By Sally Jensen
“I was beaten almost to death. I was burnt with cigarettes and had three teeth knocked out; I was cut with knives, given electric shocks. They punched my head and beat my temples so much I fainted twenty times. The food was bad too and gave some people stomach problems. They did not let me sleep […] they really did a number on my body.”
From his hostel in the Taiwanese capital Taipei, Chinese political dissident Zhang Wen tells HKFP about his experience of prison on the mainland. He sports a scarlet sports T-shirt and a haircut with a long, sweeping side-fringe, and speaks in a thick, almost incomprehensible Beijing accent.
“They told me to respect the rules. They made me sing songs praising the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and if I did not comply, they beat me. There was no way of making a living. I worked from 7 am to 12 noon and again from 1 pm to 6 pm. If the work was unfinished, I’d either be beaten or have to continue into the evening. Beatings became routine.”
“If I go back, I’d definitely be imprisoned again, but this time I’m not sure I’d make it out alive.”
Zhang is one of an unknown number of Chinese dissidents currently living in Taiwan. He and a handful of others are in limbo, unable either to obtain asylum or to get citizenship in a third country, while simultaneously navigating Taiwan’s Kafkaesque immigration process for political refugees.
Before arriving in Taiwan in 2019, Zhang had taken part in the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. Videos he shot on his phone show him clad in a helmet and goggles among the crowds during the storming of the Legislative Council on July 1 last year. He claims to have been the only mainland Chinese there.
“I attended pretty much all the rallies; from Occupy Central (in 2014) to the crackdown right at the end. Hong Kong was more democratic and free than China – it was possible to have large-scale rallies, but in China it’s unimaginable. So you have to cherish freedom, cherish Hong Kong. I support Hong Kong becoming genuinely free and democratic, with universally elected LegCo members and Chief Executive; a government truly elected by the people,” Zhang said.
“For the mainland, [such a system] would be overwhelmingly beneficial. If democracy in the mainland receives encouragement, its people can also stand up. It would enable mainlanders to truly call the shots in decision-making and to fight for their own freedom and democracy.”
Zhang arrived in Taiwan last year on a tourist visa as part of a visiting group and since then has been grappling with the system for handling political refugees such as himself. “Taiwan does not help with anything. I can’t open a bank account, get a SIM card; basic humanity is out of the question. Which is why I want to leave.”
Originally, Zhang said, he had been prepared to stay. “I went to the Mainland Affairs Council within the legal timeframe to apply for political asylum in Taiwan, but it wasn’t accepted so I became illegal. I went to report to the [National Immigration Agency’s] Special Duty every day. The government didn’t care about how I’d survive. I slept in parks.
Zhang alleges that Taiwanese authorities tricked him into boarding a bus, on the pretext of showing him a house. Instead, he was driven to a shelter where he says he was ill-treated, deprived of phone calls and visitors and shut in for three months.
“I signed the check-in papers but actually they were repatriation agreements,” Zhang says. “They even tried to accuse me of having entered illegally, to detain me for even longer.” In a fit of anger, he says, he left the shelter and travelled secretly to Taipei.
HKFP asked about his support network and relationships with other Chinese dissidents in Taiwan, but he was cagey in his responses. He had a falling-out with Wen Qifeng, who apparently did not want him living in the same shelter.
Wen Qifeng has now been sent back from Taiwan to China and has been arrested by police at Ningdu in Jiangxi province, according to his father. He spoke to HKFP some weeks before his deportation.
Wen spent four and a half years in Taiwan after smuggling himself by boat from Xiamen to Kinmen, and had been trying to negotiate the issuing of a passport with Chinese authorities so he could move abroad from Taiwan. He had been given food and shelter by the Harmony Home Association, a Christian relief foundation, from his second year on the island. He became a devout Baptist and made his living selling bulk-purchased laptops online.
Wen told HKFP he had visited Ningdu district many times to apply for a passport, on the grounds that he was not a criminal and had merely expressed support for democratic politics. “But he [Ningdu security chief] said that my crime was attempting to subvert the CCP’s regime so they have taken measures against me.”
Wen has spoken out against human rights abuses and state actions in Tibet and Xinjiang, as well as those against the Falun Gong, Christians, and human rights lawyers, and says he was monitored for a long time in China and harassed at work. His overseas membership of the banned Democracy Party of China has been corroborated by the dissident group’s chairman, Wang Min, who lives in the US.
Wen had said in his HKFP interview that Taiwan’s governing Democratic Progressive Party was preparing to send him back to China by force. “Granting political asylum would be the just way to solve my problem, or if the CCP compensated me. I do not hold any illusions about political asylum in Taiwan, I just want to go to a Commonwealth country. Taiwan is fake democracy, fake human rights. The world today lacks justice and conscience, it’s only about self-interest.”
Wen had visited the British, American and Canadian representative offices in Taipei to apply for political asylum. But since China refused to issue him a passport, the process had been fraught. Furthermore, most countries only have representative or cultural offices rather than consulates in Taiwan, making it more difficult to arrange a visa or asylum.
