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Why Taiwan Wanted to Try a Murder Suspect, Then Asked Him to Stay Home

By Ralph Jennings October 25, 2019

Ten months ago Taiwan issued an order for the arrest of Chan Tong-kai, a 20-year-old man suspected of strangling his pregnant friend to death while the two were visiting from Hong Kong. This past week, when Chan said he was ready to head back from Hong Kong and face prosecution, Taiwan's government said it couldn't let him.

That outcome illustrates the deep political differences between Taiwan and Hong Kong's overseer, mainland China. The two have had icy relations for seven decades, making it hard to cooperate on matters including crime. China cut off formal talks in 2016 with the government of Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen.

Hong Kong and Taiwan lack an extradition deal that would give authorities in Taipei a framework to accept Chan's return. The suspect left Taiwan days after the killing of his friend, 21-year-old Poon Hiu-wing, in February 2018. Taiwanese police never caught him, though they have a file on the case that evidently began in a Taipei hotel room.

To accept Chan's return would imply that China can treat Taiwan as its own territory with no need for an extradition deal of the sort that's typical between two countries, some analysts believe.

"Tsai Ing-wen's government, they are afraid that if we accept Mr. Chan back to Taiwan, that would fall into the trap of China's law," said Michael Tsai, chairman of the Institute for Taiwan Defense and Strategic Studies in Taiwan.

China sees self-ruled Taiwan as part of its territory, but the Taiwan government and most citizens say they prefer autonomy.

Lack of an extradition agreement

The woman's death caught the attention of Hong Kong leaders in February this year when the territory's leaders proposed an extradition bill. The bill sparked mass protests from June as Hong Kong citizens feared local suspects would be extradited to China where laws are harsher and include political crimes. Hong Kong withdrew the proposed extradition bill this week.

Taiwan issued the arrest order before the extradition bill was proposed or protests had started.

Taiwanese leaders voiced support for Hong Kong's protests over the summer as numbers of demonstrators swelled and their cause morphed into a bigger movement against Chinese rule. The Communist country hopes to extend its 22-year-old rule over Hong Kong to Taiwan.

Hong Kong citizens would "turn against" Taiwan if the government here accepted Chan for prosecution now, Michael Tsai said. His transfer to Taiwan would imply that Hong Kong citizens can be tried offshore, possibly in mainland China someday, without an extradition law.

The Taiwan government's Mainland Affairs Council says it wanted more cooperation from Hong Kong on the murder case, including copies of police interviews with Chan and any confessions. Chan served jail time there for money laundering before leaving jail Wednesday, but not for murder. He's now a free man.

"The Hong Kong government over the whole course of handling this matter first intentionally gave up its legal jurisdiction authority, then disregarded our side's requests, let time pass and didn't give the suspect to us," the council said Wednesday.

Hong Kong Security Secretary John Lee accused Taiwan Wednesday of trying to "shift responsibility" for the case to Hong Kong and putting up "roadblocks out of political considerations," the Hong Kong Free Press reported.

Political risk

Tsai Ing-wen is running for a second term as president and analysts say the campaign, likely to include a hard line against Beijing, motivated her government to bar Chan's return. Her opponent advocates closer ties with China.

China has claimed sovereignty over Taiwan since the Chinese civil war of the 1940s, when Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists fled to the island after losing to Mao Zedong's Communists. More than 80% of Taiwanese told government surveys in January and March they oppose unification with China.

Taiwanese people would eventually see the suspect's return as a legal case rather than a political one, said Huang Kwei-bo, vice dean of the international affairs college at National Chengchi University in Taipei. Now they see politics, he said.

"We had already filed an arrest order and wanted to catch him, and then when the other party wants to come you say no, no, no need to come," Huang said. "This is a political issue."

Most Taiwanese hope to try people for crimes committed in Taiwan even if they're from offshore, said Chao Chien-min, dean of social sciences at Chinese Culture University in Taipei.

"It's not right that foreigners can kill people on our soil and we can't prosecute," he said. "So I believe in Taiwan everyone will hope they can return."

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