Riding jet ski, activist jailed over anti-Xi Jinping T-shirt flees to South Korea

After daring sea escape, ethnic Korean Kwon Pyong turns himself in to Incheon authorities
By Yitong Wu and Chingman for RFA Cantonese
Riding jet ski, activist jailed over anti-Xi Jinping T-shirt flees to South Korea Two South Korean Coast Guard personnel check a jet ski in Incheon after the Coast Guard confirmed it had detained a Chinese man who had tried to reach the port city of Incheon last week on the jet ski from China's Shandon. Blurring in the photo is from the source.
Credit: Korea Coast Guard/AFP

A dissident who served jail time for wearing T-shirts likening Chinese leader Xi Jinping to Hitler has fled to South Korea in a daring escape over the sea by jet ski.

Kwon Pyong, a 35-year-old ethnic Korean activist from the northeastern Chinese province of Jilin whose name in Mandarin is Quan Ping, was jailed for "incitement to subvert state power" in 2017 after he wore a T-shirt emblazoned with satirical nicknames for President Xi Jinping, including "Xitler."

He recently turned up in the South Korean port of Incheon after riding a jet ski some 300 kilometers (185 miles) across the sea from the eastern Chinese province of Shandong, turning himself in to the South Korea Coastguard on arrival, rights activists told Radio Free Asia.

The arrival of an unnamed Chinese dissident by jet ski was reported by Yonhap news agency and other local media. Kwon's U.S.-based friend Sulaiman Gu, who is currently studying at the University of Georgia, also confirmed Kwon's identity in an interview with RFA's Cantonese Service.

"The Incheon Coast Guard announced on [Aug. 20] that it had arrested a man with Chinese nationality in his 30s on charges of violating the Immigration Control Act," the agency reported.

The man is accused of "trying to smuggle into Incheon offshore on a jet ski" on the afternoon of Aug. 16.

The man had ridden a 1,800cc jet ski with a fuel tank capacity of 70 liters, carrying a further five 25-liter cans of fuel tied to the craft, and refueling along the way without assistance, the report said.

Claims political persecution

He was also carrying a life jacket, telescope, compass and a helmet, it said. The "undocumented migrant" was tracked as an "unidentified craft" and then found after running aground on tidal flats near the Incheon cruise terminal in Songdo at around 9.23 p.m. on Aug. 16, it said.

Li Daxuan, a rights activist with the South Korean branch of the U.S.-based rights group Dialogue China, said via Facebook on Tuesday that the man was Kwon, and that he will be supporting him through the police investigation and asylum application process.

He said he had entered South Korea illegally due to political persecution and surveillance by the Chinese authorities.

"I heard that Kwon Pyong is still in the custody of the South Korean police," Kwon's friend Gu told Radio Free Asia. "I hope they can complete their investigations as soon as possible."

Kwon Pyong, a 35-year-old ethnic Korean activist from China, was jailed for "incitement to subvert state power" in 2017 after he wore a T-shirt emblazoned with satirical nicknames for President Xi Jinping, including "Xitler." Credit: Kwon Pyong Twitter

"Kwon Pyong isn't a regular illegal migrant but a persecuted and influential dissident who has made media headlines," he said, calling on the South Korean authorities to release him as soon as possible and grant him political asylum.

"Kwon Pyong is a friend of mine who bravely stood up in opposition to Xi Jinping a few years ago, for which he served a year-and-a-half in prison," Gu said, adding that the authorities had continued to restrict Kwon's freedoms even after his release from prison.

‘Bigger prison’

Kwon had tried to leave China in 2019, but was banned from leaving the country.

"He was released from a smaller prison into a bigger prison," Gu said.

He said Xi is steering China "down the road to fascism," and advised people in China to "find their own way of getting to the free world."

A vociferous rights activist and graduate of Iowa State University, Kwon traveled to take part in the 2014 Occupy Central movement for fully democratic elections in Hong Kong.

He was also active on X – formerly Twitter – which is blocked in China, and used social media to publicly criticize the "tyranny" of the Communist Party and express solidarity with causes like Free Tibet and the commemoration of those who died in the crackdown on the 1989 democracy movement on Tiananmen Square.

Political satirist @GFWFrog said Kwon was jailed after taking selfies outside local government offices wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the slogans referring to Xi as "Xitler."

Sources at the time said the indictment against Kwon was largely based on some 80 posts he made to Facebook and Twitter between 2014 and 2016.

These posts "used words, images and video to insult and slander this country's government and the socialist system," the indictment said.

"Seven years ago, Kwon Pyong went alone to the gates of the local government buildings to take selfies alone wearing a "Xitler" T-shirt," @GFWFrog said. "Seven years later, he was alone again, riding a jet ski and hurtling hundreds of kilometers to South Korea to seek political asylum."

"Kwon Pyong's actions are an inspiration to rebels left behind the Great Firewall – there are more ways to 'run' than obstacles," he said in a reference to the mass "run" movement of people leaving China in recent months following the lifting of COVID-19 travel curbs.

Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.


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