Chinese Activist Camps Out at Airport in Taiwan in Bid for Asylum

Chen Siming, an activist who fled China, has been camped out at an airport in Taiwan for nearly a week, hoping to gain asylum in the West. He is willing to wait for much longer, as long as he is not forced to board a plane back to China.

Mr. Chen, 60, is among a wave of activists and human rights defenders who have recently attempted bold and hazardous escapes from the country as a crackdown on civil society has widened. In July, a Chinese human rights lawyer fled to Laos. Last month, a critic of China’s ruling Communist Party fled to South Korea, apparently by jet ski.

Mr. Chen’s predicament in Taiwan is unusual. While the self-ruled island is an attractive refuge for people fleeing Chinese state oppression, it is also wary of raising tensions with Beijing by accepting too many critics of China’s ruling Communist Party.

Mr. Chen was reluctant to leave the mainland, eager to continue his activism there.

“I believe that people have to put in the work in order for society to improve,” Mr. Chen said in an interview on Thursday. “That’s why I always wanted to stay in China and fight.”

A taxi and truck driver from the southern city of Zhuzhou in Hunan Province, Mr. Chen said his interest in activism grew after he befriended a leading human rights lawyer online in 2016.

He joined a network of about a dozen loosely organized activists in the region and began commemorating the deadly 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy students at Tiananmen Square every year. He also sought to raise awareness of the plight of a woman in the province who had filmed herself splashing ink on a poster of Xi Jinping in 2021 and was later reportedly forced to enter a psychiatric facility.

Zhou Fengsuo, the executive director of Human Rights in China, a group based in New York, said that he had been in communication with Mr. Chen for more than five years, and that the type of activism he engaged in was becoming increasingly rare in the mainland. The police have conducted mass raids on civil society organizations, Mr. Zhou said, and Mr. Chen’s fellow activists in Zhuzhou have gone missing.

Over the years, Mr. Chen had become accustomed to living in fear of the authorities. Since 2018 or 2019, the police often visited him, sometimes detaining him for days at a time, most recently around this year’s June 4 anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests. The turning point came weeks later, when on July 21, national security agents threatened to send him to a psychiatric facility, he said.

Mr. Chen in 2018, holding up pieces of paper with the Chinese characters for “6” and “4,” in reference to June 4, the date of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989.Credit…Chen Siming, via Associated Press

Mr. Chen said he escaped China on July 22, first traveling to Laos and then making his way to Thailand. Even outside of China, he did not feel safe, especially after learning that Lu Siwei, a human rights lawyer, was detained by the authorities in Laos and forcibly deported to China in September, where experts said he was likely to be tortured.

Under Xi Jinping, China’s most iron-fisted leader in decades, the authorities have offered bounties for critics who have fled overseas, and secured the detention or deportation of exiles passing through neighboring countries.

Mr. Chen wanted to avoid a similar fate. But lacking visas to travel elsewhere, Mr. Chen booked a plane ticket to a city in mainland China, with a strategically chosen layover at Taoyuan International Airport. He turned himself in to Taiwanese immigration officials as a candidate for temporary asylum last week.

In a video filmed at the airport, he called on Taiwan authorities not to deport him to China, and to allow him to stay as he applied for asylum in the United States and Canada.

Speaking from an area assigned to him in the airport, Mr. Chen said that he was instructed to stay within the airport.

Chan Chi-hung, a spokesman of the Mainland Affairs Council of Taiwan, said that Mr. Chen remained at the airport because he did not have permission enter Taiwan, and that the authorities were handling his case.

Mr. Chen said he was prepared to wait. In the meantime, he had access to shower facilities in the airport and was given meals like rice, noodles and bento boxes.

Chien-Yuan Tseng, the chairman of the New School for Democracy, a group that supports human rights activists, said that dissidents like Mr. Chen live in a state of limbo because Taiwan does not have refugee and political asylum laws. The government must deal with asylum applications on a case-by-case basis, Mr. Tseng said.

Taiwan is also wary of further inflaming tensions with China.

“They’re trying to balance a lot of complicated factors. They don’t want to raise tensions with the mainland if more and more activists are trying to make it to Taiwan,” said Thomas E. Kellogg, the executive director of the Center for Asian Law at Georgetown University.

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