NEW YORK -- In the course of his yearlong bicycle trip across three continents, Sun Feng was hit by a car in Malaysia, mugged by a band of robbers in Thailand and chased by wolves in Greece, and he survived a fall in the mountains of Italy.
But the first time he really felt scared, Sun said, was when a tipster warned him in a Paris urinal last June that the Chinese government wanted to cut his world tour short as punishment for remarks he had made in support of the students protesting in China.
The 39-year-old teacher from Shanghai, a free spirit whose complexion is ruddy from facing Alpine winds and desert sun on a two-wheeler, has been dodging Chinese authorities ever since and is now hiding in New York City. He wants to apply for asylum in the United States, saying that he believes he will be in danger if the Chinese government carries out its threat to send him home.
"They don't put what they plan to do to you in writing," Sun said, "but they told me, 'If you don't go back, we will hold you responsible.' "
Sun's troubles started last December when thousands of students in China marched on university campuses across the country, demanding greater democratic reforms. Sun, who was in Italy at the time, supported the reform movement and told Chinese acquaintances that he felt the students should not be suppressed. When the government cracked down in January, arresting protesters and ousting reform-minded Communist Party leaders and university officials, the bicyclist was caught in the backlash.
Zhang Chi Wei, a diplomatic attache at the Chinese Embassy in Washington, acknowledged that his government has asked that Sun return home. He declined to give reasons except to say, "We think it is insignificant for one man like him to cycle around the world. His family in China is waiting for him for a reunion. He was not politically persecuted in China. We find it strange that he would bring up the issue of asylum."
Sun is being sheltered here by members of the New York-based Chinese Alliance for Democracy. The nonprofit group is made up of scholars and students from the People's Republic of China studying in foreign countries. The Chinese government considers it counterrevolutionary.
Sun, who speaks little English, described his plight last week to a small group of reporters, most of them from Chinese-language newspapers here. He said he regrets being unable to go home to his wife and 10-year-old son, but feels that he has no choice.
In a subsequent interview, Sun said, "I don't know what they will do to my family. There are no laws regarding this in China. I can't look up the penal codes and see what they will do to my family. It depends on their needs. It's also no use to ask for the government's mercy."
On Sept. 21, 1986, the schoolteacher quit his job in Shenzhen, a small town on the South China Sea, packed a sleeping bag, a tent and some clothing and said goodbye to his family as he embarked on his around-the-world journey.
"It was my dream," Sun explained. "Everyone has a dream. You make sacrifices to attain it. I had to leave my family behind so that I could fulfill my dream."
But Chinese officials, Sun said, disapproved of his plan as aberrant and impractical. "I fought the government tooth and nail to let me go on such a trip," he said. "I finally convinced them that I would not be breaking any laws by traveling on my bicycle."
While the authorities reluctantly acquiesced, Sun said, they stipulated that he check in with the Chinese Embassy in every country he visits. "They don't really trust me. That's how they keep track of me."
When Sun started out with only the severance payment from his teaching job, he planned to see as much of the world as he could in two years, relying on donations from the overseas Chinese community.
"I live on about $2 a day," said Sun, who sleeps in his tent. "I buy bread from the local markets, sometimes a little milk."
Bicycling through rough terrain and drastic changes in climate, Sun has fallen seriously ill only twice in 370 days. "I spent four days and three nights in the Sinai desert and ran out of water," he said.
He learned a few lessons in world politics as well. "I had a hard time getting from Jordan to Israel to Egypt," Sun said.
Having endured a series of calamities, Sun never imagined that his casual remarks about student protests in his hometown of Shanghai would be his downfall.
"It is because I love my country and my people that I said certain things which offended the government and now put myself in danger," Sun said. "I said the government which does not grant its people freedom and does not respect the people's rights will sooner or later fall."
He doesn't know how the government learned of his remarks. But he was tipped off in the Paris urinal, where an employe of the Chinese Embassy in France alerted him to the government's displeasure and its plan to send him back to China.
He has since received several messages from China, relayed through Chinese consulates in Holland, France and the United States, demanding that he surrender immediately. After he repeatedly refused, Chinese authorities softened their approach and have unsuccessfully tried to persuade Sun to visit the consulate in New York and talk things over.
"They say I'm traveling the world as a representative of the Chinese people, that's why they're concerned about my actions," Sun said. "But why can't they deal with me when I get back, why must they hurry me home?"
Sun hopes to retain a lawyer and begin the process of applying for asylum. And he still hopes to go to Africa, which was to have been his next stop before he made his emergency detour to New York last week.
What will he do if he completes his ambitious undertaking? "I plan to settle in a suitable place, maybe New York or Los Angeles, and write my book," Sun said, suddenly sounding very American.