Two Chinese nationals were caught arriving in Taiwan by dinghy by Taiwan’s Coast Guard in the span of five days, raising questions about the country’s border security and its absence of formal refugee procedures.
A man from China was found on May 4 on the coast of Taiwan’s outlying Kinmen island, which lies just six kilometers from China’s Fujian province. The man, who appeared to have used a small boat to get to the island, did not specify his motivation for fleeing to Taiwan, according to the coast guard.
The incident occurred just days after a Chinese national was found in Taiwan’s Taichung Harbor in a rubber dinghy equipped with a motor and carrying 90 liters of fuel.
The man, who authorities identified by his surname of Zhou, told police he had sailed from Fujian province and across the Taiwan Strait – a distance of 180 kilometers – in search of “freedom and democracy.”
Zhou said he was “unhappy” living in China, according to police, and said he hoped to live in Taiwan and find a job there.
Zhou’s story raised eyebrows as he would have had to cross a long, treacherous, and heavily patrolled stretch of water between the respective mainlands of China and Taiwan.
Navy Chief of Staff Vice Adm. Chiang Cheng-kuo told legislators on May 3 he doubted Zhou’s account, saying he would have been hindered by fuel limitations and would not have been able to evade radar detection by the coast guard.
Chiang did say, however, that Zhou’s vessel likely would not have been picked up by the Navy’s land and vessel-mounted radar systems.
Tsai Shih-ying, a legislator for the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), grilled the coast guard for its failure to detect Zhou’s vessel.
“Instead of a stowaway case, if it were a case of Chinese communists sending infiltrators for military actions, it would have been an extremely serious problem,” Tsai said. “Both the coast guard and the navy must review this prudently and strengthen the monitoring and surveillance mechanism.”
Zhou is currently being kept in quarantine for 14 days, after which he could face charges for illegally entering Taiwan. Police are currently investigating to confirm his identity and the truth of his story.
As Taiwan has emerged as a beacon of regional democracy in the Chinese-speaking world, it has received attention as a destination for Hong Kongers fleeing the repressive rule of Beijing-backed lawmakers.
Hundreds of Hong Kongers have entered Taiwan since the city’s pro-democracy protests ignited in 2019, with a small but significant number entering the country by boat. Last August, 12 Hong Kongers were caught by the Chinese coast guard about 80 kilometers from their starting point in Hong Kong.
Taiwan has tacitly but quietly let Hong Kongers entering by boat into the country. But it has not taken the same approach with Chinese nationals, who do not engender as much sympathy from most Taiwanese people.
Li Jiabao, a Chinese student who was enrolled in a Taiwanese university, posted a video on the Periscope streaming platform in March 2019 criticizing Chinese leader Xi Jinping and saying he wanted to claim asylum in Taiwan. His efforts to secure a more permanent stay in the country, however, have been continually ignored.