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Dire strait

Dissidents from China can find physical safety in Taiwan but often little else

Dire strait

Yan Peng in the library at China Evangelical Seminary in Taipei (Tim Kao/Genesis)


Refugees from China arrive in Taiwan in 1955

Tim Kao/Genesis

‘I didn’t really deeply understand Christianity until I came to Taiwan. … I went through so many trials, I felt like it was His hands that led me.’ —Yan Peng

Voice of America

Yang Hsien-hong

When Chinese democracy activist Yan Peng felt the ship under him turning away from the Taiwan-owned island of Dadan, he knew his attempt to flee China on a tourist boat had been discovered and that his chance for freedom was slipping away. So he took the only logical course of action. He jumped overboard and started swimming to shore.

The ship tried to ram him, so he dove deep to avoid the ship’s churning propeller. The water became darker and darker until he couldn’t see his breath any longer, and then he surfaced for air, just missing the boat. He started swimming to shore, as Chinese coast guards in boats fired at him from 30 meters away. Miraculously, the bullets missed, and he crawled onto shore, crying out for God to save him.

Once on land, 10 Taiwanese soldiers surrounded him with M16 rifles pointed at his head. But thankfully, another dozen soldiers surrounded the Chinese coast guards who had pursued Yan to shore, keeping Yan safe at least for the time being. The Taiwanese government sentenced him to life imprisonment for trespassing on a military base, but 197 human rights advocates petitioned then-President Chen Shui-bian, and Yan ended up spending 8½ months in a detention center. Afterward, he was free to stay in Taiwan, albeit without citizenship or a visa.

It’s been 11 years since Yan, now 51, touched the shores of Taiwan. The government only gave him a long-term residency visa last year, finally allowing him the freedom to work in Taiwan and travel. Last year Yan also became the first ordained pastor in Taiwan from the People’s Republic of China (PRC), shepherding a small congregation in Taoyuan, and yet he dreams of being reunited with his wife in China.

Yan’s long ordeal is typical of the logistical maze asylum seekers from the PRC face in Taiwan, as the island has no law protecting refugees and is not a member of the United Nations. While in the past few years Taiwan’s government has offered certain refugee groups a pathway toward long-term visas, it deals with Chinese dissidents who escape to Taiwan on a case-by-case basis. As the Chinese government increases its persecution of human rights lawyers, democracy advocates, and pastors, human rights groups in Taiwan are urging passage of a refugee law that would make Taiwan a safe haven for dissidents.

THE ISLAND OF TAIWAN IS NO STRANGER TO THE UNWANTED. In December 1949 after the defeat of the Chinese Nationalists by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), Gen. Chiang Kai-shek and about 2 million refugees—soldiers, intellectual and business elites, and Nationalist sympathizers—evacuated to Taiwan, setting up the “temporary” capital of the Republic of China (ROC) in Taipei, where they have stayed ever since.

While at first the international community recognized the ROC as the legitimate government of China, foreign relations with the PRC improved by the 1970s and Taiwan was expelled from the United Nations, its seat taken by the PRC. Thus Taiwan has no relationship with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which deals with refugee problems around the world. Asylum seekers in Taiwan deal with the National Immigration Agency: In 2009 the government passed an amendment allowing asylum seekers from Tibet to apply for residency visas. It also offered the descendants of former Nationalist soldiers living in Burma and northern Thailand a path toward naturalization.

Asylum seekers from the PRC are a more complicated issue, given the continuing cross-strait tensions. A 1992 law forbids Chinese nationals who enter the island illegally to apply for a residency visa. While the current Kuomintang (KMT) administration has promised to revise the article to make an exception for Chinese dissidents, it has yet to do so. In 2009, the Executive Yuan passed a draft Refugee Act that would recognize a refugee as anyone who has left his or her nation for “racial, religious, ethnic, or political reasons, or for reasons pertaining to belonging to certain social organizations or being a political dissident, and who also demonstrates legitimate fear for persecution.” The law has since stalled in the Taiwanese government’s legislative arm.

Since 2002, nine Chinese dissidents have escaped to Taiwan—four Falun Gong practitioners and five political dissidents. Under pressure from human rights groups, Taiwan granted all nine long-term residency visas last year in what the government called a “one-off special project.” Next year, they will be able to obtain Taiwanese citizenship and passports, which Yan sees as the ticket to the freedom for which he’s spent his life fighting.

I met with Yan at his tidy church office in the outskirts of Taoyuan, and over cups of fragrant Pu’er tea, he shared how he, the son of a senior cadre in the CCP, got involved in the democracy movement. From a young age, his father urged him to read and to think for himself, so when he met democracy activist Mou Chuanheng as a teen, he was intrigued. Although the Chinese government had imprisoned Mou and labeled him a “counterrevolutionary” for his work on the Democracy Wall in 1979, Yan saw a man who lived according to a moral code, something rare in the years following the Cultural Revolution.

