Opinion

How exile Feng Zhenghu is taking on China's bullying -- from an airport

Feng Zhenghu, the activist stuck at a Japanese airport, is igniting hope to other exiled Chinese.

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A Chinese human rights activist, Feng Zhenghu, has been camping out, sleeping on a bench and surviving on handouts at the Narita International Airport in Japan since Nov. 4, 2009.

No, this is not a remake of the film “The Terminal” with Tom Hanks starring as a man with no country, it’s a real-life situation. What’s at stake are individual rights to due process and the right of Chinese citizens not to be intimidated by their own government.

Mr. Feng’s protest exposes the insecurity that is haunting the emerging superpower that is China – and is helping the international community see that this Communist government is trampling on its own laws and Constitution.

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It’s also helped inspire – and bring international attention – to the plight of hundreds of exiled Chinese in the United States, Japan, and Europe, including the author of this article, who has also been deprived of the right to go home.

Feng’s story

After the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989, Feng openly criticized the repression and was under investigation for more than a year. He studied in Japan and returned to China but was detained and sentenced to three years in prison for what he has called “trumped-up charges of illegal business activity.”

Last year, Feng visited his sister in Japan ,and when he was ready to go home to Shanghai, the Chinese government denied him entry. After eight failed attempts to return, despite having a valid visa for Japan, he has decided to protest at the airport and wait for the Chinese government to change its mind.

Others in exile

I came to the US on a Niemann Fellowship at Harvard University in 1997 and stayed to pursue an advanced degree in law. Before my Chinese passport expired in 2002, I went to have it renewed but my request was rejected. When I called to seek an explanation, an official left me a voice mail, saying that I “should be able to figure out the reason for the rejection.”

I had been imprisoned for two years in China before my arrival in the US. Certainly my leadership role in the 1989 pro-democracy movement and my ensuing criticism of the Chinese government were key contributing factors.

Consequently, I, too, have become one of many Chinese banished unjustly. In the past nine years, I have written to China’s legislature and the Chinese government. My many petitions have gone unanswered. Without a passport, I haven’t been able to travel outside the US, let alone visit my family and relatives in China.

China has effectively kept political dissidents out of the country and discouraged antigovernment activities abroad by refusing to renew passports for Chinese citizens, rejecting visa applications from activists who are naturalized American citizens or granting residents such as Feng and myself the right to leave the country but then denying them reentry.

To fight for their right to return home, affected Chinese citizens in the West have tried almost everything. They have launched petitions and staged hunger strikes and protests in front of Chinese embassies. Some have even kept silent, hoping to quietly negotiate their way back home. So far, that hasn’t worked.

In 2002, Yang Jianli, a Chinese scholar and human rights activist, used an altered passport to board a flight and managed to get back into China. He was soon captured and thrown in a Chinese jail for five years.

Before his death in 2005, exiled writer Liu Bingyan had contacted the Chinese authorities, begging to go home for cancer treatment. The government turned him down and he died in a foreign land.

Consistently met with such failure, those in exile had all but given up the fight to return home.

But, through his heroic effort, Feng has energized a “return home movement” for Chinese exiles all over the world.

He has found a perfect international venue, free of the harassment from Chinese police and free from the threat of Chinese prisons. He has attracted attention from inside as well as outside China.

At the airport, passing passengers hear about his story and give him water and food. Chinese activists from Hong Kong and the US fly in to bring supplies and offer him encouragement.

Several technology experts inside China secretly helped him set up a Twitter account so he could broadcast his situation. He has received thousands of Twitter and text messages from well-wishers throughout the world.

The Chinese government has not yet responded nor has it offered any concessions, but with the increasing media coverage the pressure is building. Significantly, the issue was brought up by reporters at a recent Chinese Foreign Ministry press conference.

It wouldn’t be too difficult to lift the ban and allow Feng to go home. What the Chinese leadership fear is that any concession regarding Feng will open a floodgate for hundreds of other Chinese like me who are stuck in a similar limbo. Allowing activists to return home could mean more threats to a regime that has been built on suppression and persecution. But since the issue has come to the forefront of human rights campaigns, inaction could pose problems for China on the international scene.

Feng’s brave efforts have ignited hope among those in exile of a change in the Chinese government. His high-profile protest will no doubt only increase. China cannot emerge as a respected international voice if those who have unjustly been forced into exile or prison continue to be a thorn in its side.

Chinese in exile must fight until the day when we are allowed to go back to our home country and reunite with our families.

Xiaoping Chen is studying for his doctorate at the University of Wisconsin Law School in Madison. He is formerly a journalist and Niemann Fellow at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.

Wen Huang translated the piece from Chinese to English.

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