Li Jiabao, a 21-year-student from China’s Shandong province, first experienced the world beyond the censorship of his homeland when he came to Taiwan on a four-month study abroad program in 2018. The Chinese Communist Party claims sovereignty over Taiwan even though it has never governed it, and for Li, the difference between the island and the mainland was evident—particularly when it came to its vibrant media scene. Li dove in, reading the BBC’s website and The Economist, watching TV news of every political orientation, and becoming a devotee of a popular Taiwanese YouTube show that satirizes the state-run China Central Television. He later discovered the works of Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese dissident author and Nobel laureate who died in 2017 as a prisoner of the state. Soon after returning home, he decided that he would make it back to Taiwan and speak out against the Chinese government.
“I knew this decision would change my future and change my life,” he said. “I knew maybe, in my life, I might not be able to go back to China.”
Li returned to Taiwan in February, where he has watched Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan’s president, win plaudits for presenting her nation as a pillar of democracy and human rights. Tsai, whose political party favors the eventual independence of Taiwan as a recognized entity separate from China, has supported the protesters in Hong Kong, opposed the erosion of religious freedom in China, and overseen the passage of Asia’s first law permitting same-sex marriages.
To Tsai, Taiwan could be a beacon for Hong Kong—and eventually even China. “We call on China to bravely move towards democracy,” she said in a January speech. “This is the only way they can truly understand Taiwanese people’s ideas and commitments.”
On March 12, Li Jiabao started a Periscope live stream and delivered a speech criticizing Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s abolition of term limits, his purging of political rivals, and his country’s lost democracy. After he finished, he asked Taiwan to grant him asylum.
Li’s speech made headlines in Taiwan and drew the attention of international media. But it was not until after Li ended his live stream that he learned Taiwan has no refugee law, and that his stay in Taiwan—like those of his fellow dissidents, including a growing number of Hong Kongers—was temporary by design.
In 2016, a refugee law passed the first of three required floor readings in Taiwan’s legislature with support from both major parties. Taiwan is not a member of the United Nations, which only recognizes the People’s Republic of China, and has not signed the Refugee Convention; the law was seen as a step toward bolstering Taiwan’s global human rights credentials. But it was stopped in its tracks, and its advocates are puzzled as to why. “Each political party would throw responsibility to the other one,” said Chiu E-ling, secretary general of the Taiwan Association for Human Rights.
Many suspect Tsai is wary of angering China, still Taiwan’s largest trade partner; over 1 million Taiwanese reportedly live and work across the Taiwan Strait. Because of Taiwan’s unique geopolitical status, three different laws would be needed to process refugees from China, Hong Kong and Macau, and other countries. Some Taiwanese are wary of an influx of Chinese spies, which a vetting process would theoretically prevent; some are simply frosty toward outsiders. But accepting refugees might just be new to Taiwan’s bureaucrats. “No one really knows how to do this,” Chiu said.
Taiwan handles refugees on a case-by-case basis with an implicit aim of quickly shuttling them to third countries. In recent years, several Chinese dissidents have been granted asylum in the United States and Canada. Those without a clear path to a third country are sometimes not let into Taiwan.
In September, Taiwan’s interior ministry said it had never sent an asylum seeker to a country where they could face inhuman treatment, a claim Chiu says is false. In January, three Kurdish Syrians who fled persecution using fake passports were deported; one filed an asylum case but was put on a plane home before the lawyer’s filing reached the judge. Immigration officials, Chiu said, “will tell you that even if you stay here, you won’t enjoy any legal rights.”
In July, Tsai said “friends from Hong Kong” would be considered for shelter on humanitarian grounds. But Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council, which manages matters concerning China, Hong Kong, and Macau, walked back her comments and has since reiterated that it would handle cases according to existing laws. This has left Hong Kongers reliant on work or study visas that are out of reach for many protesters who flee, sometimes facing rioting charges carrying potential 10-year prison sentences. Lam Wing-kee, a Causeway Bay bookseller who disappeared in China in late 2015, launched a crowdfunding campaign to open a bookstore in Taipei and become eligible for a business visa. Aside from Lam, no Hong Kongers seeking shelter in Taiwan have been identified publicly.
“We all know the current mechanism is not working for Hong Kongers,” said Zoey Leung, 19, a Hong Kong student who traveled to Taipei to advocate for refugee protections. Over 100 Hong Kongers have fled for Taiwan on 30-day tourist visas since July, and while the Mainland Affairs Council has granted them visa extensions, Leung said it has not followed through on promises to help them find work or enroll in study programs. “The Taiwan government hasn’t given them a clear answer.”
In October, Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren called on the United States to “provide temporary protected status or deferred enforced departure to Hong Kong residents”—schemes that allow TPS holders to seek employment or study. In Taiwan, there is no official path for Hong Kongers without work or study visas. They rely on NGOs and churches such as Taipei’s Che-lam Presbyterian Church, which funds medical care for Hong Kong protesters suffering health problems from tear-gas exposure and offers them temporary housing and living expenses, according to Huang Chun-sheng, the church’s head pastor. But if more Hong Kongers flee for Taiwan, it is uncertain whether the church is prepared to receive them.
