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Prisoner of Conscience

5 minute read
Susan Jakes | Beijing

When Dr. Jiang Yanyong blew the whistle, he was confident his country would welcome his candor. In April 2003, shortly after he sent an open letter to the media detailing how the Chinese government was covering up an outbreak of SARS in Beijing, the septuagenarian retired People’s Liberation Army (P.L.A.) surgeon told TIME he had no reason to fear punishment for challenging China’s official line. He was, after all, high-ranking in the military, a veteran member of the Communist Party and a doctor exercising what he called his “professional responsibility to protect the health of the people.” His patriotism, he said, would protect him from harm.

It has not. By sounding the alarm on a lethal virus that ultimately killed nearly 800 people worldwide, Jiang’s act of conscience helped prevent a global epidemic from spiraling out of control. But in a country where patriotism is often defined as loyalty to one’s superiors, his good deed has not gone unpunished. Exacerbating Beijing’s irritation, Jiang penned another letter—this one to about 20 senior Chinese leaders—earlier this year denouncing the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. On June 1, while on their way to apply for visas for their annual visit to their daughter in the U.S., Jiang and his wife, Hua Zhongwei, disappeared. Initially, their children were told by officials that the couple had been taken to a secret location “for their protection.” But it soon emerged that they had been forcibly detained. Hua was later released, but sources say Jiang has since been subjected to daily indoctrination sessions to persuade him to recant. “What the authorities really want,” says one source familiar with the situation, “is for him to express regret for writing or sending his letters, which would be a great tool with which to undermine the effect of his criticism.”

Jiang has been under constant military surveillance since the publication of his SARS revelations, but his Tiananmen letter, leaked to Chinese and international media in March, appears to be the more immediate cause for his detention. In it, he not only described his memories of the gruesome scene at his hospital on the night the P.L.A. opened fire on peaceful crowds of pro-democracy demonstrators, but he also revealed that China’s late President Yang Shangkun and Party elder Chen Yun privately expressed regret over the carnage. For the past 15 years, Beijing has insisted the demonstration was a “counterrevolutionary rebellion” engineered by a small number of “black hands,” and denied reports of the mass killing of innocent civilians. Jiang argued in his letter that if the leaders responsible for ordering the troops to open fire had admitted they made a mistake, then it was time the current leadership did the same.

Mainland media did not report Jiang’s letter, but in a country that doesn’t allow public debate, a single dissenting voice can be enormously threatening. In their efforts to silence him, Jiang’s captors have not mistreated him physically, but it has been a harrowing experience psychologically. Initially, Jiang and his wife were taken to an unknown location in an armored truck and made to walk through what one source describes as “a human corridor” of a hundred guards before being confined to separate rooms. Hua was given copies of China’s constitution and the regulations of the P.L.A. and was supervised at all times by at least two people—even when she slept. Jiang was made to repeatedly watch a film explaining the Party’s justification for the 1989 crackdown, and has been warned that these study sessions will continue until his thinking changes.

Given Jiang’s international stature following SARS, Beijing risks drawing unwanted attention to its human-rights record at a time when the country is trying to present itself as a model global citizen and trade partner. During a visit to Beijing last week, U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice complained to China’s Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing about Jiang’s detention, according to the Wall Street Journal. The only public explanation the government has so far offered was a statement to the Washington Post that Jiang “recently violated the relevant discipline of the military” and that “the military has been helping and educating him.”

One reason for Jiang’s rough treatment may be that he has crossed Jiang Zemin, China’s former President and current Chairman of the powerful Central Military Commission. The doctor’s SARS disclosures prompted the ouster of two of Jiang Zemin’s protégés—former Health Minister Zhang Wenkang and ex-Beijing Mayor Meng Xuenong. The Tiananmen letter might also be perceived as a personal affront, given that Jiang Zemin came to power in 1989 in part because of his support for the crackdown. A government admission of wrongdoing, as the doctor urges, would be a blow to the ex-President’s campaign to secure his legacy as a great leader. Indeed, because of the doctor’s high rank in the P.L.A., Jiang Zemin, in his capacity as military chief, is the only person empowered by the army’s disciplinary code to authorize the detention.

Dr. Jiang has not been formally arrested, nor has he been charged with a crime, but that only makes his situation more tenuous. Beijing may choose to keep him locked up indefinitely—or until he is intimidated into an admission of incorrect thinking. So far, he is not backing down. “His position on the probity of his opinions hasn’t changed,” says one hospital colleague. But after this ordeal, Jiang may no longer feel safe making those opinions public.

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