Locked Out: Beijing’s Border Abuse Exposed

Feng Zhenghu, who had been prevented from returning to China, during his 92-day protest in Tokyo’s Narita airport (China Digital Times)

On February 12, Chinese human rights campaigner Feng Zhenghu was allowed to return to Shanghai after a 92-day stay in diplomatic limbo at the Tokyo Narita airport. Having left China last April to visit family in Japan, Feng, who is a Chinese citizen, was repeatedly denied reentry by Chinese immigration officials; when he was sent back to Tokyo last November, he remained in the Tokyo airport in protest, waiting for the Chinese government to change its mind. The international press has portrayed Feng as a solitary figure, pursuing an admirable if somewhat flamboyant quest for his personal rights. But the point of Feng’s protest goes much, much deeper than the fate of one man, and Feng hopes that the world will understand why.

Feng’s tactics have been unusual, but his problem is by no means new. On October 15, 2009, Li Jianhong, a Chinese citizen and vocal critic of the Beijing government, was blocked from entering China at the Luohu rail station near Shenzhen upon return from a trip to Sweden. A week later Jia Jia, a Chinese scientist and democracy advocate who had been in New Zealand, was arrested upon arrival at the Beijing airport and held for interrogation. Incidents such as these have made other Chinese free thinkers reluctant to leave their country, lest they be prevented from going home.

For years the Chinese government has kept blacklists of Chinese citizens in exile who are to be subject to “special treatment” by police if they attempt to travel to China. Human Rights Watch obtained one of these lists in 1994 and published it in a January 1995 report. The names on the lists were of well-known political dissidents, including highly respected figures such as Liu Binyan, Su Xiaokang, and Zheng Yi. They fell into three categories: those to be immediately arrested as criminals; those to be refused entry and sent back to the country from which they had entered; and a third group to be handled “according to circumstances” (which meant detention until authorities decided what to do).

Feng Zhenghu went to visit his sister who lives in Motoyawata, Japan, in April 2009. When he attempted to return in June to Shanghai—where his wife, brother, and hospitalized mother are living—he was refused entry and sent back to Japan. He tried seven more times with the same result. On his eighth try, he decided that enough was enough. The law was on his side, he felt. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (which the Chinese government has signed but has not ratified) states that “no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of the right to enter one’s own country.” The UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights says (article 13) that “everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country,” and China’s own constitution declares “restriction of citizens’ personal freedom” is unlawful (article 37).

Last November 4, again rebuffed at the Shanghai airport, Feng was ordered to take the next All Nippon Airways (ANA) flight back to Japan. When he refused to board, Chinese police, assisted by ANA personnel, physically forced him onto the plane and into a seat. Upon arrival in Tokyo, Feng refused to go through immigration to enter Japan. He remained in an airport corridor for 92 days, living on the donations of sympathetic travelers and communicating with the world by cell phone. With assistance from supporters, he published his news and his thoughts on Twitter and Chinese-language websites. He criticized ANA for serving as accomplices of the Chinese police; he satirized Chinese diplomats for sending him a message, through his brother, that he should consider the humiliation he was causing the motherland and not let himself be “used by hostile foreign forces.” On January 30, he arrived at an understanding with Chinese authorities that he would end his vigil in return for assurances that he would be allowed to go back to China after spending a few days in Japan. Chinese authorities apparently concluded that Feng’s vigil was costing more to their image than it was gaining them in security.

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. (I withhold her name to avoid compromising her situation.) But even cases like hers will be few in comparison with the much larger number of people—at least in the millions—who have been indirectly affected by the Chinese government’s consistent message over many years that simply speaking out about basic rights can lead to denial of a passport or forced exile. This consequence has come to be assumed by many Chinese people, as if it were simply part of the natural order of things. By challenging such an understanding, Feng Zhenghu’s assertion that a citizen has a “right” to cross a border has profound implications. Here is one example where a single person may truly have done a great deal of good.

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