“China is just like a river with a big dam blocking its path and water accumulating and accumulating,” said Chinese activist Dr. Yang Jianli, who recently sat down with this reporter to discuss the dramatic events happening in China today and the possibilities of democratic reform developing.
Any number of issues could create cracks in that dam and be the beginning of the end of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) dictatorship, he said, listing the Tiananmen Square massacre; the case of the attempted defection at the U.S. Consulate by a Chongqing official and the resulting marginalizing of key CCP officials; increasing protests around China over corrupt officials; or the persecution of Falun Gong practitioners in China.
“Any small incident can be a trigger for a big change,” he said, adding, “The spark point can take place where people think it will least happen.”
Dr. Yang, holds two doctoral degrees, one in political economy from Harvard University and one in mathematics from the University of California–Berkeley. He was forced to flee China after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre but returned in 2002 despite being one of 50 dissidents blacklisted by the communist regime. He was illegally detained and sentenced in 2004 to five years in jail for espionage and illegal entry.
After extensive campaigning not only from human rights groups, but also from Harvard University and a bipartisan group of 40 senators, including Hillary Clinton and John McCain, the Bush administration helped facilitate Dr Yang’s exile to America.
Yang arrived in the United States in August 2007 and now lives in Washington, D.C.
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The Tiananmen Square massacre occurred as a response to student protests for democratic reforms in Beijing. Authorities sent in the military, including army tanks that fired on students and civilians. The exact number of civilian deaths remains unknown, with estimates ranging from several hundred to thousands. The topic has been banned from public discussion in China ever since.
A notable exception to that ban occurred last week, as dozens of Chinese newspapers carried articles commemorating the death of Hu Yaobang. Hu was a Communist Party general secretary who sought political and economic reform. His death on April 15, 1989 provided the inspiration for the students who came together to form the Tiananmen democracy movement.
Yang said the newspaper articles commemorating Hu could be seen as the beginning of a process of reform.
“That shows that there are some people inside the government who have powerful positions to get this article out, but at the same time not powerful enough to come up with a policy to resolve the issue of the Tiananmen Square massacre and embark on the road of transition to democracy,” he said.
Yang believes present Chinese leader, Hu Jintao, may not be opposed to the resolution of Tiananmen Square, but suggests that timing remains a delicate issue.
“I don’t think there is any psychological barrier in anybody’s heart and mind to the resolution of this very important issue, but the problem remains of how to do it and what are the immediate consequences of doing it,” he said.
Yang noted that if there were to be a serious resolution of the massacre, recognition of the highly respected Zhao Ziyang, the former Party general secretary at the time, would be critical. Zhao Ziyang spoke in support of the students and was kept under house arrest until his death in 2005 for his efforts. His death was barely acknowledged in China, let alone recognized with a state funeral.
Yang said he hoped that the undercurrents of change would grow to be “a big wave inside the government, to work together to embark China on the road to political reforms.”
“That will take time, but that is what we hope,” he said.
He emphasized, however, that any discussion or signals of opening up carried little weight without significant movement on human rights, particularly the release of all prisoners detained on the basis of their political or religious beliefs.
“We have to have human rights before we can talk about any policy issues” he said.
He acknowledged that some people held fears of instability from the inevitable fall of the CCP, but he did not subscribe to that view. Yang said he believed that Chinese “pragmatism” would hold sway and “self–organized communities” would form to maintain stability.
“I am not pessimistic, as many people would be with regard to the people. I think they are able, they have a quality and are able to survive the transitions,” he said.
“I am not saying that it is easy,” he added, “I think the road is very clear but it is very bumpy.”