Ex-Political Prisoner Flees China for Freedom on a Jet Ski

QIONGHAI, CHINA - MAY 19: A man drives a jet ski along Wanquan River at sunset on May 19, 2020 in Qionghai, Hainan Province of China. (Photo by Meng Zhongde/VCG via Getty Images)
Meng Zhongde/VCG via Getty I

South Korea’s Coast Guard confirmed this week it had arrested a man from China attempting to enter the country on a jet ski. In remarks on Wednesday, a human rights campaigner confirmed the man in question was anti-communist dissident Kwon Pyong, who served an 18-year prison sentence in 2017 for wearing an anti-Xi Jinping shirt.

According to South Korean news outlets, the Coast Guard detailed on Tuesday a dramatic journey spanning nearly 200 miles across the Yellow Sea from Shandong province, south of Beijing, to the Korean Peninsula. The man in question navigated the journey using a compass and binoculars, as well as towing five barrels of fuel to refill when necessary at sea. He also repeatedly wore a life vest and helmet.

The Coast Guard identified the man only as being in his 30s and stated that he was found after his vehicle got stuck in waters near Incheon. Authorities rescued the man but noted he was immediately arrested for attempting to enter the country illegally. The man was reportedly rescued on August 16.

Speaking to the South Korean newspaper Hankyoreh, Lee Dae-seon of the pro-democracy Dialogue China organization confirmed that the man in question was Kwon Pyong, a 35-year-old anti-communist dissident who had participated in protests in Hong Kong and openly mocked genocidal dictator Xi Jinping in China. Lee stated that he had visited Kwon in Korean custody and Kwon explained that he made his escape via jet ski because the Chinese government had banned him from leaving the country legally. Kwon, he said, had “come to South Korea to seek political asylum in the face of repression by the Chinese authorities.”

Kwon is ethnically Korean and educated in America, graduating from Iowa State University in 2012.

“He has been subjected to political repression, such as being arrested by the secret police in 2016 for posting a photo of himself wearing a T-shirt with a slogan satirizing Chinese President Xi Jinping on his social media accounts,” Lee explained.

“As an ethnic Korean, he has relatives in South Korea and is seeking asylum here. He has been consistently requesting asylum from when he was first arrested by the Coast Guard until he was sent to the prosecutors,” Lee told Hankyoreh. “If the South Korean government does not accept his asylum request due to its relationship with the Chinese government, he is also considering asylum in a third country.”

Given Kwon’s documented history of political repression and his status as an ethnic Korean, he may qualify for refugee status in South Korea, though the country rarely grants such status outside of cases involving North Korean refugees.

The human rights group Frontline Defenders identifies Kwon as a longtime anti-communist dissident, active in campaigns to protect Chinese human rights attorneys and other victims of communism. Kwon reportedly grew up in Jilin province, northern China, and returned to live in the country after his college graduation in Iowa in 2012. In addition to using social media channels to regularly condemn the Chinese government, Kwon reportedly participated in the anti-communist movement in Hong Kong in 2014, which was ultimately subdued for five years before erupting into the massive pro-democracy movement of 2019.

Kwon was convicted in 2017 of inciting subversion of state power and “insulting the socialist system,” a crime in China, for taking a selfie wearing a shirt with anti-communist messages, including the pejorative nickname “Xitler” for the Chinese dictator. He served an 18-month sentence for his “crimes” and was released in 2018.

While the use of a jet-ski to escape China is unique, Kwon’s is far from the only such case of repressed anti-communists seeking to flee China by sea. In 2021, Taiwan documented the arrival of two men on separate vessels later identified as dinghies they bought online and navigated across the Taiwan Strait. One of the men, identified by the Hong Kong newspaper Apple Daily as “Jiang,” reportedly rowed his dinghy for five hours to get to Taiwan. Both men told Taiwanese authorities they were seeking to escape communism.

In neighboring Hong Kong, the case of the “Hong Kong 12” became an international outrage in 2020. Following the violent repression of pro-democracy protests in the formerly autonomous city in 2019, the Chinese government began arresting peaceful protesters for allegedly violating Chinese law, eliminating the former “One Country, Two Systems” policy that prohibited Beijing from enforcing its communist laws in Hong Kong. In August 2020, the Chinese Coast Guard caught 12 protesters, all accused of alleged crimes against socialism during the protest movement, attempting to flee to Taiwan by sea.

The Chinese government disappeared most of them into the draconian Chinese legal system, ultimately sentencing seven of them to prison sentences of between seven and ten months in 2022 for allegedly “perverting the course of justice.” An eighth person was sentenced to three and half years in prison swiftly. Two of the escapees were immediately returned to Hong Kong given their status as minors; another two spent years in Chinese prison; the last, protester Tang Kai-yin, was released from a Guangdong prison and sent to Hong Kong on Tuesday.

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