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Chinese man crosses Taiwan Strait by rubber dinghy, seeking ‘freedom and equality’

The Taiwan Strait is heavily patrolled by Chinese and Taiwanese coast guard ships and naval vessels. U.S. Navy ships such as the guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain, seen here transiting the strait on Dec. 30, 2020, also pass through the area. (Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Markus Castaneda/AP)
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A Chinese man appeared to sail undetected through the highly militarized Taiwan Strait in a rubber dinghy, fleeing his native China for Taiwan in search of “freedom,” according to Taiwan’s Coast Guard Administration.

The man, identified only by his surname, Zhou, left Shishi county in Quanzhou, a port city in Fujian province, at 10 a.m. on Friday, arriving more than 10 hours later at Taichung port on Taiwan’s western coast, Taiwan’s Coast Guard said on Monday. Officials said they were still investigating Zhou’s journey over the 100-mile stretch of sea between China and Taiwan, which is patrolled by hundreds of Chinese and Taiwanese coast guard ships and naval vessels.

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Coast Guard officials, relaying Zhou’s account of his journey, told reporters he had traveled in a rubber raft measuring 8.8 feet by 5 feet that he bought on the Chinese e-commerce site Taobao and fitted it with an outboard motor. Zhou, who officials said was born in 1986, brought with him 23 gallons of fuel and essentially no other belongings.

Zhou was found by local dock workers who gave him a lunchbox after he said he had sailed over from China. One of the workers notified their manager, who then called authorities.

In a video confirmed by the Central Branch of the Coast Guard Administration as an interview with Zhou by the Taichung Harbor Police, Zhou can be heard saying, “Taiwan has more freedom and equality.” When a police officer asks whether life in China is so bad, Zhou says: “I believe it is all kinds of bad."

The incident has prompted concerns about the security of the contentious waterway at a time when military observers worry that long-standing tensions between the governments of China, Taiwan and the United States, which is committed to defending Taiwan, could boil over into military conflict.

Beijing, which claims that democratically governed Taiwan belongs to the People’s Republic of China, has ramped up armed patrols and military sorties near Taiwan as a show of intimidation. As the Biden administration draws closer to Taiwan, continuing some of President Donald Trump’s policies, China has stepped up its criticism of Washington.

On Sunday, the Chinese Embassy in France attacked its U.S. counterpart there for supporting “secessionist forces” in Taiwan by inviting Taiwanese officials to a lunch on Friday. Urging the United States to “immediately stop all forms of official exchanges between the United States and Taiwan island,” the embassy said the “U.S. maneuvering can never change the fact that there is only one China in the world.”

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In response to questions over whether the incident represented a “national security” blind spot, the director of the Fourth Patrol District Command of Taiwan’s Coast Guard, Hong Yishun, said the coast guard’s radar covers 12 nautical miles offshore.

“There are no blind spots, but we do not discount the possibility that [Zhou] was hidden by the cargo ships and other larger vessels,” Hong said on Monday.

Zhou, who is being held in a detention center in Taichung, could face up to three years in prison and a fine, as well as possible repatriation. The Central Branch of the Coast Guard said Zhou was “in good condition” and undergoing a 14-day quarantine.

Zhou is not the first to flee China for Taiwan in the name of freedom. Last August, 12 Hong Kong protesters were arrested at sea as they tried to escape for Taiwan, running from Beijing’s clampdown on their city. Between 2008 and 2020, more than 400 Chinese nationals have been detained for illegally entering Taiwan as stowaways, according to data from Taiwan’s Coast Guard administration.

Alicia Chen and Pei Lin Wu in Taipei and Lyric Li in Seoul contributed to this report.

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