Summary and Current Status
Dr. Yang Jianli, a respected Chinese mathematician, economist, and pro-democracy activist, was arrested in April 2002 on charges of spying for Taiwan and entering China illegally. Following a trial that failed to meet international fair trial standards, he was convicted and served a five-year prison sentence in its entirety. He was released from prison on April 27, 2007, but initially denied permission to leave China and return to the United States, where he has permanent legal resident status. He was finally reunited with his wife and two young children in Boston on August 18, 2007.
Yang Jianli, who earned an M.S. degree in mathematics from Beijing Normal University in 1985, came to the United States in 1986 to pursue further graduate education. In 1991 he received a Ph.D. in mathematics from UC Berkeley and, in 2001, a second Ph.D. in political economy and government from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. He has a wife and two young children, all three of whom are U.S. citizens.
In 1989 Dr. Yang went to China to support the prodemocracy student demonstrations in Tiananmen Square. After testifying before the U.S. Congress, upon his return, about the military’s use of violence to quell the student demonstrations, he was banned from China. He subsequently helped found and is president of the Foundation for China in the 21st Century, a prodemocracy organization which, among other activities, organized conferences of international experts and scholars. At the time of his arrest Dr. Yang was also involved in ongoing research with Harvard University faculty on formal models of voting systems and efficient mechanisms for income transfer.
The Chinese government refused Dr. Yang’s repeated applications to renew his Chinese passport, thus arbitrarily depriving him of his citizenship. In early 2002 he went to China, using a friend’s passport, to investigate reported widespread labor unrest. On April 26, 2002, he was arrested in the southwestern city of Kunming. For more than 14 months he was held in solitary confinement without charge and without access to his family or legal counsel. During that time the U.N. Human Rights Commission’s Working Group on Arbitrary Detention examined his case. In May 2003 it concluded that “the failure to observe Yang Jianli’s right to a fair trial” was of such “gravity” as to render his detention “arbitrary.”
The CHR undertook Dr. Yang’s case because he was deprived of fundamental rights during his lengthy pretrial detention and was convicted following a trial that failed to meet international fair standards, including that no credible evidence was produced to support the charge of espionage. The CHR recognizes that it was illegal for Dr. Yang to enter China using a false passport. However, the fact that he was arbitrarily deprived of his citizenship and thus unable to legally return to his country of origin—in contravention of international human rights norms including Article 13(2) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 12(4) of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights—was viewed by the CHR as a mitigating factor. Concern for Dr. Yang’s well-being was heightened as well by reports that his conditions of confinement were harsh and that he suffered a stroke in 2004.
It is widely believed that Dr. Yang’s release and the decision four months later to return his passport to him came about in part as a result of numerous appeals from the international science and human rights communities, scholars from Dr. Yang’s alma maters, Harvard University and the University of California at Berkeley (UC Berkeley), and direct interventions by President George Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, Jr.