HONG KONG -- At a time when many of his countrymen are trying to flee China any way they can, Han Dongfang is suing Chinese officials for preventing him from returning there.
His unusual predicament underscores that China's officials seem to have adopted a strategy of minimizing the domestic impact of its dissidents by simply exporting them.
That policy and Mr. Han's refusal to go elsewhere have put him in limbo in Hong Kong, surviving off the kindness of friends.
Mr. Han is a soft-spoken, 30-year-old former railway worker with movie-star looks. He's also one of the Beijing regime's worst nightmares: a man quietly but fiercely dedicated to building a union movement among workers independent of their ineffective, state-controlled unions.
During the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, he organized an unofficial labor union. As a result, he spent 22 months in Chinese jails, where he was tortured and came down with tuberculosis after being intentionally exposed to others with the disease.
Partly because of U.S. pressure, Mr. Han was allowed to leave China about a year ago -- an act viewed at the time as a significant Chinese concession.
In the United States for 11 months, he had surgery to remove part of one lung, contacted U.S. and international trade unionists, received a major human rights award from the AFL-CIO, and became the first Chinese dissident to meet President Clinton.
This month, he'll be honored in absentia by the National Endowment for Democracy, a democracy-promoting group funded by the U.S. Congress.
But Mr. Han never intended to stay in the United States. As he put it in an interview last week: "All the things I must do are in China." So in August, he left his wife and year-old son in Boston, returned to Hong Kong and slipped back into neighboring Guangdong province in China.
He held a valid passport, and his entry was legal, he says. The next morning, security agents came to his hotel room, beat him up and expelled him.
A few days later, Chinese authorities said they had "canceled" his passport -- something for which Mr. Han says they have no grounds under Chinese law.
'One-way ticket out'
His expulsion "shows the anxieties of the Chinese leadership when it comes to a free labor movement," says Robin Munro, a researcher here for Asia Watch, the human rights group. "It is a blatant violation of international law. It turns out that what we thought was a concession last year was a one-way ticket out of China."
The expulsion, occurring as China sought to attract the 2000 Olympics, drew a wave of international criticism. It could figure negatively in the U.S. assessment next year whether China has made sufficient progress in human rights to qualify for an extension of its favorable trade status with the United States. But after weeks of waiting and repeated meetings with Chinese officials here, Mr. Han is still stuck.
So the other day an associate in Beijing filed suit on his behalf against China's all-powerful Public Security Ministry.
Previous suits by dissidents over administrative decisions rarely have been successful, and it would be a breakthrough if Mr. Han prevailed in his -- particularly given that Beijing accuses him of being a tool of Westerners who want to overthrow the Chinese regime.
Mr. Han denies it: "I am a tool of the Chinese worker, and my aim is to return to China and be a more effective tool for them."
Chinese workers have been barred from forming independent unions, first in practice and then by a law passed just last year.
This has left many unprotected at a time of confusing changes in China's industrial system, changes that are resulting in increasing layoffs and abuses of workers. Illegal strikes are on the rise.
"China's economy right now is like those of capitalist societies 100 years ago, very primitive capitalism," Mr. Han says. "Society isn't taking care of the weak anymore. More and more, workers are going to have to use their own strength to solve their problems by themselves because there is no help from the government."
Mr. Han stresses that he merely wants to use existing Chinese laws -- including a constitutional guarantee of free association -- to educate workers about their rights and help them negotiate with bosses.
But he also admits that his long-term goal is to change China's political system -- "not with force or revolution but in an orderly way, according to law."
'Afraid of the law'
Chinese officials "don't fear me," he says. "They're afraid of the law. They know very well if I go back, I will test China's laws one after another and go through each one of them in order to see to it that they're applied.
"This government doesn't even want to observe its own laws."