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The bizarre diplomatic fight between China and Taiwan playing out in Kenya, explained

Workers paste a sign reading "China illegally abducts Taiwanese people" during a press conference organized by lawmakers from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) at Parliament in Taipei on April 12, 2016.
Workers paste a sign reading "China illegally abducts Taiwanese people" during a press conference organized by lawmakers from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) at Parliament in Taipei on April 12, 2016.
SAM YEH/AFP/Getty Images

On Tuesday, Taiwanese media lit up with a video taken far away in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi. It appears to show a group of 15 Taiwanese citizens inside a Nairobi jail cell, doing something that prisoners don't often do: barricading the door to keep themselves locked in.

The video, apparently taken by one of the Taiwanese, cuts off after a few seconds. Shortly after, according to the Taiwanese Foreign Ministry, Kenyan police armed with assault rifles smashed through the door and used tear gas to retrieve the prisoners and deport them — putting them on a plane not to Taiwan but to mainland China.

The incident has become a crisis of its own, but it's even more than that: the latest development in a growing diplomatic crisis that has put Kenya right smack in the middle of a decades-long fight between mainland China and Taiwan.

Taiwan has accused China of conducting an "extrajudicial abduction" of Taiwanese citizens (one is reportedly a dual US-Taiwan citizen) and has accused China of committing a "gross violation of basic human rights."

Here's what's going on, why it's unfolding in Kenya of all places, and why this may be about some deeper issues between China and Taiwan.

Why Kenya is deporting these Taiwanese citizens to China

The 15 in the video were part of a larger group of Taiwanese who were scheduled to be deported from Kenya following their acquittal in a telecommunications fraud case there (more on that in a minute). But instead of deporting them back home to Taiwan, the Kenyans apparently decided to send them — against their will — to mainland China.

A group of eight had already been sent to China on Friday, and a second group of 37 Taiwanese were in the process of leaving on Tuesday, according to Taiwan's Foreign Ministry. Fifteen of those 37, who were awaiting deportation in the Nairobi jail, evidently tried to resist the Kenyan police's attempt to put them on the plane to China, which is the scene you see in the video.

So why did Kenya deport them to mainland China rather than to Taiwan? The most immediate answer is simply that China asked Kenya to do so.

Chinese state authorities claim they have jurisdiction over the Taiwanese group, whom they accuse of having participated in a telecom fraud ring that cost Chinese victims billions of yuan, and thus asked the Kenyans to send them to China to face investigation.

Kenya obliged, perhaps in part because the country relies heavily on Chinese investment, or perhaps just because it didn't realize it was going to turn into a whole big controversy.

But at its core, this story isn't really about Kenya. It's about the central dispute between China and Taiwan that goes back decades — and about a network of criminal gangs that spans both sides of the Taiwan Strait.

The Taiwan-China fight that's driving all this

The dispute between China and Taiwan goes back to 1949 and the end of the Chinese Civil War, when the defeated Nationalists fled to the island of Taiwan, leaving the communists in power in mainland China. The two territories have been governed separately ever since, with both governments claiming to be the legitimate representative of "One China" — that is, China and Taiwan.

Decades of outright hostility eased somewhat in 1992, when they worked out a deal that basically amounted to "let's agree to disagree." Known as the 1992 Consensus, the agreement allowed both governments to claim sovereignty over both mainland China and Taiwan, without recognizing the other's legitimacy.

This allowed them to set aside their argument and establish economic ties, which would be hugely beneficial to both parties. And it (mostly) worked: China is now Taiwan's largest trading partner.

But, of course, it left the fundamental political dispute unresolved, with the potential for a resumption of hostility always just below the surface. And it remains a hugely sensitive issue for both sides.

Most countries, including Kenya (and the US), only have formal diplomatic relations with mainland China and don't officially recognize the government in Taiwan. Still, while many countries find ways to navigate the de facto separation of China and Taiwan, Kenya is apparently treating the Taiwanese citizens as if they are subjects of mainland China.

