Fleeing Activist Used Google Maps to Escape From China

2016-07-26
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Zhao Changfu stands outside the UNHCR office in Bangkok, Thailand, July 2016.
Zhao Changfu stands outside the UNHCR office in Bangkok, Thailand, July 2016.
Photo courtesy of Zhao Changfu

A prominent rights activist from the eastern Chinese province of Jiangsu has skipped bail for subversion and fled China in recent weeks, arriving in Bangkok after a grueling journey through mountains and jungle, using Google Maps as a guide.

Zhao Changfu, 46, who is seeking political asylum with the United Nations refugee agency in the Thai capital, said he was fleeing continual persecution by authorities in his hometown of Jiangyin city and a charge of "incitement to subvert state power."

He described his daring escape through southwestern China and neighboring countries in southeast Asia to RFA on Tuesday.

"I went through Guangxi, and got to Yunnan on July 7, and crossed the border on the 8th," Zhao said.

"It took me two or three days to cross Myanmar, and then I got to Laos, where I spent two days before crossing safely into Thailand on July 12," he said.

"I ran into a lot of police on the way. Every time I saw a checkpoint, I took to the hills, taking small roads and pathways and crossing valleys," he said.

"One one day, I didn't even eat, because I was walking through the hills," Zhao said. "All I had was water."

"I saw snakes and wild animals: I was terrified," he said. "I was on the road for 10 days."

Zhao said he used Google Maps to navigate his way to Bangkok from China.

"If there was a ride, I took it; if not, I walked. I walked slowly," he said.

Many 'on the run'


However, Zhao isn't out of the woods yet.

Many Chinese refugees in Thailand are now effectively on the run, constantly moving around in a bid to evade arrest and deportation on illegal immigration charges, activists have told RFA.

Last November, Chinese asylum seekers Jiang Yefei and Dong Guangping, who had fled persecution in their home country, were handed back to Chinese authorities in a move that drew strong criticism from the U.N.

They are now in pretrial detention in the southwestern city of Chongqing.

Zhao said he heard from friends in China on Monday that the authorities in Jiangyin city have sent four police officers to arrest him, and now fears he may "disappear" in the Thai capital and be bundled in secret aboard a plane back home.

"They told me to watch out for my safety," he said.

Zhao said he felt had no other choice open to him than to escape, however.

"There was nothing else I could do," he said. "I chose to escape because I was out on bail, and I was afraid of political persecution at the hands of the [ruling] Chinese Communist Party."

'A heavy price'

Zhao's troubles began after he went public with reports of a massive toxic algae bloom on China's iconic Taihu Lake, although he went on to help large numbers of people fight for their rights through legal channels, according to the Hubei-based rights group China Rights Observer.

"Zhao Changfu led a large number of people in a campaign to protect their rights in Jiangyin city, a fight in which he refused to surrender," group spokesman Pan Lu told RFA on Tuesday.

"He has paid a heavy price for this rights work. His wife left him, taking his child," he said.

Zhao had also been instrumental in securing the release of five activists recently detained by authorities in the eastern city of Wuxi, Pan said.

Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.

CH. 1: MANDARIN | CANTONESE

CH. 2: VIETNAMESE | BURMESE | KOREAN

CH. 3: KHMER | LAO | UYGHUR

CH. 4: TIBETAN

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