Leader of the Chinese

Jian-li Yang, democracy activist, after five years in prison

Jian-li Yang is a face of the new China — or rather, what many hope will be the new China: free, democratic, and respectful of human rights. He is one of the leading democracy activists of the Chinese people, and one of the leading democracy ac¬tivists in the world. From April 2002 to April 2007, he was confined to Chinese prisons. There was once a book about the American Civil War: Across Five Aprils. Yang had six Aprils. He recently returned to the United States, where he has been living since the 1980s (when not in Chinese prisons). His story is well worth knowing. I will provide a kind of synopsis.

He was born in 1963, in the province of Shandong, northeastern China. His father was a Communist-party official; his mother was a homemaker. There were nine children in the Yang family, one of whom died at age two or three. Yang doesn’t know for sure. This child, a girl, died in a famine, and his parents were always reluctant to talk about it.

Jian-li was a precocious, independent-minded youngster, and he had many complaints against the Communist system. He aired these complaints at the dinner table (when there was food), much to the consternation of his father. “My father always loved me,” says Yang, “but he was careful not to let others know what I said at home.” Yang’s father could neither read nor write, but Jian-li was a brilliant scholar. He went directly from the Chinese equivalent of junior high school to college, at the age of 15. He took a degree in mathematics at a Shandong teachers college, then went to Beijing Normal University, for a masters degree in math.

While in Beijing, he was a Party official, in charge of student affairs. He was given to believe that he was the youngest person to rank so high in the Communist hierarchy. What had happened was, General Secretary Hu Yaobang had called on young intellectuals to join the Party: to give it fresh blood, and change it from within. Yang heeded this call. But, in time, the Party asked him to collect information on his fellow students, and to shape their ideas and activities. “I suddenly felt that I was only a tool of the oligarchs.” So he decided to go to the United States for doctoral studies.

He went to Berkeley, and was immediately struck by the beauty of the Bay Area. “The air was so clean, I could actually see the sun.” It had been hard to see the sun in Beijing, because of the fog of pollution. Even more, he was struck by the freedom that people enjoyed. He got his Ph.D. in math — under an adviser who was “a hippie,” reports Yang. “He had long hair, and he wore jeans and sandals. That was a big surprise to me!”

In the spring of 1989, the student movement in China broke out, and it did not take long for the government to start applying harsh measures. Yang, in California, could not sit still. He flew to Beijing to do what he could, and, in fact, he helped lead the movement. In the first week of June, the government performed its massacres. By the time the killing stopped, thousands had lost their lives, not just in Tiananmen Square, but elsewhere in China. In a general chaos, Yang left the country, flying back to the United States.

While at Berkeley, Yang was instrumental in setting up a foundation: the Foundation for China in the 21st Century. That was in 1990. And then, when he moved to Harvard, he took the foundation with him. At Harvard, Yang earned a second Ph.D.: this one in political economy. And his work on Chinese democracy and human rights increased.

It was in 2001 that Yang visited the offices of National Review. He had organized a conference on interethnic conflict in China, and wished to talk about it. He had enlisted the help of the Dalai Lama and many others, prominent and not. In our offices, he was re¬markable for his cheerfulness, intellect, and what you might call natural, easy leadership. I asked him what book best described the situation of Chinese intellectuals. He answered, quick as a flash, “The Captive Mind, by Czeslaw Milosz” (the great Polish poet and anti-Communist). Thus we see the commonality of Communist, and anti-Communist, experiences.

Later, Yang also mentioned to me several other books: two by Orwell — 1984 and Animal Farm; Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago; and, above all, Les Misérables, Victor Hugo’s classic. “I love it for many reasons,” he said. First, there was Jean Valjean, “who grows so much” and “who is loving to so many people.” Second, there was Bishop Myriel, who demonstrates stunning humility and charity. “I could never come close to being a person like him, but he is my model. Whenever I think of him, I think how distant I am from him. I try to be like him, but it is impossible.” Others might disagree with Yang.

A word about his family life: In 1985, while still in China, Yang married Christina Fu. Like her husband, Christina has a Ph.D. in mathematics; she is a researcher at the Harvard Medical School. Christina is a U.S. citizen, while her husband has long had the classification “permanent resident.” They have two children: Anita, 15, and Aaron, 12.



