A Taiwan political activist has been formally arrested on suspicion of “secession” in China, more than eight months after he was detained amid heightened tensions across the Taiwan Strait.
Yang Chih-yuan, a democracy campaigner and pro-independence politician, was detained by Chinese state security in Wenzhou in Zhejiang province last August, hours after then United States House Speaker Nancy Pelosi wrapped up her high-stakes visit to Taipei.
Yang’s fate remained unknown for months.
But on Tuesday, China’s Supreme People’s Procuratorate announced on social media that prosecutors in Wenzhou had approved the arrest of Yang on secession charges, after the city’s state security bureau concluded its investigation and handed the case to the prosecutors for “review and prosecution.”
The statement did not mention when Yang will appear in court.
Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council said they had repeatedly reached out to mainland authorities about Yang’s detention but had not received a direct response.
“The government reiterates that Yang is innocent and calls on the Chinese Communist Party to release Yang and allow him to return to Taiwan as soon as possible,” the council said in a statement to CNN Tuesday.
Yang, 33, has been active in Taiwan’s social movements for more than a decade and once contested for a seat in Taiwan’s legislature, which he did not win.
In 2019, he became the vice chairman of the Taiwan National Party, a fringe political party advocating Taiwan independence. The party is now defunct, according to Taiwan’s Ministry of the Interior.
China’s state broadcaster CCTV reported on August 3 last year that Yang was taken into custody by the state security bureau in Wenzhou for engaging in “separatist activities” supporting Taiwan independence and endangering national security.
China’s ruling Communist Party claims Taiwan as its own territory, despite having never controlled it, and has refused to rule out the use of force to “unify” the island with mainland China.
Under leader Xi Jinping, China has stepped up crackdown against perceived threats from both within and outside the country, arresting Chinese and foreign nationals for endangering “national security” – a broadly and vaguely defined concept under Chinese law.
Non-mainland Chinese citizens have also been imprisoned for national security crimes. Taiwanese human rights activist Lee Ming-che, for example, was sentenced in 2017 to five years in prison for “subverting state power.” Lee was released last year after serving his full sentence.
Handcuffed and escorted
CCTV said Yang had long advocated the idea of “Taiwan independence” and founded the Taiwan National Party to push for Taiwan to become an independent, sovereign country and a member state of the United Nations.
The broadcaster aired footage showing a handcuffed man purported to be Yang being held by two officers, as the police went through his phone, wallet and other personal belongings.
In a subsequent report, CCTV said Yang had been placed under “residential surveillance at a designated location” from August 4 – a form of secrete detention frequently applied to national security cases in China that United Nations human rights experts say tantamount to enforced disappearance.
Authorities in Beijing and Taipei have not given any explanation as to why Yang had traveled to the mainland.
However, Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council reminded Taiwan citizens to evaluate the risks before traveling to mainland China, citing the “repeated occurrence of similar cases recently,” without elaborating on the incidents.
“When the epidemic on both sides of the strait is gradually slowing down and people on both sides are hoping to resume normal exchanges, the mainland arbitrarily arrested Taiwanese people, seriously harming the rights and interests of our people and creating fear,” it said in a statement to CNN. “This is bound to be detrimental to the exchanges and interactions across the strait.”
News of Yang’s formal arrest comes as concerns are mounting for a Taiwan-based book publisher, who reportedly has been detained in China since March, according to Taiwan’s Central News Agency (CNA).
Li Yanhe, better known by his pen-name Fu Cha, was reportedly detained by police in Shanghai in March, shortly after he arrived in China to visit his family and deal with residency-related issues, the CNA reported.
Last week, an official with Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council said Li was “safe,” but declined to provide further details citing the wishes of his family.
A group of 40 Taiwan and international writers, scholars and media workers have issued a joint statement calling for Li’s release, according to the CNA.
Li’s company Gusa Publishing said in a statement Monday on Facebook that it will stop commenting on the case out of respect for Li’s family’s positions but thanked the public’s support for Li.
It declined to comment when contacted by CNN Tuesday.
CNN’s Chris Lau contributed reporting.