Hijack of jet tests China-Taiwan thaw

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The Independent Online
A CHINESE pilot yesterday hijacked his own aircraft to Taiwan in a dramatic protest which could test the thaw in relations between Peking and Taipei.

The Air China jet, with 104 people on board, was flying from Peking to Kunming, in south-west China, when Yuan Bin instead turned left and headed across the Taiwan Strait.

Mr Yuan and his wife, who was also on board, were detained on arrival after four Taiwan military aircraft had escorted the jet through Taiwanese airspace. "I feel relaxed. I shall have no regret whatever happens to me," Mr Yuan, 30, said as he was led away after questioning at Taipei airport. His protest was apparently about pay and housing conditions.

The Boeing 737 and its passengers, including 20 foreigners, was flown back to the mainland six hours later by two other Air China pilots who had been on board. As usual after such hijackings, the aircraft had to dog-leg through Hong Kong air space because of Taiwan's ban on direct air links with the mainland.

Both Taipei and Peking, which for the past two years have shown increasing co-operation over hijackings, will probably downplay any disagreements over how to handle the event, the first successful mainland hijacking to Taiwan since 1994.

Relations across the Taiwan Strait are at their warmest for years since this month's visit to the mainland by Taipei's top envoy, Koo Chen-fu, and his historic meeting last week with China's President, Jiang Zemin. China yesterday demanded the return of Mr Yuan, but Taipei indicated it would stick to recent practice and put him on trial in Taiwan.

The issue of hijackings has proved a barometer of relations between the two sides over the years. In the mid-1980s, mainland hijackers were hailed as freedom fighters by Taiwan and rewarded; in 1986 similarly Peking hailed a Taiwan pilot who rerouted his cargo aircraft to Guangzhou, and even gave him a job in the civil aviation bureaucracy.

That all changed in the Nineties, and in 1995 Peking and Taipei reached a consensus on hijacker repatriation, although this was never signed due to a breakdown in dialogue later that year. Such a pact might be expected to be one of the beneficiaries of the recent thaw.

Taipei still holds 14 mainlanders who were jailed for air piracy after an embarrassing spate of 12 hijackings to Taiwan in 1993-94. In July 1997, two other hijackers were returned to the mainland after completing their sentences, the first time Taipei had yielded to Peking's demands that hijackers be sent back. Peking immediately said it would put them on trial.

That repatriation appeared to be a quid pro quo for Peking's return two months earlier, in May 1997, of a jobless Taiwanese journalist who had hijacked an aircraft in the other direction, the first such event for more than a decade.

Under mainland law, there is a mandatary death sentence for acts of air piracy causing death, serious injury or damage to aircraft, and a minimum 10-year sentence otherwise. Aside from wanting to score political points, the shortcomings in China's judicial systems have always raised serious human rights concerns about repatriating hijackers to the mainland.