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China vows to punish critical Taiwanese commentators, families for 'slander'

China's Taiwan Affairs Office this week vowed to punish five well-known Taiwanese media commentators and their families for “fabricating false, negative information” about China and “provoking [a] hostile cross-strait confrontation."

The sharp rebuke was made at a news briefing Wednesday by TAO spokesperson Chen Binhua in response to a reporter's question that China was looking at punitive measures for what it called “famous mouths,” or influencers, in Taiwan, who have been “spreading rumors and slander for a long time.”

The reporter from Cross-Strait Radio of the China Media Group who asked the question gave alleged examples of statements, such as "mainland people cannot afford tea-poached eggs" and "the mainland's high-speed rail has no backrest."

Chen responded that such commentators "ignored the facts of the development and progress of the mainland” and “hurt the feelings of compatriots on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.”

He named five Taiwanese — Huang Shih-tsung, Yu Pei-chen, Lee-Zhenghao, Wang Yi-chuan and Liu Bao-jie — and vowed to punish them and their families “in accordance with the law.”

Huang is a financial pundit on Taiwanese TV programs. Yu is a retired army major general and current member of the Taoyuan City Council. Lee is a political commentator in Taipei. Wang is currently the executive director of the Policy Research and Coordinating Committee of the Democratic Progressive Party. Liu is a journalist and host of the TV political commentary program "Critical Moment.”

Chen did not specify what remarks the five pundits made, which Chinese laws they violated, or what punishment China would impose on them and their families.

The critics speak back

The accused Taiwanese critics responded to the threats in comments to VOA with a mix of ridicule and political analysis.

Lee called them "glorious sanctions" that were likely “fake moves” by the Chinese government to appease internal hawks ahead of the inauguration Monday of Taiwan’s president-elect, Lai Ching-te.

"Looking at the sanctions among major powers, no one is sanctioning media people,” Lee told VOA. “When the United States sanctioned China, it sanctioned then-Defense Minister Lee Shang-fu and Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam. China's sanctions on Taiwan in the past were against [former Premier] Su Tseng-chang and [former Taiwan Ambassador to the United States] Hsiao Bi-khim. Real sanctions are against government officials and legislators, not civilians."

Huang noted the threat also came after U.S. President Joe Biden imposed additional tariffs on Chinese goods, including electric vehicles and solar panels, worth about $18 billion.

"It is obviously putting great pressure on China," Huang told VOA. "[China] has a very low cost of imposing sanctions on Taiwanese influencers."

Yu told VOA China's sanctions are a "belated glory" and vowed, "I will never bow to autocracy."

Sarcastically imitating the TAO's usual language, Wang said China’s Taiwan Affairs Office needs "deep self-reflection."

In a written statement, Taiwan’s Presidential Office spokesperson, Olivia Lin, said Taiwan is a democratic country, the constitution guarantees the people's freedom of speech, and China has no right to interfere. She said that in the face of personal threats from China’s TAO, the Taiwanese government will ensure the safety of its people and "will not let such threats succeed."

What Chinese netizens think

Chinese netizens had mixed reactions to China’s plans to somehow punish the Taiwanese pundits and their families for the unspecified violations of unspecified Chinese laws.

Some Chinese netizens echoed China’s Taiwan Affairs Office. One posted on social media, "These scammers are let off the hook easily even if they were shot in the head. They should be sent to the mainland's labor camps."

Others disagreed and said the threats would only elevate the pundits’ statures. One posted on social media, "Isn't this just like conferring medals on them?"

Akio Yaita is a prominent Japanese journalist who was raised in China and now lives in Taiwan. In his regular commentary series produced for VOA, “Akio Yaita Has Something to Say,” he said the sanctions won't have a huge effect on Taiwan but will hurt the Chinese government instead.

"The Chinese Communist Party used to say, 'We place our hope in the people of Taiwan [for reunification].' These people are popular in Taiwan. No one thinks their remarks are outrageous,” he said. “If China doesn't allow them to speak because they criticize China a little bit, it shows the Communist Party has no confidence. The Communist Party's control of speech will be intolerable to Taiwan and will push most Taiwanese people into opposition."

Beijing considers the self-ruled island of Taiwan a breakaway province that must one day reunite with the mainland, by force if necessary.

VOA's Adrianna Zhang and Joyce Huang contributed to this report.