NARITA, Japan (AP) — Feng Zhenghu has been camping out at Tokyo’s international airport for 50 days, sleeping on a blue plastic bench and surviving on handouts of crackers and noodles from passers-by.
The Chinese rights activist whiles away the hours reading and watching wistfully as other travelers come and go — a situation reminiscent of “The Terminal,” the movie about a stateless man stuck at New York’s Kennedy Airport.
But unlike the film character played by Tom Hanks, Feng is free to leave — he has a valid Chinese passport and a visa to enter Japan. He’s staying to protest China’s refusal to let him return to his homeland, where he’s been denied entry eight times since June.
“I’m a Chinese citizen, and I just want to go back to China. It’s outrageous that I can’t return to my own country,” he told The Associated Press. Wednesday was his 50th day living in Terminal 1.
“I’m not doing this just for me. It’s for the Chinese people,” said the 55-year-old Feng, wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with handwritten Chinese messages and a demand in English: “Return to China.”
Feng had traveled often to Japan, where he studied economics and worked as a business consultant. But he angered authorities in his homeland with writings on alleged wrongdoing by local authorities and for supporting student protests. Amnesty International describes Feng, who spent three years in prison, as a prominent human rights defender.
On the last of his attempts to return to China, he got as far as Shanghai’s Pudong airport, where Chinese officials forced him to get back on a plane for Tokyo, which arrived Nov. 4.
Fed up, he decided to camp out at Narita International Airport.
He gets by on handouts from travelers. Some flight crews also bring him sandwiches, salad and drinks. His sister, who lives in Japan, has tried to bring him food and supplies, but officials refused to deliver them.
Using his cell phone and laptop, Feng spends his time talking to supporters, reading news on the Web and posting blogs and tweets on Twitter, where he has 8,500 followers.
“This has become a new tourist spot, a place to promote human rights. Visitors to Japan have to see the scene, which would surely leave a serious impression,” read one Twitter entry Tuesday.
“I don’t mention flight attendants bringing me food so often but they do very often, and I appreciate them so much,” read another.
As word of Feng’s predicament spread, he became something of a celebrity. Supporters at human rights organizations, including from Hong Kong, flew in to drop off food and other supplies, including a battery-charged water heater, a portable DVD player — and a copy of “The Terminal.”
Feng’s life at Narita is tougher than that of the fictional Viktor Navorski, who was allowed to wander around to buy food, books and a suit. The movie character made friends with airport workers, served as a matchmaker, got a part-time job and even fell in love with a flight attendant played by Catherine Zeta-Jones.
“My life here is not like that,” Feng said. “It’s much more restricted.”
The Steven Spielberg film was based on the case of Mehran Karimi Nasseri, a stateless person of Iranian descent who lived for 18 years in Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport. Last year, a Japanese man took up residence for three months at Mexico City’s international airport.
At the Tokyo airport, Feng is largely confined to an area near a sterile hallway that leads to immigration control. He has no access to shops or vending machines.
Still, he seems to have won over some airport officials. Patrolling guards stop and chat and look the other way when he uses the terminal’s power outlets to charge his batteries.
“I know I’m causing trouble to Japan,” he said. “China, the one responsible for the problem, is doing nothing.”
A sign near his bench counts the number of days he’s been there.
“Stuck here is a Chinese citizen who exposed corruption, helped the poor and has been denied entry into China eight times by the Chinese authorities,” another sign read.
Kanae Doi, Tokyo director for Human Rights Watch, said China’s rejection of Feng’s re-entry is a violation of international law.
“Anybody has a right to return to the country of citizenship. It’s one of the most basic human rights acknowledged internationally,” she said, citing a clause in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Feng has been in trouble with Chinese authorities before. In 2001, he was sentenced to three years in prison for “illegal business activities” after writing a book about Japanese companies in China. Since his release in 2004, Feng has written about alleged wrongdoing by local governments and forced evictions, according to London-based Amnesty International. Earlier this year, Feng says he was again taken into custody for 41 days.
Feng, who studied economics at Japan’s Hitotsubashi University, has visited the country often over the last 20 years. His latest trip began in April.
However, when he attempted to return to China in June, he ran into problems. Four times, airlines refused to let him board. Four other times, he got as far as Shanghai airport only to be returned to Tokyo.
Chinese officials have said little about the case other than to insist it be dealt with by relevant Chinese laws and authorities.
“I’ll be here, alone, during Christmas and New Year. I’ll be here as long as it takes,” Feng said. “But once I get home, I want to go see my mother, who is past 90 years old.”
Japanese officials say they urged Feng to enter Japan but can’t force him to do so. The deadlock could last until his visa expires in June.
“It’s a problem that Mr. Feng is camping out at the restricted area, where people are not supposed to stay,” said Teruhisa Misu, the airport security director.
“We also understand his feelings. We worry about his health. It gets colder in coming weeks, and I’m not sure he is getting enough to eat.”