Surviving Tiananmen, Envisioning Democracy:
Yang Jianli in conversation with The Straddler

Yang Jianli, New York, 2014                                                                                    Photo: James Wrona

Yang Jianli is Founder and President of Initiatives for China, an organization dedicated to bringing about a peaceful transition to democratic governance in China. In 1989, he participated in the student demonstrations in Tiananmen Square. Several days after surviving the military crackdown, he fled the country. In 2002, he returned to China on a friend’s passport and, after being discovered, was sentenced to five years in prison on espionage charges. Upon his release in 2007, he returned to the United States. In 2008, he undertook a 32-day GongMin  (“Citizen Power”) walk from Boston to Washington, D.C., arriving on Capitol Hill for a rally on June 4, nineteen years after the crackdown in Tiananmen Square. In 2010, Yang represented the family of that year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, the imprisoned Liu Xiaobo, at the award ceremony in Oslo (an event noteworthy for the empty chair the Nobel Committee kept for the absent Liu).

On June 21, seventeen days after the 25th anniversary of Tiananman Square, The Straddler met with Yang on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

Yang Jianli, June 21, 2014
When the student movement broke out in the spring of 1989, I was a Ph.D. student in mathematics at UC Berkeley. I had come to the United States from China in 1986 as a very promising young member of the party, which I had joined in 1982, when I was nineteen, because the party’s then General Secretary, Hu Yaobang, had called on young intellectuals like me to help remake it. He understood better than most other party leaders that the younger generation had become disenchanted as a result of the Cultural Revolution, which was a ten-year period of turmoil and disaster in China between 1966 and 1976. Soon after I joined the party, I was promoted to the middle level.

But I soon found the hope that we shared with Hu was not realistic. We found that we didn’t change the party—the party changed us. I found myself watching and reporting on my fellow students. I didn’t like this very much, and I understood the politics behind it. During the Cultural Revolution, my father, who had also been a party official, had been sent to the countryside where officials and rebels took turns persecuting each other. I had seen quite enough of that. So I began thinking about trying to continue my studies elsewhere, outside of China. That's what brought me to UC Berkeley.

But before I came to the United States, the party trained me for a new job: watching Chinese students on a foreign campus. When I got to the US, I was supposed to register with the Chinese Consulate in San Francisco as a party official, and I was supposed to join the party’s activities inside the consulate. But I refused to check in, and they never came to me because there was some sort of bureaucratic mistake. The consulate in San Francisco didn’t know who I was. So I had no party obligations, and I just sort of forced myself to forget China’s politics because I didn’t see any hope there. I focused on my studies, and tried to be a good mathematician.

In the summer of 1988, a student movement took shape in China, and in response the government began to form a delegation of overseas students to bring back to China for a tour. Thirty students from overseas campuses were to be selected and shown the achievements that had been made in China over the past few years. It was a co-opting action by the government to try to bring young intellectuals into the fold.

I called a few friends and said we have to have a free election to choose the real representative from our campus to go back and let the top leaders understand our true situation. At that time, students overseas had a lot of problems that they needed the Chinese government to help resolve. For example, family members were not able to visit students overseas because the government prevented it in order to guarantee that students would return to China when their studies were done. There were a lot of things like this. My position was that if our campus representatives went back to China and had a chance to talk with top leaders, they had to truly represent us. They couldn’t lie and say everything is okay. My friends, who agreed with me, suggested that I put myself forward as a candidate. I did, and we ran an election on campus and I got elected.

The Chinese Consulate in San Francisco was shocked because nobody had any idea who I was. They were wondering where I had come from, and what I would do in Beijing in the meeting with the top leaders. They were so terrified that they removed me from the delegation list. This issue gained some attention from local media in the Bay Area.

The next year, a nationwide student movement broke out in the middle of April. It was triggered by the death of Hu Yaobang, and began in Beijing before it spread throughout China. When the students in Beijing began a hunger strike on May 13, people from all walks of life began to support the movement.

At UC Berkeley, Chinese students looked to me for some kind of leadership. I organized and led demonstrations in San Francisco calling for a national meeting of Chinese students in the United States. But I felt I couldn’t stay in the US any longer, and so I went back to China, arriving in Beijing two days after martial law had been declared.

Liu Xiaobo had gone back a month earlier. He had been on a short visa in the United States when the student movement broke out, and he went back right away. When I went back, I was carrying a letter of invitation for him from one of the academic institutes—I don’t remember which one—because we were afraid that Liu Xiaobo would end up in prison in short order. He was very outspoken, and his message was extremely radical. The invitation that I carried was an effort to get him out of China.

When we met in Beijing, I gave him the letter and told him that we thought he was in danger, and that he should leave the country as soon as possible. He told me that there were two reasons he could not leave: first, he felt that he had a responsibility to fulfil because he was probably the only university professor who could integrate with student leaders in Tiananmen Square; second, his passport had been confiscated, so he could not travel.

