Authorities on the democratic island of Taiwan have warned that moves by Beijing to offer its citizens full residency in China will subject them to total surveillance and a controversial social credit system under a "totalitarian" regime.
The ruling Chinese Communist Party announced last week that residents of former colonies Hong Kong and Macau, as well as Taiwan, which has never been ruled by Beijing, will now be eligible for permanent residency and an ID card like those issued to citizens of mainland China.
But Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) warned that the offer is part of China's "united front" strategy to neutralize potential threats to Communist Party rule, and will expose its residents to comprehensive surveillance and monitoring.
"This council considers it to be the first among a series of measures known as 'united front through equal treatment'," the MAC said in a statement on its website, adding that the scheme is part of a deliberate strategy "to pull people in."
"The mainland government has set up the Skynet project in recent years, using a network of surveillance cameras in major cities, so as to track and monitor the movements of people and vehicles," it said. "Through the surveillance system, mainland Chinese officials have collected around one billion facial recognition records."
"Automated facial recognition technology is combined with the social credit system to comprehensively monitor the public," it said, warning that the residence permits will be technologically similar to the ID cards currently needed by mainland citizens for most transactions, including buying train or plane tickets and booking a hotel room.
This may pose risks for Taiwan residents who are interested in going to mainland China for work or education, the MAC warned, adding that fingerprinting will be an inevitable part of the application process.
"Mainland China is a totalitarian regime which lacks freedom, democracy, human rights, or any respect for privacy," MAC spokesman Chiu Chui-cheng told RFA. "It also uses the latest electronic technology to carry out total surveillance of its citizens."
"Any of our citizens staying there for work, study or business, even for a short period, will face limits to their freedom of expression, as well as risks regarding their personal safety," Chiu said.
Under the new scheme, holders of the new smart-card residence permit will gain access to compulsory state education for their children and basic public services. They will also be able to apply for driving licenses, car registrations, or register births.
Vice minister for public security Shi Jun told a news conference last week that the aim of the scheme is to make it easier for residents of Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan to "integrate" into mainland Chinese society.
"This isn't about convenience; the purpose is to enable residents of Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan residents to enjoy the same public services ... as residents of mainland China," Shi said.
The new scheme was welcomed by Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam, who said that 500,000 Hong Kong residents already live in neighboring Guangdong province, while 1.2 million people from the city attend educational institutions in mainland China.
But Ma Yue, associate professor of politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said that the move is likely aiming for assimilation of populations who have long been used to more democratic political systems and values.
"It's made to seem very convenient, [but Beijing thinks] it can break down the differences between mainland China and Hong Kong," Ma told RFA. "I think this is a policy aimed at assimilating Hong Kong into China."
"But Hong Kong still has a lot of values and institutions that are quite different [from China], such as freedom, and so we won't necessarily see an increase in the number of people moving to live or work there, just because it's convenient," he said.
According to Lee Cheng-hsiu, a senior assistant research fellow in the national security division of Taiwan's National Policy Foundation, Beijing has offered residency to people from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau partly to pave the way for an eventual takeover of its democratic neighbor.
"A key purpose is to pave the way for future cross-strait reunification," Lee said. "That's why they have disregarded Taiwan's views or any [potential] backlash, and offered this unilaterally."
"Such measures will indeed attract more Taiwanese to work or attend school in the mainland," he said.
Dual nationality forbidden
However, the MAC said holders of Taiwan's Republic of China passport may not hold dual nationality with mainland China. It warned that any of its residents who hold a passport or a household registration in the People's Republic will have their Taiwan passport revoked.
China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) is gradually preparing for a possible invasion of the neighboring democratic island of Taiwan, according to a military analysis published by the Pentagon in Washington last week.
Armed forces under the ruling Chinese Communist Party "continued to develop and deploy increasingly advanced military capabilities intended to coerce Taiwan, signal Chinese resolve, and gradually improve capabilities for an invasion," the U.S. Department of Defense said in an annual report on China's military capabilities.
Taiwan was ruled as a Japanese colony in the 50 years prior to the end of World War II, but was handed back to the Republic of China under the nationalist KMT government as part of Tokyo's post-war reparation deal.
When the KMT regime fled to Taiwan in 1947 after losing a civil war to Mao Zedong's communist troops, the Republic of China ceased to control most of China, but continues to be the official name of the Taiwan government.
Taiwan began a transition to democracy following the death of Chiang's son, President Chiang Ching-kuo, in January 1988, starting with direct elections to the legislature in the early 1990s and culminating in the first direct election of a president, Lee Teng-hui, in 1996.
Recent opinion polls indicate that there is broad political support for self-rule in Taiwan, where the majority of voters identify as Taiwanese rather than Chinese.
But Beijing regards the island as part of China, and has threatened to invade if Taiwan seeks formal independence. Beijing has succeeded in isolating Taiwan diplomatically by insisting that its diplomatic partners break off ties with Taipei, under the "One China" policy.
Reported by Wong Lok-to for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Hsia Hsiao-hwa for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.