by Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: Solomon203/WikiCommons/CC
IT SEEMS HIGHLY likely that Taiwan’s current lack of any coherent policy for asylum seekers may explode into an international controversy in coming months, with a high number of high-profile refugees from Hong Kong and China facing possible deportation from Taiwan after their visas expire. Indeed, in the absence of any action by the Tsai administration, an international controversy will be all but inevitable, with the possibility that highly visible targets for China—including several college students—will be sent back to China or Hong Kong to face what would likely be long jail sentences.
Among the prominent asylum seekers from Hong Kong and China currently in Taiwan are Lam Wing-kee and Lee Sin-yi from Hong Kong, as well as Chinese nationals Lee Jia-bao, Yan Bojun, and Liu Xinglian. Notably, Lee Sin-yi is 19 or 20 years old, and Lee Jia-bao is 20 years old.
Lam Wing-kee, 60, is one of the Causeway Bay booksellers, a group of five staff members of Causeway Bay Books—a bookstore in Hong Kong that published tabloid-style books critical of the Chinese government—kidnapped by the Chinese government in 2015. The Causeway Bay booksellers disappeared between October and December 2015, reappearing in China where they made televised confessions of past crimes which were likely extracted through coercion. Two of the five were kidnapped to China from within Hong Kong, two from within China, and one from Thailand.
Lam, the founder of Causeway Bay Books, is the only one of the five Causeway Bay booksellers who is currently free, as a result of an escape from Chinese authorities while in Hong Kong. With Hong Kong set to pass a new extradition law which would make it possibly for Hong Kong citizens to openly and legally be deported to China, Lam fled to Taiwan, citing that he had hopes to reopen Causeway Bay Books in Taiwan. However, Lam was only granted one month’s stay in Taiwan, with the provision that Lam would have to find work in Taiwan to secure residence status during that one month. After Lam was unable to do so, his stay was later extended by an extra two months. But the possibility remains that Lam will still be unable to find work and will be forced to return to Hong Kong in the coming months, possibly deported by Taiwanese authorities.
Lee Sin-yi, who is 19 or 20, is a localist activist who participated in the events of the February 2016 Fishball Revolution, which involved clashes with police in the Mong Kok district of Hong Kong. Noted localist activists that participated in the Fishball Riot such as Edward Leung were sentenced to years in prison, Leung, 27, currently serving a six year prison sentence. Lee, then 18 years old, failed to make a court appearance in Hong Kong in January 2017 after entering Taiwan on a one-month tourist visa and then disappeared.
A recording from an individual purporting to be Lee subsequently surfaced in August 2017, released by fellow localist Edward Tang on Facebook. The recording explained Lee’s reasons for choosing exile in Taiwan over potentially facing years in jail in Hong Kong. There is no record of Lee departing Taiwan in the two years since. It is known that Lee’s period in hiding has been assisted by Taiwanese independence activists.
However, a recording of an individual purporting to be Lee was released by pro-independence Taiwanese “Third Force” party, the Taiwan Statebuilding Party, earlier the month. In the recording, Lee warned that with the passage of the new extradition law in Hong Kong, more individuals such as Lam or Lee would likely flee into exile in the near future.
Yet this recording has drawn the attention of Taiwanese law enforcement, who have stated that they will seek to track down Lee, suggesting it is highly possible that Taiwanese authorities will actually seek to deport Lee back to Hong Kong to face charges. Ironically enough, the new extradition law set to be passed in Hong Kong was indirectly the result of a murder case involving a Hong Kong student killing another Hong Kong student—his girlfriend—while they were vacationing in Taiwan. Nevertheless, police in Hong Kong were unable to persecute the case because the killer could not be deported to Taiwan to face charges in the absence of any extradition treaty between Taiwan and Hong Kong.
On the other hand, Chinese national Lee Jia-bao, 20, a student at the Chia Nan University of Pharmacy and Science in Tainan, is currently seeking asylum in Taiwan after making a series of videos criticizing Chinese president Xi Jinping. According to Lee, after he made these videos, he lost contact with his parents, and he is unable to access any Chinese social media accounts he owns or his Chinese banking accounts. Lee has stated that his Taiwanese bank account is close to running out of money and, despite being in contact with the Taiwanese government-run Straits Exchange Foundation and the Mainland Affairs Council, it is possible that Lee will be forced to return to China or deported once his visa expires in July.
The consequences for Li could be severe if he returns to China. In March, a Chinese YouTuber who is currently a student in the US surnamed Liu discovered that his mother had been detained by Chinese security forces after he made statements on his YouTube channel expressing support for Taiwan. Previously in October 2018, Chinese Weibo and Twitter commentator Tang Yantao was “disappeared” after criticizing the Chinese government for “poaching” Taiwan’s few remaining diplomatic allies. Li is the first case of a Chinese student seeking asylum in Taiwan after Chinese students began to be allowed to study in Taiwan beginning in 2011, though Chinese students have drawn public attention for their participation in Taiwanese social movements including the 2014 Sunflower Movement before.
