Chinese man seeking ‘freedom and equality’ says he travelled to Taiwan in dinghy
Taichung Port police officers detained the man, surnamed Zhou, after they received reports of a man behaving suspiciously near the docks. A police spokesperson said Zhou told officers he had travelled from Quanzhou in Fujian province, in a 2.6m long rubber dinghy he’d bought online, powered by an outboard motor.
The 180km journey took about 10 hours, they said, through the highly militarised Taiwan Strait, which is patrolled by both Taiwanese and Chinese authorities.
In a video of the arrest posted online, police officers can be heard asking Zhou “did you come over for freedom?” Zhou replies: “Yes, I came by boat”.
“Taiwan has more freedom and equality,” he said.
Taiwan has no formal process for asylum seekers, instead dealing with individuals on a case-by-case basis. The lack of refugee-specific laws amid Taiwan’s tangle of visa rules is a growing cause for concern among local human rights groups, particularly as people seek to leave the authoritarian crackdown on nearby Hong Kong. A resettlement assistance program for Hong Kongers who legally travel in Taiwan has raised concerns over inequitable access and a lack of transparency or oversight.
Taiwan has amended laws to decriminalise the act of arriving unlawfully to seek political asylum but has no dedicated refugee program, case review process or streamlined support service in Taiwan. Amnesty International has described other asylum seekers caught in catch-22s, unable to work without official status but unable to get official status without employment.
Opposition political parties have pushed various proposals for a dedicated refugee law, but the issue has been clouded by concerns over the potential for Chinese infiltrators to exploit any program.
Taiwan is a self-governing democracy, but is under increasing threat from the People’s Republic of China. The governing Chinese Communist party has never ruled Taiwan but claims it as a province, and has not ruled out “unifying” by force.
Military buildup along the Taiwan Strait coast, and increased drills and air force sorties by the PLA into Taiwan’s air identification zone and across the unofficial “median line” of the strait have raised the likelihood of confrontation. Taiwan has increased its arms purchases from the US and lobbied for greater international assistance to ward off the threat.
Defence leaders were quick to reject concerns Zhou’s journey revealed holes in national security, and suggested the boat was likely too small to be detected by military radars.
“The radars of the maritime patrol agency might be able to see it, but naval shore-mounted radars can’t see such a target,” said vice admiral Chiang Cheng-kuo, who also expressed some doubt about the man’s story because of fuel limitations.
Taiwan’s defence minister Chiu Kuo-cheng, said the “shortcomings” could be “remedied”.
Cai Shiying, a legislator with the governing Democratic Progressive Party, told local media the conditions in the strait are milder in the spring and autumn and vessels under three metres in length were usually “filtered out as general noise” by surveillance. Cai added there were some contradictions in the man’s story, but did not elaborate.
Taichung police said Zhou was screened by disease control units to check for fever, before he was transferred to investigators on suspicion of violating national security and immigration laws, which could bring jail time and deportation back to China. He was undergoing 14 days of quarantine and was in good health, the coastguard said.
Crossings from China to Taiwan are a rare event.
Last year 12 Hong Kong activists were intercepted less than 100km from Hong Kong island by Chinese coastguards. The group – most of whom were facing protest-related charges – was attempting to flee for Taiwan, but were detained in China and convicted for illegally crossing borders.