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Case file:Detained in action - Yang Jianli

February 20, 2003


US-based democracy advocate Yang Jianli argued in September 2001 that exiles should cross the barriers to joint activism with people inside the country. In April, he put himself to his own test by returning to China on a borrowed passport, and was detained. He has been held incommunicado since then.





Yang Jianli, a prominent exiled democracy activist, has been detained without charge since April 28, 2002, when he was caught using a borrowed passport as he attempted to board a flight in Kunming, Yunnan Province. The last time Yang returned to China was when he went back to participate in the 1989 Democracy Movement. After the crackdown, Yang left for the United States. In retaliation for his outspoken opposition to the government’s policies, Chinese consular officials refused to renew his passport when it expired, effectively making Yang stateless and preventing him from visiting China again. This was his first trip to China since 1989.

A native of Shandong Province, Yang, 39, moved to the United States in 1987 to study for a PhD in mathematics at the University of California at Berkeley. After the June Fourth massacre, Yang became vice president of the Federation for a Democratic China, one of the major exile organizations set up in the wake of the crackdown. He currently heads the Foundation for China in the 21st Century, a Boston-based group established in 1998 which advocates democracy and rule of law. The Foundation ( arranges discussions among China experts and scholars and publishes a book series “China in the 21st Century.” While heading the Foundation, Yang simultaneously worked toward a second PhD in political economy at Harvard University. Yang also established an electronic weekly magazine “ChinaEweekly” ( in August 2001. Yang has consistently advocated a non-violent approach in the struggle for democracy and human rights in China.

In April 2002, using a Chinese passport borrowed from a friend, Yang traveled to northeastern China to investigate the massive worker protests that broke out in several cities there in March. He was detained in Kunming when he was about to leave China. To date, his family has been given no information about the reason for his detention or where he is being held. But in response to inquiries by the US government, the Chinese Embassy in Washington stated in a July 1, 2002, letter to the State Department that he is currently being held at a Beijing Public Security Bureau detention center, and was charged on June 21. No details were given on the nature of the charge.

No family member has had contact with Yang since he was detained, nor have they been provided with a copy of any detention order or arrest warrant. In violation of Chinese law, the police have failed to notify Yang’s family of the reason for his detention, and the place he is being held. Lawyers will not accept a case until the authorities have issued a formal criminal detention order. Since the police have not adhered to legal procedures or provided the necessary documents, Yang’s family has been unable to hire a defense lawyer for him.

Yang’s wife, Fu Xiang, who is a US citizen, traveled to China in May to find out about her husband’s situation, but was detained at Beijing Airport on May 22 and was deported soon after. Yang’s elder brother has been tirelessly knocking on doors in Beijing to try to find out the details of his brother’s case and ensure he has proper legal representation, all to no avail.

The main reason for Yang’s incommunicado detention is not thought to be the passport offense, which carries only a one-year sentence according to the Criminal Code, but his involvement in the 1989 protests and his efforts to join exiles and activists inside China in working towards a peaceful transition to democracy. The way in which his rights to due process under Chinese law have been ignored call into question whether he can possibly receive a fair trial.

Below are edited excerpts of two of Yang’s English-language articles, both of which were originally published on the Web site of the Foundation for China in the 21st Century.






Countering China’s tactic of separating domestic and oveseas pro-democracy movements
April 10, 2002


In the same way they dealt with all previous attempts at peaceful petition and peaceful resistance, the Chinese Communist authorities have once again charged that the four petitioners [Yao Fuxin, Pang Qingxiang, Xiao Yunliang and Wang Zhaoming] detained for representing the laid-off workers of Liaoyang were “colluding with overseas hostile elements” or “accepting support from overseas hostile forces.” The authorities used these charges not only to emphasize the seriousness of the offenses they were accused of—this is partly a pressure tactic devised to force them to confess—but also to weaken any empathy and support ordinary people may have towards the accused. These charges are also part of a strategy that aims at severing the ties between domestic advocates and overseas democracy supporters. To avoid being labeled, many advocates of democracy in China resort to “purification” in order to avoid being affiliated with any such entity. Their fear stems from a reluctance to give the Chinese Communist authorities additional excuses to persecute advocates more severely. Each time such an incident occurs, the overseas supporters also clam up, rendering all previous ideological, organizational and financial groundwork useless. Unfortunately, this has been one of the dominant tactics that has enabled the Chinese Communist authorities to kill three birds with one stone, and has been hard to counter.

