In the past week, there have been a couple of high profile examples of Taiwan providing sanctuary to Chinese dissidents. And this has raised the question of what policy Taiwan should have towards those fleeing the persecution and tyranny of the Communist regime in China.
Recent refugee dissident cases
Firstly, there was the case of Huang Yan (黃燕), a human rights activist who has actively campaigned to free other activists and lawyers who have been locked up by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
As a result of her activities, she too has suffered detention, house arrests, and brutality at the hands of CCP officials. She has been granted refugee status by the United Nations, but on arrival at Taoyuan Airport from Indonesia had no guarantee of being allowed into Taiwan.
This is because Taiwan currently has no laws governing the treatment of refugees. More on that later. In the case of Huang, the National Immigration Agency in conjunction with the Mainland Affairs Council decided to grant her leave to remain in Taiwan for three months.
In taking that decision, they noted the likelihood that she would face persecution if she returned to China and few would argue that the decision taken is entirely the right one.
Then there was the case of Zhou Shuguang (周曙光), a former dissident blogger from China who has just been granted Taiwanese citizenship. He used to publish stories highlighting the CCP’s oppression of minorities, attacks on freedom of speech, and land seizures and quickly gained a reputation for his "citizen’s reports."
Needless to say, he too faced periods in detention at the hands of the Communist regime. His Taiwanese citizenship has been obtained by more conventional routes though. He married his Taiwanese partner in 2011 and despite being denied a visa to visit her in Taiwan by the CCP for eighteen months after the marriage, he finally moved to Taiwan in 2012.
Unlike Huang, Zhou opted not to claim political asylum, but instead secure citizenship through his marriage, which he finally received this week. Had he chosen to apply for political asylum, it is by no means guaranteed that Taiwan would have given it to him.
Taiwan has no formal Refugee laws
It is heartwarming to see people who face detention and physical abuse from the Communist regime in China finding such a warm welcome in Taiwan. But it is concerning that in this age, Taiwan does not have a refugee law.
Since Taiwan is not currently a member of the United Nations (UN), it is not signed up to UN regulations on the handling of refugees. The only explicit coverage of refugees in Taiwanese law is made in the National Immigration Act of 1999.
But in Taiwan’s current geo-political circumstances, this is not really sufficient. The fact that Taiwanese law does not explicitly prevent the deportation to Communist China of political dissidents, even those with recognized refugee status, should concern Taiwanese citizens.
The CCP is the world’s worst human rights abuser and Taiwan’s biggest national security threat, yet Taiwanese law still enables this country to hand refugees over to them.
Offering sanctuary to such people is a fundamental tenet of human rights law. Taiwan has long sought to position itself as a bastion of human rights in East Asia, in contrast to the CCP. Only this week, President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) was espousing the virtues of human rights and democracy on the anniversary of the CCP massacre of protestors in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
It is therefore long overdue for Taiwan to pass its own Refugee Law to bring Taiwan to give Taiwan a clear legal basis on which to accept or decline refugees. Such draft legislation was brought before the Legislative Yuan in 2016, but it is still yet to be approved. This process should be expedited and the new law should be in line with international and UN norms, despite that organizations continuing refusal to recognize Taiwan.
Why a strong refugee law, with special dispensation for Chinese dissidents, would be good for Taiwan
Taiwan should be open to accepting refugees from around the world to play their part in protecting people who have been displaced as a result of war or political oppression. But special consideration in any new refugee law should be given to those escaping persecution in Communist China.
Under the CCP regime, thousands of journalists, lawyers and human rights campaigners are detained, attacked, and persecuted every year in China.
Religious minorities are brutally persecuted, with Uighur Muslim re-education camps, where Muslims living in the north-east of China are locked up in camps, forced to eat pork, drink alcohol, learn Mandarin Chinese, and even marry Chinese people, being just the latest in a long line of horror stories.
There are far too many examples of CCP human rights abuses to list them all here. But observers agree that the situation in China is at its lowest point under the regime of CCP leader Xi Jinping since the 1989 massacre in Tiananmen Square.
In contrast, Taiwan presents a template of how China could be without the CCP regime. It is a flourishing democracy, freedom of speech and religion are embedded in law, and Government censorship and oppression are pretty much non-existent.
A policy of accepting refugees from the CCP regime would only serve to highlight this difference and emphasize to the world that it is Taiwan, not China, which shares the values and norms of a modern society.
Many dissidents in China are unable to escape the CCP regime. But for those that do manage to get out, Taiwan should welcome them with open arms. They should be granted leave to remain in Taiwan, given a path to citizenship, and supported in their efforts to continue their campaigns against CCP human rights abuses from the safety of Taiwanese soil.
Such a policy would garner international recognition and approval from western and regional allies. It may even help to foster closer diplomatic ties between Taiwan and these countries.
It would undoubtedly irk the CCP regime too, but with cross-straits relations strained at the moment (to say the least), it is unlikely to make things much worse.
Regardless of your stance on the nature of Taiwan’s relationship with China, there is no denying that Taiwan and China share a close cultural bond. Many Taiwanese feel a moral obligation to support their Chinese brothers and sisters in the struggle against Communist tyranny.
Offering a safe-haven for refugees from China is an obvious and easy way to do this. It would offer everyone in China who can see through the CCP propaganda machine, that there is hope of a brighter tomorrow. And it would also further position Taiwan as the democratic and human rights example that all of east Asia should seek to follow.