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Yang Jianli, the pro-democracy activist imprisoned by the Chinese government on undisclosed charges more than a year ago, was indicted last week on counts which could result in a life sentence, his wife and her lawyer said. The indictment was followed this Wednesday by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s unanimous approval of a resolution calling for Yang’s release.
Yang, a graduate of the Kennedy School of Government, was seized in April 2002 after entering China using another person’s passport. His trial on charges of espionage and visa violations is expected to start by the first week of August.
Christina X. Fu, Yang’s wife, said the trial would be closed to the public, and she expressed concerns about its procedures.
“It doesn’t look like there will be any witnesses,” she said.
Jared Genser, Fu’s attorney, said the trial’s participants were ostensibly limited to three judges, two prosecutors and a court recorder in addition to Yang and his lawyer, Mo Shaoping. But Genser suspected the courtroom would have more than eight people in attendance.
“I’m sure there will be observers from the Chinese government,” he said.
And though he intended to ask the U.S. government to request an American observer at Yang’s trial, Genser said he thought the chances of that were slim.
Genser and Fu singled out the charge of espionage—based on misdeeds Yang allegedly committed more than a decade ago—as entirely unfounded, and said it had come as a complete surprise.
“He didn’t expect espionage at all,” Fu said.
Among the infractions alleged in the indictment, Genser said, were working as an agent of a Taiwanese group to disseminate pro-democracy messages in China and distributing a total of $400 for purposes including papaya-farming.
“Even if you accept them on face value as being true, it’s just not the kind of thing anyone would see as rising to the level of espionage,” Genser said. “It’s the work of a pro-democracy activist.”
Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., who has been active in governmental efforts on Yang’s behalf, said he thought a problem with definitions might have led the Chinese government to level such a serious charge.
“They may have a somewhat different view of espionage than we do—an exchange of information,” Frank said.
Alternately, suggested Frank, the espionage charge might have resulted from belated Chinese attempts to maintain a semblance of fairness in Yang’s treatment.
“Something more than simply crossing the border may be necessary to justify having held him this long,” he said.
Genser presented a more sinister explanation for the charge.
“We see this as a very sad example of the Chinese government continuing to prosecute someone with whom they disagree,” he said.
But those close to Yang were unsure of how to interpret the arrival of the long-delayed indictment.
“It could be prospectively good news in that it means the Chinese legal process is swiftly coming to a close,” Genser said. “The intense pressure on the Chinese government has clearly caused them to move more swiftly than perhaps they might have liked.”
In addition to the Senate committee’s resolution—which Genser said he thought would come before the full Senate within the week—that pressure included formal condemnations in recent months from the U.N. and the House of Representatives.
Frank echoed Genser’s tentatively positive note, calling the indictment “in a perverse way good news.”
“We were very unhappy that he was being indefinitely held,” he said.
Genser said one major advantage that would normally come with indictment in a case like Yang’s—the privilege to see a lawyer, which is extended to those formally charged with an offense—had already been granted in Mo’s meetings with Yang this month.
“There are no additional benefits beyond the benefits we’ve already seen,” Genser said.
When Yang saw Mo this week, said Fu, the two planned for his defense—and Yang also gave his lawyer a personal message to relay back to Cambridge.
“The lawyer called me at 3 a.m.,” Fu said. “I thought it was something really important.”
Instead, she said, Mo had rung her up with birthday wishes for Yang’s son, who turned eight yesterday.
Genser worried that despite mounting international disapproval of China’s human rights record in cases like Yang’s, the ideal moment for an indictment to be handed down might not yet have arrived.
“From our perspective, this is not the best time for this case to be coming to a close,” he said, citing “ongoing tension” and frustration in high governmental circles. “Right now there’s not a lot of dialogue about human rights going on.”
Jeffrey M. Jamison, a spokesperson for the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, said cases like Yang’s made China’s current human rights record a mixed bag.
“There has been progress in certain areas, but there’s been fairly disheartening backsliding in the last few months,” he said.
But Genser said that Yang’s supporters were stepping up their “behind the scenes” efforts in Washington, encouraging officials to write confidentially to Beijing on Yang’s behalf regardless of such obstacles.
“You can’t really choose your timing in these things,” he said.
And Genser added that Yang had not been fazed by his treatment in the last year.
“His spirits are high and he’s looking forward to having his day in court, despite the fact that it’s taken 13 months of incommunicado detention as well as a couple more months of waiting,” he said.
Genser said any legal defense strategies were hampered by the Chinese government’s insistence on treating Yang’s case as an internal matter involving state secrets.
And once the trial gets underway, he said, anything could happen—and a trial of a sort which generally comes to a quick conclusion could drag on for months before a verdict is released, denying Yang any resolution the indictment might seem to bring to his unsure situation.
“There is no certainty in the Chinese legal system,” said Genser. “Just because they have certain practices or laws in the books, there is no guarantee of those practices or laws being followed.”
Jamison said that the outcome is still very much unsure for Yang.
“We’ve noted throughout this case that the Chinese need to uphold standards of human rights, due process and rule of law,” he said. “We’re still waiting to see signs that they might actually do that in this case.”
Ultimately, Frank said, it is in China’s own interest to leave any shadowy precedents behind as soon as possible.
“China wants to be seen as a great nation,” he said. “It’s not becoming of them to seem so afraid of this one guy.”
—Staff writer Simon W. Vozick-Levinson can be reached at email@example.com.
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