Police in Bangkok have detained an exiled Chinese dissident who staged a lone street protest against Chinese leader Xi Jinping inspired by the “bridge man” protest in Beijing last month, RFA has learned.
Veteran rights activist Li Nanfei, who has been stranded in Thailand for several years despite being a United Nations-registered refugee, was arrested after holding up a placard on a Bangkok street as Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping attended the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in the city.
The placard read: “His Majesty President Xi, put an end to dictatorship in China! Give the people back their freedom!”
Arrested on suspicion of “illegal immigration” because he was unable to produce a passport, Li told RFA from a Bangkok police station that he was inspired to protest following the lone banner protest by a man identified as Peng Lifa on the Sitong Bridge highway flyover on the eve of the Communist Party Congress in Beijing.
“If Mr. Peng Lifa could display a banner in such a dangerous location as Beijing to protest against Xi Jinping’s ascension to the throne, I couldn’t justify doing or saying nothing when Xi Jinping came here, given that I am in Thailand,” Li told RFA in a reference to Xi’s successful bid for a third term in office after abolishing presidential term limits in 2018.
Many in China regarded Xi’s break with tradition as the beginning of a lifelong dictatorship, and there are no indications that Xi is planning to hand over the reins of power to a designated successor after his third term ends in five years’ time.
“If there are people like me waiting to welcome him whenever Xi Jinping goes anywhere, then he won’t be able to go anywhere, and will have to stay in China, rather than going overseas to harm other people,” Li said.
Li denied that he is an illegal immigrant in Thailand, saying that he has been granted refugee status by the U.N., but has since been left stranded in the country like many other exiled dissidents, and told to wait for resettlement in a third country.
He said he is sure that the Chinese government has called on the Thai authorities to repatriate him.
“I’m not actually acting illegally — actually it’s the Chinese government and Xi Jinping who are illegal,” Li said. “They are an illegal regime and an illegal emperor, right?”
“The police [who arrested me] said they sympathized with my plight, but that there was nothing they could do about it,” he said. “[All three of them] gave me the thumbs-up and told me they didn’t like dictators.”
“One of them told me they would try to find some way to let me stay in Thailand, but that I wouldn’t be able to hold onto my current political views,” Li said.
The interview was then cut short by police, who confiscated Li’s phone, prompting him to hang up in a hurry.
Arrests and repatriations in Thailand
Li isn’t the first Chinese dissident to be arrested in Thailand.
Earlier this month, Adiyaa, an ethnic Mongolian Chinese national who fled the country after his involvement in 2020 protests over a ban on Mongolian-medium teaching in schools, reported being held by Chinese state security police in Bangkok.
In 2019, Thai police detained two Chinese refugees — Jia Huajiang and Liu Xuehong — who had earlier helped jailed rights website founder Huang Qi before fleeing the country.
And in 2018, Thailand-based dissident Wu Yuhua began a hunger strike in a Thai immigration detention center to stave off her forced repatriation to China after Bangkok police detained her and her husband Yang Chong.
Yang and Wu were initially targeted by Chinese police after taking part in press freedom protests in the southern city of Guangzhou in January 2013, then fled the country in February 2015.
Thailand has sent refugees from China back home in the past.
In July 2018, authorities in the southwestern Chinese city of Chongqing jailed rights activist Dong Guangping and political cartoonist Jiang Yefei after they were sent home from Thailand as they were awaiting resettlement as political refugees, prompting an international outcry.
Call for ‘effective protection’ for refugees
Fellow Chinese activist Hu Junxiong, who has been in Thailand for seven years, said he is very worried about Li’s safety.
He called on the international community and the United Nations to pay attention to Li’s case and speak out on behalf of Chinese refugees stranded in Thailand.
“Li Nanfei has been thrown into prison unjustly,” Hu told RFA.
“According to my information, he is currently locked up in Huai Khwang police station, where the conditions are very poor,” he said. “There is nothing there, just an iron cage. [Li has been] locked in an iron cage.”
“This is a problem, and we should pay attention to the [broader issue] at the same time,” he said.
“Refugees stranded in Thailand need effective protection as soon as possible, to ensure our personal safety,” Hu said.
Canada-based democracy activist Hao Dan said he and fellow activists are doing their best to win international support for Li and other refugees in Thailand.
“We strongly call for Li Nanfei’s release as soon as possible,” he said. “We need to explain … the evil and despicable methods used by the Chinese government.”
“Pro-democracy activists, whether they are in China or overseas, have suffered so much persecution,” Hao said.
Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.