Wuer Kaixi, student leader of China's 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy… (Kazuhiro Nogi, AFP/Getty…)
BEIJING — On a warm summer night in 1989, a 21-year-old Chinese student waded into the South China Sea from a deserted beach. Still wearing his clothes and Nike sneakers, he swam to a speedboat waiting 200 yards offshore.
Wuer Kaixi's role as a student leader in the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests had landed him the No. 2 spot on the Chinese government's list of 21 most-wanted organizers. His plan was to escape with the help of activists in Hong Kong, who had arranged for the speedboat, and return to China when things calmed down.
"I figured it would be a year or two and I could go home," Wuer said in a telephone interview Friday.
Now a middle-aged man with two teenage sons, Wuer is still trying to go home. Repeatedly rejected for Chinese visas, he has become so desperate that he is willing to be arrested.
That was the thinking behind his arrival Friday at the Chinese Embassy in Washington, where he tried to surrender himself. Followed by reporters and fellow activists, he rang the doorbell at the entrance and telephoned repeatedly. It appeared, however, that the embassy wasn't interested.
"The curtains were closed. They were pretending they were not there," Wuer said. "This is a long battle. I will try again."
This wasn't his first attempt to get back to mainland China. In 2009, Wuer flew to Chinese-ruled Macao in a bid to surrender himself, but was put back on a plane within a day. The following year, he tried to fly to Beijing from Tokyo. After failing to get on the plane, he attempted to crash the Chinese Embassy through a gate in the driveway. He was arrested for trespassing.
Not only has Wuer been unable to return to China, his parents have repeatedly been denied passports, told that their name is on a black list because of their son. His father is now 76, his mother 70, and both live in the western city of Urumqi.
"I want to be able to finally see my parents again, even if that meeting has to take place in prison," said the 44-year-old Wuer.
Aside from the personal aspect, Wuer feels a need to prod the Chinese government toward democracy.
"Ever since we took to the streets in Beijing in 1989, I have wanted to have a dialogue with the Chinese government," he said.
Wuer was a freshman at Beijing Normal University studying education when the protests began. He became a leader of hunger strikers at Tiananmen Square. Photographs of him wearing hospital garb and arguing with then-Premier Li Peng were transmitted around the world.
After going on the run in 1989, Wuer lived in France and the United States. He finally settled in Taiwan, where he has worked for an investment firm doing mergers and acquisitions. He has Taiwan citizenship.
His latest effort to return to mainland China was inspired by the blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng, who last month took asylum atthe U.S. Embassy in Beijing.
"I thought I could do the same thing but in reverse: head for the Chinese Embassy in Washington," Wuer said.
Many Chinese dissidents who've left China find themselves unable to return. But Wuer is unusual in that his parents have been denied permission to leave China.
Wang Dan, a former student activist who served more than four years in prison after Tiananmen Square and now lives near Los Angeles, said part of Wuer's problem could be that the family lives in the Xinjiang region, which is more restrictive, and are members of the Uighur minority.
"This policy of banning us from going back to China is a further punishment for what we did in 1989," Wang said. "They cannot lock us up in prison anymore so this is what they do."