Taiwan’s government said on Wednesday that a Chinese political activist who intended to apply for asylum had voluntarily returned to China after meeting with the immigration authorities. His departure spares the government a potential diplomatic tangle as it continues to seek information on the detention of a Taiwanese rights advocate in China last month.
Zhang Xiangzhong, 48, an anticorruption campaigner who spent three years in prison in China, had arrived in Taiwan on April 12 as part of an eight-day group tour. The next day he abandoned the group and on Friday said in an interview with Radio Free Asia that he planned to apply for political refugee status. But according to a statement from Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council, Zhang flew back to China on Wednesday morning with his tour group.
Zhang, who had called for greater transparency from the Chinese government, was detained in 2013 for “gathering a crowd to disrupt public order.” In 2014 he was sentenced on what his lawyers said was a trumped-up charge of credit card fraud, and he was released last July. Zhang told Radio Free Asia that his conviction was based on a forced confession obtained through torture and that his health had deteriorated while in prison because of a lack of medication for his asthma.
“There’s legitimate concern about Zhang’s safety after he’s sent back to China,” said Patrick Poon, a researcher at Amnesty International in Hong Kong.
Taiwan does not grant political asylum to Chinese citizens, although it has granted long-term residence for political reasons on a case-by-case basis. Taiwan had previously offered asylum but ceased doing so after several hijackings of planes by Chinese asylum seekers in the 1990s.
China claims self-governed Taiwan as its territory and has not ruled out the use of force to annex it, adding an extra layer of complexity to cases of Chinese political refugees.
According to the Mainland Affairs Council statement, the Taiwan immigration authorities determined that Zhang’s application materials “did not conform to the rules for special cases of long-term residence currently in effect.”
“After explaining this to Zhang, he fully understood and agreed to depart with his original tour group upon completion of its travel period, in accordance with the rules of the Cross-Strait Tourism Agreement,” it said. In a later email, the Mainland Affairs Council said that the cases of Zhang and the detained Taiwanese rights activist, Lee Ming-cheh, were “not connected in any way.”
Zhang told Radio Free Asia that he was inspired to apply for asylum by a statement made last week by Lee’s wife, Lee Ching-yu. Lee, who has been held in China on national security grounds for the last month, had donated cash and books to relatives of imprisoned Chinese rights lawyers.
China has not granted Lee, whose whereabouts have not been disclosed, access to a lawyer or visits by relatives, nor has it stated what crime he may have committed. Lee had announced she intended to go to China to “rescue” her husband, but Chinese officials canceled Lee’s permit to enter China, preventing her from boarding a flight to Beijing on April 10.
Lee’s campaign on her husband’s behalf, which has rankled Chinese officials and drawn criticism from some Taiwanese politicians who said her activities were interfering with behind-the-scenes negotiations, struck a chord with Zhang.
“I remember something Lee Ching-yu said,” he told Radio Free Asia. “‘I must carry on fighting. I will not allow my husband to lose his dignity in return for his freedom and to spend the rest of his life little better than a dog.’”
“It doesn’t matter how powerful China becomes,” Zhang added. “They can only take our freedom and our lives, but they can’t break our dignity.”