Taiwan - a sovereign democracy, or a wayward breakaway province of the People's Republic of China that must inevitably return to mainland control?

As the island comes under increasing military and diplomatic pressure from Beijing - against a background of fluctuating relations between China and the United States, Taiwan's principal ally - the battle to influence Taiwanese hearts and minds on its future status is intensifying.

We've been to investigate the tactics of those to whom reunification is only a matter of time.


FILMMAKER'S VIEW

By Lynn Lee

The red flags were impossible to miss. They fluttered noisily on a windy day outside one of Taiwan's best-known landmarks, Taipei 101.

From a distance, I could hear snatches of a song praising the Chinese Communist Party, or CCP. As an elderly man in a Mao cap energetically belted out the ditty, other members of his group marched around scores of bemused - perhaps bewildered - passers-by.

Nearby, another group clad in yellow sat quietly in neat rows in the hot August sun, eyes closed, palms together. A police officer rubbed sweat off his brow as he trained a small video camera on the two lots of people. Three of his colleagues looked on, perhaps slightly bored - these demonstrations took place nearly every day outside Taipei 101.

A Spanish woman tapped me on the shoulder. "What's happening?" She wanted to know.

I explained that the flag bearers were members of a group known as the Concentric Patriotism Alliance, and the people in yellow were from the Falun Gong, a spiritual movement banned in China. The Alliance had come to praise the CCP, the Falun Gong to condemn it. Members of the Alliance had a track record for attacking Falun Gong practitioners, hence the police presence. But today at least, it was peaceful.

The Spanish woman laughed.

"Those people with the red flags, do they know protests are not allowed in China?" She lived in Shanghai, she said. "They will be arrested if they do this there."

I never got to learn the woman's name. She wandered off soon after that. But her observation summed up the paradox that is pro-CCP activism in Taiwan. Not everyone who favours unification with China supports the Communist Party. But we'd observed, early in our shoot, that some of the groups that did seemed particularly adept at using Taiwan's vaulted freedoms to promote their cause.

Beijing regards the island as a renegade province and bristles at any attempt by Taiwan to display its own emblems, or even use its own name at international events. And yet, within Taiwan, the Chinese flag features prominently in protests and events organised by groups like the Concentric Patriotism Alliance.

When we were filming, members of the Alliance told an approving group of Chinese tourists that if peaceful unification with Taiwan wasn't possible, Beijing should declare war. To some outsiders, this kind of talk might seem odd, treasonous even - after all, formally, the Republic of China (Taiwan's official name) still considers the People's Republic of China an enemy.

But in Asia's most vibrant democracy, a deeply held belief in freedom of speech and expression often trumps even feelings of patriotism.

In January this year, Taiwan's Ministry of Justice rejected an online petition to ban the Chinese flag. Other similar proposals have not gained much traction.

"If someone has a view, or wants to express allegiance to the red five-star [Chinese] flag," Lin Yiying, a 26-year-old politician from the pro-independence New Power Party explained, "he shouldn't be penalised."

Another pro-independence supporter told us that by exercising his right to freedom of expression, he and his group succeeded in averting possible clashes with members of the Concentric Patriotism Alliance.

"We burned the red five-star flag in front of them," Richard Kuo of the Taiwan Independence Revolutionary Army explained.

"If they have a right to wave it in our faces, then we have a right to burn it."

Kuo said the move unsettled Alliance members so much, they decided they would no longer show up outside Taipei 101 on weekends because it was when the Taiwan Independence Revolutionary Army held their demonstrations. Both sides now steered clear of each other.

But members of the Alliance have a reputation for violent scuffles. Videos of their attacks on pro-democracy activists, independence supporters and the Falun Gong are easily searchable online. In public, their rhetoric can sometimes border on incitement, with members regularly calling for opponents to be executed, or exterminated.

Such apparent disregard for decorum and even the law has led to speculation that Alliance members are rewarded for behaving badly.

During our investigation, we learned that the group paid supporters to attend its events. In one particularly telling conversation, Zhang Xiuye, the Alliance's manager and cofounder, made clear to our undercover researcher that she knew it was illegal to accept funding from China, before going on to explain how authorities there were able to support her organisation's activities nonetheless.

The Taiwanese government agreed there were loopholes that needed to be plugged.

Spokesperson Kolas Yotaka said they were looking into legislation to compel political groups to be more transparent about their activities and funding sources.

In August, police also raided the offices of the fringe China Unification Promotion Party (CUPP), on suspicion it was receiving money from Beijing. Earlier in the year, three members of the pro-unification New Party were indicted for breaking the National Security Law. Prosecutors alleged they were receiving money from the CCP to form a spy ring in Taiwan.

When we asked Kolas whether it was a mistake to allow such groups room to even exist, she emphasised that the right to freedom of assembly and association was a fiercely defended value in Taiwan.

This explained why the CUPP was allowed to establish offices on the island, even though its Chairman, Chang An-le, is a former fugitive and ex-triad leader.

"Regardless of your background, you have a right to form a political group," Kolas said. "But you have to abide by the law."

Chang Anle has repeatedly denied taking any money from the CCP. At the Taipei District Court, he gleefully told journalists that prosecutors had handed him a gift - the crackdown was an opportunity to promote his pro-unification cause.

When Chang left the court after a four-hour interrogation, members of the Concentric Patriotism Alliance followed behind, shouting words of encouragement, "Supporting unification is not a crime!"

But within the confines of the Alliance's offices, their attitude towards Chang seemed far more ambiguous. Its members appeared to believe that the CUPP was influenced, even backed, by triads - organized crime syndicates.

One Alliance regular, Zheng Jianxin, mentioned to our undercover researcher that he'd gone to see Chang in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen prior to Chang's return from exile.

"We told him he had to make a clean break [with triads]," Zheng said. "But he couldn't." He then went on to explain how triads were using the CUPP to "whitewash" their reputations.

The case against the CUPP is still unfolding. But most Taiwanese we spoke to said it was not far-fetched to assume that China might be financing a triad-linked political party to undermine their democracy.

Beijing, meanwhile, has also intensified its campaign to intimidate Taiwan and limit its international space - forcing airlines and corporations to amend references to the island on their websites, luring away diplomatic allies, and ramping up military activity in the Taiwan Straits.

The result, according to Lin Chun-hsien, a legislator from the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, has been to turn more Taiwanese people away from rather than towards China.

"After doing so many things to attack our institutions and influence our people," Lin said, "maybe China should start realising that its tactics won't work."

However, all signs point to more future meddling by the CCP. For Taiwan, these are challenging times. One of the government's many tasks must surely be to find ways to counter further provocations by the PRC, without encroaching on the freedoms its people hold dear.


Editor's note: We contacted the China Taiwan Affairs Office, the relevant government agency of the People's Republic of China, asking for a response to matters raised in this episode. We have not yet had a response.

We also wrote to the Concentric Patriotism Alliance and Taiwan's National Police Agency asking for comments on other issues that feature in the film, but again we have received no reply.

Source: Al Jazeera