Courage, prayers sustain Episcopalian Chinese dissident's family

October 15, 2002

Christina Fu doesn't know if she will ever see her husband again. He took a risky chance in April and is paying for it with his freedom. He may pay with his life.

Yang Jianli, a 38-year-old father of two, member of All Saints Episcopal Church, Brookline, Massachusetts, returned to his native China in April on a 'borrowed' passport. He was caught. He made one phone call to his wife and has not been heard from since.

For 13 years, ever since the 1989 student massacre in Tiananmen Square from which he escaped, Yang has been barred from China. He's one of 49 dissidents blacklisted for outspoken criticism of the Chinese government and for promoting a change to democracy and constitutional law. No lawyer has been allowed to take Yang's case because he has not yet been charged. He was formally arrested on June 21, according to the State Department. He is being held in Beijing incommunicado, which, according to Amnesty International, is a violation of both Chinese and international law.

Yang's use of a friend's passport was a last minute decision, says his wife, Christina Fu. He'd planned the trip for months, but had intended to visit Nepal and Thailand and try to enter China through one of those countries. Instead he used the passport to enter directly through Beijing. He was determined to get to the Northeast of China where tens of thousands of workers have lost jobs, where manufacturing plants are closing. Yang, a Ph.D. in political economics, felt his writing and research depended on what he could learn firsthand.

'I didn't have a chance to discuss with him about all the steps… what to do if he was in trouble,' says Fu. 'I was most afraid that he would suddenly disappear and I would never hear him again.' As she tells the story, her nervous laugh turns into a gasp and words catch in her throat.

'On a Friday night, at 11 o'clock, I got a phone call. It was a terrible moment. The man didn't tell me who he was. The only thing he told me was ‘Your husband is in trouble at an airport in Kunming. He was stopped by the police.''

Later that night, Yang called her from a hotel where he was being held. He told her about his arrest. The next morning, she reached him at that hotel. He said to her: 'There are two police friends that are with me. They are very nice. I know I am not going to stay here for long. I will be transferred to another place.'

Those were the last words she heard from her husband.

A presidential visit

Fu, a researcher at Harvard Medical School, focuses her hopes on Amnesty International, efforts by her church, political allies found through her Harvard connections and her Massachusetts congressmen. All believe a scheduled visit to the United States by Chinese President Jiang Zemin could be a help. They have organized press conferences, mailings and literature to coincide. Zemin's visit is scheduled October 25.

Yang, who also holds a Ph.D. in mathematics, is president of the Boston-based think tank Foundation for China in the 21st Century. A member of the Communist party during his undergraduate days in China, he became an outspoken supporter of democracy after his exposure to Western thought at the University of California in Berkeley in the 1980s. Yang wrote and spoke widely about the need for reform in China and was one of the founders of the Foundation, which publishes and broadcasts its message into China and across the world.

In 1989, when students in Beijing were facing the wrath of the Chinese government, Yang organized mass protests in front of the Chinese Consulate in San Francisco. He demanded government dialogue. He started raising money for the students. On May 9 of that year, when the Chinese government declared martial law in Beijing, Yang decided to travel to China, to deliver the money he had raised. He was present with the students in Tiananmen Square on June 4 and has said that he saw more than 20 people killed that day.

'That's really where he changed his mind about the Communist Party,' Fu told the Boston Globe.

Since then, Yang has helped draft a democratic, federal constitution for a free China, organized forums for Chinese scholars with the Dalai Lama, created a book series which is distributed secretly within China and initiated 'The Voice of China,' a short-wave, clandestine radio program that has been broadcast into China every day for the past 10 years.

‘Pray for me every day'

'When my husband left, he told me, ‘Whatever happens just pray for me every day and … I want our children's lives normal.' ' Fu does pray for him every day and so do friends from All Saints.

Her prayer and her confidence in her husband's strong faith keep her centered. 'I know he went to China with peace.'

On Aug. 23, Amnesty International issued an 'urgent action appeal' about Yang Jianli. The report, sent worldwide, cited fears for his safety. Amnesty urged its members to send appeals immediately to China's minister of foreign affairs, minister of public security and ambassador.

'Most urgent action appeals are on behalf of people who may be being mistreated, need medical care,' says Joshua Rubenstein, Amnesty's northeast regional director. 'In Jianli's case, we don't know where he is.'

Rubenstein says the purpose of the letters is to make the authorities aware that people all around the world are watching and waiting to find out what will happen. 'And we will eventually know what happens to him.' In the past, China has denied political activists fair trials and has used torture, according to Rubenstein.

Archbishop and Noble Peace Laureate Desmond M. Tutu visited All Saints in May and met with Fu. Afterwards he wrote the Chinese ambassador to plead for Yang. The Massachusetts congressional delegation has done the same, as have members of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus.

Chinese activists, both in the United States and in other countries are protesting Yang's arrest. 170 of them issued a joint statement calling on the government to release Yang and 'abolish the blacklist.'

At All Saints, Fu's support group continues to meet weekly. The church recently published booklets with background information and letters of support.

In anticipation of the Chinese president's visit, supporters were operating 'at full court press,' said Julie Seavy, All Saints' director of religious Education and member of Fu's support group. The church sent more letters, gave out buttons with Yang's picture, conducted forums. U.S. Representative Barney Frank scheduled a press conference in Washington. The State Department requested Yang be released before the visit.

The occasion of the visit makes Yang's release more likely, according to Jerome A. Cohen, an expert on the Chinese legal system and former Harvard Law School professor. 'Nobody wants to mar a state visit … because a case like this is getting in the way,' Cohen told a Harvard Crimson reporter.

‘My hope never dies'

So many people have been supportive that it is hard for Fu to talk about it without tears. 'A lot of people, really a lot, have helped. That is why my hope never dies,' she says. 'I tell people, any help is big. Right now you don't know what can trigger them to release him. So anything you can think, just do it.'

Even in this time of worry and waiting, Fu lives with a sense of peace about her husband. 'I know he can deal with the interrogation… with the solitary confinement. He was prepared. I know, through prayer, he can sustain there. And for me to have peace, real peace, is just to pray for him.'

To help, write to Ambassador Yang Jiechi, Embassy of the People's Republic of China, 2300 Connecticut Ave. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20008; fax: 202-328-2582.