Exclusive Interview with Doctor Jianli Yang on His Perilous Battle Against the Chinese Communist Government

Prior to the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, experts on the human rights situation in China such as Dr. Jianli Yang testified before the House Subcommittee on Global Human Rights. In their testimony they called on President Obama to be aggressive on the issue of such abuses in China in his upcoming meeting with Chinese President Xi Jingping.

NEW YORK – “I have a first-hand understanding of the great American saying, ‘freedom is not free. It must be earned’ because I have personally experienced and witnessed the horrors of living in a Communist country, where freedom does not exist”, Dr. Jianli Yang, 55, an adviser to more than a dozen human rights organizations, an author and an internationally recognized leader in the fight for democracy in Communist China, stated to me during a recent interview.  

As I learned from my prior research on the life of this courageous man, and as I later further learned during our interview, Yang was telling the truth about his first-hand understanding of the horrors of communism. For Yang, 55, that understanding came when he was just a 3 year old boy living with his father, Fengshan, then a local party chief, his mother, Li, and his 5 siblings in Shangdong Province, China.    

“I was sitting in my house when I witnessed from the window a group of wild men savagely beating my father with their hands and feet for what seemed to me to be forever. They beat him mercilessly, but apparently not to kill him, because he was still breathing when they then carried him off and took him away in their cart”, Yang sadly recalled.   

At 3, Yang, of course, could not at the time comprehend the circumstances surrounding the savage beating his father had endured, but he was to later learn when, at 6, he started his first year in grade school.   

“For kids, beginning with their earliest years in school, all they heard about was the ‘Cultural Revolution’ and how it was being run by young people who just wanted to renew the revolutionary spirit of China… I was able to figure out that it was those types of people who had beaten my father and taken him away”, Yang stated.  

 The “Cultural Revolution” (known in full as the Great Proletarian Revolution) Yang referred to was launched in 1966 by the Chinese dictator and mass murderer Chairman Mao.  Mao – who since he had taken power in China in 1949 had already been responsible for the genocide of approximately 60 million Chinese citizens – had come to believe that a large number of party officials and many ordinary citizens lacked a true understanding of Communism.

Mao’s solution to this perceived crisis was to imprison people of all professions and cultural backgrounds in what became known as re-education camps. There, these poor souls were tortured while being indoctrinated with the teachings of a new, “purer” form of Communism, known as “Maoism”. While Maoism and the Cultural Revolution finally came to an end with the dictator’s death in 1976 (but tragically not Communism itself), that end came too late for most of the countless millions of the imprisoned people who were murdered at the hands of the Maoists.

Fortunately, there were millions of others who survived. One of them was Fengshan, who returned home to his family in 1971 when Yang was 8 years old. Explaining the political circumstances surrounding his father’s release from his imprisonment in what was known as a “countryside labor camp”, Yang said. “Those who the Communists perceived to be unrehabilitatable enemies of the revolution were killed. But my father, like many others from similar backgrounds, was not seen that way. Rather, as a local Communist official, he was viewed as a friend of the Revolution, a friend-in the sordid thinking of the Communists – who needed to be re-educated in order to simply make him a more devoted Maoist. It is hard to believe, but that is exactly how they thought”.

Believing that they had accomplished their goal, government officials began to view Fengshan to be once again a trusted leader in the local Communist Party committee; as a result, he was reinstated to the position of local party chief, and granted even additional power and status. Fengshan’s return to the good graces of the party made Yang feel very proud to be his father’s son, and, also very appreciative of the accompanying improvement of his family’s living conditions. “With the new power my father was given our lives improved dramatically.  For the first time, we had enough food to eat and enough coal to keep our shack warm… Everyone in the county knew of my father’s importance in the party and showed him great respect.  I felt very proud to have a father like that”, Yang avowed.

