Taiwan return of China dissident seen as bid for better ties

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FILE - In this Monday, April 17, 2017, file photo, Chinese dissident Zhang Xiangzhong is seen on a computer screen during an interview via videoconference in Taipei, Taiwan. Taiwan's return Zhang this week is seen by analysts as a possible bid by President Tsai Ing-wen to stabilize relations with Beijing. Officials in Taipei say Chinese national Zhang Xiangzhong lacked legal grounds to stay in Taiwan after breaking away from his tour group on April 13. Analysts say Tsai's administration may be hoping China responds in kind. (AP Photo/Johnson Lai, File)

TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) - Taiwan's return of a Chinese asylum seeker this week is a likely bid by President Tsai Ing-wen to stabilize relations with Beijing that have been in sharp decline since her election last year, analysts said Thursday.

Officials in Taipei said Chinese national Zhang Xiangzhong lacked legal grounds to stay in Taiwan after breaking away from his tour group on April 13. The 48-year-old civil rights activist had sought political refugee status in Taiwan, but flew back to China after agreeing that would be the best solution.

With dialogue between the two governments suspended by Beijing, analysts said that Tsai's administration may hope China sees Zhang's return as a goodwill gesture and responds in kind.

"It could be interpreted as an olive branch," said Alexander Huang, strategic studies professor at Tamkang University in Taiwan. "I think all parties are looking for opportunities."

Taiwan separated from China amid civil war in 1949, and over the past three decades has developed into a vibrant democracy with political freedoms unknown in authoritarian, communist-ruled China.

Despite that, Beijing claims sovereignty over the island and insists on eventual unification. It cut off contacts with Tsai's government in June because the president, whose Democratic Progressive Party advocates Taiwan's independence, refused to endorse Beijing's view that the island and mainland are parts of a single Chinese nation.

Tsai wants to keep relations stable with China to honor election pledges to pursue neither Taiwan's formal independence nor unification with Beijing.

Granting asylum for Zhang could have angered China, prompting it to ramp up efforts to isolate Taiwan diplomatically and punish it economically. Over the past 10 months, China has scaled back group tourism to the island by about 30 percent, blocked Taiwan's participation in international forums, sent an aircraft carrier around the island and established diplomatic relations with Taiwan's former African ally Sao Tome and Principe.

While China hasn't formally acknowledged Zhang's case, it could reciprocate without saying why, particularly in the case of Taiwanese human rights activist Lee Ming-che, who was detained in China last month under suspicion of conducting activities harming China's national security.

Chinese authorities have so far refused to provide details of the conditions under which Lee is being held or of the charges against him.

China could now be more forthcoming with information and may even release the 42-year-old Taipei university program manager, said Shane Lee, a political scientist at Chang Jung Christian University in the southern city of Tainan.

"It's probably part of a deal," Lee said. "This time, I think both sides need a way to step back down."

While neither side is like to acknowledge the existence of a quid pro quo, Zhang's return could give Beijing a reason to resolve Lee's case, said Alan Romberg, director of the East Asia program at think tank The Stimson Center in Washington.

"Although (China) will insist that it will handle Lee's case in accordance with its own laws, it is already paying a significant price in terms of public opinion in Taiwan," Romberg said.

A deputy minister for the Taiwanese Cabinet's Mainland Affairs Council responsible for China policy, Chiu Chui-cheng, denied any connection between the two cases and said Zhang returned to China voluntarily.

Zhang, who returned with his original tour group on Wednesday night, had previously been jailed by China in connection with political activities. However, Taiwan's immigration agency said his asylum request could not be accommodated under its regulations, including rules on Chinese tourists.

Taiwan stopped offering political asylum to Chinese citizens after a series of plane hijackings in the 1990s by people seeking to flee China for Taiwan, but it has offered long-term residency to some mainland Chinese.

Lin Chong-pin, a retired professor and former deputy Taiwanese defense minister, said Zhang's case was handled carefully to avoid the appearance of a quid pro quo.

Despite that, "The picture is that the two sides have some kind of tacit understanding or tacit communications," Lin said.

Huang said it now appears Beijing may be seeking to improve relations after nearly a year of frostiness, possibly to deter arguments in favor of strengthened support for Taiwan from the administration of President Donald Trump, who angered China when he spoke with Tsai by phone in December before taking office.

At this point, any sort of deal making between the sides would be a good thing, said Denny Roy, senior fellow at the East-West Center in Hawaii.

"It suggests China is willing to carry on a somewhat normal relationship beneath a facade of what they think is standing on principle," Roy said.

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Associated Press video journalist Johnson Lai contributed to this report.

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