Harvard scholar detained in Hong Kong

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Stephanie Ebbert
Globe Staff / August 6, 2008

A Harvard scholar and human rights activist who returned to Brookline last August after five years in a Chinese prison was prohibited from re-entering his homeland this week, just days before the opening of the Olympics in Beijing.

Jianli Yang, who was exiled after the deadly pro-democracy demonstrations in Bejing's Tiananmen Square in 1989, was among several dissidents trying to return to a country that is anxiously preparing itself for the eyes of the world. Yang said he was planning to participate in a human rights walk in Hong Kong and visit the mainland province devastated by an earthquake earlier this year, but was detained at the airport in Hong Kong, which will host equestrian events on Saturday.

"I want to challenge the authorities on the issue of the right to return home ... too, too many dissidents now don't have the right to return home,'' Yang told Reuters by telephone.

Initiatives for China, the pro-democracy group that Yang founded in Boston last year, asked the world community to condemn his detainment.

"I can assure you that all his papers are in order,'' said Jim Geheran, director of the organization's Washington, D.C. office.

According to Geheran, Chinese authorities -- bowing to international pressure -- had offered to release Yang from prison in 2006, a year before his sentence was up. He refused to go without his passport and served out his term.

"He served his whole sentence to walk out of prison a free man with his passport so that he would have the right, as a Chinese citizen, to return to China,'' said Geheran. "He wanted to do this not only for himself but for the hundreds if not thousands of Chinese people who are rendered stateless by the Chinese government.''

Activists around the world have seized on the Olympic spotlight to criticize Chinese human rights practices and to encourage their own governments to step up pressure. Last night, President Bush was expected to make pointed comments about China before heading there for the Games.

"America stands in firm opposition to China's detention of political dissidents, human rights advocates and religious activists,'' the president said in his prepared remarks. "We speak out for a free press, freedom of assembly and labor rights -- not to antagonize China's leaders but because trusting its people with greater freedom is the only way for China to develop its full potential.''

There was no word of whether he would mention Yang. However, Bush's press secretary said the U.S. would protest China's denial of a visa to former Olympic speed skater Joey Cheek, who planned to go to Beijing to encourage diplomacy in Darfur.

Yang lives in Brookline with his American wife and children and could have become an American citizen himself, but chose not to do so because he would like to return to a Democratic China someday, said Jared Genser, a lawyer with Freedom Now who has represented Yang in the past. Though he is not an American citizen, the US government encouraged his release from prison through diplomatic channels.

Initiatives for China, which is dedicated to coordinating pro-democracy groups in China and overseas, announced today that Yang had been blocked from entering Hong Kong, which was returned to Chinese rule in 1997. Yang entered a standoff with Chinese authorities who wanted to return him to Japan, where he had been attending a conference, according to Geheran.

Yang refused to leave, arguing that he has a valid Chinese passport and that barring him from his country would violate an article of the United Nations' International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which specifies that everyone should be free to enter or leave a country.

Though he was detained, authorities allowed him to keep his cell phone, Geheran said, and Yang was able to make calls from a guarded detention center where he was being held. Yang spoke with Geheran, as well as with Reuters, which quoted him as saying: "The autocratic security measures (in Hong Kong) are a result of direct pressure from the Beijing government ... because of the Olympics.''

According to Geheran, Yang was allowed to re-enter China in March without incident.

As of early this evening, Yang was still in custody, Geheran said.

Initiatives for China said that Yang intended to participate in a walk for human rights, extending the walk he took from Boston to Washington in honor of China's political prisoners. Yang also planned to travel to the earthquake-struck Sichuan region to plan for a school to be built in memory of the children killed when schools collapsed.

It was only last year at this time that Yang returned to Brookline from his last detention in China. He spent five years in a Chinese prison for sneaking into the country using a friend's passport to report on workers' strikes; he was imprisoned for espionage.

Human rights groups rallied to his cause, and Congress and the State Department pressed for his release. A United Nations committee ruled in 2003 that Yang was being held in violation of international law.

Yang's wife, Christina Fu, could not immediately be reached for comment today.

But she told the Washington Post that Yang was carrying an airline ticket for Taiwan, and suspicious airport officials told him Hong Kong was not a practical stopover.

Fu said her husband and another man were being held together at the airport detention center.

Fu said she had contacted the State Department and a U.S. consular official before finalizing her husband's itinerary to make sure he could travel to Hong Kong without complications ahead of the Olympic Games.

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