Dissident Returns After Long Struggle
Tuesday, August 21, 2007
A Chinese political dissident and longtime U.S. resident whose imprisonment attracted the attention of the Bush administration finally made his way home from China over the weekend, after five years in Chinese jails and a four-month struggle to gain Beijing's authorization to leave the country.
Yang Jianli, a green-card holder and permanent resident of the United States, was arrested while traveling across China in 2002 for holding a fake identification card and traveling on a friend's passport. He was accused of spying for Taiwan, sentenced to five years in prison and -- in April of this year -- released into what he described as a Kafkaesque maze of red tape as he tried to obtain permission to rejoin his family in Boston.
Now that he's back, he said that he can't rule out future dissident activity, even though he worries about his wife and two children enduring further hardship.
"My experience solidified my belief in what I do and allowed me to reflect on how to carry out my work in the future. I emerged a better person," Yang, 44, said in a telephone interview.
Rights groups say China jails untold numbers of political dissidents each year, including many Chinese living overseas who are arrested upon returning to the mainland. Yang's case generated significant attention. He had earned doctorates in mathematics from the University of California at Berkeley and in political economy from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He ran a foundation in Boston that advocated democratic reform in China. He denied, however, ever being a spy.
Jerry Cohen, a China criminal law expert and professor at New York University Law School, said that although China does have serious cases of spying to worry about, other alleged cases such as Yang's are "preposterous."
Yang does acknowledge that he entered the country illegally in 2002. He had been a leading activist in the Tiananmen Square uprising of 1989 and had been blacklisted from returning to China. He returned, he said, to help in a labor rights movement in western China.
Yang described his experience in prison as arduous, especially in the beginning. For a year and a half, he said, he was forced to sit on a hardwood bench for four hours each day without moving. Once, policemen beat him with a club to force him to divulge information and sign statements he believed to be untrue. Another time he was handcuffed for two weeks, which forced him to eat, sleep and use the toilet with his wrists bound. For periods as long as eight months he was not allowed to go out for fresh air.
Despite the abuse, Yang said his time in jail helped him rededicate himself to his ideals and served as an unexpected education in human nature. To keep his memory from fading, he composed more than 120 poems in his head, he recalled. He shared a cell with common criminals and murderers, and said he convinced them of the need to fight for reform in China.
"The suffering is over. When you look back, I see the value of it," Yang said. "It actually put me in a situation where I could think of my family, my work, the future of China, and to reshape my ideas."
Jared Genser, a friend of Yang's from their days at Harvard, said Yang had a strong influence on him. They worked together in 1997 to organize protests against the visit of President Jiang Zemin to the school.
"It was then that I decided to go to law school and become a human rights lawyer," Genser said.
Years later, Genser found himself working to secure Yang's release. As founder and president of Freedom Now, a nongovernmental organization, Genser teamed up with Yang's wife, Christina Fu, to lobby Congress and the Bush administration.
"I wanted to help. For me to see Jianli reunited with his family at Boston Logan Airport made five years of hard work worthwhile just in one instant. To see all the anxiety melt away into a smile on Christina's face was tremendous," he said in an interview.
After Yang was freed from prison, Chinese authorities had refused to let him travel home, citing a regulation that previously had prevented prisoners from running for office or voting for a year after leaving prison, but that in Yang's case was broadly interpreted to keep him in China. An end to Yang's odyssey finally came when U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. made an appeal to his Chinese counterpart, Vice Premier Wu Yi, with whom Paulson has good rapport, according to U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Cohen, the China criminal law expert, said it has become much tougher in recent years for the U.S. administration to weigh in on the fate of political prisoners.
"They throw us a bone occasionally and use these cases to do so. We used to get much more cooperation when they wanted to get to the World Trade Organization and China needed leverage with the U.S. Congress," he said.
Fu, Yang's wife, was perhaps his most unlikely lobbyist. She said she had to overcome shyness to knock at the doors of legislators and U.S. officials. She did it, she suggested, because she believes in what her husband is doing.
"I love him deeply, and I know he has the passion and the ability. I respect him for that. I hope my ordeal will not be repeated, but I will be better prepared," she said. "I know what he is doing is out of love for China.