That feeling would be tested in 1971, just one year later, by a chance meeting Yang had with a small group of Chinese laborers. Describing that experience Yang stated, “I would often take short walks by myself outside the town. One day I saw a group of construction laborers on a hillside using a huge hacksaw to cut a hole in the largest rock I had ever seen. I became even more interested as I heard them singing traditional Chinese worker’s songs as they flexed their saws.”    

That interest motivated Yang to walk a few yards over to introduce himself to the laborers and ask them some questions about their work. “They were very friendly and seemed happy that a little boy like me had shown an interest in the work they were doing.  As we started to talk, they told me they were using the rocks they were cutting to build a new road and new houses. I was excited to learn something I had never known before”, Yang recalled.

But for Yang that feeling of excitement would soon turn to a feeling of unrest. “Just to be friendly, they asked me what my name was and what my family name was. When I answered their question, they suddenly grew silent. Their sudden silence confused me. I became even more confused when after they returned to work they once again started to sing songs”, Yang recalled.  “And in their songs I heard my father’s name, and the laborers, shockingly and embarrassingly to me, were singing very unkind words about him. I could only question why.”

The workers eventually agreed to answer that question, but first Yang had to take a vow of silence. “I begged them to tell me why they seemed to hate my father. At first, they were unwilling, but after they made me swear to silence, they told me. What I heard I will never forget: They informed me that they hated my father even before the Cultural Revolution because he was a powerful, feared and brutal local official; and, upon his recent reinstatement, they told me, he had become even more powerful more feared and more brutal. And they angrily added that the Communist Party that had empowered my father was responsible for mass starvation and the killing by the government of millions of innocent people throughout China”, recollected Yang.       

While Yang explained that he was dismayed by what he had learned about the terrible role his father played as a Communist official, he was still too young at the time to fully understand their description of the man he so loved.  “The way they had described my father conflicted in my mind with the wonderful, caring man I loved. So I realized what they had told me about my father and the Communist Party he worked for was beyond what an 8 year-old could comprehend”, he stated.      

In 1975, just 4 years later, there was a flood in a village several miles from his home which indirectly brought the horrors of Communism to his ears and eyes, in a way that he could not fail to understand. As Yang explained to me, his father, as a top local government official, was charged with organizing and overseeing the relief effort. As a fatherly gesture of love and respect for his son, he took Yang with him.

For Yang, it was an experience that would remind him of what the group of laborers had told him four years before. “I had never been so far away from my own town, which because it was a home to many party officials had, while still primitive, far better living conditions than almost all other areas in China. So I was unprepared for what I saw”, Yang remembered.  

“The flood” he continued, “was bad but manageable. What was not manageable were the  conditions of the people living there, which, I learned, had been going on for decades.  I saw mothers, fathers and their children trying to survive without enough food to eat, without running water to clean themselves, without electricity to keep them warm, without enough clothes to cover their bodies, and without beds to sleep in.”

Yang then explained why he was shocked by the horrid conditions he had been exposed to for the first time in his life. “It was the opposite of what we learned in school, where we were taught the Chinese were the luckiest and happiest people on earth thanks to the leadership of Chairman Mao and the Communist Party.  I then remembered what the laborers had told me years before. I realized they were telling me the truth about Communism. And it was my father who was lying”, Yang asserted.

When several weeks later, Yang returned home, he confronted his father about what he had just witnessed, explaining that it had given him for the first time in his life a true understanding of the horrible human suffering caused by communism. To his father, though, Yang noted, such talk was unacceptable. “My father would not listen to my criticism of the Communist Party”, he stated. “So we argued every night across the dinner table. He even called me a ‘counter-revolutionary’ – a charge that if made to government officials would have resulted in my imprisonment, and even death”. 

Nor could Yang count on the support of his mother, and other members of his nuclear family.  As Yang explained, “To show my sympathy for the people (in the village he had just visited) who slept without beds, I removed my own mattress and began sleeping on a straw mat. For that, my mother called me crazy.  And my sister, Jianhua, who I told about the need for a peasant uprising, called me crazy warning if the government found out I was saying such things, I would be in trouble.”  

