by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: RFA

THE REJECTION OF Chinese asylum seeker Zhang Xiangzhong’s application for asylum in Taiwan illustrates the Tsai administration’s unwillingness to rock the boat on cross-strait matters at present. This is likely indicative of a highly conservative impulse in the Tsai administration’s current attempts to maintain a stable relationship between Taiwan and China. Zhang sought asylum in Taiwan after coming to Taiwan as part of a tour group and then fleeing from that tour group, but has now returned to China after failing to qualify for long-term residence in Taiwan. After Zhang’s return to China, some reports indicated that Zhang had been detained by Chinese authority, but Zhang has indicated that he is safe for now after being briefly taken into custody by public security.

Zhang claims to have been inspired to seek asylum in Taiwan because of being inspired by Taiwanese human rights activist Lee Ming-Che, who currently remains detained in China under unclear circumstances. Zhang was arrested for three years on charges of credit card fraud, reportedly after being first detained for participation in the New Citizen’s Movement calling for greater public transparency in government. But many things remain to be clarified about these charges, seeing as individuals were prevented from observing this trial.

Beforehand, legal experts had suggested that it was likely that Taiwan would accept Zhang’s application based on past precedent, in fact, dating to the pro-China Ma administration. Again, this is part of why the DPP Tsai administration’s refusal of the asylum application is so surprising. Whatever talk there is of a delicate balance to cross-strait relations which must be maintained, one suspects that because cross-strait relations are already at a low point and cannot deteriorate much further than in the present, there would have not have been much harm in Taiwan accepting Zhang’s application for asylum.

Zhang Xiangzhong. Photo credit: RFA

China would have lobbed the accusation that Taiwan is harboring Chinese criminals, perhaps pointing to widespread cases in which Taiwanese telephone fraud rings targeting Chinese citizens receive light punishment within Taiwan. This would have probably been in regards to Zhang’s past charges for credit card fraud, although one can also see in this light how persecuting political dissidents using criminal or fraud charges instead of political dissidence charges may be useful for China because of its usefulness in discrediting such individuals. Yet one generally suspects that Taiwan could have used the acceptance of Zhang’s application for asylum as a means of claiming the moral high ground over China and that this would boost Taiwan’s international credibility, as well as serving as a means of differentiating Taiwan and China in international news.

Either way, the advantages of taking this approach would probably outweigh any damage to Taiwan’s international credibility from accusations by China that Taiwan is letting Chinese criminals get off easy. In the case of telephone fraud cases, even when China actually has the legal right to deport criminals who have committed crimes against Chinese citizens to China according to international law, the world largely perceives this as China persecuting Taiwanese citizens, as we can see in international media reports that China is “kidnapping” Taiwanese citizens. As such, one imagines charges from China that Taiwan is harboring Taiwanese criminals would have largely been ignored by the international community. Moreover, given that Taiwan is only ever thought of in the international sphere in relation to China, Taiwan stands to benefit from any perception that Taiwan is distinguished from China as a democracy, which will accept the dissidents that China persecutes because of restrictions on freedom of expression and belief in China, inclusive of individuals as former Tiananmen Square student leaders Wu’er Kaixi, Wang Dan, and others. Wu’er Kaixi has been among those who have suggested that Zhang will face threats from China in the future, regardless of what his past history was.

And so due to past precedents, the fact that cross-strait relations stand a low possibility of improving in the present, and that Taiwan could have made Zhang’s asylum into something advantageous in shaping international perceptions of Taiwan, it is quite surprising that the Tsai administration would reject his application outright after a quick three days, rather than after any protracted investigation. This points to the strangely conservative bent of the Tsai administration on cross-strait relations at present, in which the Tsai administration sometimes hews to a conservative stance to the point of seeming irrationality. The Tsai administration has been quiet on issues in which a stronger or less ambiguous stance could have only benefitted attempts to maintain Taiwan’s de facto independence. The Tsai administration also took a low-key stance regarding the detention of Taiwanese human rights advocate Lee Ming-Che despite that, again, raising the fact that China has kidnapped a Taiwanese human rights advocate who seems to have done nothing wrong could only raise the international profile of the plight Taiwan faces from China.