Kenyan Interior Ministry spokesperson Mwenda Njoka, defending his country's deportation of the Taiwanese to China, stated, "They came from China and we took them to China. Usually when you go to another country illegally, you are taken back to your last port of departure."

Of course, Kenya presumably knows full well that Taiwan exists and that the Taiwanese in its custody were, well, Taiwanese. But China evidently asked the Kenyan government to send the group to mainland China. So why did Beijing ask for this in the first place?

Why China wants these Taiwanese citizens

These Taiwanese have attracted such interest from Beijing because they are allegedly members of Chinese and Taiwanese criminal gangs who frequently work together, Richard Bush, director of the East Asia Policy Center at the Brookings Institution, explained to me.

In this case, it was a scam run out of Nairobi that allegedly used internet phone accounts to defraud Chinese victims of more than 600 million yuan ($93 million). China's foreign ministry alleges that people in nine mainland Chinese provinces — including "elderly people, teachers, students, migrant workers, [and] laid-off workers" — were targeted and that some victims even killed themselves.

"The Kenyans rolled them up, and then they were subjected to the [Kenyan] judicial process," Bush says of the accused Taiwanese. So they faced trial in Kenyan courts but were ultimately acquitted and released. (The details of their case are currently unclear.)

When that happened, the Chinese government reportedly asked the Kenyan authorities to detain the Taiwanese and send them to China so they could face an investigation there.

"They are acquitted, but they are not without guilt," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang told reporters. Kenyan authorities complied, explaining that because they recognize Beijing as the rightful government of Taiwan, they consider these Taiwanese to be citizens of mainland China.

And it turns out that the Kenyan authorities actually violated a Kenyan court order that said they were not to deport the Taiwanese individuals. It is unclear precisely who in the Kenyan government decided to defy the court order or why.

So what does this all say about China-Taiwan relations?

Some analysts see China's actions here as intended to send a message to the incoming president of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen, who is scheduled to take office on May 20.

Tsai's political party is more skeptical of Beijing than is Taiwan's outgoing ruling party. It has previously advocated for Taiwan to officially declare itself an independent country — something Beijing doesn't want, as it would make eventual reunification much harder. While Tsai is unlikely to do this, Beijing worries that she could still upset the status quo between their countries.

"The timing — I think it's hard to say that it's not related to the transition in the government in Taiwan," Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told me of this incident with Kenya.

"It appears to be that the Chinese are looking for different levers that they can use," Glaser explained, to "signal to [Tsai] what their bottom lines are and what ways they have that they can punish Taiwan if they need to."

Other analysts, though, believe the Kenya incident is unrelated to larger China-Taiwan dynamics.

"I think the reportage that has linked this to the political situation in Taiwan and the political situation between Taiwan and China is just wrong," says Brookings's Richard Bush.

Bush notes that the current (outgoing) administration in Taiwan — that is, the one seen as having been more friendly to China — is "as upset about the transfer of these people to China as the incoming party is."

He points to a similar case in the Philippines in 2011, when Chinese/Taiwanese criminal gangs participated in a phone scam there. Authorities in the Philippines ended up deporting the Taiwanese suspects to mainland China — much as happened in Kenya.

In that case, just as today, Taiwan expressed outrage, but "eventually they worked it out," Bush says.

Bush acknowledges it's possible that China could try to leverage the latest incident with Kenya to send a message to Taiwan's new leadership, but there's no evidence of that yet: "It's way too early to jump to conclusions and to add three plus three and get 17."

Still, even if Beijing and Taipei manage to quietly resolve the Kenya incident without making it into a bigger issue, it is still at least partially a product of their arrangement, in which two governments claim the same territory and consider one another illegitimate yet still have to work together. That's not the world's easiest setup, and even if they can make it work, it's still going to create occasional problems like this.

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