Chinese dissident denied asylum fights to stay in South Korea

Yang Liwei, 56, is fighting to stay in South Korea as a political refugee, fleeing persecution in China. He is currently at Jeju International Airport, where he continues to publish his criticism of the Chinese Communist Party. Photo courtesy of Yang Liwei
Yang Liwei, 56, is fighting to stay in South Korea as a political refugee, fleeing persecution in China. He is currently at Jeju International Airport, where he continues to publish his criticism of the Chinese Communist Party. Photo courtesy of Yang Liwei

JEJU ISLAND, South Korea, April 25 (UPI) -- A Chinese dissident who was imprisoned in his native country for more than two years on charges of inciting subversion of the state has been denied asylum in South Korea, and says he can not be repatriated under threat of severe political persecution.

Yang Liwei is being held at Jeju International Airport, a tourism hub that welcomes millions to South Korea's southern resort island of Jeju every year. The 56-year-old has been in a secure room in customs since landing April 12 after fleeing China by air.


He may be destined to stay there for months as he appeals the government's denial of his application for asylum. Facing deportation, he fears returning to a Chinese prison for his online political speech, and he is asking the South Korean government to protect him under U.N. laws safeguarding political refugees.


"Over the years, I have been banned, deleted, silenced and warned countless times, but I cannot stop yearning for democracy, freedom and the rule of law," he told UPI via email. "I hope that my descendants can live in a society without fear."

According to Human Rights Watch, China operates "one of the world's most stringent censorship regimes" and human rights defenders and government critics continue to face persecution.

Chinese court documents Yang provided to UPI, show he was arrested July 24, 2018, on charges of "inciting subversion of state power" for comments he made online.

The court documents state he ran an account on the platform then known as Twitter, now X, on which he "continuously posted or forwarded attacks on the party and state leaders." He also ran five WeChat groups "discussing radical ideas." When those accounts were taken down, he created others, the documents said.

"This court believes that the defendant Yang Liwei utilized Twitter, WeChat and other platforms to spread attacks on party and national leaders, as well as the political system of China," it said. "His actions seriously undermined the image of the party and state organs."

Yang said that during his two-year, six-month prison sentence, he was tortured, prisoners were ordered to beat him, his ribs were broken and guards threatened to withhold medical treatment and let him die.


He said he suffered from malnutrition and lumbar disc herniation, which would require surgery following his release on Jan. 23, 2021.

He told UPI he attempted to enter Jeju as a tourist with plans to later apply for asylum but was detained by customs. As he was denied entry and awaiting deportation, he applied for refugee status on the grounds that his online political speech made it dangerous for him to return to China.

On April 18, his application was rejected.

According to the immigration documents Yang provided to UPI, he failed to meet the criteria of a refugee as he did not appear to have any issues with leaving China, he deceived South Korean border officials by first stating he was visiting for tourism purposes and that he sought asylum three years after being released from prison.

The immigration document states that it is "unreasonable" to say his escape was under urgent threat, while suggesting the motivation may have been economic.

His Notice of Non-referral of Refugee Status states that his application was rejected because "there are substantial grounds to regard the applicant as a danger to the safety and public order of the Republic of Korea," and that his basis for applying for refugee status "is found to be clearly groundless."


The Ministry of Justice has yet to respond to UPI's request for comment.

Yang defended the lapse of three years from when he was released from prison to the time he fled to Jeju by stating he was unable to receive a passport from the Chinese government until last year. He also underwent and had to recover from spinal surgery, and it was after receiving the travel document that he began to plan his escape.

He continued that he also maintained his online criticism of the Chinese Communist Party after his release from prison, but was frequently summoned by local officials and was forced to move away from his home to a remote community to continue his activism.

He said that after buying his ticket for Jeju, his local Public Security Bureau contacted him. At the office, officials told him he required a stamp to leave the country, which he would not be given because of his criminal record.

He said he went to the airport anyway with "a try-it-out attitude."

There, he and his electronics -- which he scrubbed of all pictures, texts, accounts and apps -- were searched, and he was able to board his flight to Jeju.


"As I traveled, all the way until the plane landed, my heart hung heavy because I knew that until I entered in Jeju I wasn't safe, and I could be sent back at any time," he said.

He said he chose Jeju as it is visa-free for all but 23 countries, including China, whose nationals account for the largest number of international tourists to the island. According to government statistics, of the roughly 204,000 international visitors to Jeju during the first two months of the year, more than 176,000 were Chinese.

Yang has been receiving assistance in his fight from Rev. Choe Hwang-gyu, the founder of the Seoul Chinese Church who has been helping Chinese dissidents flee to South Korea for more than two decades.

Choe said Yang is seeking to file an administration lawsuit to stay in South Korea and that the Public Interest Law Center has taken up his case.

The Public Interest Law Center has yet to respond to requests for confirmation and comment, though UPI has seen emails confirming its willingness to assist Yang.

"Yang Liwei is a refugee and should be protected under the international refugee protection law," Choe told UPI in an email, referring to the Geneva Convention Related to the Status of Refugees. "As we all know, China is a country where people like Yang Liwei cannot live."


South Korea is known for having a low refugee acceptance rate, which sits at 2.1% for the first three months of this year, according to the most recent statistics from the South Korean government.

Last year, South Korea had an acceptance rate of 1.8%, following a 3.6% rate in 2022 and a 1.1% in both 2021 and 2020.

Since 1994 when it began accepting asylum-seekers, of the more than 53,000 completed refugee applications, 1,471 people have been recognized as refugees with another 2,625 receiving humanitarian residence permits.

Choe said the barrier for Chinese asylum seekers is even higher.

"No matter how clear the evidence, the Korean government has never given the Chinese who escaped to Korea refugee status," he said.

Choe added he believes the reason for refusing Chinese asylum seekers is political.

"I think that the divided Korea always cares about the Chinese government because it needs China's help for reunification and peace with North Korea," he said.

"That's a pity."

From a secure room in customs at the Jeju airport, Yang has been using his iPhone to publish a steady stream of criticism of China and updates on his situation to X.

Once using a pseudonym -- "Ecclesiastes," Yang's favorite chapter of the Bible -- and a profile picture of U.S. President Joe Biden -- "I don't think he would mind," he said -- Yang now posts from X with a profile that boasts his real name and a picture of him sunglassed and smiling.


"I used a fake name online, but after coming to Jeju I changed it to my real name because this place is not under the jurisdiction of the Chinese Communist Party," he said.

"Using my real name and photo to criticize the Chinese Communist Party for the first time felt great. I finally feel like I don't have to be afraid of them arresting me. At least for now, I am safe, and I can speak freely."

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