TAIPEI (Reuters) - A Chinese activist who had reportedly intended to seek asylum in Taiwan has flown back to China voluntarily, a Taiwan official said on Wednesday, averting a potential diplomatic confrontation.
Immigration officials had apprehended and questioned Zhang Xiangzhong, after he left his tour group last week, and authorities were deciding whether to deport him or risk fraying relations with Beijing by granting him sanctuary as a political refugee.
Prior to his apprehension, local media had reported that Zhang intended to seek political asylum in Taiwan.
After discussions with immigration officials, Zhang decided to return to China, said the vice-chairman of the Mainland Affairs Council (MAC), Taiwan's China policy-making body.
Officials declined to say whether the 48-year-old Zhang had formally requested asylum, but his case comes at an awkward time as ties with China have been strained since President Tsai Ing-wen took office in Taiwan last year.
"He has agreed (to leave Taiwan)... He was on board a plane back to China departing at 0210 GMT," said Chiu Chui-cheng, vice chairman of the MAC.
According to media reports Zhang was released in 2016 after spending three years in jail for his involvement in the New Citizens’ Movement in China, a group that advocates working within the system to press for change and clean up corruption.
Defections from China to Taiwan are fairly infrequent as Beijing keeps a tight control on dissidents leaving the country and few would risk sea-crossing over the heavily patrolled strait dividing the mainland from the island.
Wary of provoking Beijing's ire, Taiwan does not officially offer asylum to Chinese, but occasionally allows "long term" stays for political refugees. There are currently about 10 such cases in Taiwan.
China regards Taiwan as a wayward province and it has never renounced the use of force to bring the island back under its control, while proudly democratic Taiwan has shown no interest in being run by Communist Party rulers in Beijing.
Defeated Nationalist forces fled to Taiwan in 1949 after losing a civil war with the Communists, but since a thaw began in the 1980s cross-straits investment has flourished. Relations ran into problems last year following the election of Tsai, whose Democratic Progressive Party espouses formal independence.
Reporting by Faith; Editing by Michael Perry