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China’s threat to personal safety of critics: paranoia or reality?



Inside the Reef By Joyce McClure

After sending to the FSM Congress and the states’ leaders his headline-grabbing 13-page letter about Chinese bribes being given to FSM’s leadership, then President David Panuelo asked for a security detail, not just for himself but for all past and future leaders.


The response on Facebook included one that said snidely he was just being paranoid.


Having been on the receiving end of harassment, death threats and an attempt to have me thrown out of the country for writing about Chinese developers who were bribing local officials in Yap where I was living at the time, I know from personal experience what he means by “personal risks to my personal safety; the safety of my family; and the safety of the staff I rely on to support me in this work.”


When I moved to Guam for my own safety, my Yapese friends expressed their support for my decision.


It’s not paranoia. It’s very real.


A few years ago, I was approached by an American who asked to speak with me. Yap is small and we Americans knew each other. He was clearly a visitor. He informed me that he was with the FBI, showed me his identification, and said he had been sent from his post in the Philippines to meet with me to let me know that my communications – email, phone, social media – were being followed by the Chinese due to the articles I had been writing about Chinese activities in Yap.


He warned me to be careful and said I needed to install a VPN on my devices and a secure U.S. government app on my phone. I did as he suggested. I also lived in a small apartment complex in Colonia, knew my neighbors, always locked my doors, never went out alone after dark, and remained alert when walking along the roads.


Panuelo followed up his letter with a proposed bill addressing “the heightened personal risks involved of any sitting, outgoing and even former FSM presidents.”


Noting “the sensitivity of the official matters that any FSM president must act and take a decisive action” that “affect our nation and people in much more impactful way” and “could jeopardize the personal safety and security of the president and his family,” Panuelo said, “my personal security is severely at heightened risk; and these risks will follow me, unfortunately, even after my tenure as president.”


And this safety threat does not only come from outside actors but also from government leaders and their supporters who have gained personally from bribes and kickbacks.


So far, the bill has been ignored and Congress voted to remain with China and not, as Panuelo strongly advocated, recognize Taiwan. With a new congress sworn in since then, and Panuelo out of office, I doubt it will ever see the light of day.


I have been told by Yapese friends who have worked for the state government for many years that China donated the equipment to FSM Telecom for its operations. I was reminded of this in 2021 when it was announced that China’s Huawei Marine was bidding for the World Bank-backed East Micronesia cable project to connect Kosrae to Pohnpei. The U.S. immediately jumped in and, along with Australia and Japan, offered funding to stave off any involvement by Chinese companies that, they believed, would threaten security in the area.


On March 8, representatives from the U.S., FSM, Japan, Kiribati, Nauru and Australia met to push forward the delivery of the East Micronesia Cable project.


China vehemently denies any intention to spy on FSM. I’m not the only one who doesn’t believe them.


Conducting surveillance on me and others who were opposed to Chinese developers’ intent on taking over the island and known to be giving government officials and traditional chiefs envelopes of cash, trips to China, and other “gifts” was confirmed by my FBI contact.


The U.S. Department of State’s 2022 Investment Climate Statements report for FSM notes:


“The FSM has laws prohibiting corruption and there are penalties for corrupt acts. The National Office of the Public Auditor, with support from the Department of Justice, is the entity most active in anti-corruption activities. Corruption is not a predicate offense under the money laundering statute. Bribery is punishable by imprisonment for not more than 10 years in addition to disqualification from holding any government position.


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“The degree to which government officials accept direct bribes is unknown but believed to be commonplace, especially deriving from state actors. The FSM has not signed or ratified the UN Convention on Corruption or the OECD Convention on Combating Bribery.


“The FSM has no government agency specifically assigned with responsibility for combatting corruption. State prosecutors are the usual avenue for prosecuting corruption, with several cases brought to trial in the last few years, especially in Pohnpei State. The Public Auditor highlighted irregularities but relies on government prosecutors for enforcement capability. The Department of Justice in prior years prosecuted cases, but activity in this area recently has been varied.”


FSM Attorney General Joses Gallen is listed as the principal contact for corruption charges. He was recently nominated by Yap Gov. Charles Chieng to become the state’s attorney general. I am hopeful he is not among those who accepted “gifts” from the Chinese delegation.


There is no public record stating who Panuelo accused of accepting bribes. However, with the U.S. military now firmly on the ground in Yap to prepare for any potential global conflict between the U.S. and China, I imagine those who have been on China’s payroll for several years may see the spigot drying up at least on that remote island state that sits strategically on the leading edge of this region halfway between Palau and Guam.


After a long career as a senior marketing executive, Joyce McClure traded the island of Manhattan for the island Yap as a Peace Corps response volunteer in 2016. She is now a freelance writer and photographer living in Guam. Send feedback to joycemcc62@yahoo.com




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