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Last Updated: Wednesday, 17 August 2005, 15:42 GMT 16:42 UK
Taiwan struggles with Chinese dissidents
By Caroline Gluck
BBC News, Taipei

The self-ruled island of Taiwan is proud of its democratic principles, even though the Chinese communist mainland regards it as part of its territory.

Yan Peng
Yan Peng arrived in Taiwan in June 2004, to seek asylum
So you might expect Taiwan to welcome the trickle of Chinese political dissidents who have fled there to seek asylum.

There have only been four such cases in

the past decade, according to the body responsible for Taiwan's relations with China - the Mainland Affairs Council.

But they are nevertheless proving a political headache for the Taiwanese authorities.

The most recent cases involve two pro-democracy activists who escaped to Taiwan more than a year ago.

Chen Rongli arrived in January 2004, while Yan Peng arrived in June of the same year.

The two men were held in a detention centre for illegal Chinese in Ilan, eastern Taiwan, for months, while the authorities investigated their backgrounds and confirmed that they were, indeed, political activists.

Thousands of other Chinese are held at the detention centre every year, trying to get into Taiwan for economic reasons.

The two dissidents were recently released from detention and placed in a safe house, while the government tries to find a third location that might offer them asylum.

Our legal system is not yet complete; we have no refugee law and we don't have a law for political asylum
Joseph Wu, Mainland Affairs Council
Taiwan, which prides itself on its democratic record and its protection of human rights, has no refugee or asylum law, and says it can only offer the men temporary visas.

Its ambiguous international status - the island is not formally recognised by the United Nations or many other international organisations - makes it harder to seek co-operation in resolving the issue.

Fleeing China

In his first media interview since his release, 42-year-old Yan Peng spoke to the BBC about his dramatic escape to Taiwan, and his frustration about his current situation.

His political activism on the mainland dates back to the early 1980s. At the time of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, he organised demonstrations in his home city of Qingdao.

He says he experienced constant harassment and monitoring by the Chinese authorities, and was jailed for 18 months in 2002 on charges of attempting to overthrow the Chinese government.

But even after his release, he said, he continued to help fellow democracy activists, and set up pro-democracy websites.

His decision to flee mainland China came after a tip-off that he was likely to be re-arrested by police ahead of the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests.

He travelled to the coastal city of Xiamen and hired a boat to take him to the Taiwanese-controlled islands of Kinmen.

"There were lot of Chinese coastguard boats around the island... they sped towards us... and tried to catch me," he said.

Taiwan's President Chen Shui-bian during National Day celebrations
Mr Yan thought President Chen's government would be sympathetic

"I jumped into the sea and started to swim. The coastguard pursued me and tried to shoot me. Because of the waves that day, they didn't shoot very accurately. I managed to reach the island. I screamed for help. The Taiwanese soldiers immediately surrounded me.

"There was a 10 minute confrontation. The Chinese coastguards demanded that the Taiwanese soldiers return me. One Taiwanese soldier said maybe they should. I begged them not to. After my begging, he eventually made a call to his superior.

"It was probably the loneliest 10 minutes of my life. I prayed and prayed that I could stay... and eventually they decided to pass me over to the Taiwanese coastguard.

"That was 2 June. Prosecutors eventually decided to postpone any charges against me. On 4 June, I was taken to Ilan, in eastern Taiwan, and I was kept in a detention centre for illegal Chinese for eight months."

Third location

Mr Yan shared a room with another dissident, 37-year-old Chen Rongli, who spent eight years in jail in China for trying to form a political party.

Both were told Taiwan could not offer them political asylum and that they should consider a third location.

"I told them any Western country that respected the concept of democracy or human rights would be fine," said Mr Yan.

"After eight months' detention, I was really disheartened. It wasn't difficult for me to face my 18-month spell in jail in China. I was prepared to face that treatment, as I was challenging the authorities. But I wasn't prepared for detention in Taiwan. I felt really helpless."

The irony, he said, was that he had specifically chosen to escape to Taiwan, rather than South Korea or Japan, which were closer to Qingdao, because he had been impressed by President Chen Shui-bian's inauguration speech in 2000.

"He delivered a speech, emphasising a commitment to human rights, and a desire to work for democracy," said Mr Yan.

"When I decided to escape, the first country I thought of was Taiwan."

"I don't want to complain too much", said Mr Yan. "I think there might be a gap between Western and Eastern democracy... I put myself in this difficult spot.

"I don't know where I will be next. But think of the students killed in Tiananmen Square incident... and those still in jail. I think I'm lucky."

Taiwan's top official responsible for relations with China, Joseph Wu of the Mainland Affairs Council, told the BBC that the two men would be allowed to stay in Taiwan on temporary visas until a third place could offer them asylum.

Local human rights groups are pushing for the men to be granted residency, allowing them to work and live legally in Taiwan.

"Our legal system is not yet complete; we have no refugee law and we don't have a law for political asylum", said Mr Wu, explaining that a draft asylum law had yet to be discussed - let alone passed - by Taiwan's legislature.

"So far we just have Mr Chen and Mr Yan who are staying in Taiwan... and we already face a lot of pressure in hosting them."

He added that the only way to tackle the problem in the long term was for China to become more democratic and allow its citizens freedom of expression.

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