Chinese nationals Yan Bojun, 43, and Liu Xinglian, 63, were previously stranded in Taoyuan International Airport for over one hundred days after seeking asylum in Taiwan in Fall 2018. Yan and Liu were both publicly-known Chinese political dissidents who had previously fled to Thailand to avoid retaliation from the Chinese government, Yan, in particular, doing so by secretly hiding for over twenty-four hours in a small compartment on a bus. The duo then later decided to flee to Taiwan because of concerns that China was monitoring them in Thailand and could possibly kidnap them back to China, much as China kidnapped Causeway Bay bookseller Gui Minhai from within Thai borders—likely with the cooperation of Thai authorities.
Liu Xinglian (left) and Yan Bojun (right) while stranded in Taoyuan International Airport. Photo credit: Yan Bojun/Facebook
However, the Taiwanese government seemed undecided what to do with them in the absence of any asylum laws for Chinese dissidents and perhaps hoped that the two would eventually decide on their own to return to China. The Taiwanese government has treated Chinese dissidents seeking asylum in Taiwan in this way in the past, sometimes successfully convincing Chinese dissidents to return to China, where they subsequently disappeared. This was what took place in the case of Zhang Xianghong, a participant in the New Citizen’s Movement who sought asylum in Taiwan in April 2017 but whose asylum application was rejected.
When Chinese asylum seekers have been allowed to enter Taiwan, such as with the Chinese dissident Huang Yan, who was allowed to enter Taiwan in mid-2018, this took place under the auspices of medical treatment and was with the provision that she would have to eventually move to a third country. Huang eventually moved to the United States.
As such, after media reported on Yan and Liu being stuck in Taoyuan International Airport for over one hundred days and this put pressure on the Tsai administration to take action, Yan and Liu were eventually allowed into Taiwan in January 2019 on the basis of “professional exchanges”. Yet despite expressing a desire to stay in Taiwan, Yan and Liu, too, may eventually be forced to leave Taiwan as well in coming months.
Lee Ching-yu (center), the wife of detained Taiwanese human rights activist Lee Ming-che, holding a picture of her husband at a press conference. Photo credit: VOA
Indeed, the actions of the Tsai administration regarding Chinese and Hong Kong asylum seekers are surprising. Though Taiwan has ratified a number of international human rights agreements, Taiwan lacks refugee and political asylum laws. This proves further complicated with regards to Hong Kong and China because of the fact that the Republic of China framework, which is still constitutional law in Taiwan, views Taiwan, Hong Kong, and China as part of the same country.
At the same time, it proves unusual for the Tsai administration to prove so hesitant to accept refugees from Hong Kong and China when even the pro-unification Ma administration was happy to accept nine refugees from China in 2014. Although Taiwan might gain from accepting refugees from Hong Kong and China, as means of further differentiating Taiwan from China with regards to protection for human rights in Taiwan, the Tsai administration may fear reprisal from the Chinese government in the form of detaining Taiwanese citizens in China, as occurred with Taiwanese human rights advocate Lee Ming-che in March 2017.
It is to be questioned whether this is any genuine risk, as either way, Chinese measures against Taiwanese citizens are becomingly increasingly severe. Or the Tsai administration may fear that allowing more asylum seekers into Taiwan that this will result in a wave of Chinese and Hong Kong asylum seekers that it cannot deal with.
At the same time, however, decisions made by the Tsai administration on whether to accept asylum seekers or not have generally been ad hoc, as dependent on the amount of media attention which goes to a specific case. Though ad hoc case-by-case solutions have worked to date, with the current large number of high-profile asylum cases that happened to coincide at the same timeframe, one expects the issue of asylum laws in Taiwan to potentially explode in the coming months.
Progressive lawmakers such as legislator Freddy Lim of the NPP and DPP legislator Yu Mei-nu have suggested passing laws to address the issue of asylum seekers in Taiwan many times before, with the NPP proposing a law which was voted down by the DPP in 2016. Prominent Taiwanese human rights organizations active with regards to cross-strait issues such as the Taiwan Association for Human Rights have also called for a freeze in the budget of the National Immigration Agency until Taiwan establishes a review process for refugees. But with this not being taken up by the legislature currently, it may already be too late for the current legislative session to formulate any coherent refugee and asylum policy for Taiwan going forward.
While the Tsai administration may seek to deal with the current wave of asylum cases in an ad hoc manner once again, the possibility for an international scandal to be caused by Taiwan deporting a high-profile Hong Kong or Chinese asylum seeker is high. In this light, a storm may be coming regarding Taiwan’s asylum laws in the near future, touching on a number of highly sensitive issues regarding cross-strait relations and democratic freedoms in Taiwan as compared to Hong Kong and China.