When I was a young man in the 1970s — during the Chinese Cultural Revolution and China's darkest years under Mao — I joined hundreds of thousands of desperate Chinese willing to risk our lives to get to freedom. Between late spring and early fall and during the night, we crossed the mountains to reach the sea, and from there we would swim across the water — as far as 6 miles depending on the route — to reach Hong Kong. On my first attempt in 1972, I was caught on the coast by People's Liberation Army soldiers. A year later, I was caught by Chinese fishermen near Hong Kong after I had struggled for eight hours in the rough sea. Choking on seawater, I thought of death, but I kept reminding myself, "I must reach Hong Kong, for my mother, father and myself!"
Thousands of freedom swimmers died in the water; three of them were my friends. When I finally stepped on the soil of Hong Kong on my third attempt, I believed I had reached paradise.