Chinese Activist Surfaces in Taipei, Told He May Face Uphill Battle for Asylum

Why you need to know

The Chinese activist who fled a tour group last week may face a tough time to gain asylum in Taiwan, a local NGO has warned.

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The Chinese dissident seeking political asylum in Taiwan visited the Taiwan Association for Human Rights in Taipei this morning and was told he may need more evidence of the threat he faces in China.

Zhang Xiangzhong (張向忠), 48, went missing from a tour group in Taiwan on April 12 and has reportedly said he will seek political asylum in Taiwan. Zhang is a member of the “New Citizens Movement,” a Chinese civil rights group founded by civil rights activist Xu Zhiyong (許志永).

“I have told him that he needs to provide further evidence that he will face an immediate threat of arrest or torture should he return to China,” Taiwan Association for Human Rights association’s Secretary General Chiu E-ling (邱伊翎) told The News Lens. She went on to say that even then the Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) might not process the case, as Taiwan does not have a refugee or political asylum law.

Chiu says so far Zhang has only provided documentation of his release from prison.

The New Citizens Movement website in October 2016 published an opinion piece written by Zhang, as well as reports on his trial and subsequent release from prison. But currently no information on his bid for political asylum in Taiwan is available on the website. The group has not responded to a request for comment today.

Zhang was arrested in July 2013 on suspicion of disrupting public order, but was tried and sentenced to three years in prison for operating a credit card scam. His lawyer at the time, Xie Yanyi (謝燕益), said that the Haidian Court in Beijing prevented people from observing the hearing, and the prosecutors limited her to only speaking of the alleged credit card scam during her defense of Zhang.

He was released in June 2016, and Zhang claims that he has been under constant surveillance since then.

Asylum bid

While in Taiwan, Zhang said reports of Lee Ching-yu (李凈瑜), the wife of missing Taiwanese activist Lee Ming-che (李明哲), inspired him to seek political asylum in Taiwan.

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 in a bid to uncover where her husband is being held and what charges he faces, but her travel pass was revoked by the Chinese authorities.

MAC Minister Katharine Chang (張小月) told local press that Zhang had not contacted any relevant government authorities, such as the MAC or the National Immigration Agency (NIA). The minister said that all of the information the MAC has received about Zhang has come from media reports.

The minister said that under the Act Governing Relations between the People of the Taiwan Area and the Mainland Area, Taiwan could not grant Chinese dissidents asylum or sanctuary — Zhang would have to apply for permanent residency from the NIA instead.

Chang said that because Zhang has violated regulations by leaving the tour group, it is unclear how the NIA would handle the case. Under the Act Governing Relations between the People of the Taiwan and the Mainland Area, the NIA could deport any Chinese national on a tourist visa who stays in Taiwan for more than 15 days, or who engages in any activity inconsistent with their purpose for entry.

Chinese state-run Global Times has published an opinion piece in which it states that China should not worry if Taiwan decides to grant residency to Zhang — whom the Global Times calls an attention seeker — and instead let the “people who no longer want to live in China to just leave, so that things will be quieter in China.”

Zhang reportedly said he would also seek help from the Taiwan Association for China Human Rights.

When contacted for comment, the secretary-general of the Taiwan Association for China Human Rights, Chiu Ling-yao (邱齡瑤), told TNL that she only learned of Zhang’s plans when local media contacted her for comment.

Chiu, who is in charge of reviewing asylum cases, said that her organization has since been trying to verify Zhang’s identity by contacting other civil rights organizations in China, as well as his level of involvement with the New Citizens Movement. The organization was also trying to determine the specific charges that led to his imprisonment.

“There have been cases in the past where people seeking asylum here have used different names in Taiwan and China,” Chiu said. “He needs to provide more evidence to show that his life is in danger, other than just the prison term and the fact that he was inspired by Lee Ching-yu.”

“Other civil rights activists in China like Hu Jia and Chen Guangcheng could not even have left China. They were under house arrest and their passports were revoked,” said Chiu. “How is it even possible for Zhang to leave the country if he was under surveillance, let alone come to Taiwan for vacation?”

Chiu said for now, her organization could not find any concrete proof that Zhang was under any threat. “I’ve worked for a long time with Chinese civil rights activists, and I have never even heard of Zhang before,” she said.

In previous cases of those seeking political asylum, the activists were usually able to provide extensive proof of danger, says Taiwan Association for China Human Rights’ Chiu, and they were very low key and barely spoke to the media.

“Personally, I think this case is very strange. Wouldn’t a person seeking asylum have safety concerns instead of letting the whole world know?”

Precedent for asylum

Despite ratifying numerous international human rights covenants, Taiwan does not have a refugee and political asylum law. However, there is recent precedent for the Taiwan government to accept Zhang’s political asylum.

“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,” Taipei-based American lawyer and consultant Ross D. Feingold told The News Lens.

“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.

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.”

Read more:
Will Taiwan Accept Chinese Asylum Seeker?

Editor: Olivia Yang

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