Dr. Yang's American Freedom

The Right Stuff

I had the privilege last Thursday of speaking with Dr. Yang Jianli’s wife, Christina Fu of Harvard Medical School. Yang, as most students are now aware, is the Kennedy School of Government graduate and pro-democracy activist held prisoner by Chinese authorities since April 2002. Fu indicated that a belated verdict in her husband’s “trial” is expected within the next few weeks.

Toward the end of our conversation, she said that “before my husband left [to study labor unrest in northeast China] he told me, ‘The U.S. government will help me. I’m an American permanent resident.’” Yang has indeed received an outpouring of support from Congress and the Bush administration since his imprisonment became known. Yet he is still not a free man.

The moral imperative of gaining Yang’s liberty is self-evident. But as Fu’s remark subtly underscores, his case is larger than one brave man’s ordeal in a PRC dungeon. It involves the value of American citizenship and permanent residency—or, more precisely, the degree to which the State Department defends citizens and U.S. nationals from injustice, harassment and arbitrary detention abroad.

China is a particularly egregious violator of Americans’ rights. John Kamm, the founder and executive director of the San Francisco-based Dui Hua Foundation, has worked on several cases of Chinese-Americans unlawfully detained there (including that of Fong Fuming, a businessman from West Orange, N.J., who was released by Beijing just last week). Kamm writes in an e-mail that, according to his source in the U.S. embassy, “there are approximately 50 American citizens in Chinese prisons or detention centers.” In a country with no transparency in its legal system and no respect for human rights, each of these cases should raise concern.

Besides Yang, the most high profile detainees are Dr. Wang Bingzhang and Dr. Charles Li. All three were tried or convicted on trumped-up charges of either espionage or subversive intent. The United Nations has officially declared the incarcerations of Yang and Wang to be arbitrary and illegal.


Li is a U.S. citizen; the other two are American permanent residents. Wang, who has lived in New York since 1982 and whose four children are American citizens, was abducted from a Vietnamese hotel by PRC agents in June 2002. Often referred to as “China’s Nelson Mandela”—among other achievements, Wang founded the China Democracy Party in 1998—he has been sentenced to life in prison.

John Kusumi, executive director of the China Support Network, argues that State’s efforts to persuade Beijing to free these men thus far have “added up to empty words.” “The agenda, the timing, [and] the proceedings” related to Yang’s case, he tells me, have all “been driven by China.” Fu says, “I feel that [State officials] can do more, but I know they are trying very hard.”

State may be trying, but its efforts on behalf of Yang and the others haven’t been nearly aggressive enough. Moreover, as a conciliatory gesture to Beijing, U.S. diplomats chose not to introduce a resolution condemning China’s abuses at last April’s meeting of the U.N. Human Rights Commission. Some good that did.

We’re certainly a long way from the time when Theodore Roosevelt delivered his blustering ultimatum “Perdicaris alive or Raisuli dead” after a Greek-American was taken captive by a Moroccan outlaw in Tangier. Of course, Foggy Bottom needn’t necessarily use such provocative language with Beijing. But State must make it clear that enforcing American rights is the highest priority of the U.S. government: a matter of national security even.

For those who think that the despotic jailing and kidnapping of Americans abroad is unrelated to the war on terror, remember that the opening salvos in the Islamists’ crusade against the West were fired when a group of Iranians seized control of the U.S. embassy in Teheran in 1979. For the next 444 days they held dozens of Americans hostage, while Washington appeared impotent.

Likewise, throughout the 1990s American soldiers and civilians were murdered overseas without any real consequences for the killers. Then 3,000 people were massacred on our own soil. As William McGurn has written in National Review, “If we have learned anything since September 11, it is that all Americans become vulnerable when we send the signal that others can molest our citizens abroad without repercussions.”

Dominant Western powers have historically understood this point. Both the Roman and British empires, for example, took a great interest in the security of their subjects traveling, working or living in foreign lands.

Consider the story of Don Pacifico, with which every student of nineteenth-century Britain is undoubtedly familiar. Pacifico was a British citizen living in Greece. In 1847 a horde of Athenians burned down his home during an anti-Semitic riot. British foreign secretary Lord Palmerston eventutally responded with a naval blockade of the Greek coast. Addressing the House of Commons shortly thereafter, Palmerston proclaimed, “As the Roman in days of old held himself free from indignity when he could say ‘Civis Romanus Sum’ [‘I am a Roman citizen’], so also a British subject, in whatever land he may be, shall feel confident that the watchful eye and the strong arm of England will protect him against injustice and wrong.”

Now, America today is obviously not the British Empire. But perhaps Foggy Bottom could begin acting in a slightly more Palmerstonian manner vis-à-vis those Americans unjustly detained abroad. Indeed, if Dr. Yang Jianli is still locked up when Chinese premier Wen Jiabao visits Washington next month, it would be nice if State officials at least reminded Wen that “the watchful eye and the strong arm” of the United States are not to be trifled with.

Duncan M. Currie ’04 is a history concentrator in Leverett House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.