On April 4, I was deported from the country where I was born and raised. I had entered China the day before, with a valid visa in my American passport, and had headed straight to my parents' home in southern Sichuan Prov-ince.
This was only the second time I had visited my parents in 11 years, since I moved to the United States. And this time, in addition to seeing my parents, I had gone back to conduct academic research on the recent social and political changes in China.But less than an hour after I arrived at my parents' apartment, the local police took me into custody. Later that night, I was told that my name was on a list of people banned from China - presumably because of my work in the United States to promote human rights in China.
As the police drove me to the airport that evening, they repeatedly invited me to admire the smooth new highway and impressive high-rise buildings along the way.
"During the day," an officer told me, "you would see clusters of red-tiled white cottages that the farmers built to replace mud huts. This is no longer the backward countryside you remember."
But the authorities wanted to have it both ways: They wanted activists like me to admire such achievements but not to meet the people who created them or those who were missing out on the economic boom.
My expulsion was probably intended to intimidate other academics who study China, warning them to avoid discussing human rights if they wished to do research there. In recent months, at least two other American scholars who have spoken out on human rights were expelled from or denied entry to China.
These expulsions also send a warning to Chinese citizens not to speak to visitors like me, or risk being accused of threatening state se-cu-rity.
The new houses, high-rises and highway I saw impressed me, but I knew that these accomplishments carried a price. Although some economic sectors are booming, there have been reports that state-sector workers are being laid off and some salaries are not being paid.
Last year, thousands of workers in Sichuan Province staged protests and clashed with the police. Many labor organizers involved in the unrest were imprisoned.
As we drove to the airport, the officer seated next to me boasted, "In five years, you won't even recognize Chengdu," the capital of Sichuan Province.
"But I won't have a chance to, since I am banned from entry," I told him.
"This will change in a few years," he assured me.
Will economic growth free China up politically? Acting on this assumption, many Western nations have allowed companies to compete for business and military contracts in China. President Clinton has planned a state visit in late June.
But those of us who are blacklisted are still banned from returning home or seeing our families. For us, it's not so easy to make that assumption.
"I hope you are right," I replied.