Yang did not touch down in China from 1989 to 2002. His passport expired in 1991, and he tried to have it renewed, but was of course denied. He was high up on the Chinese government’s blacklist. But “I never stopped thinking of going back to China, to do our work, to advance democracy, to use my education and gift from God — whatever — for the good of China.” In the spring of ’02, there was labor unrest in the country’s northeast. Workers contacted Yang and asked for his help. He wrote some strategies for them. Eventually, however, “I felt a need to be there — just as I had felt in 1989, when the student movement started. I simply had to be there. So I planned my trip back to China.”

He returned in April 2002, on someone else’s passport. He had no problem negotiating the airport in Beijing, and he stayed in the capital for a few days. He did not contact any friends or colleagues, however: “I was prepared to be arrested at some point, and I didn’t want anybody to get into trouble,” on account of having met Yang. While in Beijing, he talked to workers — manual laborers — and took notes. He also went to a key site in Tiananmen Square, “where I had silence for a number of minutes.”

Then, by train, he went to the northeast, where he stayed in the homes of various laid-off workers. From there, to the southwest, where he planned to exit China on the Burmese border. “There were some people waiting for me, to give me help and smuggle me out through boat to Thailand.” But he was caught by the authorities: They had discovered the falsity of the national ID card he was carrying.

At this point, a harrowing several hours ensued (followed, of course, by five years that included much that was harrow¬ing). Again, I will synopsize. At first, Yang was taken to a hotel, while the authorities sought to learn who he really was. The hotel room was on the first floor, and security was relatively light. He jumped out the window, escaping. This was at 3 in the morning.

Yang found that he could not go to his original border meeting-place — by the time he got there, the authorities would be there, in place of his friends. His notes, filled with incriminating information, had been confiscated. Yang thought of making his way to the Vietnamese border, along a route somewhat known to him: He had helped colleagues escape in this fashion before. “But suddenly, when I was the one having to do it, it felt completely different.” It felt harder, infinitely harder. Yang then thought of going to Beijing, and, specifically, to the American embassy. But he remembered that he had come to China expecting to be arrested. Would he flinch from it now? In addition, he had come to assert a right to return — to return to one’s own country, to be on one’s own land. Going to the embassy would appear somehow craven.

So, sometime between 7:30 and 8, he jumped back through that window, into the hotel room — and waited to be taken away.



He was taken to Beijing, and put into Qincheng Prison, which Yang describes as China’s Bastille. He was held without trial for 14 months. He was cut off from “meaningful human contact,” as he says, and subjected to abuse both physical and mental. He was made to sit, unmoving, four hours a day, staring at a wall two meters away. This is standard practice for Chinese Communist jailers. For two weeks, Yang was handcuffed unceasingly. Once, they beat him for praying. (He had ignored their orders to stop. Yang is a Christian, incidentally.) The worst of it was an interrogation technique: “I was totally consumed by worry when my interrogators hinted that Christina and my six-year-old son had been taken into custody. I was so worried I almost collapsed.”

The trial, needless to say, was a sham. They charged him with spying for Taiwan — one of the usual charges trumped up by the government for dissenters. Yang refused to answer any questions at trial, on several grounds: First, the game was rigged; second, China was violating its own written laws and procedures; third, the trial was secret, not open — Yang never accepted the legality of it. He did, however, submit two statements: eloquent, inspired, and, in a way, over¬powering. They not only examine the spe¬cifics of Yang’s case but call on China to be a better self. The court sentenced him to five years, starting from the day of his arrest, April 27, 2002.

One of his stops before his final prison was Tian Tang He, a transfer station, whose name is “ironic,” Yang explains. It means Heavenly River — and Tian Tang He is one of the most hellish places in China. It is known as the country’s harshest prison. In it, however, Yang was basically let alone. The reason was that he had been diagnosed as having had a “mild stroke” while in a previous prison; and his case was high-profile, attracting significant international attention. So the authorities decided against brutalizing Yang: It was too great a risk. All the other prisoners, Yang says, underwent “constant physical and psychological torture.”

