Photo: Dave Hancock, flickr.com
On 29 April this year, Li Jiabao, a student from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) studying in southern Taiwanese city Tainan, applied for political asylum at Taiwan’s National Immigration Agency. Having gained infamy earlier this year for a Twitter live stream that denounced President Xi Jinping for removing presidential term limits at the start of 2018, Li Jiabao stated that he feared the Chinese government would seek retribution if he were to return to China after his student visa expired in July. Li’s application for a resident visa was based on what in other countries would be considered a humanitarian concern – political dissidence; however, in early July Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council chose to grant him a ‘special student visa’ – and one that was only valid for six months.
Li is the most recent high-profile case in a string of applications for political asylum made to Taiwan by political dissidents from the PRC and Hong Kong fleeing the increasingly repressive political environments in each of those regions. Like Li, many of these dissidents have been allowed to stay in Taiwan, but generally only for a short period and often for reasons unrelated to political asylum. Two days before Li filed his claim, Hong Kong bookseller Lam Wing-kee, who was ‘disappeared’ in 2015 by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) for selling books criticising them, fled to Taiwan and was granted a short-term residency visa with the requirement that he find work in Taiwan. At the start of this year, two political dissidents from the PRC, Yan Kefen and Liu Xinglian, were granted short-term humanitarian visas strictly for ‘professional exchanges’ after gaining notoriety for being stranded in Taoyuan International Airport in Taiwan for 125 days while they waited for their claims to be processed. Yan has since left Taiwan after being granted a visa by the Canadian government, while Liu still remains in Taiwan for medical treatment. And in May 2018, Chinese dissident Huang Yan, who failed to board a transfer out of Taiwan, was granted a short-term humanitarian visa on the basis of medical leave and then later resettled in LA after being granted political asylum by the US.
The disorganised nature of these cases and their underwhelming outcomes are a reflection of the significant limitations in Taiwan’s current legislative measures for processing asylum claims. Though refugees are closely intertwined with Taiwan’s contemporary history, with a significant proportion of the island’s population being descendants of political refugees who fled mainland China following the Communist takeover in 1949, Taiwan currently does not possess a comprehensive set of refugee or asylum laws. Most asylum claims are instead processed on a case-by-case basis by reference to Taiwan’s immigration laws and would-be asylum seekers must apply for mainstream Taiwanese visas, as Li did when he applied for a long-term residency visa. The case-by-case nature of processing claims does allow government agencies to consider the circumstances of the application such as the need for “protection of human rights”, effectively functioning as an informal substitute for refugee law. At the same time, this ad-hoc process means a high degree of uncertainty for the applicant as to whether a claim will be accepted. Existing thresholds for the granting of visas for “political reasons” have been criticised as both vaguely worded and excessively high, with requirements for asylum based on applicants providing “valuable information” to help Taiwan “understand” China or for their safety to be “immediately threatened”.
Efforts were made in 2016 to pass a Refugee Act through Taiwan’s parliament (the Legislative Yuan). While the draft bill passed its first reading, progress has remained stagnant since then, and some believe that it simply is not a political priority for the government. Indeed, the current administration has indicated a reluctance to allow asylum seekers to stay in Taiwan altogether: no Chinese asylum seeker has been given long-term residency status since 2014, meaning the most recent successful claims were prior to the election of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in 2016. Additionally, according to the Taiwan Association for Human Rights, between 2014-2018, the Taiwanese government even forcefully repatriated 10 people who were at risk of torture or inhuman treatment from their home countries. These deportations blatantly contravene Taiwan’s obligations under a number of human rights treaties it is party to, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).
