BEIJING — Thriving but illicit sea contacts with Taiwan led to a tragedy last month that took the lives of 25 people being forcibly repatriated to the Chinese mainland, the official New China News Agency reported Friday.
The 25 victims died from suffocation or lack of water after being confined inside two small cabins of their mainland fishing boat that was towed from Taiwan to waters near the Fujian province coast, the news agency said. Fishermen from Guangyu village in Pingtan County, just 80 miles from Taiwan, discovered the bodies July 22 and rescued one survivor.
The survivor, Lin Licheng, said the fishing boat had sailed to Taiwan on a "business voyage" and was seized in mid-July, the news agency reported.
On July 21, authorities in Taiwan attempted to use the fishing boat to repatriate the 26 mainland residents, who had been apprehended at various times and places after slipping into Taiwan illegally, the news agency said.
The detainees were initially blindfolded and forced into two tiny cabins on the fishing boat, which were then nailed shut and covered with timber and other heavy materials, the report said. The boat was then tugged by gunboats to waters near the mainland, it said.
Lin survived by finding a small hole in the wall of the cabin that allowed him to get enough oxygen to stay alive, the report said.
In Taipei, a spokesman for the Ministry of Defense denied the report. "That is impossible," he told the British news agency Reuters. "We could not be that inhuman."
The incident occurred against the background of a huge upsurge in direct contacts across the Taiwan Strait conducted by reputed "fishing boats" from both the mainland and Taiwan that actually are involved in the illegal shipment of goods and people.
Authorities say at least 2,000 illegal immigrants from the mainland slipped into Taiwan during the first half of this year. Nearly 500 such immigrants were detained during a single week in early July, when security forces staged a crackdown.
Taiwan, ruled by the Nationalist government that fled China in 1949 after losing a civil war to the Communists, requires that trade and investment with the mainland be conducted indirectly through places such as Hong Kong. But this official banning of direct economic ties across the Taiwan Strait has failed to block the growth of illicit trade.
Products such as peanuts, garlic, mushrooms, liquor and traditional medicine are shipped directly to Taiwan from the mainland. Shipments sometimes include guns and drugs.
Job seekers from the mainland pay as much as $500 to be slipped into Taiwan. Most seek laboring jobs. Some women end up as prostitutes.
Taiwan's strong economy has created high demand for laborers willing to do arduous jobs for modest wages. From the point of view of mainland peasants, life in Taiwan is extraordinarily rich.
With reduced tensions between Taipei and Beijing, ordinary people in Taiwan no longer automatically report to police as a suspected spy anyone who seems to have slipped in from the mainland.