A Chinese activist’s attempt to defect to Taiwan earlier this week could have shaken the careful balancing act that has prevailed across the Taiwan Strait since May 20 last year.
The decision by the Taiwanese government earlier this week to deny political asylum to a Chinese dissident who had left his tour group at the weekend may have saved the Tsai Ing-wen administration serious headaches amid a controversy surrounding the detention of a Taiwanese rights activist in China.
At first glance, Zhang Xiangzhong’s attempt to obtain asylum in Taiwan looked like a straight-up case of a Chinese dissident seeking freedom from authoritarian rule in China. The 48-year-old civil rights activist from Shandong Province claims he had served three years in jail after taking part in the New Citizens Movement (he was arrested in July 2013). Upon his release in July 2016, Zhang says he was under constant surveillance by the Chinese security apparatus.
Zhang arrived in Taiwan on April 12 as part of a tour group on an eight-day visit and disappeared on April 13. Police located him in Xindian, New Taipei City, on April 17. The activist said he intended to seek political asylum in Taiwan, and claimed he had been inspired by the bravery of Lee Ching-yu to save her husband, Taiwanese activist Lee Ming-che, who has been detained in China since March 19.
Taiwan’s National Immigration Agency (NIA), conceivably with input from the Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) and National Security Bureau (NSC), subsequently decided not to grant Zhang long-term residence (as opposed to political asylum, which is not covered by the Act Governing Relations between the People of the Taiwan Area and the Mainland Area), as his case did not conform with existing regulations or a draft refugee act. After being informed of the decision, Zhang reportedly agreed to return to China.
There might be more to the case than meets the eye, however. First and foremost, as a number of Chinese dissidents confirmed to me in exchanges earlier this week, Chinese authorities do not routinely grant permission to activists — especially those who served prison time and whose activities are deemed threatening enough to warrant constant surveillance — to travel to Taiwan for tourism, especially at a time when the Chinese government is doing its utmost to prevent contact between activists from both sides of the Taiwan Strait.
Zhang’s ability to travel to Taiwan, therefore, was highly suspicious. It is not inconceivable, in fact, that Zhang had reached some sort of understanding with Chinese authorities, or that he was allowed to go to Taiwan due to prior knowledge of his intention to seek asylum. It is, furthermore, highly likely that the decision to allow him to travel to Taiwan was made at the local level and without guidance by the central government in Beijing.
The key factor here is the context. At the top of the list is the high-profile Lee Ming-che case, which has tested both the Tsai administration and the Xi Jinping government due to its potential to rattle the careful balancing act that has prevailed in the Taiwan Strait since May 20 last year. As with the Zhang case, there is good reason to believe that the decision to nab Lee after he entered China proper via Macau last month occurred at the local level and was made either by zealous security officials or elements from a faction within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that seeks to cause trouble for Xi ahead of the CCP party congress later this year. Notwithstanding the continuous hostile rhetoric from the State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO), Chinese think tanks and state-run media, or the government’s insistence (mostly for domestic consumption) on Taiwan as a “core issue,” President Xi has been relatively accommodating of President Tsai’s “red lines,” which include the so-called “1992 consensus” and “one China” framework. By doing so, President Xi has struck a balance between appeasing the more radical elements within the CCP and the People’s Liberation Army, while not taking action that would cause instability in cross-Strait relations or force President Tsai to make concessions that, due to democratic processes, she is unwilling, or unable, to make. By standing firm on her red lines — which continue to receive majority support among the Taiwanese — but showing some flexibility on other matters, President Tsai has also contributed to stable relations in the Taiwan Strait, efforts which we must add have been noted by Washington, D.C.
So far, both leaders have avoided the traps that could have derailed the frosty, no doubt, but still existing, relationship.
So far, both leaders have avoided the traps that could have derailed the frosty, no doubt, but still existing, relationship. If President Tsai herself had harshly criticized Chinese authorities over Lee’s detention, as members of the green camp and civil society have asked of her, the Chinese side would have had no choice but to retaliate elsewhere or to further tighten the noose around Lee. However satisfactory it might have been for the Tsai government to blast China over the forced disappearance, it is unlikely that doing so would achieve the principal objective — Mr. Lee’s release — while unnecessarily sacrificing cross-Strait stability at a time when both leaders would rather focus on more pressing issues (for both leaders, primarily domestic but for Xi both domestic and North Korea).
It is in this context, therefore, that Taipei’s decision not to allow Zhang to remain in Taiwan should be judged. If, as we have reason to suspect, Zhang’s attempted defection — or more precisely, the decision by some Chinese authority to allow him to go to Taiwan to possibly defect — constituted an attempt to sabotage the prevailing stability, as granting Zhang asylum certainly would have, then turning him down was, all things considered, the proper, albeit arguably not the moral, thing to do. There is no doubt that Lee, whose sentence could be limited to a symbolic period of “community service,” would have suffered had the Tsai government granted Mr. Zhang his wish; by refusing to do so, President Tsai suffers a minor blow to her reputation among a segment of society (rights activists among them, as well as the deeper green camp which has already accused her of being to “soft” on China), but she avoids committing a much greater mistake that could both have hurt Mr. Lee’s chances of a quick release and have added momentum to a sequence of events that could have spiralled out of control and caused serious instability in the Strait, with only the radicals benefiting.
Once again by carefully modulating its actions, the Tsai government has succeeded in not giving President Xi, or the more extremist elements within his party and the security apparatus, a rationale for cracking down on Taiwan. The price to pay is compromise on certain principles that, in a perfect situation, ought to be inviolable; the benefits are a modicum of stability so the two sides can continue to dance while focusing on addressing the matters that require immediate attention — for Xi, that is not Taiwan; for Tsai, that is not China.
Top photo courtesy of the Tsai Ing-wen official Facebook page.