Countdown to Deportation of Chinese Dissidents Worries Loved Ones

Lisa Zhang and husband Song Zhiyu on the day of their wedding. Lisa says it is the only photo she has of them together – all others were on a laptop destroyed when he swam for safety from a boat he'd hoped would get him to New Zealand.

BANGKOK — Lisa Zhang is counting the days. Ten remain before her husband, now in police custody, faces deportation back to China, the homeland they fled two years ago. Zhang said Wednesday she is losing hope.

Song Zhiyu has been held by police since early March, when he and eight other Chinese dissidents, no longer feeling safe in Thailand, sailed from Pattaya in hope of reaching New Zealand. Instead, a heavy storm disabled their boat, and they swam to shore in southern Thailand. Six of the eight were eventually freed, but Song Zhiyu and one other remain imprisoned on charges of being in the country illegally.

“We are very afraid because if we’re deported back, the Chinese government will persecute us very seriously,” she said in a recent interview.


Song, like his wife, practices Falun Gong, a spiritual movement long at odds with Chinese authorities. He’s currently held in the southern province of Chumphon where their boat broke down, along with Gu Qiao, the wife of the Chinese political activist who led their exodus.

Lives Interrupted for Asylum Seekers Facing Desperation, Detention in Thailand

On April 22, both Chinese nationals were denied bail. Lisa Zhang said the Chumphon provincial court ordered deportation proceedings begin immediately but relented and gave them a one month reprieve.

That extension is due to expire in 10 days, which is when Lisa Zhang’s husband could be deported back to China.

Lisa Zhang said she has visited the UNHCR office in Bangkok time and again during its weekly counseling hours for an update on their application. She complains she has never been told anything more than to continue waiting until a recent visit.

“They told me if my husband was detained in prison, they cannot do anything,” said the 35-year-old woman. “I still have to go there because it is my only hope.”

Lisa Zhang said she and her family were called in for a UNHCR interview in October. She said the Chinese exile community has been uneasy ever since Bangkok forcibly deported 109 Uighurs back to China last year, along with other dissidents who have disappeared in the region.

Thailand never signed the 1951 Refugee Convention and thus does not recognize their status. There are thousands of refugees in Thailand, where their UNHCR-issued certificates are little more than paper shields.

Those without valid visas are considered lawbreakers.

“We are proceeding with the case according to the law since they were illegal immigrants,” said police Col. Withoon Palasan of Pathiu police station in Chumphon who is in charge of the case.

Asylum seekers frequently complain of poor communication from the UNHCR, which when sought for comment, lived up to its tight-lipped reputation.

Reached for comment, regional spokeswoman Vivian Tan said they would only speak off the record. After a reporter insisted on an on-the-record interview, an officer listening in unannounced interrupted the conversation to lecture a reporter on ethics.

Identifying himself as Peter, he warned that refugees and asylum seekers are sometimes unaware of the consequences of seeking publicity for their stories.

Tan, the UNHCR representative, later forwarded a general statement by email.

The resettlement process happens on a first-come, first-served basis, it said. Delays are possible because there are currently more than 6,000 active asylum applications in Thailand from 50 countries.

As for complaints from asylum seekers, “there are regular communications channels available” to them, Tan wrote in reference to the agency’s hotline and weekly counseling sessions.

Lisa Zhang said she’s never met with staff who could provide real information on her case in those sessions, only legal advisors. When she calls the hotline, either no one answers the phone or she only speaks with the Chinese interpreter.


Anxious Allegations

Last month, Chinese authorities visited the family home of Song Zhiyu in China’s Qinhuangdao city, according to Lisa Zhang. There, the officials told his father they knew exactly where his son was.

Lisa Zhang was told by her father-in-law that plainclothes officers visited the Zhiyu family home on April 21 and April 22, during which time they asked her husband’s 80-year-old father to persuade him to give up Falun Gong.

“My dad said ‘I don’t know where he is.’ The staff then said to him, ‘I can help. We already know where he is,” she said.

That visit combined with the difficulties in winning bail for her husband has Lisa Zhang convinced that Thai officials have cooperated with the Chinese government’s desire to rein in exiles abroad.

“I think they did. But I don’t have evidence,” she said last week. “Thai authorities are kind and don’t know so many tricks. We only know Chinese police lie, but now Thai police’s bad behavior and blatant lying is the same as the tricks the Chinese police always take.”

Lisa Zhang believes Chinese agents are trying to interfere. She suspects several Chinese people accompanied by a Thai interpreter who visited the dissidents at the Chumphon jail on March 7 were Chinese agents. She said they identified themselves as family members, a method she said was used in the cases of Dong Guangping and Jiang Yefei, two men deported back to China by Thailand in November.

Police flatly denied the involvement of any foreign agents, saying they were unaware of any visit on March 7.

“We were not contacted by any authorities from China,” said Col. Withoon Palasan of Chumphon’s Pathiu Police Station.

Lisa Zhang said police also asked for 50,000 baht cash before they would return the passports confiscated from her husband and Qiao.

If true, Withoon said that was news to him.

“I wasn’t aware of that,” he said. “I advise that if they want to get the passports, I recommend they contact me directly.”


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