TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) " A Chinese dissident who abandoned his tour group while in Taiwan said he will apply for political asylum by Tuesday in hopes of staying on the self-governing island to promote democracy on the mainland.
Zhang Xiangzhong said in an interview Monday that he hoped Taiwanese officials would take a "tolerant" view toward his appeal, but acknowledged there were legal hurdles.
"I want to tell them that Taiwan's spirit represents the Chinese people," Zhang said. "They don't have an asylum policy, but I hope they will be tolerant."
Chang Hsiao-yueh, minister of Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council, said at a Cabinet hearing Monday that the island does not offer political asylum to Chinese citizens although they sometimes offer permits for long-term residence on a "case-by-case basis."
Zhang's case could further exacerbate cross-strait tensions weeks after China detained a Taiwanese pro-democracy activist Lee Ming-che during a trip to the mainland. Cross-strait relations have been near an all-time low since the election of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, whose Democratic Progressive Party has advocated for Taiwan's formal independence. China cut off contacts with Taiwan's government in June, five months after Tsai was elected.
Zhang told The Associated Press that he was inspired to defect after hearing about Lee's story and how his wife, Lee Ching-yu, defied Chinese government warnings and attempted to fly to the mainland to search for her husband.
Zhang, 48, was previously jailed for three years for participating in a mainland civil rights movement called the New Citizens' Movement, which was backed by prominent legal scholars, businessmen and artists.
Zhang said he did not fully make up his mind to defect until after he arrived in Taiwan on an eight-day tour package. Zhang said he realized that Taiwan was the inheritor of the Chinese people's spirit and culture after he toured historical archives. Yet, it was a seemingly mundane, everyday gesture that finally swayed him: He encountered respectful drivers on Taiwan's streets.
"I asked myself, when will we ever be like that in the mainland?" said Zhang, who added that the international image of mainland Chinese suffered relative to other Asians because of China's political system.
The Global Times, a state-run tabloid, on Monday dismissed Zhang's defection as "ideological antics" and pointed out that he had previously been arrested for disrupting social order.
"If Taiwan is willing to accept Zhang Xiangzhong, the mainland shouldn't necessarily be bothered by his behavior or his crazy talk," said the commentary, which later appeared to have been removed from the paper's website. "And if Taiwan wants to accept more dissidents like him, the mainland might as well also turn a blind eye."
Shih reported from Beijing.