Chinese Pressure Dissident Physician
Hero of SARS Crisis Detained Since June 1
By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, July 5, 2004; Page A01
BEIJING -- Chinese military and security officials are forcing the elderly physician who exposed the government's coverup of the SARS epidemic to attend intense indoctrination classes and are interrogating him about a letter he wrote in February denouncing the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, according to sources familiar with the situation.
The officials have detained Jiang Yanyong, 72, a semi-retired surgeon in the People's Liberation Army, in a room under 24-hour supervision, and they have threatened to keep him until he "changes his thinking" and "raises his level of understanding" about the Tiananmen crackdown, said one of the sources, who described the classes as "brainwashing sessions."
But Jiang, who became a national hero last year after blowing the whistle on the government's efforts to hide the SARS outbreak, has refused to back down, and said in a recent note to his family that he would continue to "face the problems confronting me with the principle of seeking truth from facts," according to a person close to the family.
The standoff is the culmination of an extraordinary battle of wills that has been quietly unfolding for months between China's ruling Communist Party and an individual who has already challenged the authorities and forced them to back down once.
China's state-controlled media have not reported Jiang's detention, which began June 1. In response to questions submitted by The Washington Post, the government said in a brief statement: "Jiang Yanyong, as a soldier, recently violated the relevant discipline of the military. Based on relevant regulations, the military has been helping and educating him."
Though Chinese police routinely jail dissidents, the decision to detain Jiang appears to have been made by the Central Military Commission, the nation's supreme military body, with the consent of the party's most senior leaders, including President Hu Jintao and his influential predecessor, Jiang Zemin, according to a source familiar with the decision-making process.
The move represents a high-risk gamble by the leadership because of Jiang Yanyong's public stature at home and abroad. Photographs of his wizened face have been displayed on the covers of national magazines, and state newspapers have published articles crediting him with saving lives around the world by forcing government officials to confront the SARS epidemic.
If the leadership succeeds in silencing Jiang, it would send a powerful message to potential critics about its determination to crush dissent. But Jiang's detention could also trigger a backlash against a party already struggling to maintain its monopoly on power as there is rising social discontent. And if Jiang is not released, he would almost certainly become China's most famous political prisoner.
One senior military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said there was broad support for Jiang even within the party and that it will be increasingly difficult for the leadership to hold him as news of his detention spreads. "I consider him a man of honesty and courage," he said. "Ninety-nine percent of the people support him."
While the government indicated Jiang is being held for violating military regulations, military officials at the No. 301 Hospital of the People's Liberation Army, where Jiang works, have shifted responsibility for his detention to party authorities, a person close to the family said.
The officials told the family that Jiang, a longtime party member, was being investigated for breaking party discipline, the source said. When the family pressed officials to name which regulations Jiang had violated, one of the officials was quoted by the source as replying: "Not being consistent with the party's Central Committee."
The different explanations, and the fact that the authorities have not formally arrested Jiang or charged him with any crime, suggest some uncertainty within the leadership.
The first time Jiang risked his freedom by challenging the government, during the SARS crisis, the leadership also hesitated. But two weeks after his letter to the Chinese media exposing the SARS coverup was leaked to Time magazine, the party fired the health minister and the mayor of Beijing, dramatically raised its official count of SARS cases and launched a mass campaign to alert the public of the disease and stop it from spreading.
Jiang was ordered not to speak to foreign reporters and was put under police surveillance. But within a month, state-run media began publishing articles about him, a few carefully worded reports at first, followed by bolder profiles that praised him as the honest doctor who dared tell the truth about the outbreak.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company