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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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Chinese Netizens Applaud Beijing’s Aggressive New Defense Zone

Beijing has just thrown down the latest gauntlet in a long-simmering territorial dispute with Tokyo -- and China's citizens are cheering. On Nov. 23, China's Ministry of Defense released a map showing the "Chinese Air Defense Identification Zone," a wide swath over the East China Sea, and stated China had the right to monitor and possibly take military action against foreign aircraft that come into that territory. But the area also covers territory currently administered by Japan, including the disputed Diaoyu Islands, which the Japanese call the Senkakus. 

The move sharply raised tensions not only with Japan, but with the United States: U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in a statement that he was "deeply concerned" by the "destabilizing" announcement, while Japan's Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida warned it could "trigger unpredictable events." But on China's Internet, where much of the country's political expression finds its fullest voice, the reaction is far different: Web users hailed China's move against what they derisively call the "abnormal nation" of "little Japan." And they want the United States to stay out of it. 

On Sina Weibo, China's Twitter, over 200,000 recent posts mention the air defense map; of those sampled, the vast majority lauded Beijing for defending China's sovereignty and territorial integrity. As one user wrote, the map "lets the little Japanese know that our power does not stop at the tip of our tongue." Another wrote it was time for China to "take Japan to school and teach it how to act." Netizens seemed aware that the move will probably raise tensions, but they didn't seem to mind. "The likelihood of conflict from ‘polished guns' between the two armies has just risen," Lin Zhibo, a journalist at the Communist Party mouthpiece People's Daily, wrote, invoking a Chinese term for a serious conflict emerging from a small matter. "This is a danger we must have the courage to shoulder."   

The only complaint most Chinese commenters seemed to have was timing: They wanted this to have happened earlier, as pushback against a neighbor many Chinese feel has "never reckoned" with the history of World War II, when Japan committed atrocities in China. A user called "Silent Majority" wrote, "This is a measure aimed at Japan's remilitarization," a process that seems to have begun in earnest following Shinzo Abe's Dec. 2012 election as Japanese prime minister. If China "waits for others to move before we react," the user continued, "there won't be enough time." Military analyst Yue Gang agreed. "This is the correct direction for China's strategic preparations," he wrote on Weibo. "Clenching its fists together to make a breakthrough."

So far, fulmination appears confined to the Internet. But "strident anti-Japanese sentiment expressed online can spill into the street, as we have often seen in the past," says Susan Shirk, an expert on China's international relations at UC San Diego. In Sept. 2012, conflicts over Japan's nationalization of the Senkakus incited a series of violent protests directed at Japanese consulates and carmakers in China. Something similar could happen this time.

But what's different now is the unusual amount of Chinese anger at the United States for getting involved in a dispute that, as one Weibo user wrote, has "not one cent's worth of relevance" to it. Common among anti-U.S. posts were those attacking what commenters termed the "arrogant" "Yanks," a "policeman" of the East China Sea, where the islands lie, who was "going rogue" by interfering with Sino-Japanese ties. Many felt it was time for the United States to acknowledge China's increasingly assertive role. "There will be much that 'seriously concerns' the United States in the future," wrote one user, paraphrasing Hagel's comment. "They should get used to it."

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