TAIPEI - Taiwan parliament’s passage of a bill Tuesday banning infiltration by political rival China dealt a new blow to relations that have already sparked military threats and diplomatic tug-of-wars in the past four years.
Legislators gave final approval to a bill that allows sentences of five years in prison or a fine equal to $330,600 for lobbying, election influence, fake news dissemination and political contributions originating outside Taiwan.
The law — an unusual tool for a democracy — doesn’t name China specifically but the government’s Mainland Affairs Council says it applies to Chinese nationals as well as Taiwanese with connections in China. Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office accused the ruling party Tuesday of using the bill to win elections.
The ruling Democratic Progressive Party camp says the bill will advance Taiwan’s security. Its government has previously accused China of meddling in campaigns for the January 11 legislative and presidential elections.
“Every country in the whole world is considering how to handle China’s infiltration or infiltration by autocratic rule, because this isn’t old school, not the same — they use technology, use the economy, use social media, Facebook and YouTube, all sorts of ways to infiltrate,” independent lawmaker Freddy Lim said ahead of the vote.
“So how do we use an administrative mechanism or legislative mechanism taken together so the new generation can stop this infiltration?” he asked.
China and Taiwan have been separately ruled since the Chinese civil war of the 1940s, when the Nationalists lost to the Communists and rebased their government in Taipei. China claims sovereignty over democratically ruled Taiwan and insists that the two sides eventually unite, by use of force if needed.
Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, a 63-year-old law scholar up for re-election this month, has angered China since taking office in 2016 by rejecting its condition for dialogue – that each side come to the table as part of China.
Tsai enjoys support among Taiwanese who oppose China’s goal of one day ruling their democratically run island. About 80% of Taiwan citizens are in opposition, government surveys found in early 2019.
China has flown military planes and passed aircraft carriers near Taiwan during Tsai’s term, the defense ministry in Taipei says. It also has persuaded seven countries to switch their recognition from Taiwan to Beijing, Taiwanese officials believe.
New chill in relations
Taiwanese officials began accusing China last year of using money and mass media to influence the upcoming elections. Chinese authorities had influenced Taiwan’s “grassroots” by enticing tourists, buying advertisements and using the “mafia,” the Mainland Affairs Council told VOA in July.
Tsai’s chief election opponent Han Kuo-yu of the Nationalist Party favors restarting talks with Beijing on its condition that both parties belong to a single China.
China’s Taiwan Affairs Office accused the Democratic Progressive Party of “major activity in ‘green terror’,” according to the semiofficial People.cn news website.
The party is known informally in Taiwan as the “green” side. The bill “destroys cross-strait exchanges, creates cross-strait hostility, hurts feelings between people on the two sides and severely impacts Taiwanese people’s welfare,” People.cn said.
A "psychological impact" is certain even if details of the bill go unenforced, said Yun Sun, East Asia Program senior associate at the Stimson Center think tank in Washington.
“It does have implications, it does have impacts and it does have at least as a minimum a psychological impact over businessmen, students and also scholars and also politicians in terms of their communications or their relationship with the mainland,” Sun said.
China, however, will probably keep quiet before the election to avoid being seen in Taiwan as an infiltrator, she added.
Opposition in Taiwan Nationalist Party lawmakers protested the vote Tuesday with a sit-in.
They fear the bill will lead to unwarranted surveillance of an estimated 2 million Taiwanese who work or study in China. Some invest there; others have taken jobs because wages in China are higher than the equivalent in Taiwan.
“It is a very strange law that is overreaching the power of the executive branch that can indict anyone suspicious of any activities related to China,” Nationalist Party legislator Jason Hsu said in an interview.
About 60% of new college graduates want to work outside Taiwan, Hsu estimated, and more than two-thirds are looking at China. “Would they be profiled as infiltrators or spies?” he asked.