Taiwan: A Refuge Without a Refugee Law

Written by Margaret K. Lewis.

Image credit: courtesy of Liao Hsin-tien.

Taiwan is a refuge for remembrance. The latest reminder is the inflatable tank outside Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall. Despite its playful resemblance to the bounce houses in which my children enjoy jumping, its message is deadly serious. The installation by Taiwanese artist, Shake, commemorates the man who stood in front of a line of tanks leaving Tiananmen Square the day after the June 4, 1989, massacre.

The Nationalists themselves retreated to Taiwan in the late 1940s in search of refuge. As Jeffrey Wasserstrom and I recently wrote, the fierce authoritarian period that followed—and particularly the violent suppression of protestors on February 28, 1947 (2/28)—is relevant to understanding the legacy of June 4 (6/4).

In Taiwan on the thirtieth anniversary of 2/28 in 1977, even mentioning the bloodshed was forbidden. The same holds true today in China on the thirtieth anniversary of 6/4. 

The contrast between 1977 martial-law-era Taiwan and 2019 democratic Taiwan is stunning. The contrast between 2019 Taiwan and 2019 China is likewise striking. Not only is 2/28 now an official memorial day, but also Taiwan has become a site for commemorations of 6/4. People in China can at most engage in private, quiet mourning for the victims of 6/4. Meanwhile, in front of the increasingly contested memorial hall to Taiwan’s former dictator, a recreation of the iconic “Tank Man” photo is on display.

Last year on June 4, I attended the vigil in Taipei’s Liberty Square, next to where the Tank Man installation now stands. Many of the attendees were born after 1989, others had been in Tiananmen Square in 1989. The event was wonderful and also wonderfully unremarkable: just another example of a peaceful public gathering in Taiwan of people supporting democracy and human rights.

Taiwan offers a space “to which one has recourse in difficulty” when faced with the inability within China to express opinions or emotions. As Louisa Lim and Ilaria Maria Sala explain, the problem goes beyond stamping out protest to obliterating history: the Chinese Party-state “has systematically erased the evidence and memory of this violent suppression . . . .”

Taiwan serves as a place to etch in these memories that are at peril of being erased. Indeed, the Chinese version of Louisa Lim’s book “The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited” was published last month in Taiwan, as it is far too sensitive for publishers in China.

Taiwan’s role as a refuge for remembrance is not limited to 6/4. Taiwan welcomes conversations that cannot occur within China as the Party-state hones a narrative that denies all dissent. For example, this July, Taipei will be the site of the third annual China Human Rights Lawyers’ Day. The event commemorates the “709 Crackdown”—the July 9, 2015, round-up of hundreds of lawyers and other rights defenders by Chinese authorities, with deprivations of liberty continuing today.

Among the participants at the upcoming 709 conference will be PRC citizens who themselves have been “disappeared” and even tortured by their government, just as attendees at Taipei’s 6/4 vigils have included people who took part in the 1989 protests. For these PRC citizens, however, Taiwan usually offers only a limited refuge. Even if they manage to leave China and enter Taiwan, finding a way to stay there is difficult.

Taiwan does not have a refugee law. Debate on the issue has occurred in fits and starts for over a decade, leaving Taiwan to deal with asylum seekers on a case-by-case basis. The Tsai administration proposed a bill in 2016 that drew on a version previously submitted under President Chen Shui-bian. It failed to gain traction in the legislature. One significant point of contention is to what extent a refugee law should address not only people from uncontroversially foreign countries but also people from China, Hong Kong, and Macau.

As with any issue that touches cross-strait relations, the situation is complicated. On the one hand, the government celebrates Taiwan’s status as a beacon of human rights. On the other hand, extending asylum to PRC citizens risks stoking tensions with Beijing. It is unlikely that either the executive or legislative branches will push for consideration of this fraught issue with elections looming in January 2020, especially when some voters worry about opening the door to what they fear could be an overwhelming number of refugees.

Yet recent events have highlighted the government’s inaction. In February, two PRC-citizen asylum seekers were allowed to enter Taiwan following 125 days at Taoyuan airport. This spring, a PRC-citizen student in Taiwan, Li Jiabao, sought asylum based on fears of retribution for his criticism of Xi Jinping on social media.

Concerns about the Tsai administration’s stance towards refugees is not limited to policies vis-à-vis China. Last year a deal came to light in which Australia was sending asylum seekers housed on Nauru to Taiwan for medical care. This detour blocked their ability to apply formally for asylum in Australia had their medical needs been met there.

The deteriorating human rights situation in Hong Kong provides yet another wrinkle to the debate. In May, Taiwan gave Hong Kong bookseller Lam Wing-kee permission to stay two additional months, having originally only been granted a 30-day visa.

Meanwhile, it has come to light that Germany granted refugee protection to two political activists from Hong Kong who are facing charges connected to a 2016 clash with police during a protest. Xinhua reported on May 25 that PRC authorities had urged that Germany “recognize its mistake and reverse the decision….” Far from a mistake, Germany has already taken a leading role as a refuge for PRC citizens such as Liu Xia. Last month, Melissa Chan profiled Berlin’s vibrant community of PRC-citizen artists, noting that “[s]ome of the excitement I witnessed in Beijing has now been transported here.”

If ominous trends concerning the vulnerability of government critics in Hong Kong worsen, the need to find places of refuge will become all the more salient. But Taiwan is not Germany. Beijing’s ratcheting up of pressure creates a palpable element of doubt as to whether Taiwan can and will serve as one of those places.

While the current focus is and should be on the thirtieth anniversary of 6/4, 2019 also marks another noteworthy anniversary: ten years since Taiwan adopted as domestic law the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Embracing these foundational treaties was a critical step in Taiwan’s recognition of the importance of international human rights and the need to more fully implement those norms domestically.

Despite the passage of a decade, Taiwan has failed to take any similar steps to bring the United Nations’ 1951 Refugee Convention and related 1967 Protocol into domestic law. And Article 7 of the ICCPR already provides an absolute prohibition on returning people to countries in which they are subject to a serious risk of torture, a point that experts have raised when evaluating Taiwan’s human rights record

On future anniversaries of 6/4, will Taiwan widely shelter both ideas and people? The government that rolled tanks into Tiananmen thirty years ago stands as one obstacle to Taiwan doing so.

Margaret Lewis is Professor of Law at Seton Hall University, where her research focuses on law in mainland China and Taiwan with an emphasis on criminal justice.

Reflecting on the 30th anniversary of the massacre in Beijing in 1989, this article is part of a special issue looking at the connexions between this event and the social, political and cultural life in Taiwan.

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