Gao Jianfeng, another Chinese dissident active in Taiwan, was initially wary of speaking with HKFP. He said he had had incidents with “strange Taiwanese people” who often tried to acquire his details in order to sell them to China.
Gao arrived in July 2019 and staged a solo demonstration against China’s leader Xi Jinping outside the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, during which he was harassed by individuals from the pro-China Patriot Alliance Association.
Having passed an Immigration Department exam in September 2019, Gao has been allowed to extend his stay in Taiwan. Asked what he thought about a “refugee law” for Taiwan, he said China’s communist party would use it to infiltrate the country. “While the threat of China’s annexation of Taiwan remains, the best way is for Taiwan to deal with [refugees] on a case-by-case basis.”
Taiwan’s absence of a proper refugee law came to the fore during and shortly after the crackdown on the Hong Kong protests, when some Hongkongers fled to the island. However, the lack of a legal framework for refugee protection is a problem that mainland Chinese dissidents have faced for a long time.
Due to its effective exclusion from UN bodies, Taiwan is not eligible to be a party to the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. A national refugee law bill has been before the Legislative Yuan since 2005.
According to the American Institute in Taiwan’s 2019 Human Rights Report, “all PRC citizens unlawfully present are required by law to be returned to the PRC, although Taiwan allows PRC asylum-seekers to remain in Taiwan on a case-by-case basis.”
The precarious situation of Chinese dissidents is exacerbated by a widespread perception that they may be communist spies. There are also fears that a comprehensive refugee law would open the floodgates to dissidents fleeing from China and further anger the mainland.
Nonetheless, the island urgently needs a refugee law, according to the Taiwan Human Rights Association. It says it actually receives asylum-seekers every year from countries such as China, Hong Kong, Tibet, Syria, Uganda and Turkey, and authorities are unclear how these cases are to be processed.
Need for Refugee Law
Bei Ling, a Misty Poet in exile from China, now has US citizenship and splits his time between his homes in Taiwan and Boston. His mountain village house on the outskirts of Taipei is lined with bookshelves and has a balcony overlooking the river.
Bei Ling spent time in prison in China for his literary publications, but unlike Zhang was released after two weeks and transferred to the US thanks to appeals by his friend Susan Sontag and the US State Department. He is associated with other well-known cultural dissident Chinese figures such as Ai Weiwei and the now-deceased Liu Xiaobo. He has been unable to return to the US this year due to the pandemic.
“I know pretty much all of the Chinese dissidents in Taiwan, but they’re very few – only about ten or so. Why? Because Taiwan isn’t party to the international refugee convention. Taiwan has no more than ten of each Chinese and Hong Kong refugees. The latter are the more successful and welcomed dissidents in Taiwan. I am a cultural and philosophical dissident, unlike most of the other Chinese dissidents in Taiwan, who are political.”
Bei said his understanding was that Taiwan does not force dissidents and refugees to return to China and instead encourages them to go to a third country.
“But strictly speaking, the majority of Chinese refugees or dissidents generally do not have the opportunity of going to a third country after arriving in Taiwan, so they end up staying long-term and gradually acquiring new Taiwanese resident status that way,” he told HKFP.
Unlike in past years, Bei said, Taiwan now has a flexible arrangement for mainland Chinese escapees. “If they have no way of going back to China, they look for a third country that will consider accepting them as remote students. If they can attend school, primary school, middle school, university or whatever, they will be allowed to legally stay in Taiwan. Another solution is that many Chinese dissidents stay through marriage.
“Regardless, the most fundamental issue to resolve is that Taiwan needs some kind of law for refugees, Chinese or otherwise,” Bei said.
After several meetings to discuss his case, the National Immigration Agency (NIA) eventually decided Wen does not meet the requirements for mainland Chinese to stay in Taiwan for family purposes, nor the conditions for “outstanding performance in leading democratic movements and the immediate danger of being persecuted.”
The Mainland Affairs Council and the NIA have both stressed that in handling asylum cases, “the government will take into account international practices, relevant Taiwan laws and regulations, previous cases, human rights protections and international evidence.”
When asked about the status of specific Chinese dissidents in Taiwan, the MAC told HKFP the Taiwanese government has called on mainland China to follow the universal concepts of respect for and protection of human rights, and to treat civil rights activists and dissidents kindly.” It declined to comment on specific cases.
Many of the dissidents look to the US for eventual asylum, including Zhang. “I hope [President-elect Joe] Biden will be tough on China and put some skin in the game,” he said.
Bei Ling is more dovish, adding that “once Biden becomes president, it may give more opportunities for not only Chinese refugees, but refugees from all over the world, to be admitted into the US.”
Refugee resettlement in many countries, he says, has largely stopped because of the coronavirus. In future, he also hopes for greater openness from Taiwan. “So my hope is mainly that Taiwan will go further than non-refoulement and accept a greater number of refugees.”