Swiss television recently carried a news feature on surveillance cameras in China. As part of the program the reporters interviewed a woman in Shanghai who explained that she had no problem with the cameras and that they actually made feel safer. To ensure that their coverage was balanced, the Swiss news team then interviewed a dissident who objected to the cameras as being intrusive.

At first sight the coverage by Swiss TV was balanced. One person interviewed expressed one opinion and the other person a different one. This, however, raised another question. How many people did those interviewed represent?

One can assume that most Chinese do not object to the pervasive presence of the surveillance cameras and are also willing to say so. One can also assume that a minority resent the presence of the cameras but most are not willing to say so. Thus while the coverage by Swiss TV was “balanced” in the sense that two opinions were expressed, it left unanswered the question as to what these opinions represented in relation to the population as a whole.

Given the absence of any impartial and independent polling survey system in China, assessing where public opinion stands is mostly a matter of guesswork. Conversely, there is one area where metrics do exist, albeit peripherally: asylum requests by Chinese abroad.

What is asylum?

According to international procedures, a person claiming asylum is defined as an “asylum seeker.” To qualify for refugee status, an asylum seeker must prove that he or she has a “well-founded fear of persecution” if returned to his country of origin for reasons that pertain to political activities, religion, ethnic origin or belonging to a specific social group.

It is generally up to the authorities of the country where the asylum seeker presented his claim to adjudicate whether it is well founded. If it is assessed positively, the asylum seeker is qualified as a “refugee.” This does not give him automatically the right to be resettled in the country where he presented his claim, but it ensures that he will not be forcibly returned to his country of origin where he is liable to suffer from persecution. Conversely, if his claim for refugee status is not considered valid, he is defined as an illegal immigrant and is subject to be repatriated to his country of origin.

On paper, the basic criterion for being recognized as a refugee is the notion of “persecution.” This should be substantive and not a matter of discomfort or economic hardship affecting a whole society. The ultimate purpose of the recognition procedure was to make a clear distinction between migrants who sought to move to improve their economic prospects and refugees who sought to move to escape persecution, with the clear understanding that asylum should not become an avenue for emigration. In practice, however, the stakes were in essence political.

During the Cold War it was a given that the Western European countries would automatically recognize as a refugee any person who succeeded in fleeing Eastern Europe. Not only would it have been politically unfeasible to repatriate him or her forcefully, but also the very nature of the Communist regimes ensured that anyone living under their rule was deemed to be persecuted. That the number of those who managed to flee was small and consisted of fellow Europeans contributed in making this policy a realistic option.

The Vietnamese boat-people crisis saw the implementation of a European solution to an Asian problem. With the exodus at its peak, the international community decided, in 1979, that all Vietnamese boat people would automatically be recognized as refugees and automatically resettled in Western countries. It was a solution that satisfied everybody. The Americans could stigmatize Vietnam as an inferno from which every citizen was entitled to flee, the leaders in Hanoi could continue to export their mostly Chinese population, the countries of Southeast Asia did not have to resettle any Vietnamese and could continue to accept them only in transit, and the boat people were guaranteed resettlement in Western countries.

While the formula adopted did assuage America’s bruised ego, it proved untenable in the long term as it ensured that the exodus would be unending. Ten years later “resettlement fatigue” had set in among the Western countries. Moreover, the economic situation inside Vietnam had stabilized and most of the Chinese had been successfully expelled. A new approach was called for.

In 1989, the international community decided that Vietnamese boat people would be from now on classified as “asylum seekers” who would then be subject to a procedure to decide if they qualified for refugee status. Those who did would be resettled and those who did not would have to return to Vietnam.

The 1989 agreement, in parallel to Vietnam’s decision to accept the return of those boat people not recognized as refugees, saw the end of the exodus from Vietnam. And it also marked the return to an international refugee-determination system that is basically still in force today.

Chinese asylum seekers

In 2018, some 150 million Chinese tourists traveled abroad. Of this number 0.02%, equivalent to some 25,450, took the opportunity of being outside China to claim asylum on the grounds that if returned to China they faced a “well-founded fear of persecution” for political, religious or ethnic reasons or for belonging to a specific social group.

While 25,450 asylum requests might be seen as a large number by some and paltry by others, it is their distribution that carries some significance.

With some 38.3 million visitors last year, Thailand was the main destination of Chinese tourists. It was followed by Japan with 31.2 million visitors, South Korea with 4.7 million, Singapore with 3.4 million, and Malaysia with 2.9 million visitors for a total number of some 80 million, representing slightly more than 50% of all Chinese tourists throughout the world.

In 2018, of the 31.2 million Chinese tourists who visited Japan, 308 applied for asylum, and none were accepted. The same pattern occurred in South Korea, where 1,199 applied for asylum and all were rejected. As for Singapore, it does not entertain asylum claims.

