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Benedict Rogers

Rome must send a clear signal of reassurance to Taiwan

With the threats to the island increasing, now is the time for solidarity from the Vatican
Published: September 11, 2023 04:09 AM GMT

Updated: October 04, 2023 06:01 AM GMT

Taiwan Premier and former vice-president, Chen Chien-jen, a devout Catholic, addresses the conference dinner at the third Taiwan International Religious Freedom (IRF) Summit held in Taipei

Taiwan Premier and former vice-president, Chen Chien-jen, a devout Catholic, addresses the conference dinner at the third Taiwan International Religious Freedom (IRF) Summit held in Taipei. (Photo supplied)

Last week, the third Taiwan International Religious Freedom (IRF) Summit was held in Taipei. Taipei. Taiwan’s Vice-President William Lai Ching-te, who is the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)’s candidate for the Presidential elections to be held in January next year, gave the opening keynote speech, as did the Speaker of Taiwan’s Parliament, You Si-kun, and the current Premier and former Vice-President Chen Chien-jen, a devout Catholic, addressed the conference dinner. 

President Tsai Ing-wen was absent this year as she was on an official visit to Eswatini (formerly Swaziland), one of the 13 remaining countries in the world to officially recognize Taiwan and the only remaining African state to do so.

What other Asian country has had such high-level participation with such consistency in forums to promote and protect religious freedom and human rights?

Taiwan is a beacon for freedom and human rights in Asia. As one of the region’s most vibrant democracies and most open societies, it deserves the support and friendship of everyone who treasures liberty.

It is growing as a regional hub for civil society, independent and international media, and democracy promotion. While some other governments have been vocal and active in regard to certain specific human rights crises, no other country in the region has a body equivalent to the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy.

For all these reasons, it is time for the free world to step up its support for Taiwan — and, given the increasing pressure Taiwan is under from China, it is time to recognize Taiwan’s important role on the frontline of the fight for freedom.

As the former United States Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, Sam Brownback, told the Taiwan IRF Summit: “It is time for Taiwan.”

I spent the past week in Taiwan — my fourth visit and my first since the Covid-19 pandemic. In 2017 I was denied entry to Hong Kong, rather publicly and on the orders of Beijing. Last year, in an application of the extraterritoriality clause of Hong Kong’s National Security Law, I was threatened with a jail sentence, for violating that law, even though the organization I lead, Hong Kong Watch, has no presence in the city.

So when I planned my visit to Taiwan, I had to ensure that I flew directly, did not fly through Chinese airspace, and had no risk of being diverted to Hong Kong or China.

"Among all the threats to religious freedom around the world, the greatest is the Chinese Communist Party regime"

When I landed safely in free, democratic Taiwan, I was delighted and relieved. Imagine how much worse it is for the eight exiled Hong Kong pro-democracy activists facing arrest warrants and bounties issued by Beijing.

At the Taiwan IRF Summit, a wide variety of issues were discussed. Participants came from around the world, including Indonesia, India, Nepal, the United States, the United Kingdom, and the European Union.

They highlighted situations as diverse as Nigeria, North Korea, Myanmar, and Mongolia. But of course, the dominant topic was China — both in regard to the crackdown on religion by Beijing within its borders, against Tibetans, Uyghurs, Christians, and Falun Gong practitioners, and transnational repression.

There was a consensus that among all the threats to religious freedom around the world, the greatest is the Chinese Communist Party regime, through the scale and severity of its assault on religion at home and its widespread export and facilitation of repression abroad. Never far from our minds were the intensifying threats to Taiwan.

Earlier in the week, I met with two Taiwanese who have only recently been released from jail in China: Lee Ming-che and Lee Meng-chu. Their cases are separate but similar.

Lee Ming-che spent five years in prison in China for comments he had posted online from Taiwan criticizing the regime’s human rights record. He had been supporting mainland Chinese dissidents and their families and was arrested as he entered Guangdong province from Macau in 2017, on suspicion of “endangering national security” and accused of “subverting state power.”

He returned to Taiwan last year. I had met his courageous wife, Lee Ching-yu, twice during his captivity, and campaigned for his release. Meeting him in person for the first time, and seeing him reunited with his wife, was a profoundly moving encounter.

Lee Ming-che described the forced labor that he and other prisoners had to endure. He told me he worked 14 hours a day, with no rest day except for four days off at Lunar New Year — in contravention of China’s own prison laws.

He was deployed to a prison production line making gloves and shoes for export to the United States. Although he was not physically tortured, prison conditions amount to serious mistreatment. “They aim to wear you out. They want to erase all hopes, and leave you only with the hope of survival,” he told me. “The food they provide is so bad, and smells so bad, that it leaves you with no hope — the only aspiration is to eat better.”

I met businessman Lee Meng-chu three days after he returned to Taipei, having spent almost two years in detention in China and a further two years on an exit ban, prohibited from leaving the country.

