The announcement on Thursday that the Mainland Affairs Council had drawn up a fresh draft asylum law was good news indeed. The decision followed a flurry of media attention surrounding Chinese would-be refugee Wu Yalin (
The Mainland Affairs Council originally responded by asking Wu to leave the country before his visa was due to expire last Wednesday. The council didn't have to take a stance on Wu's claims of persecution in China as Taiwan has no asylum law, it said.
But then Wu held a press conference detailing his case. His lawyer told reporters about Wu's previous imprisonment for democracy activism and said Wu risked being sent to one of China's laogai, or gulags, for "re-education" -- but that the council refused to allow Wu the chance to prove his claims.
Then suddenly the council softened its tone. It extended Wu's visa based on humanitarian considerations and said it would reconsider his case and may grant Wu temporary asylum.
Bad publicity is a classic catalyst to get things moving.
The government often decries China's oppression of political and social freedoms. Likewise, it is fond of patting itself on the back for progress in democracy and human rights. Thus, it is surprising that the council would be unprepared to recognize the persecution it so frequently ascribes to Beijing when an asylum seeker shows up on Taiwan's doorstep. In light of its initial reluctance to hear Wu's case, its rhetoric seems little more than a political tool.
The right to live free from persecution is enshrined in a number of international conventions to which Taiwan is not party, but which it would gladly sign if given the opportunity. Taiwan is not only blocked from joining the UN -- its initiatives to ratify individual UN conventions have even been rejected.
Locked out of the international community, the government faces the choice of either ignoring those conventions or adhering to them as it strives to improve its own democracy.
The government has repeatedly argued that Taiwan's exclusion from the WHO not only violates the rights of its citizens to benefit from international disease prevention efforts, but also prevents Taiwan from contributing its expertise.
By the same token, Taiwan has a lot to gain by recognizing that it shares in the world's obligation to the millions of people fleeing persecution -- just as it shares in the responsibility to fight pandemics and combat global warming. All of these issues transcend political goals and incorporate values that are part and parcel of a mature democracy.
What will happen to Wu -- and whether his claims will be given fair consideration -- remains unclear. Without an asylum law already in place, even if the council does hear him out and concludes he would face persecution if returned to China, it may decide to put him back on a plane to Thailand, where his flight to Taiwan originated, to fend for himself.
The draft, meanwhile, faces a long, drawn-out process of cross-party negotiations and legislative debate before it can become law. A similar draft last year never made it to bat on the legislative floor. With political wrangling blocking dozens of important bills in any given legislative session, the law could easily be years in the making. Unless the next legislature learns to lift national concerns above party goals, Taiwan will have a long wait before it begins fulfilling its obligations to refugees.