Conversely, of the 38.3 million Chinese tourists who visited Thailand, 38 applied for asylum and 21 were recognized. Likewise of the 2.9 million who visited Malaysia, 11 applied for asylum and all were recognized as refugees. Statistically this gives Thailand a recognition rate of more than 50% and Malaysia of 100%. However, the absolute numbers are so small as to make them insignificant. And as for the nature of the applicants, it is assumed that those who request asylum in Malaysia are Muslim Uighurs, thus facilitating their acceptance. The same applies in Thailand, where a handful of such cases were identified and then discreetly resettled in Muslim countries.

What emerges from these figures is that by and large Chinese don’t apply for asylum in neighboring Asian countries, and these countries don’t want either to be burdened with refugees from China or to become an avenue for their quest for asylum. With Africa, the Middle East and Latin America out of the picture, the end result is that some 80% of the Chinese who make an asylum request do so in developed counties, and more specifically in the US, Australia and Canada.

Refugees vs migrants

The Refugee Conventions, which have been adhered to by practically all the industrialized Western democracies, are predicated on the principle that there should be a clear distinction between a migrant who wants to move for economic reasons and a refugee who seeks to flee persecution. To implement this principle, each government has set up its own refugee-determination procedures. These procedures were set up during the Cold War and were in essence geared to deal with individual cases rather than large influxes.

With the best of intentions, governments over the subsequent decades fine-tuned them to the point where they became a bureaucratic nightmare. The end result can be a backlog that extends to two or three years, meaning that it can take up to five years to adjudicate a case.

With some 7,350 asylum requests by some 3 million Chinese visitors last year, the US, in absolute numbers, is the destination of choice for Chinese asylum requests. It is followed by Australia with 5,900 requests from some 1.4 million tourists and Canada with some 1,860 requests from some 800,000 arrivals. In terms of percentages, some 0.2% of those who arrived in the US or Canada make an asylum request, while the number for Australia is 0.4%. Coincidentally, these three countries are also the destinations of choice for Chinese emigrants.

Practically all industrialized democracies have established procedures to adjudicate asylum claims. No two countries have the same set of procedures and, especially in borderline cases, the same individual could be recognized as a refugee in one country and not in another. A case in point is Japan, where procedures are so restrictive that of the 308 claims presented by Chinese seeking asylum in 2018, not a single one was assessed positively.

For the authorities of the counties of arrival, the problem is how to distinguish between genuine claims made by asylum seekers who qualify for refugee status and bogus claims made by foreigners seeking to emigrate using the asylum system. The determining element here is the concept of “persecution,” and more specifically whether the person making the asylum claim would be subject to persecution if returned to his or her country of origin.

While politics, either explicit or unspoken, plays a role in the status-determination process, one cannot simply refute wholesale the fact that the procedure, at least in the three main countries of destination – the US, Canada and Australia – is focused on trying to generate decisions that are both coherent and consonant with a minimum of ethical standards.

This demands that the government officials tasked with implementing the procedure have not only a solid knowledge of conditions in the country of origin but also a degree of cultural sensitivity that permits them to assess how these condition impact those who present an asylum claim. This often turns into a cat-and-mouse scenario in which an asylum seeker will present his case in a way that will impress his interlocutor. With politicians. church groups, academics and lawyers joining the fray. the whole process can become an unending convoluted exercise.

Thus, for decades, pressure groups have been trying, albeit unsuccessfully, to have the “one-child policy” equated with persecution. Likewise, law firms in the US have been identified as providing for a fee tutoring for asylum seekers that would have enabled them to claim that they were Christians or members of Falun Gong and thus subject to persecution if returned to China.

Given the complexity of the issue combined with the prevailing political climate and the insularity of those administering the determination procedure, it is not surprising that the recognition rates of Chinese asylum seekers in the US and in Canada stands at around 42%. This is in sharp contrast to Australia, where the rate is 3.4%. Given that the profiles of the respective asylum seekers is in essence the same, and that Australia has one of the world’s largest intakes of refugees in relation to its population, one can realistically assume that the discrepancy is due to Australia having a better sensitivity to conditions in the country of origin and thus a procedure more attuned to identifying bogus asylum claims.

The extent to which 150 million Chinese tourists represent a fair sampling of the overall Chinese population is a moot point. However, considering that the cost of travel abroad, especially as part of a tour group visiting a neighboring Asian country, is not by current Chinese standards exorbitant, one can realistically assume that the group represents a fair sampling of China’s up-and-coming middle class.

Conversely, what is not a moot point is that, under whatever angle it is looked upon, the fact that asylum requests by this group is statistically insignificant carries its own conclusion.