Han Dongfang's long march

When China takes over Hong Kong, this man will be there. He is a man the Chinese fear because he always tried to be a good soldier. He has a terrible tale to tell and, mad as it may seem, he wants to go home to tell it. By Jojo Moyes
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Indy Lifestyle Online
There are no clues on the face of Han Dongfang that he nearly lost his life in a Chinese prison. His healthy complexion belies the fact that he lost a lung to TB, while his easy, unusually open manner is not one you would associate with someone tortured so severely that half his body went numb.

There is a charisma about the handsome, 34-year-old former railway worker; the unconscious charisma of someone who has suffered. But it is hard to believe, when you look at him, talk to him about his children, watch him eating a fried breakfast and talk about his late night, that here is a man considered so dangerous by the Chinese government that they will not even allow him into the country.

If you were looking for a man who viewed 30 June and the Chinese takeover of Hong Kong with fear in his heart, you would expect Han to be that man; the former protest leader of Tiananmen Square has terrible memories and should have terrible fears. And yet, this man, who for the past four years, since he returned from the United States, has been living on Lamma, an idyllic island off Hong Kong, cannot wait to be Chinese again. Rather than escape to sanctuary on the other side of the world, Mr Han has made repeated and unsuccessful attempts to go back to China. For him, Lamma is not a safe haven but a jumping-off point from where he can return to China. His suffering as a poor man, a soldier and a worker under Deng Xiaoping's regime has filled him only with the desire to help and represent his fellow Chinese from within.

As Western governments rush to provide homes for Hong Kong's remaining 45-odd political dissidents before the handover, saving them from incarceration, punishment, and in some cases, death, Han Dongfang is looking the other way. For him July 1 is the day he goes home.

Han was born in Beijing to a "very poor" family. After the family split, his mother, a construction worker, took a second job as housekeeper. It was not an easy childhood. "The teachers taught us to learn from Lai Fung, the model soldier. But I never had any justice. They hated us poor because we had nothing to give them.

"In the army we didn't have enough food. They told us 'times are difficult'. They always told us to tighten our belts," he says. The men, although hungry, complied.

It was then that Han experienced the moment of revelation and revulsion which has coloured his life ever since.

He was in charge of 10 soldiers, and had asked his officers for the use of a desk - a request repeatedly denied, because "there were too many files inside it". He decided to use the desk anyway. What he found when he opened the drawer changed his view of China forever.

"Inside I found not files but plates, with leftover chicken bones and meat. You could not afford this on an officer's salary." He began to open other drawers; they were full of stacks of old plates, covered in food.

He called two men to remove the desk from the room, and into the yard. "I took the desk out and opened up the drawers and placed them, one at a time, on the top. The soldiers looked at them and then looked at me. They were like this," he says, dropping his jaw.

"Then I asked our leader, 'Are these your files? I asked for the desk for men to write letters and you were eating'. I said 'Now I understand why we do not have enough food'."

The soldiers wanted to attack the officers. Han stopped them but he was left in no doubt that his life had taken a turn. "Afterwards the officer said, 'OK, Han Dongfang, you watch out for yourself'." Han was 17.

Han remained in the army for some time, but then left and worked for several years as a railway worker in Beijing.

One evening in 1989 he was with his wife, travelling through Beijing on a bus to their home, when they saw a large group of people gathered in Tiananmen Square. He joined the protesters and was swiftly elected to become a leader. He decided to allow himself to be publicly named, though of course he was in no doubt as to the potential cost. "During that time you're so excited, you say, 'This is about our fundamental rights. I'm ready if one day we need to go to jail ... I feel confident. I believe everything I'm doing is right'," Han says.

And he knew what prison meant. He had been a member of the People's Army Police, watching the prison wall for escapers. "I hadn't seen police officers beat up prisoners inside but I had heard that they did it. But I said OK, I will go to jail."

After the massacre in Tiananmen Square, he knew he had no choice but to turn himself in. A bizarre exchange ensued.

"I told the guard my name was in the newspaper, and that they wanted me here. The guard said 'Oh yes, of course, come in please, it's great that you came.' Han realised that if the guard was able to say that he had given himself up, rather than been arrested, it suggested he was repentant.

"So," said Han, "I asked him to beat me up."

The soldier refused. "He said, 'It's OK, come in'. They didn't want to make trouble in front of the gate." But Han refused, knowing any "surrender" would be seen as symbolic.

Eventually, after extensive "negotiations" with the guards, he was taken to a detention centre. He admits that had he known then what he knows now, he would not have been quite so enthusiastic.

The authorities wanted him to admit on camera that he had been wrong. "It was very important for them to have a leader of Tiananmen Square saying 'I was guilty, I was wrong'."

During his first week in captivity he was asked only one question: Why did he give himself up? "I said I didn't. They said I did. I said, 'What does give up mean? It means give up with your mind, not with your feet.' I told them don't ask me the same question again. I told them 'I will give you another answer but it will be a lie. I didn't give you my mind'."