Detained Taiwanese human rights advocate Lee Ming-Che. Photo credit: Lee Ming-Che’s family

Unsurprisingly, those who defended the Tsai administration’s actions on the Lee Ming-Che case have also defended its actions on the case of Zhang Xiangzhong. However, again, claiming that Tsai needs to maintain cross-strait relations in the present really raises the question of to what further point can cross-strait relations deteriorate that Tsai needs to constantly act to maintain the “delicate balance” of cross-strait relations. And it generally seems to be illogical and, in fact, jumping the gun out of a desire to defend the actions of the Tsai administration, to impugn Zhang Xiangzhong with no real evidence by suggesting that his asylum application may have been a set-up by China aimed at deteriorating cross-strait relations, seeing as political dissidents are often not allowed to travel to Taiwan by China or even claiming that Zhang’s application for asylum was undertaken in collusion with Chinese authorities.

Obviously, if there are suspicious circumstances to the Zhang Xiangzhong case or falsehoods in his statements, this should have been investigated, but sometimes China’s security apparatus simply has holes in it, by virtue of the fact that like any other security apparatus, it is not omnipotent or all-knowing. Along the same lines, there are many cases of longtime Taiwanese independence advocates sometimes surprised to discover that they are able to enter and exit China unmolested apparently because they slip by China’s security apparatus. Moreover, high-profile Chinese dissidents such as blind “barefoot lawyer” Chen Guangcheng were also allowed to leave China under mysterious circumstances, very likely because some force within the government allowed them to leave, but this does not mean that they are CCP plants either.

Indeed, there are certainly many mysteries to be unravelled about Zhang’s case regarding his past history. Taiwanese advocates for human rights in China have expressed reservations and skepticism about Zhang’s history as a dissident, as well as his strange actions. Zhang is not a well-known dissident, although past human rights reports by the US State Department dating from 2013 have reported on Zhang’s arbitrary arrest for participation in the New Citizen’s Movement. But one suspects that much of this attempt to defend the Tsai administration’s handling of the Zhang case returns to deep-set apologism for Tsai regarding any and all actions by her administration.

Tsai Ing-Wen (center-left). Photo credit: Presidential Office

Neither should one accuse Zhang of secretly being a Chinese agent on the basis of little evidence. Innocent until proven guilty, after all. In the case of asylum applications, one should perhaps take at face value the claims of those who present themselves as willing to take the risk of never seeing their friends or family members in their homeland ever again before assuming that they are liars and criminals, as the demonstrably authoritarian government they are fleeing from claims. And there generally seems to be something morally repugnant about rah-rah-ing the actions of the Tsai administration as having intelligently handled the matter, acting as though it has already been demonstrably proven that Zhang was a Chinese plant. If it does turn out that Zhang’s application for asylum was genuine and then after his return, Zhang were to be detained by the Chinese state apparatus, this would mean that Zhang may possibly be tortured, imprisoned or worse. Any responsibility for this would lie at the feet of the Tsai administration.

The case has not been widely discussed in Taiwan to date, likely because of a time lag in public reactions. It may be that Taiwanese are less concerned with the Zhang case because it involves a Chinese man and not a Taiwanese man, as with the Lee Ming-Che case, but there was also a strangely long time lag between Lee Ming-Che’s kidnapping and public reactions to his kidnapping. We will see as to reactions from the Taiwanese public, then, if there are any, as contingent on further developments in the case. Will the Taiwanese public side with the Tsai administration’s actions in regards to its treatment of Zhang, as handling an unclear set of circumstances intelligently? Or will they take the Tsai administration’s actions as having failed to stand up for international human rights and backed down on Taiwan’s reputation as a country which values human rights in a way China does not?

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