It’s been a rough week for the tiny southern Taiwan island of Canton. On Thursday, the United States expelled a Chinese diplomat for his role in a rare arrest of a Chinese spy, and then at least six Chinese citizens on Thursday were charged with the alleged fraudulent receipt of more than $2 million.
These bizarre events paint a picture of a diplomatic rift that is increasingly complex: Canton has historically seen tensions between the Communists and the Kuomintang, the party to which the majority of Taiwanese people still belong. China has sought to alter that status quo with arms sales, anti-ship missiles, and intensified economic pressure. From 2013 to 2017, China is said to have attempted six arrests of Taiwanese citizens, such as Gu Laiqun, thought to be a spy for Beijing.
But while Chinese citizens have been arrested, Canton has also seen more ordinary citizens arrested in recent years. According to the Chunli Human Rights Center, since 2013, 748 Taiwan citizens have been arrested under the National Security Law, which allows Taiwanese and other nationals to be imprisoned without trial, without compensation, or a showing of their guilt or innocence. Unlike in China, the law also gives for the compulsory detention of Taiwanese citizens indefinitely.
In 2014, Gen. Philippe Garcia Milvillier, the deputy chief of staff of the Army, was charged in Canton with withholding information concerning an impending military exercise and obstructing a state body. In 2017, the four principal actors in a fraud ring were also charged for trying to defraud the Canton branch of the Welfare Insurance Fund and the Canton Gas Company by falsifying bills to relatives of beneficiaries. One of the defendants, his wife and daughter, were also charged with bribery in connection with bribes over $100,000.
What does this all mean?
The trouble began when China launched a disinformation campaign in 2012 targeting Canton, targeting both key public figures and people who had been arrested for money laundering. The campaign was loosely based on the five-year “stability maintenance” campaign in mainland China designed to erode nationalist fervor in Taiwan. Since then, the government in Taipei has played the game and not made much of an issue about it, despite consistently raising alarm over the arrests. Taiwanese political leaders, increasingly worried by mainland pressure, also were slow to respond in favor of Canton residents. That has all changed in recent weeks, as policy announcements of new powers for the Falun Gong organization have prompted anger among Taiwan’s substantial Chinese-American population.
The story of Canton, with all its arresting crowds and arrests, will not mean much to most Americans. But the story of this tiny but important island in the South China Sea is long, and complicated.