Advocates are calling for Taiwan to utilize Article 18 of a law governing Hong Kong and Macau affairs, which mandates that “necessary assistance” be provided to Hong Kongers and Macanese “whose safety and liberty are immediately threatened for personal reasons.” The government has never utilized the article to provide shelter in Taiwan for a Hong Konger in need. Lee Sin-yi, a Hong Konger who fled to Taiwan in 2017 after being charged over her role in the “Fishball Revolution” riot, initially reached out to Chiu, who told her that “Article 18 has never been used. We can try, but we have to prepare,” Chiu recalled. “After that, she disappeared because her trial was going to start.” Lee remains on the run as Taiwanese authorities continue to search for her.
Leung and Nancy Ying, a Taiwanese activist who quit her job as a TV producer to support Hong Kong protesters, say their meetings with lawmakers have left them convinced the current stasis is driven by Taiwan’s upcoming presidential election: While both major parties supported the 2016 refugee act, neither is willing to take a political risk.
Yu Mei-nu, a legislator in Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party who backed the 2016 legislation and met with Leung and Ying in October, said in an e-mail that “we agree on the assistance to Hong Kong protesters but with certain different policy approaches.” Yu said that while a refugee act is highly unlikely to be considered this year, her office is attempting to work with both NGOs and the government to assist asylum seekers.
In July, a family of six members of Chengdu’s Early Rain Covenant Church fled to Taiwan. Chinese authorities had raided their church in December for failing to comply with party regulations on religion, imprisoning several church members and its pastor, Wang Yi. The family, upon arriving in Taiwan, gave the first accounts detailing the persecution of church members in a case that drew the attention of prominent US politicians, including Vice President Mike Pence.
“We were threatened,” said Ren Ruiting, 23, who fled with her parents, her husband and two younger children. “If we were arrested, the children [aged 11 and 3] would have to be sent to orphanages.” They were forbidden from communicating with other church members and forced to add police officers on WeChat so they could share their locations. They tried to enter the US consulate in Chengdu, but were prevented from doing so by the local police—a result, they believe, of having scanned their passports at the door, which can be detected by Chinese authorities monitoring peoples’ comings and goings. They began to test their limits, eventually realizing they could evade detection for about 24 hours at a time, and used an online travel agent to secretly obtain 15-day visas and flee to Taiwan, where they knew churches and NGOs might be able to help them.
“We knew who we could look for,” Ren said. “We didn’t know what kind of help we would get.”
Taiwan’s foreign ministry has aligned itself with US calls for religious freedom in China, cohosting a forum in March where US Ambassador for Religious Freedom Sam Brownback condemned Chinese crackdowns on unauthorized churches. To the family’s advocates, the ministry’s campaign feels cruelly ironic. “If they believe in religious freedom,” Chiu said, “they should protect the asylum seekers that face persecution because of their religion.”
Taiwan has given the family temporary three-month visas as it attempts to repatriate them to the United States, whose State Department is considering their case. Ren and her husband are open to the move, but her parents would rather stay in Taiwan, where the culture and language is more familiar. In Taiwan, however, the adults in the family live homebound lives; they are barred from working, receiving health insurance, or applying for driving licenses. “Even just getting a phone card is difficult,” Ren said. The 11-year-old has just returned to school after a church intervention ended a two-month absence. The 3-year-old, who was adopted after he was abandoned because of a cancerous tumor, is now cancer-free but requires regular yearly checkups. “His last checkup was in November 2018,” Ren said. “If he relapses, we can’t work. We don’t have health insurance. We can’t get medical help for him.”
The only path to obtaining citizenship in Taiwan would involve staying there for 10 years—impossible without jobs and medical care. “We can only go where we’re allowed to go,” Ren said. “We want stability. We need to be able to work. Our children need education. We just escaped [China]. Every day, we’re still nervous. We escaped that, then we came here and became refugees. For us, it’s not a lot better.”
Shortly after Li Jiabao gave his speech, his parents disappeared for 15 days. Li cannot be certain of what happened to them, but after speaking to fellow Chinese activists, he believes they may have been taken to a temporary detention center—a common practice used by Chinese authorities to de-platform and question dissidents and their family members, from authors of critical social media posts to the families of detained Uighur Muslims in the internment camps of Xinjiang. When they resurfaced, Li spoke to them around once a month in regularly monitored phone calls, denying him the chance to hear their unvarnished accounts of what had happened to them. “Every time they were on the phone, it was to ask me to go home,” he said.
Li’s student visa expired on June 30. His former university was unwilling to extend his program, possibly because of his notoriety, and he applied to over 10 schools before being accepted. He learned that Taiwan’s government had intervened to grant him a special six-month extension on the day his previous visa expired. “I was very anxious waiting for the confirmation,” he said. “I got a phone call on the last day saying, ‘Congratulations.’”
Since then, Li has directed much of his energy toward speaking up for the rights of refugees in Taiwan. Soft-spoken, articulate, and engaging, he aspires to become a professor of political or social science, potentially in Taipei’s Academia Sinica, the esteemed institution that departed China for Taiwan in 1949. He strikes the figure of a young man whom in the past Taiwan would have fought to keep—a Chinese national who crossed the Taiwan Strait, rebuked his government, and spoke on behalf of the same values Taiwan’s leadership says it holds dear.
Instead, Li is awaiting an asylum decision from the US government—his stay in Taiwan is contingent on an American interest in repatriating him. His current visa expires in January; he has not received updates on his status in Taiwan beyond that. He is allowed to work part-time while on his student visa, teaching Chinese to foreigners. (He cannot name his current university out of a fear of jeopardizing his status.) He knows, however, that his future lies outside of Taiwan. “They won’t starve Chinese refugees to death,” he said. “But they won’t give us a comfortable life here.”