He told me that he was in the midst of trying to organize a hunger strike by university professors. The student hunger strike had died down after martial law had been declared, and the movement itself didn’t seem to have any idea what to do next. Liu Xiaobo wanted to reorganize the movement in a way that would generate pressure on the National People’s Conference, so he tried to get as many professors and scholars as possible to join him for the hunger strike. His goal was to get one hundred, but he had very few confirmed when we met. Because I, as a Ph.D. student, could be considered a professor, he asked me if I would join, and I said I would. The hunger strike began on June 2, on the morning after the Goddess of Democracy was erected in Tiananmen Square. But Liu Xiabo had only been able to get four people to join. His goal had been one hundred, so that gives you an indication of how the older intellectuals were wavering.

On the morning of June 3, the troops began their second move into Beijing. The government had tried to send troops to the center of Beijing in May, but that attempt had failed because they were blocked by people on the city's border. At that time, the troops didn’t have permission to open fire, so they just stopped. But now they were moving into the city. Over the loudspeakers we heard that they were coming, and that we should try to build barricades to stop them, which was very naive on our part. We went around the surrounding area looking for materials for barricades, and then returned to Tiananmen Square to build them. At about eight or nine o’clock that night, a small group of us decided to go back to campus to take a shower. Afterwards, most people in the group were so exhausted that they fell asleep and we couldn’t wake them up. Only two of us were awake, and we decided to go back without the others. We got on bikes going in the direction of Tiananmen Square, and that was when we heard the first gunshots from the west of Beijing.

I was shocked. The atmosphere had been extremely charged and tense, but to actually hear gunshots makes a difference. I told my friend that we shouldn’t continue because the situation was too dangerous. It was totally out of control. But my friend didn’t say anything—he just sped up on his bicycle. I thought, okay, if he goes, I go.

When we got to Tiananmen Square, we were stopped by troops who had entered and were opening fire. We tried to get very close. At one point, we were so close to the troops that we could begin shouting up to them in trucks. We were telling them not to shoot, that they had no idea what was going on here. We sang songs familiar to all Chinese in order to try and touch them. But when they received the order, they just opened fire. So we ran away. And then the rest of the day we were carrying bodies to the hospital. A person was shot in the head just three feet away from me. In all, we saw about thirty people killed.

In the morning, at about six or seven, we were able to move to another street and meet with other students who had retreated from Tiananmen Square. Liu Xiaobo and three other hunger strikers had briefly initiated a request to the military for negotiations for a peaceful retreat. As a result of this request, the military had agreed to allow about five hundred students to leave peacefully, and that was the group I met at the north side of the square. As we all started walking west out of the square, four tanks began to move very quickly towards us. The first one launched tear gas, and the second opened fire with machine guns. The third and the fourth just chased the students, who tried to move to either side to save their lives. Those who did not escape soon enough were crushed beneath the tank treads. We had no idea why this happened after they had allowed the students to leave peacefully. My guess is one of the leaders learned of this negotiation and became very angry and thought, “We need to create terror.”

A small group of us went back to campus together without knowing what to do. A day later, we decided we had to run. During the afternoon of June 5, we all said goodbye to each other. Each went his or her separate way to find a place to hide. There were no taxis, and transportation was shut down, so we had to find our own ways.

Because I had been in the United States, I had a passport visa and an airplane ticket. I was luckier than my friends, who didn’t have any of these things. I stayed for two nights in a friend’s house in the suburbs, and then managed to make it to Beijing International Airport by bike. The airport was extremely crowded—mostly with foreigners. Because the government hadn’t yet been able to reassert itself, the police weren’t coordinating with the central government, and they didn’t check anyone at the airport—they just said, “Go.” I actually had to go back to ask the police to stamp my passport because the plane was scheduled to stop in Shanghai on its way out, and if a stamp were missing from my passport during the check there, it might have created a delay.

In Shanghai I stayed at the back of the line during the passport check to see if they were going to make any arrests, but they didn’t. When the flight took off from Shanghai, everybody applauded. Thirteen hours later, I landed in San Francisco, where the airport was swamped with journalists looking for people coming from China who would talk about what was happening.

After Tiananmen Square, I was blacklisted by the Chinese Government and prevented from returning. My Chinese passport expired, and when I tried to get it renewed, the application was rejected. That meant my right to return was denied. And I was not alone. Many of my colleagues were in similar situations.

I remained in the US and continued my research and studies. I went to Harvard to get another degree. I also continued my activism, helping to found a few pro-democracy organizations, including Foundation for China in the 21st Century, of which I was president for many years.

In the spring of 2002, the labor movement broke out all over China—especially in the northeast, where heavy industry was stationed. A few leaders of the labor movement there made efforts to contact me because they wanted my help with nonviolent resistance strategies, which was a topic that I had written on extensively and advocated for relentlessly.

The question of how to integrate outside movements with democratic forces inside China was a very serious one. I felt that there was a big separation between the people back in China and the activists outside of China. At the same time, those of us outside of China were deprived of our right to return. I thought I could draw the attention of both the international community and the Chinese government to the right of return issue by traveling to China. I also thought this could help mobilize the people outside of China, who were a bit demoralized; we had been away from China for thirteen years with no real achievements to show for it.

