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Why China Refuses to Arrest its 'Most Wanted' Dissidents

Wu'er Kaixi is homesick.

Wu'er Kaixi, an exiled Chinese dissident and the "second most wanted" man among the student activists of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest, has tried to turn himself in to the Chinese government four times. Each time he has received the same, utterly baffling response from the communist regime: We don't want you. His most recent attempt to return to his native China, this time via Hong Kong, ended with his deportation to Taiwan on Monday.

Wu'er Kaixi is number two on a list of Tiananmen's "21 Most Wanted" -- former student activists who, in 1989, helped to organize massive political demonstrations that ended with a brutal government crackdown in Tiananmen Square. The 21 are purportedly sought for arrest but are also, ironically, prohibited from returning to China -- even if they, like Wu'er Kaixi, have every intention of turning themselves over to they authorities.

In a recent interview with Taiwan-based reporter Klaus Bardenhagen, Wu'er Kaixi characterized exile as a form of "mental torture," saying that he was prepared to face the consequences of returning to Beijing, including jail time, if it meant he would be able to see his parents again. (They are prohibited from traveling abroad.) Instead he lives in a neo-authoritarian netherland, full of desire to go home to the country seeking his arrest but which also refuses to arrest him. 

Wu'er Kaixi has tried repeatedly to go home. Chinese authorities have turned him away each time: in Macau in 2009, the Chinese embassy in Tokyo in 2010, and the Chinese embassy in Washington, D.C. in 2012. Last year, he and five other Tiananmen exiles led by Wang Dan -- who is No. 1 on the most wanted list -- petitioned the Chinese government to allow political exiles to return to China. The appeal read, in part:

"We believe that returning to one's motherland is an inalienable right of a citizen. As rulers, you should not deprive us of our most fundamental human right because of differences in political views between you and us.... We are willing to abide by the principles of openness and good faith to engage in dialogues with the relevant government departments to discuss concrete ways to solve this problem."

The Chinese government seems to favor leaving dissidents in exile, where their influence on domestic politics is minimal or null, over leaving them in jail at home. Some of China's exiled dissidents, such as Wei Jingsheng, have faded into obscurity after leaving the country. Better to keep dissidents abroad where they have limited influence, the thinking goes, than to allow them to stir up trouble through a dramatic return to their homeland. Wu'er Kaixi, for his part, seems to be valiantly fighting irrelevance with his many highly-publicized surrender attempts. That campaign has kept him -- and Tiananmen's legacy -- in the news for years.

In the video below, he suggests that China's reluctance to re-admit Tiananmen exiles is rooted in concerns over its public image. "If I go back to China, I would be another headache for them," he told Bardenhagen. "Can they take it? Yes." More difficult for authorities, he argues, would be facing the political consequences of sentencing and jailing an influx of exiled dissidents who are, for now, conveniently out of sight, out of mind.

PATRICK LIN/AFP/Getty Images

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