It is difficult to reconcile these actions with Taiwan’s image as a progressive democracy with a strong commitment to human rights, highlighted in recent events such as Taiwan becoming the first country in Asia to legalise same-sex marriage. Support for human rights is considered a key component of Taiwan’s soft power, and vis-à-vis China’s aggressive image in the global arena, an important means of asserting an identity distinct from that of the PRC when Taiwan lacks widespread formal recognition as a separate state. The very fact that refugees from the PRC and Hong Kong flee to Taiwan despite its lack of genuine mechanisms for processing asylum claims attests to just how influential Taiwan’s reputation for democratic institutions and political freedom is.
It is also important to note that a commitment to human rights is emphasised in the ruling DPP’s ethos as a political party. In contrast to the other main political party, the PRC-friendly Kuomintang (KMT), the DPP’s support largely derives from the fact that it is perceived to be more capable of supporting Taiwan’s political freedom and democracy against pressure from the PRC. For example, earlier in the year, President Tsai Ing-Wen saw a surge in popularity following a speech that rebuked Xi Jinping’s threats to use military force in response to any declarations of Taiwanese independence and proclaimed the reality of Taiwan’s autonomy and democratic political system. The DPP’s efforts towards resisting the PRC have also included supporting the protection of human rights in China and Hong Kong, and condemning the repression of marginalised groups in China such as Uyghurs and Tibetans. With the Presidential election coming up in 2020, accepting these refugees would not only benefit Taiwan’s image on the international stage but also affirm to domestic voters the DPP’s commitment to protecting human rights, particularly given that the previous KMT-led administration was willing to grant asylum to nine Chinese asylum seekers in 2014.
Though the Taiwanese government has not given a clear answer as to why it has been so reluctant to deal with asylum seekers, there are a number of possible reasons that indicate a belief that a more open approach is currently impractical. Like many other countries in the world some Taiwanese people fear being “swamped” by refugees from China and consider Taiwan unprepared to deal with an onslaught of refugees. Some have suggested that the Taiwanese government fears the possibility of reprisal from the CCP against Taiwanese citizens in the PRC, certainly something that Beijing has proven itself to be capable of after the detention of former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig in response to Canada’s arrest of Huawei’s CFO Meng Wanzhou. Given that China has been more antagonistic towards the Tsai government than it was towards the previous KMT government, the fear of reprisal could potentially explain the drop in asylum seekers accepted from across the strait as the DPP is at a far greater risk of facing retribution from Beijing.
There are also unique administrative difficulties with applying refugee law to citizens from the PRC, given that Taiwan’s own constitution still claims the geographical area of the PRC as part of the Republic of China (Taiwan). Though the 2016 draft Refugee Act did indicate that the law would apply to citizens of the PRC and its special administrative regions, politicians have stated that existing separate legislation that already deals with relations with people from mainland China and Hong Kong/Macau may override the Refugee Act. Those from the PRC and Hong Kong/Macau would likely continue to be governed by this existing special legislation unless it were significantly revised, meaning that future asylum seekers from across the strait would continue to face an ambiguous application process.
These issues underpinning the DPP’s responses to political asylum seekers highlight broader restrictions Taiwan faces when attempting to distance itself from the PRC: the more that Taiwan tries to assert a unique political identity – such as through a commitment to human rights – the more obstacles such as political pressure and administrative complexity block it from doing so. Taiwan will likely retain and continue efforts to project its image as a beacon of progressive democratic freedom in the Asia-Pacific, meaning that it will continue to draw in those trying to escape from ever-increasing political suppression in neighbouring China and Hong Kong. Indeed, Taiwanese media reports from the end of July have suggested that thirty protestors from Hong Kong have fled to Taiwan since the beginning of the extradition bill protests in Hong Kong, prompting Tsai to promise that Taiwan would consider applications from protestors “on humanitarian grounds”. But Taiwan’s legislative inability to take meaningful action and protect those who have fought for democratic freedom means that this commitment to human rights remains mere rhetoric.
Sharon is an Asian Studies Honours student at the University of Melbourne. She is currently researching the use of ideology and propaganda for Party-building efforts in China. Her interests include domestic politics and society within China and Taiwan as well as cross-strait relations.