The grim consequences of going against these prohibitions set by the Chinese Communist authorities have long plagued the minds and actions of overseas pro-democracy activists; it is akin to having their hands tied behind their backs. If this tactic of dividing domestic and overseas pro-democracy movements cannot be overcome, our efforts will amount to no more than just lobbying foreign governments.

Many overseas friends have been trying to figure out ways to break this pattern. Most democracy advocates believe that communication with people in China should be secretive or low profile, and that there should be more communication during quiet times and less so when activities are under way. They believe that publicly we should deny all connections. This way of dealing with the authorities, in my opinion, may be mistaken. In reality, our communication and collaboration with each other contains little that is secret. In particular, when concrete steps toward democratization are under way, how can we keep a low profile? When in action, we need to increase our communication, collaboration and support. If we stop our communication with each other during those times, we are stepping right into the trap.

The habitual mode of thinking should be abandoned. The best way to avoid this withdrawal is to communicate more openly and loudly with our colleagues in China. The more open the communication, the less justifiable the accusation of conspiracy. With increased frequency and broader communication, the less possible it is for the authorities to single anyone out; the grander the scale, the greater the impact; the more specific and above-board the content of communication, the harder it is for the authorities to prove that there has been any harm to state security, when our actions clearly show that we are petitioning for the people. In this way, the Communist authorities will have a harder time making charges of "conspiracy with overseas hostile forces" stick.

To be even more effective, overseas pro-democracy activists should parallel these activities with actual attempts to enter China. Claiming that it is a crime to communicate with "overseas hostile elements" implies that overseas elements are the most guilty party. This also implies it would be less of a crime to return home and become "domestic hostile elements" that are ready to stand in place of the original "domestic hostile elements" and take the punishment.

The current situation can be changed only by open-minded thinking and commitment. The overseas pro-democracy movements cannot wait any longer.







The principle of non-violence and peaceful protest movement
Speech at the 4th Chinese Overseas Democracy Movement Round Table Meeting,
January 26, 2002, Washington, DC



…On some occasions in the past, I compared the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regime to a table with three legs. It looks very stable, but it will collapse as soon as one of the legs is broken. Then what are the three legs? One of them is the loyalty of corrupt CCP officials, businessmen and even intellectuals. The second is all of those CCP lies.

And the third is state terrorism. State terrorism is a tool that facilitates control through the constant and systematic use of state machinery to manufacture terror and violence. China today is an example of a society under state terrorism. In these types of societies, ordinary people's human rights are severely impaired or even taken away. This includes the so-called right to subsistence that the CCP has claimed to have greatly improved. Can't we argue that what the CCP ruling elite regularly pilfers from society, as a result of exchanging power for money and an unfair distribution of wealth, is exactly what the ordinary people need for their right to subsistence?

Under such conditions, what should the democracy movement do to help? We can continue our efforts to refute the arguments of the CCP dictatorship and to advocate democracy, to lobby foreign governments and media to continue their support for us and in nominating appropriate figures for the Nobel Peace Prize. These are all important things to do. However, for a long time we have not engaged in political actions that impact on policy-making, challenge the government and are directly involved in rebuilding the system. In other words, we need a set of rules and actions that match our goal of constitutional democracy…

It appears to me that the most urgent step is to promote a non-violent protest movement in China. We know that China has evil laws, policies and regulations as well as corrupt, vicious and cruel government officials. People who are victims of a corrupt, vicious and cruel system should unite together to engage in non-violent protests. They should create professional associations that can freely voice their interests to the public in order to force compromises from the authorities. Of course, there will be crackdowns on non-violent protests, but violence would be suppressed with much more brutality. Cracking down on non-violent protests will place the authorities in an unfavorable position and trigger more protests, domestic or foreign. It may even split apart the ruling party into different factions. This will generate more and more pressure on the regime and act as a catalyst for more opportunities for political change in China. There are plenty of works on non-violent protests published overseas. I feel that one of the important things the overseas democracy movement should do is to introduce these ideas to China.

From the angle of a constitutional democracy movement, we are still in the process of creating "external pressure on the ruling regime.” In fact, all we have done in the past few decades, including most of what we are doing today, is generating external pressure. When the external pressure for a representation of various public interests is great enough, the process of "taking part in governing" will follow. This is the process by which we will have the opportunity to use available mechanisms to present the interests of the public to policy making circles inside the system and to solidify these interests at the level of the governing system. This will then ensure that public interest groups have more space to take part in governing. These two processes may in fact coexist for a long time and one may help the other. When these processes have affected the system for a substantial period of time, we will finally arrive at the process of "constitutional democratic governing," which insofar as we can see now is the ultimate solution for China. t

Compiled by Jennifer Rockwitz.




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