Taiwan’s anti-infiltration bill: McCarthyism or a ‘safety net’ to counter election meddling?

Lawrence Chung

Critics of Taiwan’s controversial anti-infiltration bill – which criminalises political activities funded or backed by Beijing – call it McCarthyism. Some have even said it could lead to the “white terror” suppression seen in Taiwan between 1949 and 1992.

Despite the criticism, President Tsai Ing-wen and the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, which has a majority in the legislature, are pushing for the bill to be passed by the end of the year.

Tsai has repeatedly accused Beijing of meddling in the run-up to the self-ruled island’s presidential and legislative elections on January 11, and says the legislation is needed to counter efforts to influence the polls.

Explaining the move, Tsai said last week there was “growing concern” in Taiwan about infiltration by Beijing and “we need to build a safety net for national security and there is an urgency for us to do so”.

But opposition politicians, especially those from the mainland-friendly Kuomintang, People First Party and the New Party, have accused the independence-leaning DPP of trying to silence dissent ahead of the polls. And they say the language used in the proposed legislation is vague.

Taiwan’s president said there was “growing concern” in the self-ruled island about infiltration by Beijing. Photo: EPA-EFE

Under the bill, anyone who receives funding, instructions or donations from “external forces” to mobilise public rallies, for election campaign activities, to lobby government officials or lawmakers, or disrupt the social order could be jailed for up to five years and fined up to NT$10 million (US$332,000).

KMT spokesman Chang Hsien-yao said it was being rushed through by the DPP.

“The bill was never reviewed in the first reading and was sent to the floor directly for debate and passage in just a day,” Chang said. “[It] is also problematic given the vague language used in the bill – it could allow the DPP to interpret the law so they can criminalise and go after political opponents.”

Former president Ma Ying-jeou of the KMT has called the bill “absolutely absurd”.

“It will be like martial law has returned to Taiwan if this legislation is passed,” he said earlier this month.

Strongman leader Chiang Kai-shek introduced martial law after he set up an interim government on the island following the defeat of his KMT forces by the Chinese communists at the end of the civil war in 1949. It was lifted by his son and successor, Chiang Ching-kuo, in 1987, paving the way for democracy on the island and ending nearly four decades of “white terror”, during which tens of thousands of people suspected of being dissidents were arrested, and many were executed.

PFP chairman and presidential candidate James Soong Chu-yu has also been critical of the bill, describing it as “rash and unjust”.

“More than 2 million Taiwanese businesspeople work in mainland China, and a lot of religious and travel exchanges take place across the strait,” Soong said. “Any negligence [on this] could cause public panic, and that will have a further impact on the government’s authority and people’s trust in the government.”

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Soong also accused Tsai of trying to bypass democratic procedures to force through the bill, saying it was no different to McCarthyism, which he called “a blemish on United States democracy”.

McCarthyism, the campaign by Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s to expose supposed communist infiltration of the US government, now refers to accusations of subversion or treason made without proper regard for the facts.

According to lawyer Chen Li-ling, rushing through the bill would “violate procedural justice” and she also said its wording was ambiguous.

“There are more than a million Taiwanese people working or studying on the mainland, and they could easily break this law without knowing it,” she said. “For example, you might have a mainlander married to a Taiwanese man. Say her distant relative is a communist or mainland government official, she may end up in trouble if she brings a letter from that relative to give to someone in Taiwan.”

The lawyer said that situation could be construed as “receiving an instruction” from mainland authorities under the proposed legislation because it did not clearly specify what constituted an instruction.

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Using “external forces” to refer to Beijing also went against the constitution, Chen said, since both the mainland and Taiwan were part of the Republic of China – the island’s official name for itself.

“Technically speaking, Hong Kong is now a special administrative region of the mainland. So does that mean investments from Hong Kong would be listed as mainland-backed activities?” she said.

But for National Chiao Tung University law professor Carol Lin Chih-chieh, the proposed legislation did not go far enough. “I don’t think the bill is strict enough to block infiltration from China and I am surprised that anyone would see it as a return to white terror,” she told a seminar last week.

Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council, the top policy body for cross-strait affairs, said the bill would not affect law-abiding Taiwanese on the mainland. “The legislation will crack down on acts of infiltration, not normal people who are working or studying on the mainland,” council chairman Chen Ming-tong said, adding that it was aimed at countering Beijing’s efforts to expand its “illicit influence on Taiwan”.

Beijing views Taiwan as a renegade province that should be brought back under mainland control, by force if necessary.

On the mainland, observers saw the bill as part of the DPP’s strategy to get Tsai re-elected, and expected it would worsen tensions across the strait.

“The anti-infiltration legislation will be an enormous challenge [for cross-strait ties] and it will make any chance of peaceful reunification more unlikely,” said Liu Guoshen, director of the Taiwan Research Institute at Xiamen University.

“It may ultimately force the mainland authorities to take some corresponding action, even force.”

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Li Zhenguang, a Taiwan studies professor from Beijing Union University, said the legislation could also discourage people who favoured closer ties with the mainland from voting for the KMT.

“Long-term, some Taiwanese may avoid visiting the mainland or taking part in cross-strait activities because of this,” Li said.

Additional reporting by Minnie Chan

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