Two Chinese asylum-seekers have been allowed to enter the democratic island of Taiwan after camping out in an airport lounge for nearly four months while authorities considered their applications.
Veteran rights activists Yan Kefen, 44, and Liu Xinglian, 64, had been living in a restricted area of Taipei's Taoyuan International Airport since abandoning a China-bound flight transiting in Taiwan on Sept. 27, 2018.
Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council (MAC), which manages relations with Beijing, announced last week that they would be issued with a professional exchange program visa after a human rights advocate sponsored their application.
I am very, very happy to feel the sun on my skin and to breathe free air," Liu told RFA after being allowed through immigration in Taipei for the first time on Thursday. "The airport was a very closed environment."
Yan, who is also known as Yan Bojun, agreed. "That's right! I am in an extremely good mood," he said.
However, Yan and Liu haven't been granted asylum, and are expected, as political refugees recognized by the United Nations, to seek resettlement in a third country.
They were only allowed to enter Taiwan after flying out to an undisclosed third country and presenting themselves again at immigration under their newly changed circumstances.
They are now staying in temporary accommodation in Taipei, and familiarizing themselves with their new environment, they told RFA while steaming plain buns, or mantou, for lunch.
"Taiwanese people are really friendly, whether you are asking them for directions or for them to take your photograph," Liu said. "They're very kind-hearted."
"We wandered around a nearby campus, bought a SIM card, and applied for internet access," Yan said. "We couldn't get online at the airport."
Liu said he appreciated the rule of law in Taiwan.
"I really understood how precious democracy, freedom, and the rule of law are after I got to Taiwan," Liu said. "Because the government has to accept public oversight in everything it does."
"They also have to do everything according to law, and they had trouble [with our application] because Taiwan doesn't have a law governing refugees," he said.
"We caused the Republic of China government quite a headache with our arrival, and we feel deeply grateful to them," Liu added, using another name for Taiwan.
"We were in urgent need of asylum when we got here," he said.
'Not the norm'
Liu dismissed criticisms of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)'s handling of their case, from opposition critics who fear antagonizing Beijing.
"[The Chinese government] is now shutting off the escape route for refugees via Thailand, which they have used to flee for their lives," he said. "This will make it easier for them to control people back in mainland China."
MAC spokesman Chiu Chui-cheng said the two men had been granted a temporary visa on humanitarian grounds which will need to be renewed on a monthly basis.
"They have to leave eventually," Chiu said. "I have to stress that the assistance we give to these individuals, these methods and processing of asylum cases, are not the norm and certainly not standard procedures," Chiu said.
While the administration of President Tsai Ing-wen is proud of its human rights record, the island, 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.
'We're not alone'
For Yan, the stress of fleeing the Chinese Communist Party, who now have considerable influence with Thai police and immigration officials, was worth it.
"I'd like to thank everyone for their concern," Yan said. "There are thousands and thousands of people who support us; thousands of friends who have our backs."
"We've realized that we're not alone in striving for democracy ... we're just one tiny ripple being carried along by a huge tide," he said.
While both men will need to focus on their applications for resettlement, they still have some sights they'd like to see in Taiwan, they said.
"I'd like to go to Nantou [county]," Yan said. "I have a wish to visit Sun Moon Lake."
"I'm a Muslim," Liu told RFA, "so I'd like to visit a mosque."
Gong Yujian, an exiled dissident from mainland China now based in Taiwan, said the decision to grant temporary visas to the activists comes at a politically sensitive time.
"The Refugee Law is still at the reading stage in the Legislative Yuan," Gong said. "Actually, Chinese refugees like us are something of an embarrassment for Taiwan."
"People who abandon flights in Taiwan cause the government no end of difficulties, and this could mean the end of yet another route to freedom," he said.
A tense relationship
Taiwan has a tense relationship with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which regards the island as a renegade province awaiting "unification," despite never having ruled the island.
President Tsai Ing-wen rejected calls from Chinese President Xi Jinping earlier this month to move towards "unification" with the People's Republic, saying its people have no wish to give up their sovereignty.
In a Jan. 2 "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 take 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 Wen Yuqing for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.