The Corner

A Useful Life

In today’s Impromptus, Part VI of my “Oslo Journal,” I mention Jianli Yang, who gave a talk about Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese political prisoner who is the 2010 Nobel peace laureate. I’d like to take the opportunity, here in the Corner, to “brag on” Jianli for a second. That’s an expression I picked up from Bill Clinton: “brag on.” It’s one of the few positive things he ever brought me.

To see a transcript of Jianli’s remarks in Oslo, go here. His organization is Initiatives for China (“Advancing a peaceful transition to democracy . . .”) — go here. Finally, to see a piece I wrote on him in 2007, after he had been in a Chinese prison for five years, go here. A couple of paragraphs:

It was in 2001 that Yang visited the offices of National Review. . . . [H]e was remarkable 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 Czesław 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. 

As I say in my journal today, Jianli Yang could have a very comfy life, here in America or elsewhere in the West. He’s a big ol’ brain — Ph.D. in math from Berkeley, Ph.D. in political economy from Harvard. Many sinecures, on many campuses, would be available to him. Not to mention opportunities in business.

But he spends every day in the trenches, working for a free and democratic China. He wouldn’t have it any other way. The other week, I said to him, “There will be monuments to you in a free China.” He said (of course), “I don’t want any. I just want Mao’s down.”


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