Stranded at Narita Airport by a Failing State?

December 21, 2009 Updated: October 1, 2015

Chinese human rights activist Feng Zhenghu wears a shirt with his appeal written on it as he speaks with an AFP reporter at the Narita International Airport, near Tokyo, on Nov. 12.  (Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty Images)
Chinese human rights activist Feng Zhenghu wears a shirt with his appeal written on it as he speaks with an AFP reporter at the Narita International Airport, near Tokyo, on Nov. 12. (Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty Images)
The drama of Mr. Feng Zhenghu’s being stranded at Japan’s Narita Airport has been widely reported as that of a man without a country, as in the Viktor Navorski character in Steven Spielberg’s movie “The Terminal.” But this conventional wisdom misses how Feng’s plight may in fact be due to profound changes in the politics of China.

China, unlike Navorski’s home country, is in no danger of disappearing off of the map. But whether China’s regime is still able to rule China and may be in danger of disappearing are questions we should all be asking.

On June 6 when Feng, a Shanghai resident who had visited Japan for medical treatment, tried to take the flight back to Shanghai, he had no idea that he would become a focus of international media and public opinion. The airline refused to allow him to board because of “orders from the Shanghai authorities.”

He has since tried a total of eight times to return home. Four times, airlines refused to allow him to board; the other four times he arrived at Shanghai airport but was thensent back by Shanghai police in customs.. The last time he was sent back, on Nov. 4, Feng refused to enter Japan.

Since then, Feng has been living on a couch near an immigration checkpoint in the south wing of Terminal 1 of Narita Airport.

Every day, thousands of passengers pass by Feng and see his home-made banners, some made on white T-shirts. One of the banners says in Chinese, Japanese, and English “China Human Rights” and “Return to China.” The airline waitresses give him a smile when passing by, the passengers hand him some food. Activists from Hong Kong have flown to Japan so that they can give him some supplies and show their support at Narita Airport.

Who Fears Feng Zhenghu?

Feng was not a born activist. He holds a Master’s Degree in Economics from Fudan University, one of the top universities in China. After studying in Japan for 7 years, he went back to China to start his own consulting business. In 2000, he was arrested and sentenced to three years in prison for his publication “Japanese Companies in Shanghai”—a listing of Japanese companies doing business in China.

Why he was arrested and sentenced is not clear. He was convicted of “illegal business activities,” charges he says are trumped up. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese are wrongfully accused and sentenced each year, without cause. Feng’s arrest may have just been part of a general trend.

But the experience of being wrongfully imprisoned turned Feng into a rights activist. Upon release, he continuously appealed for a reversal of his sentence. He met many others who were trying to appeal their own cases, and he started to help the others.

Feng started publishing “Brief on Oversight” and “Witness to judicial injustices in Shanghai” in 2007, pamphlets that call attention to cases being appealed and demand that the Chinese regime obey the Chinese Constitution.

According to Ms. Shum Ting, the Chairperson of the League of Chinese Victims, there are about twenty million Chinese citizens currently appealing and searching for justice for their cases. What makes Feng different from most of these twenty million is that he is well educated, has many connections, is a good organizer, and a good writer. And he has shown himself always ready to help others. Finally, he is not afraid of speaking out.

But Feng can hardly be called a dissident. He has never challenged the Chinese Communist Party regime. He defends rights by appealing to the system to follow its own rules. His work has been non-political.

The Shanghai authorities, though, wanted to be rid of him.

Who Controls China’s Customs?

A border and the customs entry points that enforce that border are among the most fundamental elements that make a country a state. Customs are always controlled at the national level.

But Feng believes, and most people who have examined his case believe, that the Shanghai authorities have denied him his right as a Chinese citizen to re-enter China. But the Shanghai authorities only have local jurisdiction.

Either the Shanghai authorities requested the state officils to stop Feng at customs, or the Shanghai authorities directly ordered the customs officials at Shanghai Airport to do their bidding.

In either case, if the local authorities can request that customs do their dirty work for them or the local authorities can directly order the customs located on their territory to do what they say, then the state has lost control of its border. And a regime that doesn’t control its own border has reached a dead end.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Heng He
Heng He is a commentator on Sound of Hope Radio, China analyst on NTD's "Focus Talk," and a writer for The Epoch Times.