A Chinese dissident stranded in Taiwan’s main international airport has spoken of his terrifying escape through Laos and Thailand as he seeks asylum in the West from political persecution.
Chen Siming, who is known for his outspoken views on the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, has pleaded with Taiwan’s government not to send him back to China where he says he is facing growing harassment from the authorities.
Mr Chen said the methods being used by the Chinese police to maintain stability were becoming “more and more cruel and crazy,” describing how they had allegedly detained him without proper legal procedures and snatched his mobile phone.
“I can no longer continue to accept the ravaging of my personal dignity, the trampling of my honour and the threat to my body,” he said in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter, when he first hunkered down in the transit lounge of Taoyuan international airport at the weekend.
In an interview with The Telegraph, Mr Chen said that intimidation by the authorities had made it impossible for him to continue his fight for human rights. “I was forced to leave the country by the Chinese public security,” he said.
Mr Chen has previously endured short bursts of detention around the sensitive June 4 anniversary date of the Tiananmen Square protests.
In China, public shows of remembrance for the students who were killed in 1989, when authorities crushed their pro-democracy rallies, are likely to attract police attention, detention or arrest.
But the trigger for Mr Chen’s desperate flight came on July 21, when police summoned him for a psychiatric examination that he feared would lead to him being forcibly detained in a hospital.
“On the same day I was summoned, I packed two pieces of clothing and set out on the road to escape in fear and grief,” he said.
Mr Chen first spent an anxious night at Changsha airport in central Hunan province, before flying to Xishuangbanna in the country’s south-west Yunnan region.
To avoid detection, he changed buses frequently to reach Yunnan’s border with Laos, before carrying on his journey through to Thailand.
On July 26, police in his hometown realised he was missing, discovered he was in Yunnan through airline data and security footage, and started their pursuit.
The arrest in late July of Lu Siwei, a Chinese human rights lawyer, who was transiting through Laos as a first stop on a planned journey to the US, frightened Mr Chen.
Mr Lu has since been deported to China, despite pleas from rights groups and United Nations experts for his release.
His case highlights the obstacles facing Chinese dissidents fleeing oppression, who are now increasingly vulnerable to deportation when sheltering or passing through south-east Asian nations where Beijing is building its influence through trade and security ties.
‘It wasn’t very safe for me’
Mr Chen heard the Chinese and Laotian authorities were searching for him and feared the same fate as Mr Lu. He hurried his passage to Thailand and arrived on Aug 7.
In Bangkok, he was granted temporary refugee status by the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, but was told it could only guarantee that he would not be repatriated and could not keep him out of a Thai immigration jail. Mr Chen said he was still living under the shadow of “anxiety and torment”.
His fears were not unfounded. In 2015, Canadian officials were in the process of bringing two Chinese dissidents, both with an official UN refugee designation, to safe haven in Canada when Thailand forcibly deported them from an immigration centre back to China in the middle of the night.
“It wasn’t very safe for me, considering Thailand’s close relationship with the Chinese Communist Party,” said Mr Chen, explaining why he boarded a flight to Taipei.
Since arriving in Taiwan on Friday, he said he had been encouraged by support from friends around the world.
“Staying at the airport feels like a visit to an old friend’s house. I feel friendliness and kindness,” he said.
‘Persecuted political prisoner’
Mr Chen has been questioned by Taiwan’s immigration authorities and the Mainland Affairs Council (MAC), which manages relations with Beijing. The MAC has confirmed it is reviewing his case with “relevant authorities”.
Taiwan does not have a formal refugee policy and it is increasingly wary of the security risks of allowing people from China or Hong Kong to take residency there.
However, Tseng Chien-yuan, the chairman of New School for Democracy, a Taiwanese rights group advocating for Mr Chen, said the country did consider asylum requests on a case-by-case basis.
“The Taiwanese government has accepted our explanation and agreed that Chen Siming is a political prisoner persecuted by the Chinese Communist Party and will be dealt with by international norms,” he said.
He appealed to the authorities to allow Mr Chen to leave the airport while his bid for asylum in Canada or the US was being considered, saying human rights groups would care for him.
In 2019, two Chinese dissidents spent more than four months trapped in legal limbo at Taoyuan airport but were allowed to temporarily leave before eventually being granted asylum status in Canada.
“Chen Siming is a very well-known human rights defender. There is every reason to believe that if he were returned to China he could face torture, ill treatment, prolonged detention, eventually an unfair sham trial,” said William Nee, a research and advocacy coordinator at the Chinese Human Rights Defenders group.
Taiwan, as “an aspiring member of the international community” had a responsibility not to send him back, he said, adding that this was also a test case for the US and Canada.
“[They] often speak up in principle about human rights in China and now here is a tangible opportunity to put that into practice by accepting a person who has spoken up on Tienanmen and put his own health and safety at risk by doing so.”