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Chinese exchange student seeks political asylum after public denunciation of Xi

Chinese President Xi Jinping waves to deputies at the 13th National People's Congress in Beijing on Tuesday, March 20, 2018. (Lan Hongguang/Xinhua/Sipa USA/TNS)
March 16, 2019

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

A Chinese exchange student studying on the democratic island of Taiwan has sought political asylum after live-streaming criticism of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s removal of presidential term-limits last year.

Li Jiabao, 21, made the move after criticizing constitutional changes made by Xi in March 2018 that effectively allow him to rule indefinitely.

“I am in a lot of danger right now, so I am hoping that the Taiwan government will grant me political asylum,” he said. “I also call on the Taiwan government to pass the refugee bill as soon as possible.”

He said he acquired his views by bypassing the complex system of blocks, filters and human censorship known as China’s Great Firewall, and viewing content on social media sites like Twitter and YouTube, which are banned to most Chinese internet users.

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“Xi Jinping is taking this country faster and faster in a backwards direction,” Li told RFA, describing himself as “deeply infected” by democratic politics in Taiwan.

“If Taiwan can implement democracy and direct elections, then why can’t China?” he said. “I decided to come out in open opposition to the Communist Party, to dictatorship and to Xi Jinping.”

Li, who hails from the eastern Chinese province of Shandong but who is studying at Taiwan’s Chia Nan University of Pharmacy and Science in Tainan city, used Periscope to make the comments.

He also hit out at a nationwide police operation targeting Chinese human rights lawyers since July 2015, and said he hopes China can one day take the path of democratic reform, as Taiwan once did.

“When Xi Jinping succeeded in eliminating his political rival [jailed former Chongqing party chief] Bo Xilai in 2012, he succeeded in becoming the most powerful politician in China in one step,” Li said.

“Like many other ordinary people, I once had a hankering for the monarchy,” he said.

But he compared China under Xi to an imperial tyranny presiding over an Orwellian dystopia.

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He said the “martyrs” who died during the Tiananmen massacre that ended the 1989 student-led pro-democracy movement were all seeking freedom.

Living in fear

While the administration of Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) President Tsai Ing-wen is proud of its human rights record, Taiwan, which has a refugee law in the pipeline, is traditionally wary of granting political asylum to Chinese nationals for fear of triggering a flood of applications.

Li, who has received furious online abuse after his live-streaming session, said he now lives in fear of being kidnapped by Chinese agents operating in Taiwan, and unofficially repatriated to face punishment.

“It’s even possible that I could pay for this with my life,” he said. “I wouldn’t regret it though, because that’s what I chose to do.”

Li’s current exchange program runs out in July, but he is already under huge pressure from the authorities in China, via his friends and classmates, to go home earlier.

His public criticisms of Xi come amid a very public debate in Taiwan over the Chinese president’s claim that the island should be “unified” with the People’s Republic of China, which has never controlled Taiwan.

But Li takes a view regarded as criminal by Beijing; namely that the island is a totally separate country from China.

“Their two systems are fundamentally different,” he said. “There are cultural differences that spring from the difference between an authoritarian regime and democratic politics.”

“Systemically and culturally, Taiwan is already a totally different country from China,” he said.

Rejecting unification

President Tsai rejected calls from Xi on Jan. 2 to move towards “unification,” saying that Taiwan’s 23 million people have no wish to give up their sovereignty, and that China should first move towards a democratic system.

In the statement, titled “Letter to our Taiwan compatriots,” Xi was insistent that China must be “unified,” saying that China would make no promises not to use military force to annex the island.

But a recent opinion poll found that more than 80 percent of Taiwanese would reject Xi’s offer to rule the island via the “one country, two systems” model used for the former colonies of Hong Kong and Macau.

Taiwan was ruled as a Japanese colony in the 50 years prior to the end of World War II, but was handed back to the 1911 Republic of China under the Kuomintang (KMT) government as part of Tokyo’s post-war reparation deal.

The island began a transition to democracy following the death of Chiang Kai-shek’s son, President Chiang Ching-kuo, in January 1988, starting with direct elections to the legislature in the early 1990s and culminating in the first direct election of a president, Lee Teng-hui, in 1996.

Reported by Hsia Hsiao-hwa for RFA’s Mandarin Service, and by Ng Yik-tung and Sing Man for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.