Kenya is one of the most unlikely countries to have emerged as a player in relations between Taiwan and China. It is not even one of Taiwan’s rare diplomatic allies on the continent, and while some Taiwanese have no doubt visited because of its reputation for interesting wildlife and beautiful beaches, it mostly does not register with the average Taiwanese citizen.
Yet the country now has emerged as the place to undo years of efforts by President Ma Ying-jeou and his Kuomintang administration to present their China policy as a success which has raised Taiwan’s profile in the world.
At the origin of the sudden crisis are dozens of people from Taiwan and China who were allegedly active in the African country perpetrating telephone and online scams, allegedly mostly targeting residents of China.
A local court acquitted many of them, leading observers to believe they would either be allowed to stay in the country, or return to their native country, in the case of 45 of them, Taiwan.
However, in a surprise move, China and the Kenyan police completely cast aside a court injunction and began by putting eight of the Taiwanese on a flight to Beijing. That is when the Taiwanese media became aware of the issue, with politicians of all stripes soon protesting what they saw as a gross violation of Taiwanese jurisdiction.
The fact that Taiwanese citizens were being spirited away to China by Chinese security forces reminded the public strongly of the mysterious disappearance of people linked to a bookshop in Hong Kong selling books critical of China who suddenly turned up inside the communist country.
It gave the impression that wherever in the world a Taiwanese citizen is located, he can become the target and victim of illegal behavior by the Chinese authorities.
The pictures of the Taiwanese arriving from Kenya in Beijing chained and masked only reinforced the impression that China was going out of its way to insult Taiwan and to waste the little goodwill it still had with the incoming administration of President-elect Tsai Ing-wen, who will be sworn in on May 20.
The most surprising reaction on the Taiwanese side came from the Ministry of Justice, which at first supported the Chinese stance that the victims of the scammers had all been Chinese citizens that they therefore should be moved to China for trial.
Following a renewed outcry, the ministry later adapted its stance and mentioned the principle of “concurrent jurisdiction” shared by Taiwan because the suspects were Taiwanese and China because the victims were Chinese.
Justice Minister Luo Ying-shay was unable to make critics forget her stance, since on Thursday legislators adopted a motion demanding her resignation.
The government was blasted as being unable to protect Taiwanese citizens overseas and for apparently failing to keep China abiding to existing agreements. The two countries signed a judicial cooperation agreement, known as the Cross-Straits Joint Crime-Fighting and Judicial Mutual Assistance Agreement, in 2009.
Taiwanese criminals and suspects fleeing to China have been returned to Taiwan, but the case of the Taiwanese held in a third country and moved to China was highly unusual.
For Minister Luo, China’s behavior must have come especially hard, particularly since she only recently returned from an unprecedented visit to China at the invitation of its top prosecutor.
However, it is President Ma who should have felt the hardest backlash from the whole affair. For eight years, he has been priding himself on how his steadfast defense of the so-called “1992 Consensus” has improved bilateral relations but also Taiwan’s standing in the world.
The Kenya crisis signifies a slap in the face for the president as the end of his era is rapidly approaching and he is seeking to cement his place in history. Earlier, his “viable diplomacy” claiming that Taiwan and China would no longer try and steal away each other’s diplomatic allies was already undermined when Gambia finally announced ties with Beijing, years after having broken off relations with Taiwan.
Kenya’s complete negation of Taiwan’s rights and China’s unrestrained action against the Taiwanese citizens are only further evidence that when push comes to shove, Beijing is not really interested in respecting any agreements or neatly packaged policies from Taiwan.
The “1992 Consensus” or “One China, Each His Own Interpretation,” as the Ma Administration keeps mentioning, is obviously a one-way street which only the president still believes in. China is doing everything to undermine the concept, because the only “consensus” it accepts is the “One China” part, which allows it to do anything it pleases with Taiwanese citizens.
Only if Taipei quietly accepts everything China does, will Beijing pay heed to the “1992 Consensus,” but if it can pursue its own interests, it will shove it brutally aside.
The Ma Administration has said it wants to send a delegation to Beijing to meet with the Taiwanese suspects and to lodge a protest, but China’s Taiwan Affairs Office immediately responded by describing the timing as inopportune and the planned talks with the detainees as difficult to achieve.
Regardless of how the case evolves over the next days, China has shown clearly it is not interested in respecting Taiwan’s sovereignty, wishes, policies or rights. The current government has lost its power to defend Taiwanese citizens’ rights overseas, even before the May 20 handover.