During the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, Yan led a group of workers in Qingdao in their own demonstration, which placed him on a government blacklist. His father’s high standing saved him from arrest, but Yan knew he would have difficulty finding work in the future. So in 1995, he started his own computer company, teaching his activist friends how to use Microsoft Word and eventually how to disseminate their writings on the internet. In 2002, police arrested Yan and other democracy activists, including his mentor, Mou.

Even after the government released Yan a year and a half later, he still was not free. Guards set up a 24-hour watch by his house, following him and his family wherever they went and ensuring he never left the city. A suspicious car accident occurred, nearly killing him. He heard through friends that police would likely rearrest him ahead of the Tiananmen Square anniversary. Frustrated, he contacted a mafia member he’d met in jail who agreed to get him out of China by a tourist boat to Taiwan. As he neared the islands, he made a phone call to a friend in China—who unbeknownst to him had his phone tapped—which led to his epic swim to the Taiwan-controlled island.

Once released from prison in Taiwan, Yan received only a temporary visa, which meant he could not work, leave Taiwan, or open a bank account. The government gave him a paltry $150 monthly stipend, which barely covered food, so Yan slept on park benches and kept clean in public restrooms. (The stipend eventually increased to $615 a month.) Yan had become a Christian while in China, so he sought out a church to attend in Taiwan. When Yan shared his story with parishioner Jiao Enli, Jiao invited Yan to live in his home.

But when church leaders found out Jiao was harboring a Chinese dissident, they asked him to stop, fearing it could jeopardize future ministry opportunities on the mainland. So Jiao instead rented an apartment for Yan, and other believers gave him clothes to stay warm in the winter. Yan soon found a different church where he felt more welcomed and spent his ample free time accompanying the pastor on his visitations. Soon Yan was teaching Sunday school and leading more and more people to profess faith in Christ. His pastor asked Yan to consider pastoral ministry, and so Yan obtained a bachelor’s degree and Master of Divinity and is now completing his Ph.D. while pastoring a church and teaching at the seminary.

“I didn’t really deeply understand Christianity until I came to Taiwan,” Yan said. “I went through so many trials, I felt like it was His hands that led me.”

Last year, a coalition including Taiwan Association for China Human Rights (TACHR), Amnesty International, Radio Free Asia, and several lawmakers pressured the Taiwan government to grant Yan and the other asylum seekers their residency visas. Officials finally gave in and handed Yan his two-year visa. “I felt so blessed, I finally had hope,” Yan said of the moment he received the visa. “When a person has no hope and is not sure what will happen, that is the most difficult.”

DISCUSSION OF THE STALLED REFUGEE LAW resurfaced in late September as Taiwanese coast guards rescued a small sailboat from high winds off the coast of Taoyuan. The boat carried five Chinese nationals who said they were attempting to find political asylum in the United States by traveling to Guam, but things seemed a bit off. The ship was found during a Taiwanese military exercise, and none of the dissidents in China had heard of these individuals before. Still, Yang Hsien-hong, the chairman of TACHR, argued that returning them to the PRC would not be beneficial for Taiwan: If they are spies, it would be better to keep them in Taiwan. If they are refugees, then they need protection in Taiwan. He urged members of the legislature to investigate carefully their claims and pointed out that if Taiwan had a refugee law, this process would already be in place.

Yang is well-known among Chinese dissidents as he has hosted a show on Radio Taiwan International for the past 10 years in which he interviews activists in China by phone and broadcasts the program to China through shortwave radio. “I have a very simple goal,” Yang explained over a lunch of dumplings, salt-baked chicken, and squid ink sausages. “I want Taiwan independence. But after that, we need to care about the countries around us, so Chinese human rights and Taiwan independence, these two issues are intertwined.”

Exiled dissidents often contact Yang after leaving China—most to the United States or European countries. The day I met with Yang, he had just finished interviewing a punk rock artist who had been kicked out of China for his songs supporting independence movements and criticizing the Communist Party. Now living in Sweden, Ao Bo continues finding new ways to sneak his songs past Chinese internet censors.

Yang sees accepting PRC refugees as a way for Taiwan to develop a relationship with the United Nations. He says the Taiwanese government, after the passage of the refugee law, could contact the UNHCR to provide resources for refugees and eventually even open an office in Taiwan. While Yang does not think the current China-friendly KMT administration would dare to communicate with the UN, he has high hopes for Democratic Progressive Party presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen, who is expected to win January’s elections.

For Yan, the issue is much more personal. Since arriving in Taiwan, he’s only seen his wife five times and his daughter three times. He missed out on walking his daughter down the aisle on her wedding day and could not attend either of his parents’ funerals. Even now, the Taiwanese government hasn’t given his wife a visa that would allow them to reunite.

Yan sat in his black swivel chair, his eyes fixed on an unseen place. “So look,” he said, pausing. “How do I put this? My life is filled with regrets. If I didn’t have faith to support me, I don’t know where I’d be.”

June Cheng

June Cheng

June is the East Asia correspondent for WORLD Magazine. Follow June on Twitter @JuneCheng_World.