Members of the Harvard community agitating for the release of Yang Jianli, a recent Harvard doctoral graduate held by the Chinese government since April 26, finally received information related to the imprisoned dissident last week.
The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs told the U.S. embassy that notice of Yang’s arrest will be issued to his family soon, although they did not say when that will be. The ministry also disclosed that Yang is being held in the Beijing City Public Security Bureau Detention House.
In the nearly three months since Yang’s arrest, his brother in Beijing and wife and two children in Cambridge have not received word from the Chinese government as to his whereabouts or the charges against him.
Family members have been unable to speak with him or to obtain legal representation for him.
Supporters say Yang’s arrest violates international law, which maintains that keeping a prisoner in isolation for more than a month is cruel, inhumane and degrading.
Under Chinese law, notification must come within 24 hours of a suspect’s detention, unless it would interfere with the investigation. But once family members are notified, defense lawyers in China ready to take Yang’s case will be able to act.
Yang, who was banned from China following his involvement with the 1989 pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square, was detained 10 days after he entered China on a borrowed passport. He reentered China to observe the recent labor unrest that had erupted after millions of workers were laid off in the northeast area of the country.
Yang, who is so far only under investigation, will most likely be charged for crossing the Chinese border illegally, according to a statement issued by the U.S. State Department on July 1.
Because this charge is less serious than conspiracy against the government and because his case has generated great concern in the U.S., Yang could be released within the next few months, according to former Harvard Law School Professor Jerome A. Cohen. Cohen is an expert on the Chinese legal system and serves as legal adviser to Yang’s wife in the U.S.
Yang’s wife, Harvard Medical School researcher Christina X. Fu, has successfully used Harvard connections to recruit a number of supporters in an attempt to secure her husband’s release.
University President Lawrence H. Summers was aware of and concerned about Yang’s case before his visit to China last May. According to a source familiar with details of the trip, Summers raised the issue with both Chinese and American officials while in China.
In May, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) wrote a letter to the Chinese embassasador urging that Yang be released. A month later, he and 11 other members of Congress, including Sen. Edward M. Kennedy ’54-’56 (D-Mass.), wrote again.
Fu was helped in enlisting support in Washington by Yang’s former graduate school classmate, Jared Genser, who works for Freedom Now, an organization which helps to free prisoners of conscience world-wide.
Genser was also able to get Fu in touch with Cohen for legal advice. Coincidentally, Cohen had already met Yang when he attended a lecture Cohen gave on political detainees in China.
According to Cohen, the more prominent officials who support Yang’s case, the better his chances for release—though the case will still have to go through the Chinese legal process.
“The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs takes in all these signals from abroad. If there is enough support behind the case, there will be an effort to try to get it off the agenda of Sino-U.S. relations,” Cohen said.
Chinese President Jiang Zemin is scheduled to visit the U.S. this October, making Yang’s release more likely.
“Nobody wants to mar a state visit by not being able to turn to important issues because a case like this is getting in the way,” Cohen said.
And Yang’s ties to Harvard will also likely aid in his release.
“China cares a good deal about Harvard,” Cohen said. “In low-profile cases, the Chinese government can get away with [illegal detention without trial]. In this case, in the long run, they cannot get away with it. But in the short run, it’s going to require a lot of work from Christina.”
Dedicated to Democracy
Yang heads the Boston-based think tank Foundation for China in the 21st Century, which advocates for democracy and constitutional rule of law in China—a more research-based approach to his pro-democracy work.
He had previously been an active dissident in the U.S, chairing the U.S. branch of the Federation for Pro-Democracy in China.
While running the foundation, Yang was also working towards a doctorate, studying mathematical approaches to politics with Ramsey Professor of Political Economy Richard J. Zeckhauser ’62.
Yang holds a Ph.D. in political economy from Harvard and a Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of California, Berkeley.
Fu said that Yang was transformed after his experience with the Tiananmen Square protests into someone “completely dedicated” to his cause.
“I really don’t understand why he had to go back,” she said of his trip. “But he had been studying and doing research. He was so far away when something was going on, and he wanted to be there.”
Fu said her husband saw the movements in the northeast as on par with the rallies of 1989.
“He said, ‘I don’t want to wait till I’m 50 years old to do something,’” Fu said. “He had been so frustrated and so depressed, having no control over what he could do [because he was banned from the country].”
Fu, at home with her and Yang’s two children, said most people cannot understand why Yang felt he had to leave for China—including her seven-year-old son, Aaron.
“He feels bad when people ask him if his father is in jail. I have to tell him that things are different in China,” she said. “A good person can be in jail.”
—Staff writer Eugenia B. Schraa can be reached at email@example.com.