“Terminal Man” Returns to China

Activist Feng Zhenghu, who staged a three month protest at Tokyo’s Narita airport against China’s refusal to allow him to enter the country, has now returned home to Shanghai. The Financial Times talked to him about his experience:

A week after his rare success in facing down Chinese authorities who had barred him from his own country, Feng Zhenghu is still savouring one quiet domestic pleasure – the ability to turn off the light when he goes to sleep.

…“Now my days and nights are separated,” Mr Feng says. “Being able to switch off the light at night really makes you feel at home.”

After more than half a dozen failed attempts, Mr Feng was finally able to return to China after his strange sojourn at Narita drew international media attention.

Mr Feng had refused to pass through Narita immigration into Japan in outrage at being denied his right to return to his motherland. He turned his time in the clean but spartan Narita hall into an effective protest and ended it only after visits by Chinese diplomats persuaded him that Shanghai authorities would not block his next attempt to go home.

Such victories have been rare in recent years, however, amid a series of setbacks for campaigners for better protection of legal rights and greater political freedoms.

On the New York Review of Books blog, Perry Link writes about the significance of Feng’s protest for other Chinese exiles:

Why did Feng do all this? To call attention to a method of repression that has long been used by the Beijing government, yet has until now attracted little notice. For decades Chinese authorities have used their control of permission to cross the Chinese border—in either direction—as a device to extract compliance from people, including even Westerners. Chinese citizens who are deemed troublesome have been denied passports, meaning they cannot leave China. Dissidents who are living abroad have had their passports confiscated when they bring them to a Chinese consulate for renewal, leaving them “locked” outside China.

Exiled dissidents who really need to go home—because a loved one is ill or has died, for example—have negotiated temporary returns, but only under strict conditions spelled out by the authorities: one must fix an itinerary in advance, must not speak in public, may not see certain people, and must tolerate constant surveillance. The police invite you for “chats,” serve you tea, and gently remind you that there is no reason that they need to continue being gentle. When Su Xiaokang’s father, who had been a prominent Communist, died a few years ago, Su, who lives in exile in Delaware, was allowed to travel home but not to attend the funeral; he could view his father’s body only in private.

Some elderly dissidents, such as Yu Haocheng and Su Shaozhi, have negotiated permanent returns in exchange for silence on political matters (a promise that Yu, who signed Charter 08, did not keep very well). Others have “earned” the right to go home by providing information to the police. Some have refused deal-making of any kind, and of those a few, such as Liu Binyan and Wang Ruowang, have died in exile. One of Liu’s last wishes was that at least his cremated ashes be sent back to his beloved China, and his family members went to considerable lengths of secrecy to be sure that it got done. (They were unsure whether even the ashes of a non-compromiser might be blocked at the border.)

In view of this history, Feng Zhenghu’s principle that “you have a right to go home” will, if it holds up, directly affect many other cases. The very day after Feng announced his victory, I heard from a prominent critic of the Chinese government that she will proceed with plans to travel abroad since she is now confident that she cannot be forcibly barred from returning.

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