"Taiwan has become an important sanctuary for Hong Kongers since the crackdown in 2019 and 2020"

He was arrested on Aug. 20, 2019, at the border between Hong Kong and Shenzhen, after his cameras aroused suspicion. A search of his luggage found he was in possession of postcards that spoke of “love, peace and compassion,” which he says were in support of strikes by Eva Air staff at the time.

But to the Chinese authorities, these were phrases reminiscent of the 2014 movement in Hong Kong, “Occupy Central with Love and Peace.” To most people, the words love and peace are good, healthy terms. To the regime in Beijing, they are triggers that speak of a national security threat.

Lee Ming-che believes his imprisonment was not only about him. “It was targeted at Taiwan itself. My arrest was made in order to threaten Taiwan and the world,” he said.

It is therefore very important, he believes, that foreign governments do more to advocate for foreign prisoners in China. “It can be very hard to secure the release of prisoners in China, but advocacy matters because it can help improve the conditions,” he added.

Taiwan has become an important sanctuary for Hong Kongers since the crackdown in 2019 and 2020. Tens of thousands have come to the island since 2019.

But Taiwan faces a difficult dilemma — how to welcome and protect Hong Kongers while at the same time preventing infiltration by the CCP regime and defending its hard-won freedoms, democracy, and national security.

My discussions with Chen Chu, president of the Control Yuan — the supervisory and auditory division of government in Taiwan — and her colleagues left me in no doubt about Taiwan’s wish to help Hong Kongers in need. But Chen, who also serves as chair of the National Human Rights Commission, emphasised the need to take seriously the threats to Taiwan’s own freedoms.

In my meetings with Hong Kongers in Taiwan and the Taiwanese civil society assisting them, their frustrations at how slow-moving the bureaucracy is in considering residence applications and how restrictive the criteria for residency are, were palpable.

I found myself deeply sympathetic to both sets of concerns — the need to safeguard Taiwan’s security, while at the same time being as generous as possible to Hong Kongers in need. I deeply appreciate what Taiwan has done for Hong Kongers, and hope that it can find a way to do more, without putting its own security in danger.

Experts at Taiwan’s Institute for National Defence and Security Research (INDSR), a government-operated military-associated think tank, told me that “war is not imminent.” Speaking on a hot sunny morning in an army base in the center of Taipei last week, Dr. Jyun-yi Lee and his colleague Dr. Domingo I-Kwei Yang emphasized the importance of deterrence. “We are enhancing defense capabilities to make a quick, decisive victory for China nearly impossible,” Dr. Lee told me.

"Crucial to deterrence is ensuring that China knows it will pay a catastrophic price for an invasion"

Of greater concern, however, is China’s use of “hybrid threats,” combining maritime patrols, military drills, economic coercion, disinformation, and “narrative warfare” in a “coherent plan” to intimidate Taiwan.

Dr. Lee and Dr. Yang believe the next decade — and especially the window between 2030 and 2035 — is critical, because China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) aims to have completed its modernization reforms by 2030 and yet there will also be a shift in the military power of the United States and its allies in the region.

Crucial to deterrence is ensuring that China knows it will pay a catastrophic price for an invasion. “It is easy to start a war, but how to end a war carries with it huge consequences,” Dr. Lee added.

In Taipei, I had dinner with the city’s Catholic Archbishop, Thomas Chung An-Zu. For the Church, there is concern that while Hong Kong now has three cardinals with the creation of Bishop Stephen Chow as Cardinal this year, Taiwan — which has seven dioceses — has none.

A new apostolic nuncio in Taipei has yet to be appointed, and instead, the Holy See is represented by a charge d’affaires. The Vatican still recognizes and maintains diplomatic relations officially with Taiwan, but given the direction of its China policy, there is uncertainty in Taipei about the future.

The Taiwanese foreign ministry told me they are watching the Vatican’s movements closely.

I pray that Rome will send a clear signal of reassurance to Taiwan soon. With the threats to the island increasing, now is the time for solidarity from the Vatican, not distancing or downgrading.

At the end of a long and very busy week in Taipei, I traveled south to Tainan, where I met Taiwanese Christians. With touching generosity, they introduced me to delicious Tainan cuisine, educated me in the diversity of Taiwanese language and culture, and presented me with a box of biscuits with the verse from the Bible from Acts 20:35 written in Chinese characters, which reads: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”

But there is a pun involved because the characters are similar to those which read: “It is more blessed to eat than to be slim.” This double-entendre is a powerful message for the world. Taiwan has so much to give. We should sit at the table and eat with our Taiwanese friends much more often — and stand alongside them in the fight for freedom.

At the bottom of the bag, underneath the box of biscuits, was another gift — a set of magnetic bookmarks with these words: “Love in Taiwan,” “Peace in Taiwan,” “God Bless Taiwan,” and “Pray for Taiwan.”

If Lee Meng-chu’s experience is anything to go by, those bookmarks would land you in jail if you took them to China. But they serve as a vital reminder to all to help spread the bright light that Taiwan offers widely.

It is time for Taiwan, and we should indeed pray for Taiwan. God bless Taiwan.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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