The Road Home Is 22 Years Long

By Yaxue Cao, January 15, 2013

An exile returns to his 86-year-old mother and family.

                                                                                                                                                                                         In the morning of November 27, 2012, after tweeting “Good morning, tweeps!” to his friends on Twitter, Mr. Wu Renhua (吴仁华), a resident of Los Angeles, boarded a plane to China.

At Customs in Shanghai’s Pudong airport, he was nervous. On a small screen, a photo check resulted in a “data error.”  An alphabetic name check also showed “date error.” When asked to provide his name in Chinese, he gave a homonymic name. Again, “data error.” He broke out in a cold sweat, thinking he was caught.

It turned out to be otherwise. “Data error” meant that his information was not identified by the database. A man on China’s political blacklist, he slipped through Customs without being recognized.

Once through, sweat ran down his face, neck and body. He felt dizzy, and smoked a cigarette to collect himself. He couldn’t tell whether he had been too nervous or too excited; too happy or too sad.

He had planned to show up at the door of his home in Wenzhou (温州) without telling anyone, but he changed his mind lest his arrival, after 22 years of separation, was too overwhelming for his 86-year-old mother. He called his younger sister and asked her to announce the news to their mother.

He took a picture of himself before boarding the flight to Wenzhou. He didn’t notice, but later on someone would point out the gate number 89 in the background.


At the highway exit to Cangnan (温州苍南), he was stuck in traffic for two hours and thought he would walk home in the rain. He arrived at one o’clock in the morning to his mother and two sisters.

“I can’t tell you what it was like,” he said when I spoke to him on the phone earlier today. “I just can’t. It’s been 22 years.”

Mr. Wu Renhua was a young lecturer at China University of Political Science and Law (中国政法大学) in 1989, a participant in the Tian’anmen Movement, and an eye witness of one of its bloodiest scenes in Liubukou (六部口) where three tanks charged into files of students leaving the Tian’anmen Square in the morning of June 4th and killed eleven and wounded more. Many of Mr. Wu’s friends were arrested during the crackdown, a few of them, such as Wang Juntao (王军涛) and Chen Ziming (陈子明), received little attention from the international media at the time because they were not on the list of the wanted, and the rumors had it that they could be sentenced to death. Determined to take the news, as well as the truth about the massacre, overseas, Mr. Wu made to the south, swam across the water separating Zhuhai (珠海) and Macau in a rainy night in late February, 1990, with the help of paid smugglers. From Macau, he sneaked into Hong Kong and, then, on July 5th that year, to the United States as a political refugee.

For years, Mr. Wu had applied in vain for a Chinese passport. Being on the blacklist of political exiles, he had been barred from visiting China, unless he wrote a Statement of Repentance about his actions during the June 4th and overseas advocacy as well as a Statement of Guarantee promising that he would never speak or write against the Chinese government, nor engage in any activities of the same nature. Many made the deal with China and returned to visit or stay, but Mr. Wu did not want to do that.

Meanwhile, his mother was getting very old, and he couldn’t wait anymore. Last year Mr. Wu reluctantly gave up his status of political refugee and became an American citizen with an English name. “I didn’t tell anyone at all, not even friends, about the American passport and my name on the passport.”

Hours after he arrived, fearing that he would be discovered and possibly deported, he and his mother and siblings – the entire family – visited his father’s grave to pay respect and “to get the most important things out of my way and be prepared for possible deportation,” he said.

Fearing that his stay would implicate his family (years ago his younger brother, a brilliant graduate of Zhejiang University on track to become a CCP cadre, was expelled from civil service because of him), he asked one of his sisters to report his visit to the authorities. To protect his family from trouble, Mr. Wu declined to provide more details about his subsequent encounter with the Chinese state security police, except that he was indeed warned there would no more visits for him.

During his stay, he didn’t use a cell phone, didn’t use the internet, didn’t speak or meet with friends, and he didn’t leave Wenzhou.

He spent all his time by his mother’s side.

