Banned by China, he languishes in Tokyo airport

By John M. Glionna and Catherine Makino
Los Angeles Times / November 27, 2009

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He is a man caught between two countries, a political protester who has stubbornly steeled himself inside the sterile purgatory of Tokyo’s Narita International Airport.

Each day, Feng Zhenghu sits on a bench in front of the Japanese customs booths, calmly looking on as tens of thousands of arriving passengers pass him by, resigning himself to residence in a diplomatic no-man’s land.

He refuses to pass through government customs because that would mean entering Japan - something Feng has decided he simply will not do. He wants to go home to China.

Eight times since June, the 55-year-old activist has been rebuffed by Chinese officials in attempts to reenter his homeland.

On four occasions, airlines in Japan didn’t allow him to board. On four others, he got as far as Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport before being dispatched back to Tokyo.

During the last go-round Nov. 2, a defiant Feng drew the line: Arriving back at Narita, he refused to enter the country.

Feng, an economist turned human rights author and blogger, was sentenced in 2000 to three years in a Chinese prison for writing a book that he said criticized Chinese regulations against foreign company investment.

He also believes a speech he once gave criticizing the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown is being held against him.

Still, he says, officials cannot banish him on mere pretense. Speaking on his cellphone recently, Feng said he would prefer to languish in a Chinese jail than live as a free man in Japan or anywhere else.

Although he is angry at his government, Feng misses his homeland - his family, friends, the feel of the place he has spent most of his life.

“I just want to go home,’’ he told a reporter in a face-to-face interview, tears welling in his eyes as he discussed his desire to return to China. “I’m Chinese. Why can’t I go home? I didn’t do anything illegal. I just wrote a book that didn’t meet with the regulations of the Chinese government.’’

Feng’s plight is reminiscent of the Tom Hanks character in Steven Spielberg’s 2004 film, “The Terminal.’’ But this unlikely sojourner has no access to food courts or hot showers.

He has kept a lonely vigil at the south arrival wing of Narita’s hyper-busy Terminal One. Many workers and travelers don’t even know he’s there, staging a protest in a nation where, traditionally, few people question authority.