February 24, 2024

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Exclusive: China attracts hundreds of Taiwanese politicians with cheap flights before the elections

Exclusive: China attracts hundreds of Taiwanese politicians with cheap flights before the elections

TAIPEI, Dec. 1 (Reuters) – Beijing sponsored discounted trips to China for hundreds of Taiwanese politicians ahead of key elections on the island, according to Taiwanese sources and documents, alarming officials with a wide-ranging campaign that one described as “election interference.” .

President Tsai Ing-wen and other Taiwanese officials have warned that China may try to woo voters toward candidates seeking closer ties with Beijing in the election, which could determine the island’s relations with China. But the scale of Chinese activity has not been previously reported.

Beijing, which claims to rule Taiwan democratically and has intensified military and political pressure to force the island to accept its sovereignty, sees the presidential and legislative elections scheduled for January 13 as a choice between “peace and war,” calling the ruling party the matter. Dangerous separatists and urge the Taiwanese to make the “right choice.”

Taiwanese law prohibits election campaigns from receiving funds from “hostile external forces,” including China, and prosecutors in southern Taiwan said this week they were investigating 22 people, including popular politicians, over possible violations of election and security laws.

A Taiwanese security official looking into China’s activities told Reuters that security agencies across Taiwan were looking into more than 400 visits to China in the past month, most of which were led by local opinion leaders such as district chiefs and village chiefs.

The agencies believe the trips, with discounted accommodation, transportation and meals, were supported by units of China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, said the person, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.

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The Chinese office did not respond to a request for comment. She has previously said she respects Taiwan’s “social regulations” when commenting on the election.

In response to a request for comment, Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council, the top Chinese policy body, referred Reuters to comments by its Minister Chiu Tai-san this week. He said it was “clear” that Beijing was trying to influence Taiwan’s elections through means including free trips for politicians.

“They have already made it clear that the so-called right choice must be made, that is, choosing the candidates favored by the Chinese Communist Party,” he told reporters, without going into details.

“Interference in elections”

Officials studying the matter said people making these trips usually pay for their own airfare, but Chinese authorities offer other expenses.

A second Taiwanese security official, who was briefed on the matter, said that “election interference began under the name of mass tours,” adding that Beijing was targeting politicians of importance to the island’s administrative systems who play key roles in shaping public opinion.

More than 300 mayors or village mayors from populous central Taiwan alone have taken such trips to China in the past few months, this person said.

More than 20 mayors from a district in the capital, Taipei, joined a Chinese-sponsored trip to Shanghai with their families in September, while more than 10 people from an association of local politicians in neighboring New Taipei City joined a trip this week, according to NB. bad”. Two security reports reviewed by Reuters.

One report said the Taipei district’s numbers had “increased significantly” compared to the election four years ago, and registrations were “rather enthusiastic.” “Some district chiefs have become a communications window in Taiwan for some Chinese units.”

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So far this year, more than 1,000 mayors or village mayors have joined such trips, a larger number than last time, the second official said, adding that China is targeting electoral areas where support is strong for candidates campaigning for closer ties with China. .

It is difficult to build a legal case

In the investigation conducted in the southern city of Kaohsiung, prosecutors said they believed the five flights from there were entirely funded by China’s Taiwan Affairs Office.

Chinese officials asked participants to support certain political parties and “oppose Taiwan independence,” prosecutors said in a statement.

“There is no such thing as a free lunch,” Public Prosecutor Hsing Tai Chow said on Thursday. He said external forces were trying to influence citizens in an “unprecedented way” and urged Taiwanese not to accept concessions or instructions from Chinese authorities when traveling there.

Security officials said filing criminal cases against tour participants is difficult, because it can be difficult to trace a financial trail to Chinese state agencies behind the flights, which are often far below the market price, and to learn about what was said during meetings with officials. Chinese officials.

Taiwan has suspended group trips to China through travel agencies following the COVID-19 pandemic, but there are no restrictions on visiting individuals.

The two officials said recent government scrutiny had prompted some politicians to keep a low profile on such trips, with some making arrangements separately and then meeting in China.

“They are now avoiding sitting in seats next to each other during their flight.”

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Report by Yimou Li; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard. Edited by William Mallard

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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Yimu Li is a senior Reuters correspondent covering all things Taiwan, including sensitive relations between Taiwan and China, Chinese military aggression and Taiwan’s key role as a global power in semiconductors. A three-time SOPA award winner, his reporting from Hong Kong, China, Myanmar and Taiwan over the past decade includes Myanmar’s crackdown on Rohingya Muslims, the Hong Kong protests, and Taiwan’s battle against China’s multi-front campaigns to assimilate the island.