin, who has published several books documenting the lives of gay men, said he was supposed to promote his works at a book fair in China’s Nanjing City on May 31. But less than half an hour after he began to set up his booth, seven or eight strangers came up to start taking photos of his books and soon they called the police to take Lin away.  

“The police first went back to my hotel room for another round of search and took me and a staff from the book fair to the police station,” Lin told VOA in a phone interview, adding that the police told him he would be detained for 24 hours for “spreading obscene images.”

“They took away my phone, put me in handcuffs, performed a strip search on me, and collected my fingerprints and blood samples,” he said. 

During the questioning, the police asked Lin a series of personal questions, including his sexual orientation, details about his family, why he photographed gay men, and why he decided to join the book fair. “The police then sent me back to a room and I was detained for several hours with other people,” Lin recalled.

He was eventually released around midnight, but the police confiscated most of his works. “They told me that I was detained because the subjects of my works aren’t appropriate for public display,” he told VOA, adding that the police took away anything related to LGBTQ topics.  

Lin isn’t the only Taiwanese briefly detained in China in recent weeks. Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council, which oversees cross-strait relations, revealed on June 6 that a Taiwanese citizen was taken away by Chinese police and detained for several days while traveling with a tour group in the southern province of Fujian.

The council’s spokesperson Liang Wen-jie said this is the first time a member of a Taiwanese tour group was detained in China and the individual, whose identity remains undisclosed, was released a few days after his tour group returned to Taiwan.

Chiu Chui-cheng, the head of Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council, urged Taiwanese people to be aware of their safety and carefully assess the potential risks if they plan to travel to China, Hong Kong, or Macau.  

The Chinese government hasn’t publicly commented on the two cases and VOA has reached out to China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, which manages cross-strait relations, for comment.

Increased security risks

The detentions come as China passed a series of laws aimed at safeguarding national security since last year. Last July, China revised its anti-espionage law that gives authorities more power to punish what they view as threats to national security. In March, China’s rubber-stamp parliament vowed to adopt several security-related laws in 2024. 

Some analysts say the detention of the two Taiwanese reflects China’s growing concern about Taiwan potentially pursuing independence under President Lai Ching-te’s leadership and Beijing’s attempt to stop this trend.

“Beijing’s efforts to enact a series of new laws related to national security show that they believe it’s necessary to roll out more forceful measures to safeguard their core interests,” said Hung Chin-fu, a political scientist at National Cheng Kung University in Taiwan.   

Against this backdrop, other experts say Taiwanese people will face greater risks when traveling to China. “With the counter-espionage law and the national security law, there has been an expansion in the range of activities that could bring in law enforcement action in [China,]” Ja Ian Chong, a political scientist at the National University of Singapore, told VOA in a written response.

In his view, citizens from countries or places that have higher tension with China may face higher risks of being targeted by Chinese law enforcement. “See the earlier detentions of Australians [and] Canadians,” Chong said, adding that this means Taiwanese people will also face greater risks in China as tensions between Beijing and Taipei continue to rise.

Hung in Taiwan thinks this trend will create a chilling effect in Taiwan and deter some Taiwanese from traveling to China. “Since there is almost no guarantee of personal safety, any Taiwanese person thinking about traveling to China needs to carefully assess whether it’s worth taking the risks or not,” Hung said.

Some Taiwanese activists say the two recent cases reflect the lack of transparency to know where the red lines are,” said Lee Ming-che, a Taiwanese activist sentenced to five years in prison on subversion charges in 2017 by a Chinese court.

Taiwanese photographer Lin said the experience has convinced him that the risks of traveling to China are simply too high for artists like him, who focus on subjects considered inappropriate by the Chinese authorities.

“I don’t think I will consider traveling to China anytime soon because I’m worried I could be targeted if they arrest me under a different crime,” he told VOA, adding that his experience makes him believe that China is an unfriendly place to LGBTQ artists like him.

As China prepares to hold the annual Straits Forum in the coastal city of Xiamen on June 15, Hung thinks both sides of the Taiwan Strait are unlikely to reduce the increasingly heightened tension through the meeting.

“While China will try to continue influencing some Taiwanese people who favor deepening cross-strait exchanges, the effect of their influence campaign will be limited because the overall trend of cross-strait relations is still deteriorating,” he told VOA.

“A new Cold War is forming between the Chinese government and the Taiwanese government under the leadership of the pro-sovereignty Democratic Progressive Party,” Hung said.