Hsia Hsiao-hwa | Radio Free Asia
A Chinese rights activist from the eastern province of Shandong has said he plans to seek political refugee status in the democratic island of Taiwan after deserting his tour group.
While Taiwan, which has never been ruled by the Chinese Communist Party, has no formal asylum process for defectors from the mainland, defector Zhang Xiangzhong could apply for long-term residency on the basis of political persecution.
On Monday, the island’s Mainland Affairs Council (MAC), which governs relations with Beijing, said it had yet to receive an application from Zhang, who arrived in Taiwan with a package tour group on April 12.
But MAC minister Chang Hsiao-yueh told lawmakers it would examine any application from the 48-year-old dissident to see if he meets requirements.
Zhang, a 48-year-old civil rights activist from Shandong province, arrived in Taiwan on April 12 as part of a tour group on an eight-day visit but left the group the next day and has not been located since.
Taiwan doesn’t always regard defection favorably, and has ordered previous escapees from the mainland to leave.
Chang said Zhang’s actions were a “violation of Taiwan’s regulations pertaining to Chinese visitors,” Chang said, and that the Taiwan authorities had informed mainland officials of the situation, under the terms of a cross-straits agreement governing tourist exchanges between the former enemies.
A sudden decision
Zhang told RFA in an April 14 interview that he would base his application on a three-year jail term he served for his participation in the New Citizens’ Movement, a group working for cleaner, more constitutional government that has seen many of its key figures sent to prison.
He said he was inspired to defect after the detention of Taiwan NGO worker and lifetime member of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Lee Ming-cheh, and the mainland government’s refusal to allow his wife Lee Ching-yu to visit him in detention.
“I thought to myself, where is the spirit of the Chinese people?” Zhang said. “I made a sudden decision that I didn’t want this any more, and that I would quit the tour group.”
“I want to stay in Taiwan, because I think that [here] is where the spirit of the Chinese people still resides, so that’s where I want to be.”
Zhang was released last July after serving a three-year jail term linked to his activism, and joined an eight-day tour of the island.
Shortly after his release, he told RFA that he had suffered health problems through inadequate care in prison.
“I have asthma, but they wouldn’t give me a nebulizer,” he said shortly after his release. “They told me to stand near the window to breathe.”
“After a while, I got brain atrophy because of the lack of oxygen.”
‘Can’t break our dignity’
Now at an undisclosed location in Taiwan, Zhang said he had his eureka moment after seeing on the television news that Lee Ching-yu had been prevented from boarding a flight to Beijing to try to visit her husband.
Later, he left all of his luggage in the hotel room he was sharing with the tour guide, taking only his cell phone, travel documents, and 5,000 yuan in Chinese money, along with a book on ancient Chinese culture.
A former veteran of the 2013 protests on the streets of Guangzhou over state media censorship, Zhang spent many years campaigning for democratic change in China before being detained on public order charges.
He said he was convicted on the basis of a forced confession, the result of torture in a police-run detention center.
He said he was inspired by a line in a public statement made by Lee Ching-yu.
“I remember something Lee Ching-yu said: ‘I must carry on fighting. I will not allow my husband to lose his dignity in return for his freedom’ and to spend the rest of his life little better than a dog’,” he said.
“It doesn’t matter how powerful China becomes,” he said. “They can only take our freedom and our lives, but they can’t break our dignity.”
China last week confirmed it is holding 42-year-old Lee Ming-cheh, who became the first overseas NGO worker known to be detained in China since a draconian law gave police control over foreign nongovernmental groups at the beginning of this year.
He was detained by the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s state security police on suspicion of “endangering national security” on his arrival in the southern border city of Zhuhai on March 19.
Chinese law allows police to detain those suspected of “national security” crimes and hold them under residential surveillance at a secret location for up to six months, with no access to lawyers or family visits.