PAINTER Fan Zeng returned to China from Paris yesterday to end three years of exile, after being assured by Chinese authorities he would be free to travel. The 55-year-old artist insisted his decision to return was not politically motivated, and was confident he would not be persecuted despite his harsh criticism of Beijing during his exile. Fan, who fled China in 1990 ''to seek freedom of expression and creativity'' in the West, claimed yesterday he was driven to return because of his ''deep oriental roots''. But he said the main reason was that he would be able to divorce his wife in China after three years' separation. ''According to Chinese law, either party can apply for divorce after three years of separation. But of course, I hope I can resolve it through settlement instead of going to court,'' he said. ''But I must say, this is the main reason why I decide to return now.'' Fan denied his decision had anything to do with patronage by Chinese leaders, such as the Chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, Li Ruihuan. ''My relationship with Mr Li is pure, ordinary friendship. I have made no request to see him and I have no plans to meet him after my return,'' he said. According to Fan, arrangements were made with Chinese diplomats in Paris, who had assured him he would be welcome to return to Nankai University, in Tianjin, and was guaranteed freedom to travel. His close friend Nan Li, who has stayed with him in Paris during the past three years, would join him after divorce proceedings were completed. Yesterday, Fan was tight-lipped about the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. He claimed he wanted to ''stay away from politics'' and ''devote his energy'' to the arts. ''I absolutely refuse to talk about June 4,'' he said. ''June 4 was 1989, I left China in 1990,'' was all he would say about the political movement. Instead, he praised Beijing for its economic achievements and said the current situation was ''stable and moving forward''. ''This is not easy to have such an outstanding economy while the rest of the world is at its lowest ebb.'' Fan, formerly head of the Oriental Art Department at Nankai University, reportedly made generous donations to Beijing students during the 1989 pro-democracy movement. He was once described as the second most prominent Chinese figure to have defected since the military crackdown, after the former director of the New China News Agency in Hongkong, Xu Jiatun. Although Fan has kept a low profile in the dissident circle in Paris, his ''homecoming'' marked an end to the so-called ''Paris clique'' as Chinese activists gradually moved their centre of activity from France to the United States.