What you need to know
Taiwanese residents in Norway are being designated as Chinese. We speak to the leader of a group of Taiwanese students who intend to protest the case in Norway and at the European Court of Human Rights.
In Norway, a group of Taiwanese students are organizing a class action lawsuit aimed at the Norwegian government for changing the nationality on Taiwanese people’s residency permits from Taiwan to China.
The group is attempting to crowd source funding to see them through three instances at court in Norway. If unsuccessful in overturning the change in designation, the group then intends to take their case to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).
The group is represented in the media by a Taiwanese lawyer named Joseph, a former employee of a business law firm.
The News Lens spoke to Joseph while he was in the United States attempting to raise awareness of the group’s case and cause. He shared his sense of frustration at being misidentified, and concern at the threat of being deported to China were he to be accused of a crime by the authorities in Beijing.
The News Lens: What are you doing in Los Angeles?
Joseph: [Last weekend] I shared my thoughts at the Orange County FAPA [Formosan Association for Public Affairs] to see the reception of the Taiwanese American community here. [We organized] a Q&A and I tried to persuade them of the importance of our case for Taiwanese abroad, especially after our democratization in the 1990s.
TNL: What were the circumstances under which you had the idea to file a lawsuit?
Joseph: I came to know about [the designation change] in 2015, five years after they came to designate Taiwanese residents as Chinese. I discovered I needed to be registered as Chinese on the spot in the queue for a resident’s permit .
I was really frustrated. [Other] Taiwanese students there were also angry. [We all had] reasons to choose Norway to study. For example, I went there to study human rights, others went to study social welfare or gender equality. We had an impression about the country that was positive, so it was hard to accept that we were not being equally treated with other countries’ citizens – that we were not allowed to be proud of where we come from. We felt we were not fully respected.
TNL: Is Norway the only place this has happened?
Joseph: In 2013, a Taiwanese student in Iceland was designated as Chinese. She argued her case and she told me that finally she was registered as "stateless." She told me that while it was more satisfying than being registered as Chinese, her official registration is still "Chinese," so the revision of her nationality was only on the piece of paper she was given.
TNL: Why do you think this happened in Norway?
Joseph: In Norway, 2010 was a sensitive time because the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese dissident and human rights activist. The Chinese government had already tried to complain about it before it even happened. But the peace prize committee is private and doesn’t have a direct relationship with the Norwegian government, so there was nothing it could do.
People in Norway deem the Chinese/Taiwanese government as being in a situation of civil war – fighting for representation of the whole China. For them, it makes sense that there is only one China.
TNL: I remember that time – China reacted by freezing imports of Norwegian salmon, which was massively damaging for Norway’s economy…
Joseph: They pretty much froze the entire relationship. So the Norwegian government kept trying to resume relations and it was at that time our nationality was changed from Taiwanese to Chinese. We questioned if there was Chinese pressure for them to make this change but they refused to make that connection.
TNL: Did you feel that it was necessary to push back in some way against the squeeze on Taiwan’s international space that is being applied by China?
Joseph: At the time we were more concerned with our rights in this country. But from last year, there have been more movements from the Chinese side to change the status quo in cross-Strait relations. This has pushed this case to the forefront. More Taiwanese are thinking that maybe the case in Norway can help Taiwan in international space, and could be a battle front for us to fight back, materially and symbolically.
TNL: This is happening at the same time as relations between China and Sweden are very strained. Scandinavia has a reputation for moral rectitude. Do you feel that if anyone is going to stand up to China, it should happen in Scandinavia?
Joseph: The contrast between China and Taiwan is not commonly understood in Norway. People deem the Chinese/Taiwanese government as being in a situation of civil war – fighting for representation of the whole China. For them, it makes sense that there is only one China.
TNL: How do you know that?
Joseph: From my conversations with classmates and friends, and even professors who study international relations. I am not sure what the reason is, we have few outlets to promote ourselves, and international society has neglected the fact that we have democratized and moved closer to a Western-style democracy.
TNL: Why are you choosing to only partially reveal your identity?
Joseph: I am an initiator of the movement and am responsible for any influence against the movement. I’m afraid if I reveal myself more, I'll be targeted before we officially file the lawsuit. I expect they’ll find me if the movement attracts more attention but I don’t want that to affect the process.
TNL: How far along with the crowd-funding campaign are you?
Joseph: We have collected enough funding to go for two instances, but we have to exhaust three instances in Norway, before bringing the case to the ECHR. So we have only reached half of the final goal. In total we will need almost NT$5 million (US$162,990).
TNL: Are you still studying in Norway?
Joseph: Just graduated from my Masters program in Human Rights and I am under the jobseeker visa and looking for a job or a PhD here. I want to have an academic career here or go back to Taiwan.
TNL: So you still want to stay, even despite the Chinese designation?
Joseph: It’s because I really want to stay in this country, that’s why I care so much about how they designate my identity.
TNL: How many Taiwanese are there in Norway?
Joseph: There are only 200 Taiwanese in total in Norway. It’s mostly students in our group, which is about 20 people. Most are students who have studied in Norway as exchange or diploma students.
TNL: Are there parallels with the situation in which Taiwanese journalists are not allowed to cover United Nationals events like the World Health Assembly?
Joseph: In the WHO case, it’s not only about freedom of press. It’s about the whole Taiwanese health system not being connected to the UN system. When a disease breaks out, our health authority would not be informed by the UN. Taiwan would become a black hole in a pandemic breakout. It’s relevant to the right to health for all Taiwanese people.
TNL: Is there any precedent for bringing a case about Taiwanese identity to the ECHR?
Joseph: There were some cases regarding Taiwanese identity in other countries. Fraud suspects in Spain were caught by Spanish police and the government had to decide whether to deport to Taiwan or China. The decision was based on designation. This is still under judicial process. The final decision is also relevant to the procedural rights of these suspects.
Taiwan is a rule of law country and China is not. We provide more procedural rights for suspects in the judicial process. In China, it is not so transparent, so it’s hard to know the destiny of these suspects.
TNL: So if one of the 200 Taiwanese people in Norway happens to be accused of a crime, then they would be repatriated to China?
Joseph: That’s true. China’s government could also make a law that makes us commit a crime. Can we claim Taiwanese independence in Norway? Would that be a crime according to Chinese law? And if so, could they ask the Norwegian government to arrest us and deport us back to China. That is a serious question concerning our human rights.
TNL: Are there parallels with Lee Ming-che (李明哲)’s case, as he was arrested in China for crimes allegedly committed in Taiwan?
Joseph: But in that case he was arrested in China’s territory, but in our case, they could ask the Norwegian government to arrest us while we are there.
TNL: Have you had any pushback from China’s authorities?
Joseph: We are trying to find a balance of promoting our movement but remaining low-key in Chinese media. We refused all Chinese media interview invitations, but promote ourselves as much as we can in Taiwanese media. Our target audience is still Taiwanese people, and we want this to be a case demonstrating the will of all Taiwanese people and not just a group of Taiwanese students in Norway.
That’s why we choose to use crowdfunding to collect funding. It means everyone everyone has contributed a little bit and agree with what we are trying to do.
Those interested in supporting Joseph and the group’s case can join the “Taiwan My Name My right” crowdfunding campaign here.
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Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)
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