On the first day of January in 1963 Wang Qi, a Chinese soldier, went on a walk that would change his life.
Stationed in a disputed border area near northern India, he got lost and strayed into Indian-controlled territory. It was a year after the two countries had fought a war and tensions were high. When Wang was picked up by the Indian Red Cross he asked to be returned to the Chinese side.
Instead he was handed over to the Indian authorities and tried for espionage. He spent six years in various jails and was then released to live in a village in central India.
The Chinese side appeared to forget about him (his army comrades still remember him and told Chinese newspapers recently they had no idea he was captured), so Wang put down roots, marrying a local woman and raising four children.
Yet all the while he was stateless – holding neither Indian or Chinese papers. Furthermore he was still regarded with suspicion by the Indian authorities wary about China and its military clout.
So it was not until 1986 that he was allowed to send a letter to his family in Shaanxi province telling them he was alive and well. But the two Asian giants – both then poor and highly bureaucratic – did nothing, so Wang remained stranded in Madhya Pradesh. Only in 2013, after many years of writing to the Chinese embassy in New Delhi, was he finally granted a Chinese passport.
One might think that was enough to get on a plane and go home. But India requires that foreigners without an Indian visa – for example, babies born to foreign parents in India – must apply for an exit permit to leave. So for the next three years Wang endeavoured to get one, promising the local authorities he had no intention of absconding and leaving his wife and children.
Finally, on February 11 he returned to China – 54 years after he accidentally left.
His parents had died but his extended family turned out to greet him with an emotional welcome. Coming so soon after Chinese New Year – a time of family reunions – the story captured the public imagination.“Wang Qi finally returns to the embrace of the Motherland after 50 years,” said a headline in the Global Times.
Yet some queried why it had taken so long. “Why are we only hearing about Wang now. Why weren’t we trying to get him home since 1963?” asked one.
Meanwhile Wang has been having a few issues adjusting to being back in China. He has forgotten how to use chopsticks, for instance. Mind you, that didn’t stop him eating seven consecutive bowls of noodles on his return to Shaanxi – a province famed for its noodle dishes. That sounds like more than a 78 year-old should eat in one sitting. Indeed afterwards Wang was hospitalised with hypertension.
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