Transiting Taiwan airport, Chinese activist seeks political asylum


Saying he would be jailed if sent back to China, Chen Siming refuses to board a connecting flight.

Transiting Taiwan airport, Chinese activist seeks political asylum

Chinese dissident Chen Siming speaks during an interview at Taoyuan International Airport’s transit lounge in Taipei, Friday, Sept. 22, 2023.

Refusing to board a flight to China while in transit through Taiwan, Chinese dissident Chen Siming said Friday he is seeking political asylum because he would be imprisoned for his political activism should he venture back to China.

Chen, an outspoken activist who recently published an open letter commemorating the 1989 Tiananmen massacre — a banned topic in China — had flown into Taipei from Bangkok on Friday morning, and refused to board his connecting flight to Guangzhou, in southern China,.

He remained stuck in the transit lounge of Taiwan’s Taoyuan International Airport.

“I’m Chen Siming, and I’m here in the transit hall of [the] airport,” he said in a video clip shared with Radio Free Asia. “I have come to Taiwan to escape political persecution by the Chinese Communist Party.”

“I would like to seek political asylum in the United States or Canada,” he said. “I call on everyone to ask the Taiwanese government not to send me back to China.”

Chen told Radio Free Asia in a later interview that had been under a travel ban but managed to sneak out of China into Laos on July 22, arriving just as the news broke that human rights lawyer Lu Siwei had been detained by the authorities there. Lu was later repatriated by Laotian authorities.

“I was in Laos the day Lu Siwei was detained,” Chen said. “After I heard that he had been detained, I was terrified. The fear and anxiety were indescribable.”

‘I can’t go back’

Leaving Laos, Chen headed to Bangkok, but remained concerned that he would be arrested at any time by immigration police in Thailand, who have previously sent Chinese political refugees back home to face imprisonment.

So he bought a flight back to China, routed through the democratic island of Taiwan, like other activists before him.

The flight touched down in Taipei at around 6.00 a.m. local time on Friday, and Chen has since remained in the airport, letting the flight to Guangzhou take off without him.

“I can’t go back,” Chen said. “If I go back, I will definitely either go to jail or be put in a mental hospital.” 

Chen described his life back in China as one lacking in personal safety or dignity, under constant surveillance by the state security police in his home province of Hunan.

The airline has asked him to return to Bangkok, but Chen has refused that option, too.

“I would rather go to jail in Taiwan than go to Thailand,” he told Radio Free Asia. “That place … is not much better than China.”

“The Chinese Communist Party is so powerful in Thailand,” he said.

Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council, which handles the island’s relationship with China, said it is working with the relevant authorities to clarify the situation and handle Chen’s case.

Long arm of the law

A number of prominent activists have been sent back from Thailand to China, which increasingly pursues dissidents and peaceful activists even when they have fled overseas.

Chinese journalist Li Xin and human rights defender Tang Zhishun were kidnapped in Thailand and Myanmar respectively, while Hong Kong bookseller Gui Minhai was taken from his holiday home in Phuket, Thailand. 

Another Chinese national, Wang Jianye, was executed after being extradited from Thailand in 1995 despite assurances that he wouldn’t face the death penalty.

And in July 2018, authorities in the southwestern Chinese city of Chongqing jailed rights activist Dong Guangping and political cartoonist Jiang Yefei after they were sent home from Thailand as they were awaiting resettlement as political refugees, prompting an international outcry.

U.S.-based Protestant pastor Guo Baosheng said Chen would “definitely” face arrest and a jail term if he went back to China now.

He said Chen has run afoul of the authorities for his insistence on marking the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre every year, and has served time in jail for his activism. 

More recently, he was threatened with incarceration in a psychiatric facility, where doctors and other staff often collude with police and frightened family members to lock up and forcibly medicate activists for non-existent ‘mental illness.’

UNHCR certificate

Guo said Taiwan would be a safer place than Thailand to await refugee status in a third country, as Chen currently holds a temporary refugee certificate issued by the United Nations refugee agency in Bangkok.

In 2018, Chinese dissident Yan Bojun, who was detained at Taoyuan Airport for more than 100 days, was eventually granted political asylum in Canada. 

He agreed that Chen would likely face jail back in China. 

“That is a common occurrence,” he told Radio Free Asia in an interview on Friday. “He was severely persecuted in China, and he had no choice but to flee.”

Yan said he had always been very grateful to the Taiwanese government — which lacks any law governing the treatment of refugees — for its care and assistance during his four months in the airport.

He called on officials to offer the same humanitarian assistance to Chen.

Zeng Jianyuan, chairman of the overseas-based New School for Democracy, said Chen’s escape via Laos can’t have been easy.

“Laos only just sent a group of Chinese people back [including Lu Siwei],” Zeng said. “The United Nations refugee agency may be located there, but … nobody knows whether Thailand would repatriate Chen Siming.”

Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.

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