Still, from the age of 12- 15, the fear of being “in trouble” with the government did not prevent Yang from performing acts against it which could have resulted in his death. “Unlike other children of government officials, I did not cooperate with the government. Rather I went against the government, by choosing to help the people who were suffering under Communist rule”, he stated.

One extremely dangerous example Yang offered on how he opposed the government to support the rights of his fellow countrymen pertained to the Communist’s prohibition against any form of free trade.  “As the son of a father who was a Communist official, it was assumed that I would help the police set up raids to capture and arrest those [farmers], who dared to sell what they had harvested, items such as grains, peanuts and fruits”, he explained. 

“But” he added, “before each raid was to take place, I secretly informed the traders, who were peasant farmers just trying to feed their hungry families, what the police had planned…. I had a  feeling of great pride knowing it was my warnings which saved these good people from being arrested and sent to prison, or maybe, even sent to their deaths.” 

Yang’s covert and dangerous work on behalf of the farmers would be short- lived. A mathematical genius, Yang had skipped three years of his primary grades and in 1978 was accepted into one of China’s most prestigious colleges, Liaocheng Norami College, located almost two hundred miles from his home. For Yang it was an experience that elicited conflicting emotions.  “I felt privileged to be accepted into college at such a young age… I majored in mathematics and had good professors to teach me. Yet, I felt I had let down the peasant farmers, because I was living far away, I was no longer able to help protect them from the government”, he bemoaned.  

In 1982, after graduating with a B.S. in mathematics from Liaocheng, Yang was accepted in the graduate mathematics program at the academically renowned Beijing Normal University. It was in 1984, while in the middle period of his studies there, that Yang was confronted with a second profound internal conflict.  As Yang explained, “I had many friends in graduate school, who were as anti-communist and as pro-freedom as I. However, some felt that the only way to reform the Communist Party, the only party allowed in China, was from within. So they joined the party with the goal of changing it, and asked me to follow them. It was the most difficult decision I ever made, but I agreed.”       

But Yang soon came to regret that decision. “It did not take long for me to realize that it was a classic case of wishful thinking on my part to believe that I could change the Communist Party from within”, he reflected. “The more I became acquainted with communist officials, the more I realized that they would never abandon communism and would never allow the people of China to be free.”

Yang himself, though, unlike his fellow one billion countrymen, was himself two years later to enjoy freedom for the first time in his life when he came as a visitor to the freest country on earth. “In 1986, I was accepted into the Ph.D. mathematics program at UC Berkley. I can still vividly remember my first few days in America, as I felt the fresh, beautiful air of freedom for the first time in my life”, he stated.

For the next three years, Yang. while not forgetting about his suffering countrymen, had his Ph.D. studies as his main focus- until history intervened. In the spring of 1989, thousands of Chinese students staged a series of peaceful anti-government demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, a city located in the center of Beijing. Seeing an opportunity to help win freedom for his countrymen, Yang left his studies and returned to China to join the protests.

Yang Jianli in Beijing on the night of June 3rd, 1989, during the crackdown of the Tiananmen students. Photo credit: Citizen Power Initiatives for China

Yang was to become both a participant and an eye witness to an impending tragic historical event.  Ordered by the Chinese Communist Army to show no restraint, government soldiers used rifles and tanks to murder thousands of protestors. Yang, though, was among the fortunate protestors who survived the massacre and was able to return to America.

Not surprisingly, Yang believes that his memory of the tragedy he witnessed at Tiananmen Square will remain with him forever. “I will never forget the sight of so many young men and women, just college students who should have had years of life waiting for them to live and enjoy their lives, lying dead in the street. I thought of how their parents will grieve for them. And I felt almost guilty to be among the lucky ones to survive…. This terrible tragedy reignited in me my commitment to fight the communists and win freedom for my country”, said Yang.  

