Summary and Current Status
Dr. Jiang Yanyong, a 73-year-old, semi-retired military surgeon and Communist Party member, was quietly released from house arrest in China on March 22, 2005. While he is reportedly in good health, we understand that Chinese authorities continue to place restrictions on his freedom of expression, including forbidding Dr. Jiang and his family from speaking with the press.
In 2003 Dr. Jiang received national and international recognition when he wrote a letter to the Chinese media alleging that the Chinese government was covering up the gravity of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic. His letter forced the government to publicly reveal the true extent of the epidemic and to take life-saving public health measures.
Dr. Jiang was arbitrarily detained on June 1, 2004, and held in a military facility in Beijing until July 19, 2004, when he was placed under house arrest. According to the Chinese government, Dr. Jiang allegedly violated military discipline when he wrote a letter to Chinese government officials urging them to publicly state that the June 4, 1989, military assault on civilians in Tiananmen Square was a mistake. He was never charged with a crime.
After completing his undergraduate work at Yenching University in 1952, Dr. Jiang studied medicine at Peking Union Medical College. He graduated in 1957. He had joined the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in 1954 and, upon completion of his medical degree, he was assigned to the army’s No. 301 Hospital in Beijing. He was named chief surgeon of the hospital in 1987 and worked there full-time until his retirement in early 2003. He rose within the PLA and holds a rank similar to general in the West. He is a Communist Party member.
Shortly after he retired, Dr. Jiang learned from medical colleagues about an increasing number of SARS cases and deaths in Beijing. Despite the danger of an epidemic, Beijing’s hospital officials were reportedly warned by their superiors not to speak publicly about the spread of the disease. In April that year, after China’s health minister Zhang Wenkang announced SARS figures that grossly understated the facts, Dr. Jiang wrote a letter to the Chinese media alleging that the government was covering up the gravity of the epidemic and revealing figures that he had obtained from trusted colleagues that were much higher. As a result of his actions, the World Health Organization and other Chinese doctors and scientists corroborated his information, the minister and the mayor of Beijing were fired, and a massive public health campaign was launched.
For his efforts in helping avert a health crisis Dr. Jiang became well-known in China and abroad. He was briefly lauded as “China’s pride,” and Time magazine named him its 2003 Asian Newsmaker. Dr. Jiang downplayed the importance of his own actions, applauding China’s leaders for their “marked progress in the fight against the epidemic.” To explain his actions Dr. Jiang simply stated, “I am a doctor. If I see a human life at stake, I will intervene.”
In February 2004, Dr. Jiang wrote a second letter to the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, legislative and advisory bodies controlled by the Communist Party. In this letter he called for an official reassessment of the 1989 military crackdown in Tiananmen Square and described his own role on June 4 treating wounded civilians. While Dr. Jiang reportedly asserts that he had no role in circulating his letter to the media, it was published shortly thereafter by the New York Times and other publications.
When the letter became public, Dr. Jiang and his wife, Dr. Hua Zhongwei, a medical researcher, were reportedly immediately placed under surveillance. It was not until June 1, 2004, however, that they were detained—while on the way to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing to pick up their passports stamped with the visas required for a planned trip to visit relatives in the United States. They were among dozens of Chinese citizens who were detained in the days just prior to the 15th anniversary of the June 4, 1989, military assault on civilians in Tiananmen Square.
Dr. Hua was released on June 15, 2004. Dr. Jiang, however, was kept in detention in a military facility in Beijing where he was required to write daily “thought reports.” Chinese authorities reportedly showed his wife seven pages of reflections by Dr. Jiang that they claimed were confessional in tone. Although no charges were brought against him, the Chinese government said that Dr. Jiang needed to be “helped” and “educated” by the military because he had allegedly violated military discipline. According to press accounts, the decision to detain Dr. Jiang, despite his popularity in China and his international profile, was taken at the highest level by the Central Military Commission with the consent of the president of the People’s Republic of China, Hu Jintao, and then-president of the Central Military Commission, Jiang Zemin.
On July 19, 2004, seven weeks after he was arbitrarily detained, Dr. Jiang was released from military custody. However, he was immediately placed under house arrest and remained deprived of his basic freedoms of movement, association, and expression. According to his family, while Dr. Jiang was investigated by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), he was kept under constant surveillance, and he was not permitted to leave the compound where he lived unless he was accompanied by security guards. Reports indicate that he was allowed to treat only one patient, a retired senior official who has been his patient for many years.
It is believed that both domestic and international pressure played an important role in the Chinese government’s decision to release Dr. Jiang from detention and from house arrest. According to accounts in the press of interviews with unnamed Party officials and conversations with friends of the Jiang family, government officials were divided about how to deal with public criticism of the CCP by a respected and well-known figure. The government’s handling of the case—its decision to detain Dr. Jiang, to then place him under house arrest while the CCP investigated his case, and finally to release him without charge or reprimand—reflects this lack of consensus.
Dr. Jiang’s case received considerable international attention. According to press accounts then-U.S. National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice raised his case with the Chinese leadership on her visit to the country in July 2004. He was released from house arrest on March 22, 2005, during U.S. Secretary of State Rice’s second visit to China. In August 2004 Dr. Jiang received the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service for “his brave stand for truth in China, spurring live-saving measures to confront and contain the deadly threat of SARS.” (This award was established in 1957 by the trustees of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund based in New York City “to commemorate the late president of the Philippines and to perpetuate his example of integrity in government, courageous service to the people, and pragmatic idealism within a democratic society.”)