by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: 家寶日記/Facebook

CHINESE EXCHANGE student Lee Jia-bao continues to face the possibility of deportation back to China, with his current visa status set to expire in July. At present, Lee is an exchange student at the Chia Nan University of Pharmacy and Science in Tainan.

After criticizing Chinese president Xi Jinping in a livestream and on social media in March, Lee sought asylum in Taiwan. Since making the video, Lee has been locked out of his bank account, Chinese social media accounts, and has reportedly has since lost contact with his parents. Lee, however, has also participated in recent protests criticizing Chinese attempts to unduly influence Taiwanese elections.

Lee Jia-bao. Photo credit: 家寶日記/Facebook

In this regard, the situation facing Lee reminds of that of a Chinese student studying in the United States surnamed Liu, who discovered that his mother had been detained by Chinese authorities after making a video on YouTube criticizing moves by Xi Jinping to become lifetime dictator of China.

To this extent, Lee’s concerns of being “disappeared” are fully valid. Chinese Weibo and Twitter commentator Tang Yantao was detained by Chinese authorities and disappeared in October 2018 after criticizing the Chinese government for “poaching” Taiwan’s few remaining diplomatic allies.

Actions by the Chinese government to crack down on expressions of solidarity for Taiwan are on the rise, then. This, too, was the case regarding Kou Yanding, who came to Taiwan after retaliatory actions from the Chinese government against her for organizing activities with the aim of Chinese activists learning from the experience of the 2014 Sunflower Movement. It may be that China fears and hopes to crack down on exchanges between Taiwanese, Chinese, and Hong Kong activists, with the space available for such opportunities for exchanges shrinking drastically in past years.

However, more generally, the Taiwanese government has done little to aid Chinese asylum seekers in Taiwan, even when this could benefit Taiwan’s international image in further differentiating Taiwan from China. 

Indeed, the Tsai administration simply seems to have no coherent policy when it comes to refugees, Chinese or otherwise. It has been suggested that the Tsai administration has issues dealing with Chinese asylum seekers for a number of reasons, such as that Taiwan has no asylum laws, and that the Republic of China constitution still views Taiwan as part of China, making the issue of Chinese nationals seeking asylum in a de facto different nation-state that claims to be China a legal quandary. It has otherwise been suggested that Taiwan fears retaliation from China, such as if China were to kidnap Taiwanese citizens living and working in China as a response to Taiwan accepting refugees from China, or if Taiwan were to see an influx of Chinese asylum seekers.

As such, in cases of Chinese asylum seekers being allowed into Taiwan, this has generally been with the provision that such asylum seekers eventually move to a third country for permanent resettlement, such as occurred with Chinese human rights lawyer Huang Yan being allowed into Taiwan for three months in May 2018. Even Hong Kong bookseller Lam Wing-kee, one of the Causeway Bay booksellers kidnapped by the Chinese government for publishing books critical of the Xi administration, may only be given one month in Taiwan after fleeing to Taiwan because of new extradition laws that Hong Kong plans to pass in the near future. 

There have been cases of Chinese asylum seekers being encouraged to return to China after arriving in Taiwan, returning to China, and subsequently disappearing, such as occurred with Zhang Xianghong, who sought asylum in Taiwan after three years in jail in China for anti-corruption activism. 

Taoyuan International Airport. Photo credit: Wing1990HK/WikiCommons/CC

But there has yet to be a high-profile case in which a Chinese asylum seeker allowed into Taiwan was unable to have their application for asylum accepted by a third country while in Taiwan, and being forced to return to China. It is to be questioned, then, if Lee Jia-bao will end up being the first such case of a relatively high-profile Chinese asylum seeker being forced to return to China. If so, Lee being forced to return to China comes despite the fact that the Mainland Affairs Council has reached out to Lee and offered him support.

Yet one generally observes inconsistent actions by the Tsai administration regarding issues with Chinese refugees. The Tsai administration has generally been reluctant to take action regarding Chinese refugees unless there is a significant amount of media attention focused on them, as observed in the case of two Chinese dissidents, Yan Bojun and Liu Xinglian, that were marooned in Taoyuan International Airport for over one hundred days until media reporting on their plight built up sufficient pressure for them to be allowed into Taiwan on the pretense of conducting professional exchanges.

Either the Tsai administration is cynical, seeing as it may have hoped that Yan and Liu would eventually give up their asylum bid to return to China, and it may hope similarly with Lee. Or the Tsai administration simply has no idea how to handle asylum cases. Lee’s case will be a litmus test for policy regarding Chinese asylum seekers going forward then, as well as Taiwan’s refugee policy more generally.

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