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For Chinese, Hong Kong dissenters, asylum in Taiwan still elusive

2019/05/09 11:08:08

Lam Wing-kee

By Stacy Hsu, CNA staff reporter

Imagine this: You have been locked and mentally tormented in a carefully guarded room for months and you worry your partner or friends may be suffering the same fate.

On top of this, you know the only thing that stands between you and physical torture is the authorities' need for you to "look good" in a forced TV confession later on. The level of despair is overwhelming.

The idea of reliving that ordeal was what drove Hong Kong bookseller Lam Wing-kee (林榮基) to flee to Taiwan in late April.

Lam, along with four other individuals related to Causeway Bay Books, "vanished" for months in late 2015 for selling titles critical of the Chinese government and mailing them to people in China.

After being detained by Beijing for months, he was returned to Hong Kong, but feared being sent back to China under controversial extradition legislation Hong Kong is likely to pass in the coming months.

"It would spell the end of me if I was sent back [to China]. I would be screwed and there would be no getting out of the place," the 63-year-old Lam said, describing his escape from Hong Kong as inevitable, especially with city authorities answering only to China's bidding instead of the rule of law.

He could have gone to Germany, the United States or Canada, Lam said, but he chose Taiwan as his second home because he wanted to open a new bookstore in a Mandarin-speaking country and help safeguard Taiwan's free and independent-thinking culture.

Fortunately for Lam, his high-profile name has landed him friends who are working tirelessly to ensure that he finds a job that qualifies him for a residency permit in Taiwan, sparing him from the often futile process of seeking political asylum in a country that still lacks a system for handling asylum seekers.


(Lam Wing-kee)


(Lam Wing-kee)

Li Jiabao (李家寶), a 21-year-old Chinese exchange student in Taiwan who publicly criticized Chinese President Xi Jinping's (習近平) removal of China's presidential term limits in a livestream video in March, may not be as fortunate.

He does not want to return to China but is not optimistic that he will be granted asylum in Taiwan after his student visa expires in July.

Li's pessimism is understandable, given that no Chinese asylum seekers have been given sanctuary in Taiwan since 2014, when the then-Kuomintang (KMT) government granted nine Chinese refugees residency status, Taiwan Association for Human Rights Secretary-General Chiu E-ling (邱伊翎) said.

For asylum seekers from China, Hong Kong or Macau, the problem is not the lack of a legal basis to handle their requests, Chiu said, but that laws are conveniently ambiguous or require almost unattainable criteria, making it easy for authorities to turn people away.

Under existing laws, the government can grant long-term residency to Chinese nationals based on political, economic, social, educational, or cultural considerations on a "case-by-case basis."

An applicant could also be a democracy movement leader, a person who provides "valuable information" that helps Taiwan "understand" China, or who has made "special contributions" to Taiwan's national security, international image or social stability.

Similar ambiguity is seen in the Laws and Regulations Regarding Hong Kong and Macau Affairs, which stipulates that "necessary assistance" should be provided to Hong Kong or Macau residents whose safety and liberty are "immediately threatened" for political reasons.

"Who should be the judge of whether someone's safety is immediately threatened? What are the standards? And what does 'necessary assistance' entail? Nothing is made clear by the laws," Chiu said.

Compounding the problem is the lack of a refugee law to deal with requests for asylum in Taiwan, Chiu said.

Legislative efforts to enact a refugee act have been stalled since five versions of the bill passed a committee review in July 2016, meaning asylum seekers remain vulnerable to being trapped in limbo because the authorities do not know how to deal with them.

So why the inaction? Chiu feels the draft legislation is simply not a priority for legislators. Some also fear the act's passage could lead to an overflow of Chinese asylum seekers, she said.

"A lawmaker's assistant came right out and told me that if the act is passed, all the people in China are going to seek asylum here," Chiu said.

Just passing a refugee act, however, would not be enough to help people from China, Hong Kong or Macau looking for sanctuary in Taiwan because it would only apply to other foreign nationals but not them.

The Act Governing Relations Between the People of the Taiwan Area and the Mainland Area and the Laws and Regulations Regarding Hong Kong and Macau Affairs would also have to be revised, posing a significant political challenge.

At present, legislation that would amend those two laws to allow refugee act provisions to apply to asylum seekers from China, Hong Kong and Macau is sitting in committee, and it is unclear how much enthusiasm there would be to pass it after a refugee act was enacted.

Proponents of refugee rights such as Chiu and Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) lawmaker Yu Mei-nu (尤美女) seem focused on getting the draft refugee act passed first, which will be difficult enough considering its low priority, without stressing any linkage to the revisions for Chinese, Hong Kong and Macau residents.

That means people like Lam Wing-kee and Li Jiabao could still be left without a way to settle in Taiwan rather than face persecution at home.

Yu did say, however, that if the refugee act passes and eventually does apply to residents of China, Hong Kong and Macau, it would not spark an inundation of refugees because an annual quota would be set based on Taiwan's ability to absorb them.

She also argued that an effective and objective mechanism to screen asylum seekers would be established to prevent potential abuse of the system.

There would be a two-tier review process under which asylum applicants would first be evaluated by local government agencies and then by a group of government representatives, specialists, academics and other impartial members of society, Yu said.

Joshua Wong (黃之鋒), a Hong Kong student activist and politician who serves as secretary-general of pro-democracy party Demosistō, believes the need for Taiwan to pass a refugee act that covers everyone is pressing.

Lam may be the first one to flee Hong Kong due to the extradition bill, "but he would not be the last one," Wong told CNA in a telephone interview.

Under Xi's tight grip, Chinese and Hong Kongers seeking asylum in Taiwan will only grow in number, he said.

Wuer Kaixi, a Chinese student leader during the 1989 Tiananmen protests who married a Taiwanese and has been given Taiwanese citizenship, argued that people here should not worry about asylum seekers overrunning society.

Granting political asylum to Chinese dissidents would not create an immigration problem for Taiwan, he said. "Rather, with a properly devised policy, asylum seekers could even become an effective moving force in society."

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