In 2019, Dr. Jianli Yang joined Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi to unveil a statue at the U.S. Capitol commemorating the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Courtesy of Dr. Jianli Yang. Photo credit IMAGO/UPI Photo

By Mary Moran

On December 8, Southwest Washington Waterfront Village will host an evening with Dr. Jianli Yang in honor of International Human Rights Day. Each year, International Human Rights Day is observed to commemorate the United Nations’ adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and serves as reminder of our inalienable rights and freedoms including a right to education, a decent living, health care and a right to live free from any form of discrimination among others.

Dr. Jianli Yang knows first-hand what is involved in the struggle for human rights. As the world watched the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre on television and in the media, he was an eyewitness. 

Born in Shandong Province, China, the son of a Chinese Communist Party official, at age nineteen, Yang Jianli was a rising star in the party when he became disenchanted with the corruption and duplicity he witnessed. He left China at the age of 22 to pursue a doctorate in mathematics at the University of California, Berkeley. In 1989, his fellow Chinese students at Berkeley elected him to go back to Beijing in support of their counterparts in China who were demonstrating for democracy in Tiananmen Square. 

Community members are invited to join Waterfront Village for remarks by Dr. Jianli Yang in person or on Zoom. A reception and book signing will begin at 6:15 p.m. and the full program will begin at 7:00 p.m on December 8. For more information, please visit

The following interview with Dr. Jianli Yang has been lightly edited for clarity. 

Mary Moran: Can you describe what happened when you returned to China in 1989, and how it inspired your human rights work moving forward?

Jianli Yang: In Beijing, I joined the movement and witnessed the massacre of thousands by the guns and tanks of the Chinese Communist Party army, including tanks running over protesters. Narrowly escaping capture myself, I returned to the United States to study democracy. I continued my education as I actively engaged in activism advancing democracy and human rights in China. I got my Ph.D. in math from U.C. Berkeley and went on studying for a doctorate degree in political economy at Harvard University. I helped found pro-democratic organizations, conducted research work designing democratization strategies, co-authored a draft constitution for a future democratic China, frequently testified before the U.S. Congress, engaged in discussions and consultations with the U.S. Congress and American policymakers on U.S.-China policy, made appearances on television, and gave lectures on college campuses around the world.

In 2000, I launched a series of annual Interethnic/Interfaith Leadership Conferences. The conferences seek to advance mutual understanding, respect, and cooperation among the diverse ethnic, religious and regional groups of the People’s Republic of China. They also aim to explore universal values and establish common ground to advance democracy and human rights for all. The groups represented at the conferences include Han Chinese, Tibetans, Uyghurs, Mongolians, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Falun Gong practitioners, and people from Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau.

In 2001, I took advantage of the Internet and founded the online publication Yibao (a Chinese-language online magazine: to provide a forum for Chinese human rights and democracy activists both in China and abroad.

By then, in the eyes of the Chinese Communist Party leadership, I had turned from being an up-and-coming party member to a public enemy. I was deemed a traitor and forbidden from entering China. But in the spring of 2002, I decided to defy the entry ban. That year, in China’s industrial northeast, thousands of workers were taking to the streets to protest the government’s exploitative policies. Sensing an opportunity to forge bonds between democracy advocates and grassroots activists, and to launch a democracy movement in China through nonviolent means, I reentered my native land using a borrowed passport and a forged ID card.

I was arrested and spent the next five years in prison, a good part of it in solitary confinement. Following an international outcry for my release, including a United Nations Resolution and a unanimous vote of both houses of the United States Congress, I was freed in April of 2007.

MM: Tell us more about how you were finally released from prison and what happened next.

JY: There was an outpouring of support for my freedom. In addition to resolutions passed by the U.S. Congress demanding my immediate and unconditional release,  leaders including the U.S. President, Secretaries of State and Ambassador to China raised my case to the Chinese authorities repeatedly. International human rights groups, the Harvard and Berkeley communities and family and friends kept speaking up on my behalf and the UN Human Rights Mechanism applied pressure on the Chinese government. With all these pressures, the Chinese government gave a light sentence — five years in prison. The Chinese government offered me an early release at the one year mark, before completing my sentence, which I refused to accept because it came with a demand for me to confess. I served my full sentence. The U.S. government negotiated with the Chinese government for me to return to the US.

 MM: What is your mission now? 

JY: Immediately following my return to the U.S., I formed Citizen Power Initiatives for China, a pro-democracy movement committed to a peaceful transition to democracy in China.

Our movements are embedded with the belief that such a transition can be achieved through structural reform of the current system of government that by its very nature denies universally recognized political and social rights to its citizens. Our movement further recognizes that such reform can only be driven by the citizens of China through the application of Gong Min Li Liang (“citizen power”) and through cooperative and unified action of all the diverse peoples that are under the rule of the Chinese government.

Citizen Power Initiatives for China is committed to sowing the seeds of truth, love, justice, freedom, and democracy in China through the following means:

  • Promoting principles of non-violent struggle;
  • Raising awareness among Chinese citizens of their legal rights;
  • Advancing further development of the Chinese Civil Movement;
  • Encouraging Chinese citizens to evaluate their government, affirm its achievements that have benefited the people of China and critique it when necessary; and providing more overseas assistance in an effort to influence the policies of the People’s Republic of China government.

All these efforts are undertaken in order to accomplish a peaceful transition to a democratic China through constitutional reform.

MM: You have spoken in advocacy for the people of China, but also about what makes the power structure inside China tick. 

JY: Only by holding China’s Communist Party accountable and pressuring them for change can global security be protected. The free world needs to be clear-eyed. It should recognize that the Chinese Communist Party’s need to respond to growing popular resistance stimulates its need for diversionary aggressive moves to create crises and call for patriotic support, from military moves in the South China Sea and efforts to subvert vulnerable governments beneath Silk and Belt Road glamor, to covert action in Taiwan’s election and increasingly blatant efforts to penetrate think tanks and universities in various democracies. In short, human rights abuse in China not only violates universal principles, it also has real consequences for the free world’s security. The world’s democracies must firmly challenge China’s regime—a regime that ruthlessly represses its people, denies universal values, and challenges the international order to achieve its dominance. To do less is not only moral dereliction but also strategically unsound.

MM: You have spoken to audiences across the globe, at the United Nations headquarters in New York City, before the Nobel Prize commission in Oslo, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.; from New Haven to New Delhi; from Taiwan to Tokyo, from Boston to Brussels.  What is your message on International Human Rights Day?

JY: On December 10, 1948, the United Nations passed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the most important document the UN has issued. We must be vigilant every day to defend the rights enumerated in the Declaration and help those oppressed to advance their rights. Americans must make sure the American democracy functions as it should. The U.S., for all its mistakes, remains the greatest country on earth and many people around the world continue to look up to America as the beacon of democracy. I want to thank the American people, including Southwest DC residents, for making America the America it should be and for helping me and many people like me gain freedom.

Mary Moran is a resident of Town Square Towers and a member of The Village.

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