The pressure began to mount. At first they showed him newspaper reports of executions, then they kept him awake around the clock, shining bright lights at him so that he had to count the seconds to keep himself from buckling.

"They said, 'This is the only opportunity for you to save your life. I did get frightened. Of course I wanted to save my life. But I said, 'I don't want to lie to anyone, including you'."

At the end of the week, Han's interrogation ended. He was told he had forfeited his opportunity to live. "I said OK, but my heart stopped a little bit. I'm not a hero."

During the next month in jail, he believed he was going to die. He became very depressed and felt guilty about leaving his wife, who would be penalised, and sad that he would never get the opportunity to help his family. In his next life, he vowed, he would be better.

He was repeatedly interrogated about the names of his student colleagues - names he said he either did not know or had forgotten. He ate wherever possible, keen to keep his strength, but found that with the tension his stomach began to constrict, and he began throwing up (his interrogators said he had "taught" himself to do it). Then he asked for medical treatment.

"This made them angry. It means that you still believe you are a human being. But I still believed I was a human being."

Eventually, unable to walk, he was taken to the doctor's office.

The doctor seemed unusually friendly. "He said, 'OK, Han Dongfang. I'm sure that after today you won't ask for any more medical treatment because I have a special form of acupuncture, passed down for several generations of my family'."

With that, Han was abruptly held down by nurses. The doctor took Han's hand, pulled it in front of Han's face, and slowly passed a nine-inch acupuncture needle from one side of his hand, behind his palm, through to the other, wiggling it from side to side. Then he did it again. "During that time he asked me questions with a very warm smile. He said, 'Are you okay, everything's fine, do you want more medical treatment again?'" Han's expression, normally serene, grows agitated with the memory.

'I wanted to keep my 'face' [composure]. If you give that up you will be totally broken. After that you will be an animal," he says. "But finally I could not help myself. So I gave a big laugh. I felt like I was mad but I looked straight at his face and laughed a big laugh, very loud. Immediately he took the needle out. It was so painful that I could not feel the left side of my body."

Shortly afterwards, Han was placed in a small room, containing 20-odd prisoners all suffering from TB or hepatitis. "A police officer said to me outside, 'You never understand what cooperation and kindness are. After this room you will understand'."

He soon did. Months later, after Han was transferred to another detention centre, he began to develop a temperature. His health rapidly deteriorated.

"Again I asked for medical treatment, because I still thought of myself as human. They refused." Eventually, almost delirious with illness, and unable to walk, he asked the other prisoners to carry him to the door. "I tried to bang on the door, which was illegal. Nobody answered. So I began to argue. I was crying, I hit on the door. I said, 'We don't have any respect for each other'. Very loud. I just said bad things with bad words. I said, 'In this life I had bad luck to become Chinese, in the next life I will be a pig or a dog, any animal except Chinese.' These were very bad things to say."

Weighing 90 pounds and unable to speak, he was finally sent to hospital and, some weeks later, unexpectedly released.

"They released me for two reasons," says Han, pragmatically. "The trade union movement had been applying pressure. Also I was dying and they didn't want me to die in jail."

After his release, US trade unions and the organisation Human Rights Watch sent Han and his wife to the US, where he underwent months of medical treatment, resulting in the removal of his diseased right lung. His two sons were born. But Han could not rest, and in 1993, only months after his lung was removed, he made his first attempt to go back to China.

"I left my wife in the US and came in secret. I asked a friend to find me a border crossing without a computer because I believed my name was on a blacklist, but wouldn't be in a policeman's mind." At a small border crossing, a guard stamped his passport, and he was suddenly back in China.

"It was really easy. I went to Guangzhou airport to get a flight up to Beijing but there were no flights, so I went to a hotel. The next morning, very early, 10 policemen knocked on my door. They came in and checked my passport. I thought I was going to jail, I had prepared for that."

But instead Han was told by an officer that he was officially exiled.

"He made me laugh. I said, 'What a joke. You can't say this to me. I'm a Chinese citizen, it's on my passport.You can send me to jail, that is within your power, but it is not within your power to send me out of the country. You're breaking the law'."

Eventually he was he was picked up bodily and thrown across the border, from where a waiting policeman took him to Hong Kong.

Han has lived on the island of Lamma ever since, publishing his China Labour Bulletin and making periodic, unsuccessful attempts to cross the border back into China, usually accompanied by hordes of local reporters.

"Chinese reporters ask me, 'You love your country so much but it doesn't love you, why do you want to go back?' I say, 'I don't love the country. There's nothing to love, it's a machine, no feelings.' I want to go back because I love the people. I was a worker like them, I know how poor they are, now I have a small opportunity to work for them, to work for myself, to change my bad feeling."

Han insists he is no threat to the Chinese government. He simply believes that without an effective voice for the workers, China is heading for trouble. Collective bargaining and negotiating would help alleviate many social problems, he says, "and make people less angry". Foreign investors should play a part in this, he says, rather than seeing China's overheated economy as an opportunity to make money from cheap labour.

"Deng Xiaoping opened the door of the country and it was good. He built a channel between China and the West but what was that for? To save the country, not save the people"n

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