By: Sascha Hannig, updated by Chris Chappel

Map that shows a pin upon Chinese territory

Women, men and little children sang with the “ Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung ”’s book between their hands, as they chaired their leader, communism and a new era for China. They were the children of the Cultural Revolution , a process run by Mao after the catastrophic “Great leap forward”, which meant dead by starvation for millions of Chinese citizens.

These children of the revolution had to purge the country from ideological unorthodoxy, from any thoughts which were against the mainstream Chinese-communist philosophy. During this era, universities closed, academics and professors were persecuted, any foreign influence was rejected and the only truth was the one outspoken by Mao, who became a godly figure which, until today, is portrayed everywhere; from all yuan bills to tea cups and souvenirs.

During the ten-year cultural revolution the situation was either to kill or be killed.

Yang Jianli’s father, Fengshan, became one of the victims of the Cultural Revolution. A local party official during that time, he was beaten and then taken into a re-education camp.

Yang Jianli (YJ): “My father was a local official. He had no idea what was going on, but he was affected, and so was our family. One day, he was beaten up by the rebels mobilized by Mao in front of my eyes, I was terrified. Later, he was taken down from his position at the party, and was sent to the countryside for re-education.”

A double PHD (Harvard and Berkeley) Yang Jianli has become a researcher on China’s future through his foundation, “Foundation for China in the 21st Century”, and thus he is often called the architect for the future of that country, after the fall of the empire.

1. The cultural revolution and the CCP’s power.

Indoctrination prevents the development of critical thinking. According to Jianli, “If we say a few conditions must come together to change China, the viable democratic opposition is the most difficult part”.

You were born at Shangdong Province, one of the first regions that would fall under the Communist rule while you had the Civil War in China in the 40s. How was it to be born in such a conflictive area of China?

YJ: My father was a party official and I was born three years before the cultural revolution.

I barely have any memory from when the cultural revolution began. Mao Zedong launched it with a goal: bringing down his challengers on top leadership. Quite a few people challenged him because he had a tremendous policy failure in the 50’s and early 60’s that resulted in the death of tens of millions of people in China during the Great Leap Forward and the anti-rightist movement.

My father was a local official. He had no idea what was going on, but he was affected, and so was our family. One day, he was beaten up by the rebels mobilized by Mao in front of my eyes, I was terrified. Later, he was taken down from his position at the party, and was sent to the countryside for re-education.

Author: His father, along with other officials that were punished during the cultural revolution, came back from the re-education camp in 1971, when Yang was 8 years old. Such a childhood gave him a life goal: he would grow to change the system that drove his life to that situation.

YJ: By that time, Mao had already accomplished his goal over the struggle for power. He pulled the old party officials back to their positions to make them powerful again, and he found that rebels who helped him with the cultural revolution were not that trustworthy.

During the ten-year cultural revolution, the situation was either to kill or be killed. At a later stage of that process I was already 11 or 12 years old. I realized that the government was evil and there was a big discrepancy between what they told us and reality. For example, I went to visit peasants in the countryside during a flood in 1975. I was shocked because they were so poor, and yet we had been told that the people of China were the happiest people on earth. So, this discrepancy between the teaching and the reality was profound.

Yet, you joined the Communist Party and you were kind of a rising star within the CCP. What were your goals at the time?

YJ: Mao died in 1976. His death brought the end of the cultural revolution. A few years later Deng Xiaoping took power and opened China, and embarked China on an open reform era. All of a sudden, universities reopened, and people focused on economic life and enjoyed more liberty than they used to. So, everybody thought there was hope for the future, and they worked hard for that future.

I entered with the idea that we could change the party from within, but soon I found that it was a bad idea and almost impossible.

Hu Yaobang was the General Secretary of the party at that time and he was very open-minded. He understood the problem of the party. He called the young intellectuals like myself to join the party. So, I entered with the idea that we could change the party from within, but soon I found that it was a bad idea and almost impossible. You know, to change the party by young intellectuals like myself who joined the party doing the job inside. So, I decided to quit very soon.

2. Defecting and escaping

Was there anything you remember, any event that pushed you to leave the party?

YJ: I was promoted very quickly after I joined. I was soon gone to the middle level of the party. So, I was in charge of a chapter of the party that has almost a hundred members. I found my job was watching and reporting on my fellow students and teachers on a daily basis. So, I discharged.

Where were you studying at the time?

YJ: Beijing Normal University.

Author: In 1986, Jianli was accepted into the Ph.D. mathematics program at UC Berkley. “I can still vividly remember my first few days in America, as I felt the fresh, beautiful air of freedom for the first time in my life”, he stated. For the next three years Yang, while not forgetting about his suffering countrymen, had his Ph.D. studies as his main focus- until history intervened. In the spring of 1989, thousands of Chinese students staged a series of peaceful anti-government demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, a city located in the center of Beijing. Seeing an opportunity to help win freedom for his countrymen, Yang left his studies and returned to China to join the protests. 

And then you had to leave to the U.S. Can you tell us why? And, how do you remember the events of 1989?

