HONG KONG — One of the top student leaders of the 1989 Tiananmen protests again tried to surrender to Chinese authorities on Monday but was turned back from Hong Kong.
Wu'er Kaixi, number two on China's list of “most wanted” Tiananmen activists, landed at Hong Kong's airport wishing to proceed to China to visit his parents, but prepared to be arrested for his involvement in the 1989 uprising.
Speaking to VOA's Mandarin service from the airport, the dissident explained his actions were the result of China's “absurd” act of ordering his arrest, while simultaneously refusing to allow him to return to the country.
"I told them I am a wanted Chinese criminal, and wanted to turn myself in,” he said. “I haven't seen my father and mother for over 20 years. I hope the Hong Kong government can provide assistance in helping me turn myself in, and extradite me to China.”
Wu'er's effort to visit his ailing parents in mainland China refocuses attention on the events leading up to June 4th 1989, as the quarter century anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre draws closer.
The 45-year-old was accompanied from Taipei by Hong Kong Democratic legislator Albert Ho, who also advised former U.S. Intelligence contractor Edward Snowden.
After previous efforts to place himself in Chinese custody, including an attempt to enter China's embassy in Washington, D.C., in 2012, the father of two is psychologically prepared for prison, says Ho.
“This time he wanted to make his voice heard to the public," Ho said. "It was a humanitarian appeal. Although he would disagree with any punishment inflicted on him, he has overcome his fear — his desire to see his parents is overwhelming.”
After five hours in detention at the airport, local authorities refused Wu'er entry and deported him back to Taiwan. While the Hong Kong government usually extradites anyone on China's wanted list back to the mainland, Ma Ngok, associate professor of government at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, is unsurprised by the outcome.
“If he was allowed in, the Chinese government would be in a difficult situation," he said. "If they press charges against him it would spur international attention, which China does not want. [Equally], it is impossible for them to let him in and then do nothing, so they prefer not to let him back.”
Political analyst Willy Lam, who met Wu'er several times in Tiananmen Square during the 1989 uprising, recalls a charismatic leader best remembered for challenging Chinese premier Li Peng in a nationally televised debate May 18, 1989. His case, and that of other student leaders, presents a challenge for the country's new leadership, Lam observes.
“Xi Jinping will have to make a decision whether to allow these blacklisted former student leaders back to China. Two or three dozen have in fact returned after pledging they will not stir up trouble. However, for big name figures like [Wu'er] or Chai Ling, who is now in the U.S., the leadership is still very nervous.”
Although Wu'er is most closely linked to the Tiananmen uprising, Lam points out that he is also an ethnic Uighur from the restless Xinjiang region of northwest China.
“The recent car bomb in Tiananmen Square means the Chinese government is very nervous about Uighurs," he said. "But I don't think there is any association between him and organizations agitating for independence of Xinjiang. The reason he is still on the blacklist is Beijing's decision not to allow [some] student leaders back to China. Even though what took place occurred a long, long time ago, it betrays the insecurity within the Communist Party.”
While public discussion of the Tiananmen massacre may be stifled inside China, says Ho, the example of Wu'er and his peers has not been entirely forgotten.
“China is a closed society, and you never know in a closed society what is happening on the inside," he said. "It is always possible something explosive may happen. And though the government has denied people's right to know, there is still certainty a collective memory about what happened in '89.”
The legacy of June 4 continues to grow in Hong Kong, where hundreds of thousands of people are expected to attend next year's vigil honoring those who fell on Tiananmen Square a quarter of a century ago.
In recent years, in a reversal of Wu'er's intended journey, increasing numbers of mainland visitors are traveling to Hong Kong to join the commemoration.