Suspected Chinese dissident rides jet ski hundreds of miles to South Korea

Seoul, South Korea

A jet ski rider detained by South Korea for allegedly entering the country illegally is a prominent Chinese dissident who rode hundreds of miles across the sea to escape from China, activists say.

The man, who is in his 30s, was apprehended August 16 near Incheon, on South Korea’s west coast near to the capital Seoul, the Incheon Coast Guard said in a news release Sunday.

He is suspected of traveling from China’s eastern Shandong province, which lies about 400 kilometers (250 miles) across the Yellow Sea from Incheon. Carrying only a helmet, binoculars and a compass, the man had also tied five 25-liter (6.6 gallon) fuel tanks to the jet ski, the release added.

Upon arrival in South Korea, he got stuck on the muddy shore and had to call an emergency line for help, the release said. He was then taken into custody, and his case was sent to Incheon prosecutors on Tuesday, the coast guard told CNN.

South Korean authorities have not revealed the man’s name and CNN cannot independently verify his identity.

But Dialogue China, an organization founded by veteran Chinese activists that works closely with other dissidents, said the detained man is Chinese activist Kwon Pyong.

Kwon, who attended Iowa State University in the United States before returning to China, has long been openly critical of the government’s authoritarian rule and strict censorship. He spoke out against human rights violations on social media, and participated in Hong Kong’s 2014 pro-democracy protests, according to human rights organization Freedom House.

Famously, in August 2016 he tweeted a photo of himself wearing a T-shirt printed with several mocking names for Chinese leader Xi Jinping, including “Xitler.” The tweet is no longer available.

Just a month later, he was detained by police and indicted for his social media comments, with his lawyers dismissed by Chinese authorities days before his trial began, according to Freedom House.

Lee Dae-seon, an activist working with Dialogue China and based in South Korea, said Kwon had been sentenced to jail and released in March 2019. The two had been in touch since August 2019, with Kwon expressing his intention to seek asylum overseas, Lee said.

“Kwon told me he was ready to leave China and he would be heading to South Korea but I didn’t know how he was going to come,” Lee said.

“He called me on August 16 as soon as he was taken by the coast guard and I went to see him yesterday,” Lee told CNN Wednesday. “He wants to go to a third country. He went to Iowa State University so he speaks English. He wants to go to an English-speaking country.”

“It was his fault for violating the immigration law but he had no choice but to make a desperate one due to the Chinese authorities’ political investigation, unfair trial process, and surveillance,” he said.

China has gradually intensified its censorship of social media and other online platforms in recent years under Xi’s rule. Xi’s securing of a historic third term, along with the country’s strict zero-Covid policy and disastrous lockdowns, sparked unprecedented shows of public fury and mass protest last year – which authorities responded to with a sweeping crackdown, including heightening surveillance and detaining protesters for months.