Happy Family

Happy Family

“My father died young, and my mother raised five of us alone,” Mr. Wu said. “She doesn’t have much of a political awareness, nor does she understand my ideals or the meaning of what I have done, but she has never interfered with my choices. Over the years when we talked over the phone, she had never expressed her desire for my return, nor shed tears, so as not to put pressure on me.”

For years, the community of exiles has made numerous efforts to get the Chinese government to allow them visit on humanitarian basis. Many of them couldn’t go back to visit ailing parents or attend funerals. Last spring, there were rumors that Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao wished the Party to redress the June 4th Movement and welcome exiles to go back China to “take a look.” In response to the rumors, Wang Dan (王丹), Hu Ping (胡平), Wang Juntao (王军涛), Wuerkaixi (吾尔开希), Wu Renhua (吴仁华) and Xiang Xiaoji (项小吉) issued in April a public appeal to the Chinese government entitled “We Hope to Go back to China to Take a Look”.

“We believe that it is our inalienable right to return to our own country. The rulers of China should not deny our most basic human rights just because we hold different political views. China is undergoing profound changes, and it is the expectation of all Chinese citizens that human rights be protected and democracy promoted,” the open letter reads.

Mr. Wu visited one of his uncles who was in a vegetative state in the hospital. The uncle joined the Communist Party in 1937, graduated from the Anti-Japanese Military and Political College in Yen’an (延安抗大), but was branded as a “rightist” for his expressions in the anti-rightist campaign in 1950s, spent four years in a labor camp and the rest of his life in the countryside. He had been Mr. Wu’s hero since childhood. Unable to communicate and share the joy of homecoming with his uncle, Mr. Wu was reduced to tears.

After spending 42 days with family, it was time again to separate. In the early morning on January 10 when Mr. Wu left, he insisted on his mother not seeing him off, but she walked him outside the building nonetheless. When he turned around to say goodbye to her, she had already gone back. “She did not want me to see her sadness,” Mr. Wu wrote in a set of tweets hashtaged #回家 (going home).  “When I looked up, I saw her standing on the balcony against the parapet. Sorrow welled up in me. She had endured 22 years to see her son!”

吴仁华 young man

Young Wurenhua shortly after he arrived in the US.

Mr. Wu Renhua had been prepared for three possible outcomes of his visit before he headed to China: arrest, deportation, or a smooth visit. Once in Wenzhou, his family feared that he might be “disappeared” any time. Fortunately for him, everything turned out as well as it can be, in part probably because he’s now an American citizen.

Back to Los Angeles last week, Mr. Wu, the historian of ’89, continues to work on his third book. His first two books were published in Hong Kong, Tian’anmen Massacre in 24 Hours recording the last day – June 4th – and the bloodshed in the Square and the city, while The Martial Law Troops during Tian’anmen Movement presenting his research into the troops that carried out the bloody crackdown. Both have yet to be translated into English.

His third book, tentatively titled A Chronicle of the Tian’anmen Movement, is a description of the day-by-day events from April 15 to June 20, 1989, a year destined to etch deep in the memory of China.

4 responses to “The Road Home Is 22 Years Long”

  1. I am getting soft. Cried as I read this.

  2. […] The Road Home Is 22 Years Long, by Yaxue Cao, January 15, 2013. How another Tiananmen exile returned home to visit aging mother. […]

  3. Frank says:

    Excellent article about a heartwarming family reunion in the context of such political persecution as the exiled reformer’s younger brother being fired from the country’s civil service in retaliation against the elder brother’s advocacy of political reform.

  4. […] Over all these years, my mother had never asked me what I was doing overseas, what book I was writing, but she knew because the younger generations in the family would find out and tell her. At my mother’s home, I accidentally found my first two books under my mother’s pillow. I’d never seen a book so dog-eared and used, with the pages worn yellow. I could imagine my mother, in the dead of the night, missing me terribly, going over the pages again and again. In the preface to the first book I dedicated it to those who died, and also to my mother. I had resolved not to shed tear on my visit, but I broke down seeing those two books. […]

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