The Guardian: Escaping Xi’s China by paddleboard: ‘I rushed into the water and thought if they catch me, they catch me’

Mentions escaping lawyers more than once in the article

When Li Cheng En pushed his standup paddleboard off the Xiamen beach on China’s Fujian coastline, a mother and son stood nearby, watching him. It was dark, and he moved quickly, but felt sure he’d be caught. Li had spent the day scouting for a secluded beach from which he could launch his bold plan to flee China. But everywhere he went there were fences or security guards and cameras.

“At around 7.30pm, when I decided to go, I thought that there was no more choice for me,” he says. He waited for the security guard shift change. “I rushed into the water and thought that if they would catch me, they would catch me.”

Li entered the heavily guarded waters that span the shortest distance between China and Taiwan. As a surfer, he says he was confident on the board and the water was calm, but it was January, and cold. He passed by what he says were Chinese alarm systems, setting one off.

“It started blaring. I became very nervous at that moment, and I paddled away from that location as fast as I could.”

Hours later, he could sense land in front of him. He arrived on an empty island beach in the Kinmen archipelago, which belongs to Taiwan but sitting is just over three miles from China.

“When I arrived at the Kinmen beach, the wave knocked me off the board. But at the same time, I saw the Blue Tears, it was so beautiful,” he says, referring to the seasonal phenomena of bioluminescence. “Each wave carried blue light, and it made me really happy to see it.”

Li is speaking to the Observer in Taipei. A quietly spoken middle-aged man, he is now living legally but temporarily in Taiwan, restricted from working or leaving the city area. Li is not his real name, which he asked not to be used for fear of repercussions for his family left behind in China. The Observer has verified parts of his story through court documents, GPS tracking of his journey, and Chinese media reports.

Li is among a growing list of dissidents fleeing the increasingly authoritarian rule of Xi Jinping in China. Under Xi, the Chinese Communist party authorities have cracked down on activists, lawyers, counter-culture groups and human rights campaigners. Many have been imprisoned or had exit bans placed on them, preventing them from leaving the country and forcing them to flee by less conventional means.

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