There is recent precedent for the Taiwan government to accept the political asylum bid from a Chinese activist who fled a tour group last week.

Zhang Xiangzhong (張向忠), 48, went missing from a tour group in Taiwan on Wednesday and has reportedly said he will seek political asylum in Taiwan.

Zhang told Radio Free Asia he was released from prison in China in July 2016, after spending three years behind bars for taking part in a civil society group.

Taipei-based American lawyer and consultant Ross D. Feingold expects Zhang will be allowed to stay in Taiwan.

“Certainly media exposure, the expectations of civil society organizations, and pressure from legislators interested in this issue, will force the government to broadly interpret its administrative authority and allow Zhang to remain for the foreseeable future,” he says.

Despite ratifying numerous international human rights covenants, Taiwan does not have a refugee and political asylum law.

“Fortunately for the government, there are precedents from the previous administration of Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) where the government handled asylum applications from Chinese persons on the basis of administrative authority granted to executive branch agencies under existing laws,” Feingold says.

“In the absence of an applicable asylum law, following precedent is a good path,” says Feingold, who advises clients on political developments in Asia, including cross-Strait relations.

According to local reports, Zhang’s whereabouts remain unknown to authorities.

Tense times

Zhang’s arrival in Taiwan comes just days after the wife of a Taiwanese human rights activist detained in China was blocked in her attempt to travel Beijing to seek his freedom. Lee Ming-cheh (李明哲), 42, is being detained in China by a branch of the state security police for “involvement in a threat to national security.” He was reported missing after flying from Taipei to Macau on March 19. On April 4, his wife, Lee Ching-yu (李凈瑜) attempted to travel to China today in a bid to uncover where her husband is being held and what charges he faces.

Lee’s detainment and Zhang's asylum bid come amid a period of weak relations across the Taiwan Strait – since Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) under President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) took office in May 2016, Beijing has cut off official communication with Taipei.

According to reports, Zhang has said he was inspired by Lee Ching-yu.

However, Zhang’s case may pose challenges for the Tsai administration, which wants to prevent cross-Strait relationships from deteriorating further, says Brian Hioe, a Taiwan-based political commentator and editor of online publication New Bloom.

“If Taiwan accepted him, China would lob the accusation that Taiwan is sheltering Chinese criminals or possibly perceive it as retaliation for Lee Ming-che,” Hioe says.

Feingold says it is unlikely anything China says about Zhang will influence how the Taiwan government handles the asylum bid. Moreover, he says a trade of Lee for Zhang “is not in the offing.”

“Zhang has not violated any laws in Taiwan other than departing from his tour group,” he says. “Given the media exposure and his status as a political dissident, it’s hard to imagine Taiwan deporting him quickly for that.”

Need for new laws

While cases of Chinese seeking political asylum in Taiwan are rare, Zhang’s case reveals the lack of laws for processing refugees and asylum seekers.

Feingold says the Tsai government should pass a refugee and asylum law that includes rather than excludes or is unclear with regard to Chinese applicants.

“This would further the narrative that Taiwan often tries to give the world, that it is progressive on human rights, democracy and rule of law issues.”

Laws to create a legal basis to review and grant refugee and asylum status were introduced into Taiwan’s parliament in July 2016, but have since stalled – one of the issues being debated is whether would apply to applicants from China.

“In fact, just last month several human rights organizations held a press conference to criticize the country’s political leadership for its failure to proceed with the legislation,” Feingold says. “As the Democratic Progressive Party controls the legislature, and the president is the party chairwoman, it’s reasonable that these organizations are demanding that she show leadership on this issue; it’s a similar criticism that has been made with regard to the codifying marriage equality into law.”

Feingold notes, despite its exclusion from the United Nations, Taiwan in 2009 ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and approved the Law on the Enforcement of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. This made the covenants legally binding as a matter of domestic law.

Editor: Olivia Yang