WASHINGTON – After more than a decade of flying back and forth from Shanghai to Los Angeles, this week Sheng Yuan didn’t fly back.
Instead Yuan, 39, a pilot with China Eastern Airlines, said he ditched his crew in Los Angeles and broke the news by phone to his wife and 12-year-old daughter in Shanghai.
The alternative, he said, was political persecution and possible imprisonment in China over his opposition to the Chinese Communist Party and his adherence to the banned spiritual movement Falun Gong.
He said he plans to seek political asylum, but beyond that, he doesn’t know what will come next.
“Although my family would suffer from heavy pressure if I stayed . . ., at least I would be safe,” Yuan said Friday through an interpreter at a National Press Club news conference organized by supporters in Falun Gong. “If I go back, they would just the same be unable to see me, and I might be tortured in prison.”
Yuan showed little emotion as he spoke. He wore his white, short-sleeved pilot’s shirt, but without the shoulder stripes or tie.
He said Shanghai police had confronted him before he boarded Flight MU583 to Los Angeles on Tuesday. He said an airport worker with whom he’d discussed an anti-communist book and Falun Gong had turned him in.
Yuan was allowed to leave because passengers already had boarded the plane and fellow crew members persuaded police officers to let the plane take off. But he said he was told he’d be hearing from police upon his return.
China maintains tight control over all religions. Those who practice Falun Gong, a banned spiritual movement, routinely face detention, harassment and sometimes imprisonment.
The specifics of Yuan’s story could not immediately be verified.
No spokesman for China Eastern Airlines could be immediately reached for comment. A press officer at the Chinese Embassy in Washington, Gong Mai, had no immediate comment on Yuan’s case.
“You must understand the Chinese government’s position on Falun Gong — it’s an evil cult,” she said. “As far as the specifics of the case, I haven’t heard of it.”
Last year the United States granted political asylum to more than 5,200 Chinese nationals, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.