White courtesy phone for China

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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 go 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 his attempts to reenter his homeland, with no reason being given.

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

During the last go-round, on 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 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 said, officials cannot banish him on mere pretense. Speaking on his cellphone recently, Feng said he would prefer to languish in a Chinese jail rather than live as a free man in Japan or anywhere else.


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

“I just want to go home,” he told a reporter Wednesday, tears welling in his eyes as he spoke. “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 that 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.

For 17 days now, he has kept a lonely vigil at the south arrival wing of Narita’s hyper-busy Terminal 1. Many workers and travelers are unaware he’s there, staging a protest in a nation where few people question authority.

The days are long. Feng gets to bed about midnight. He sleeps fitfully in a chair, often using his suitcase as a pillow. He rises at 6 a.m., jarred by the first passengers arriving on international flights.

On a white T-shirt, he has scrawled messages about his protest in both English and Mandarin -- pulling the garment over his luggage to create a small billboard.


One message reads, “The Chinese government is shameful.”

He uses his cellphone to accept calls and send text messages. He also keeps a diary on his computer. He hasn’t showered; instead he splashes water on his face in the restroom.

He eats only snacks -- candy, ramen noodles, cookies -- offered by well-meaning passengers and supporters.

Embarrassed airport authorities say they must follow regulations and would prefer that Feng enter Japan so they can be rid of him.

“Every day the officers gently try to coax me to leave,” he said. “They say: ‘It’s a beautiful world out there. There’s lots of good food to eat. All you have to do is walk through those doors.’ ”

For days Feng survived on tap water after Japanese officials refused to accept his money for snacks at airport eateries.

“The authorities obviously want to distance themselves,” said Yang Jianli, a fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. “At first they thought if no food or supplies were provided, he would give up and enter Japan. But they miscalculated his determination.”


Yang, a onetime Chinese political prisoner who met Feng this fall at a human rights conference in Washington, is funding a campaign to supply the activist with food and emotional support.

With Feng lodged in a high-security area between the airplane disembarkation point and immigration, airport officials will not allow non-traveling airport visitors to meet with him. The only way to reach him is to arrive via plane at the south wing of Terminal 1 and greet him at customs.

Hong Kong activist Christina Chan learned that lesson the hard way. Arriving at the north wing of the terminal, she was not allowed to see Feng.

So Yang paid her fare back to Hong Kong, where she boarded a different flight she knew would land in the south wing.

“He looks better than I thought he’d look,” Chan, a pro-Tibet student campaigner, said of Feng. “He believes that if he sticks to his struggle, they will eventually have to let him back into China.

“It’s a theme familiar to many: the right to go home again.”

Feng’s sister, Natsuki Suzuki, who lives in Japan, has not been allowed to visit her brother. But she calls him often on his cellphone.


“My brother is stubborn,” Suzuki said. “He insists there is only one way for him to go -- back to China.”

Feng, who has studied law, says he traveled to Japan from China in April after being inexplicably jailed for 41 days there. Chinese officials insisted that he could return to Shanghai in June, after the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown, he said.

But when he tried to return in mid-June, authorities blocked his path and have rejected him since, Feng said.

One day at Narita, Feng spotted a top official in the Chinese Communist Party’s international department passing by. He slipped a note to a member of his entourage but has not had a response.

Meanwhile, the sleepless nights and long days have begun to take their toll. Feng says he has started to feel weak. He has dark circles under his eyes and an open sore on his lower lip.

But he plans to stay put for as long as it takes to persuade the Chinese government to bend.


“I don’t know how long I will stay,” he said. “It all depends on the Chinese government.”


Makino is a special correspondent.