Of course, I didn’t have a travel document, but I was able to enter China successfully by borrowing a friend’s Chinese passport. I worked with people in the northeast for two weeks, and then it was time for me to leave. I deliberately kept the timeframe short because I didn’t know how it would unfold. I went to the Yunnan Province in the southwest to try to leave China. A few people were waiting for me there to help me cross the border into Burma. The plan was for me to go to Thailand where a few people would help me get a legal document that would allow me to fly back to the United States.

But when I arrived in Kunming, which is the capital of the Yunnan province, trouble arose and I was taken into custody. Kunming Airport is where drug traffickers travel in and out of the “golden triangle,” and so the security personnel there are better trained than anyplace else in China. They discovered that I was traveling with fake identification, and eventually they learned my true identity. I was accused of espionage and illegal entry and put into detention.

During the two and a half years that I was detained before my trial, I was held in solitary confinement for nearly fifteen months. They would sometimes interrogate me for fourteen or fifteen hours a day without food. They forced me to sit straight for hours a day without movement. I got no books to read, no pen or paper, and no one to talk to except for my interrogators.

At the bogus trial, I was found guilty and sentenced to five years. Because I had already served two and a half years, I only had two and a half more years to serve. I had been detained in a detention center before the trial, but now they put me in a regular prison. Not long after I entered the prison, I got notice that they planned to release me as a result of negotiations between the Chinese and US governments. But it wasn’t until there was a little bit less than one year left on my sentence that this early release was actually offered. And it was based on the precondition that I leave the country without documents, and so forfeit my right to return.

I refused to leave under these conditions. I wanted to force the government to recognize that I am a Chinese citizen with every right to return home and remain home. I told the prison authorities that I would only agree to leave if my citizenship and my right to return and remain in China were recognized, but the prison authorities said they were not the decision makers, and they took me to the airport, where I was put in a five-star hotel room with a little bar that had been opened for me.

A US diplomat was there, and he got very worried when I demanded to negotiate because he understood how difficult it was to get an early release. It had taken tremendous effort on everybody’s part: my family, the White House, the State Department, Congress, international rights groups—all kinds of combined efforts, along with the cooperation of the Chinese government. Within the Chinese government, they needed four ministries to coordinate among themselves for my release. Finally the day came—and I was making a demand. The US diplomat was furious. But I was determined. So after three or four hours, negotiations ended without any progress, and I was sent back to prison where I served the rest of my sentence.

You ask me what is more difficult to think about now, Tiananmen or my imprisonment? When I look back at my imprisonment, it seems like it was nothing. Of course, I was very anxious during the first few months of my imprisonment, and I had a lot of regrets. But whenever I remember the scene of tanks running over students, it is something I cannot get over.

But two things really hurt me the most today. One is that the Chinese government has continued to be as brutal as it used to be. And it can get away with it. The international community and its own people allow it to happen. There have been a number of lost opportunities for the United States and the rest of the international community. The theory has prevailed that trade itself would bring political openness to China. There were people who truly believed this, but it also became a convenient explanation for many business people. Either way, I think this was major, major mistake.

Another thing is family. After I got out of prison, I stayed in Beijing for four months, and Liu Xiaobo and I talked about this very often. Our families did not choose the life they are living. They had to suffer together with us. Many families, like mine, end up separating. I feel very guilty about this. I left my son behind when he was five years old for five and a half years. And even after I returned, I was often too busy to spend enough time with him. That’s something more difficult than my being imprisoned.

Liu Xiaobo was detained for a little bit more than one year right after Tiananmen Square. And when he got out, he had one or two international visits and was then detained again. In 1999, he was sent to a labor camp for three years. He got out in 2002, just a few months before I went back to China. The current imprisonment for Liu Xiaobo is his fourth.

His being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize [in 2010] marked the international recognition of the sacrifices and contribution of the Chinese movement, which has been going on for many decades. This recognition is symbolically very important. And, of course, it was a great honor for me personally to be selected to represent his family at the ceremony.

But the honor also helps from a strategic perspective, because we need a recognized leader. The movement itself is fractured to a certain degree. People have different ideas and compete for resources. But the most important thing is to come together to help people in China form a viable movement demanding overall change. We are not there yet. But Liu Xiaobo’s winning the Nobel Prize was the first step forward. He is now the single recognized leader, and we should build a group of leaders around him who can represent the people, who can be trusted by the people, who can mobilize international attention and support, who can disrupt the political order, and who can engage in negotiations with the government.

The desire for freedom and dignity is intrinsic. Sooner or later, people will do something to demand these freedoms. The problem right now is that China’s government has created fear among the general public to deter them from taking collective action. The fear factor still works today. Whenever its effect is reduced, the government does something to bring it back—by making more arrests, for example. As far as I can understand, many members of the elite in China, although they act as apologists for the political status quo, know that democracy is good for China. They may not actually be afraid of democracy—what they’re afraid of is democratization. The process scares them. And as more and more problems accumulate, the process will become more unpredictable, uncertain, and even violent.

I don’t want China to become bloody. That’s why I believe the group of leaders who can really engage the political process—the ones I just described—are so important. That’s what I am working so hard to build. Without such a group, the dictators will eventually face mobs directly. What can you expect from that?