Yang served the final two and a half years of his sentence in Beijing’s Pri¬son No. 2. As before, his treatment was lenient, though he was put into solitary confinement for four months: He had been denied the right to see a lawyer, and, in protest, he had refused to wear prison clothes. In general, however, he was a privileged prisoner, being so high-profile, and he used his privileges for good.

Fellow prisoners in his section respected and looked up to him; and so did the guards. The prisoners were not “politicals,” by the way. Rather, they were common criminals, not excluding murderers. Was Yang ever scared of them? “No. I believe that everybody deserves respect, so I accorded them their dignity, as human beings. I also felt that, if I was kind to them, and helped them, everything would be better.” They came to him for all sorts of help, especially with education: He taught them in English, math, economics, and anything else they wanted. He gave lessons in Chinese calligraphy. He also gave five lectures on logic, and wrote a textbook. “Logic is necessary in the search for truth,” he says. He even coached a basketball team. Everyone in his section was treated decently, in relative terms, because of Yang’s presence there. After his departure . . . things surely deteriorated.

Yang won’t say it, but he was obviously a moral leader in prison. In February 2003, I wrote the following about him, at National Review Online: “I knew, when I was with him — even though he was young and rather jolly — that I was in the presence of a great man. . . . His cellmates — if he has cellmates — will sense his greatness too.” And so it must have been.

Shortly after he arrived at Beijing Prison No. 2, in early December 2004, Yang arranged a celebration for Christmas — a celebration that he shared with five others. Then, he formed a Bible-study group, in which 20 or 30 people eventually participated. “I helped baptize three of them.” None of this was formally permitted, of course. But the guards did not report it to their superiors, not wanting trouble from them or from Yang, who would have protested any crackdown.



All the while, people around the world — especially in the United States — worked for his release. Foremost among them was Christina, who followed in the tradition of Avital Sharansky and many other wives of political prisoners. The U.S. Congress passed resolutions. President Bush raised the issue with his Chinese counterpart at least three times, says Yang. And Yang was aware of all this activity in his behalf. It made him doubly determined to do something “excellent” while in prison. Like what? Like thinking and strategizing “all the more, night and day,” about how to secure a decent future for China.

In September 2006, he was offered early release, but he refused to take it, because the government would not meet two conditions: He wanted the right to return, whenever he wanted — that is, he wanted a Chinese passport. And he wanted, before leaving China, to visit his father’s grave. His father had gone to live in America in 1998, and, in 2004, had returned to China, to try to win Jian-li’s release. He was then 94. He was too ill to see his son, however, and died in Shandong, aged 95. The authorities did not force Jian-li onto a plane back to the United States. They did not want an international incident. The prisoner served out his term, until April 27, 2007.

And he came back to the United States on August 18, having visited his father’s grave, and carrying a valid Chinese passport. It expires in 2017. So, he can go back to China whenever he wants, right? Yang answers, “In theory.”

Already, he is hard at work, once again leading the Foun¬dation for China in the 21st Century. That foundation is short on cash but very long on spirit and intellect. With his two Ph.D.s and huge talent, Yang could have made a fortune in the private sector; but he has a different calling, simply put. He says that his five-year prison experience “had value”: “I emerged from it a better person and a stronger person.” Celebrations by Chinese in the United States have been jubilant and tearful. I believe I can tell that Yang has been through an ordeal; but I also know that he will fast resume his stride. He’s getting to know his family again, and with his kids — now five years older than when they last saw him — it will take some time. But it will come. His English, once perfectly fluent, will return too. “My kids will have to teach me!” And it’s getting better by the day.

Yang has a big aim for China: constitutional democracy, human rights, the rule of law. I mention that a lot of people think that Chinese people don’t want such things — that notions such as freedom and democracy are Western, alien to the East. His response is a mixture of weariness, contempt, and utter refutation.

President Bush, in his much-attacked second inaugural address, said, “Democratic reformers facing repression, prison, or exile can know: America sees you for who you are: the future leaders of your free country.” Is that true of Jian-li Yang? Is he a future leader of a free China? That may be too much to hope for, but he is without question a leader already.

— This article first appeared in the October 8, 2007, issue of  National Review.


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