ASIA : Court Rejects China Activist's Request for Asylum in Japan : Ex-student Zhao Nan loses his longstanding appeal. But Tokyo may be quietly letting pro-democracy dissidents stay anyway.


Four years ago, Japan's minister of justice rejected an appeal for political asylum from Zhao Nan, 44, a pro-democracy Chinese dissident. Now the Tokyo District Court has added its rejection of the former student's attempt to gain refugee status.

Zhao, his Japanese lawyers and the Japan chapter of Amnesty International all condemned the government and the court for failing to abide by the International Covenant on Political Refugees.

Yet it is becoming increasingly clear that Zhao and other Chinese dissidents here have actually obtained what Japan is formally denying them.

Officials refuse to comment for the record, but Justice Ministry actions indicate that Japan decided long ago to allow Chinese dissidents to remain here to avoid persecution in China but keeps silent about the decision to avoid offending Beijing.

The issue dates from 1989, when pro-democracy demonstrations in Tian An Men Square stirred up anti-Beijing activities among Chinese students in Japan. A month after the bloody June 3-4, 1989, crackdown in Beijing, the Group of Seven industrial democracies, including Japan, promised at a Paris summit to extend visas or grant permanent residence to Chinese dissidents in each of their countries.

Japan, however, took no action until 1991, when the justice minister rejected Zhao's bid for political refugee status. At the time, Zhao and other Chinese dissidents here held visas valid until their student status ended.

Now, 48 Chinese dissidents, including Zhao, have been given a special "designated activities" visa that can be renewed every six months, Zhao said. The first of those visas was issued in 1991, shortly after Zhao lost his early bid for political asylum.

An intentionally vague status provided by law--"residence shall be specifically permitted under humanitarian and other special circumstances"--allows the Justice Ministry to grant the visa without certifying its holder as a political refugee.

But Zhao complained that Japan's continuing refusal to grant refugee status denies Chinese dissidents legal protection against deportation.


"When I apply for an extension of my visa, the immigration officer could say that conditions have changed in China, claim that it's safe for me to go back and refuse to renew my visa," Zhao said in explaining why he would appeal the Tokyo District Court ruling against him.

Government secrecy conceals the way applications for political asylum are handled, said Makoto Iwai of the Japan chapter of Amnesty International. And Tokyo's refusal to criticize China's human rights policy gives no assurance that the Justice Ministry will continue to protect Chinese dissidents in Japan, Iwai added.

Most of all, Amnesty International has found evidence of numerous government attempts to dissuade foreigners from applying for political refugee status to avoid being forced to make rulings on asylum, he said.

In fighting Zhao's appeal of the justice minister's ruling denying him refugee status, government lawyers refused even to debate whether Zhao qualified as a political refugee. Instead, they argued only that he had failed to meet a 60-day deadline for filing for asylum, and the court accepted that procedural argument.

Zhao's chances of winning refugee status appear dim. All 263 asylum-seekers who have appealed rejection of refugee status since a Refugee Recognition Act became law in 1982 have failed, Amnesty reported.


But the possibility of deportation appears equally remote. Although Zhao complained that Japan has refused to give refugee status to any Chinese, he acknowledged that he knew of no expulsion of a Chinese dissident.

Although Zhao's pro-democracy activities in China date back to 1978--and include a 1982-84 detention in a labor camp--Chinese authorities permitted him to travel to Japan for language studies in 1988 in exchange for an agreement that he would not engage in political activities here.

But in May, 1989, Zhao joined other Chinese here in sending messages and money to students demanding democratic reforms.

Zhao is now chairman of the Japan chapter of the Paris-based Federation for a Democratic China, which Beijing has branded a "counterrevolutionary organization." Membership is punishable by up to 15 years' imprisonment in China.

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