It was a commitment that he was to keep. Even while he studied for his Ph.D. in mathematics at U.C. Berkley which he earned in 1991 (he was also awarded a Ph.D. in Political Economy by Harvard University in 2001), Yang made appearances on television and gave lectures on college campuses around the country, describing the horrors of life in Communist China; in addition, he established Foundations for China in the 21st Century, an American housed anti- Chinese Government, pro- democracy organization. As a result, he became even better known and even more hated by the Chinese Government, which after Tiananmen Square had banned him from ever returning to his home of birth.  

As Yang explained, “The days following Tiananmen Square the government issued a prohibition banning me from ever returning there.  And after they became aware of my public attacks against Communism, they hated me even more. I was seen as an enemy of the revolution, a traitor”, he recalled.   

But in the spring of 2002 there was another anti-government protest which made Yang decide to defy the ban, despite the dangers he faced from the Government. The protest took place in the country’s industrial northeast, where farmers, whose land the government had expropriated and construction laborers and blue-collar workers who asserted they were being treated as slaves by the government, took to the streets. “I had the same feeling with this protest, as I did at Tiananmen Square 13 years before”, said Yang. “I felt compelled to join my brothers and sisters in their struggle to be free.’’

Using fake ID to hide his identity, Yang defied the ban and entered China. For the next two weeks, he met with many of these protesters, documenting their mistreatment at the hands of the government, he told me, so he could bring them to the attention of the American public when he returned to his adopted country.

But that was not to be. As originally planned, he attempted to slip out of China by leaving through the Burmese Border, joined with China on the northeast portion of the nation of  Burma. However, Chinese border guards discovered his fake I.D. and arrested him.

He was then taken to government authorities, who after discovering his true identity and learning of his recent anti-government activities, sent him to prison.  

For Yang, his time there was a hell on earth. “My mental condition deteriorated beneath endless isolation, repeated interrogations, and ongoing psychological and physical torture. I prayed and prayed to God for understanding of his purpose for me and for spiritual strength to sustain myself. I resorted to composing poems in my head and committing them to memory as a means of maintaining my sanity. Nearing a breakdown, I grasped on to my innermost resources of belief, imagination and will to fend off insanity and find a reason to live”, he reflected.       

It was to be his memories of the events he witnessed at Tiananmen Square which would give him the strength to maintain his sanity and preserve his will to survive. “I thought of my fallen brothers and sisters who died in Tiananmen Square. To honor their memory and be able to fight again for their cause, I vowed to myself to never give in to my Communist tormentors”, Yang stated.        

Yang was able to keep that vow he had made to himself. In 2007, after five years of pressure coming from American and international civil rights and political leaders, the Chinese Government set him free. “My way of thanking all of those wonderful people who fought for my freedom was to rededicate myself to the advancement of human rights and democracy in China”, he exclaimed. 

Yang did just that.  Within months after returning to America he founded the Citizen Power Initiatives for China (CPIFC). Located in Washington D.C., CPIFC, soon became and remains today, one of the leading organizations advocating for peaceful change from Communism to democracy in China. CPIFC, which, through its covert allies in China, collects evidence of human rights violations committed by the government against its citizens, and through the international media brings these abuses to the attention of the public and government officials throughout the free world.

Yang, who currently serves as the president of CPIFC, explained how the organization’s work has contributed to the cause of Chinese freedom. “We expose China’s deceptive claims that it is a free country… We have helped make the world realize that the only way democracy can be achieved in China is through ending the communist system, which by its very nature will always prevent its citizens from being free”, proclaimed Yang.   

Yang, the father of two now adult children, both born and raised in America, told me that he often thinks of his and their counterparts living in Communist China today. “Having my own children blessed with being born and growing up in America has been the greatest gift a loving parent can ever receive”, he stated. “But I cannot forget that in China there are parents who dream that one day their own children will also be free. I will continue my work until the day that their dream comes true.”

Let’s pray that it does.

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