A Chinese dissident who has taken refuge in a Taiwan airport during a stopover has said he is prepared to wait months if needed, in order to get safe passage to a third country.
Chen Siming is known for regularly commemorating the Tiananmen Square massacre of 4 June 1989 – an event banned from discussion or acknowledgement inside China – and has been repeatedly detained around the anniversary.
In a video posted to social media shortly after his arrival in Taiwan on Friday, Chen said that recently the authorities’ targeting of him had grown “more and more cruel and crazy”.
He is now asking the government in Taiwan to assist him in resettling in a third country, ideally the US, saying his “situation was dangerous and urgent”.
“I am willing to wait for months, because I feel safe in Taiwan,” Chen told the Guardian. “I want to go to the United States. I think Taiwan is very safe and there are no security problems. Taiwan has democracy and liberty as its shelter, so Taiwan is safe for me personally. But security is not my first option in where I settle, I have a lot of work to do in the US.”
Chen was travelling from Thailand to Guangzhou, China, transiting through Taipei’s Taoyuan international airport on Friday. He did not board the second flight, and has refused requests to return to Thailand, where he has said he fears deportation to China.
A similar case suggests Chen could be waiting some time. In 2018-2019 two Chinese dissidents, Yan Bojun and Liu Xinglian, spent four months in a Taiwan airport transit area after also flying in from Thailand and refusing to reboard a flight to Beijing. The United Nations high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR) gave them temporary asylum status, and after a long impasse, the pair flew to Singapore and were then allowed to reenter Taiwan legally on short-term humanitarian visas. They eventually resettled in Canada.
Chen told the Guardian he had fled to Laos from China in July, but was urged by friends to move on after the arrest there of human rights lawyer Lu Siwei later that month. In Bangkok he registered with the UNHCR for a refugee assessment, and said he was quickly granted a one-year asylum ID.
E-Ling Chiu, the national director of Amnesty International Taiwan, called on Taiwan’s government to allow Chen out of the airport into Taiwan and assist his transfer to a third country.
Chiu said Taiwanese authorities had previously deported asylum seekers back to their last point of departure. “If the Taiwanese government take a deportation position, they can send him back to Thailand,” she said. “But if they deport him back to China it will violate the non-refoulement principle. It’s not acceptable.”
Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council, which handles Taiwan-China matters, told the Guardian it was handling the case of the stranded dissident, but would not provide further details.
Taiwan does not have a refugee program that offers a pathway to protection, but it has decriminalised the act of arriving unlawfully to seek political asylum. The prospect of a streamlined refugee process is politically fraught in Taiwan, where political parties and the public cite fears of Chinese infiltration and espionage. Advocates say a proper and transparent process would see background checks carried out on applicants, as other countries do.
“It’s a fear of the threat of China, but [not having a system] is not a rational solution,” Chiu said.
William Nee, a research and advocacy coordinator for the Chinese Human Rights Defenders organisation, said there were “a lot of people desperate to leave China”, pointing to the dangerous journeys taken by Chen and Lu into Beijing-friendly Laos, and the growing number of Chinese people crossing the Darien Gap between South and Central America, into Mexico and then the US.
Taiwan’s government needed to “work constructively” with other countries to find protection for Chen, Nee said.
The UNHCR, which does not have a presence in Taiwan, has been contacted for comment.