I first left China in 1986. At that time, I tried to leave the party by leaving the country. And of course, United States was the best choice for us to go for higher education. At that time, I still harbored dreams of becoming a mathematician. I wanted to be a great mathematician, and I went to the U.S in 1986 to focus on my studies. Three years later the student movement broke out in Beijing, it was triggered by the death of “ Hu Yaobang ” . People just took to the streets to protest and to support Hu Yaobang’s policy of protecting liberal intellectuals, and also demanded more political participation in decisions, and stood up against government corruption.

Did you meet Hu Yaobang personally?

YJ: No, not personally.

But you joined his movement?

YJ: Yeah, and all of a sudden, my hope was rekindled, and I thought to myself “I need to be part of it, I think this represents the future of China, I just cannot avoid to join them”. So, I went back to Beijing to join the movement, and later, you know what happened: the massacre. I survived the massacre almost, narrowly escaped, and then returned to the United States.

Jianli during the Tiananmen events, June 3rd, 1989. Citizen Power Initiatives for China. 

Author: On the night of June 3rd, 1989, tanks started to roll around Beijing. Their goal? To disseminate protesters and students that were demonstrating around the square and through the whole country. The tanks crushed the students, some others were attacked with poisonous gas and many were severely injured while trying to escape. There aren’t any certain numbers on the people who became victims of the massacre. But, as the protests weren’t only in Beijing, some historians argue that millions could have become victims of Deng Xiaoping’s orders.

That night, tanks also destroyed the goddess of democracy, a statue that students had built during the event. This monument was the symbol of a future that wouldn’t come, a future of civil rights, freedom and participation in the country. Yang Jianli nearly escaped. He became a public enemy, a traitor to the state. As he returned to the US, he knew that going back to China would lead to troubling consequences.

As you returned to the United States you went to Berkeley University in California. Today, Chinese educational institutions are getting more and more prestige in the international scenario, but they still seem to be controlled by the party’s cause. What do you think about that?

When I went to school in the early 80’s it was very different from now.

Remember, we had just escaped the terror of the cultural revolution during which the universities shut down for 10 years. When the university just reopened; everybody was serious about their studies and so serious about academic standards. We considered academic performance more important than anything else, and the academic President of University, was the most powerful man or person in that school, but after Tiananmen Square the situation has undertaken change.
Now the Party Chief in the school is the main authority. So, all the universities now have become government agencies. So, they are engaging in more brainwashing than they were in the 1980s, more ideological, more control over the students and teachers, especially in recent years. In each and every classroom there are cameras watching what the teachers and the students say, how they discuss the issues. To make sure they follow the party lines. So, it is not only a government agency; it is totally watched by Big Brother.

All (Chinese) universities now have become government agencies.

Even though we have this situation, Chinese Universities still made their way to get an upper rank at International rankings. Why do you think that is? What has the party done?

YJ: When they rank the schools around the world, sometimes a Chinese University makes it to the top, like Tsinghua University did. But I don’t think this is right. I know how corrupt the school is and how all the professors are engaging in copying each other, engaged in corruption conducts, so I don’t think they are actually up to that standard. I don’t know how they come up with these rankings, but I never believed them.

That comes from a double PHD so… You are a very respected academic, but you are also an activist. How do you level these two aspects of your life? Being a respected academic and being an activist?

YJ: I now spend more time on activism than academic work. When it comes to mathematics, I’ve already forgotten what I wrote in my PhD dissertation, I don’t remember, but the training itself actually still works. I still benefit from a mathematical training. I benefit from the training from Harvard as an economist and a political scientist, and I learned how to think, and I do have an analysis of framework, and a theory and a language to straighten out my ideas when I come to a very difficult decision.

“All of a sudden, my hope was rekindled, and I thought to myself “I need to be part of it, I think this represents the future of China, I just cannot avoid to join them”. And later, you know what happened: the massacre. I survived the massacre almost, narrowly escaped”.

3. The architect for the future

Can you tell us a little bit about your work? Because people often call you an architect for Chinese politics, and they also call you an activist. But in the sense of political activism. So, can you tell us a little bit about your activism and architectural work?

YJ: We still engage in research a lot, but this research is not for purely academic sake. We do research for the future of China. First, we research on China’s current politics.
Second, we engage in research, specially designing the future of China, and that is why they call me the architect of China’s future. We also research on democratization strategies for China; many international relations objectives.

Third, we do advocacy work internationally; mainly with the U.S. government and U.S. Congress. We go to Brussels for our advocacy with the European Union, and Geneva for the United Nations.

Fourth, we work closely with the people back in China. Trying to empower them in whatever way possible in the defense of their own rights and advancing democracy in China. Also, the peoples and religious groups who have a high stake in the future of China, like Tibetans, Uyghurs, Mongolians, Chinese, people from Hong Kong and Macau and religious groups, followers, practitioners, Christians all together, to engage in a discussion of mutual understanding. We solve their differences and come up with some joint action plan to come to each other for support and help. So, that’s basically what we do.

Is it because of any of those things that you were arrested in 2002?

YJ: Yes. I went back to China in 2002 to try to help the labor movement with the nonviolent struggle strategies. I tried to equip them with these ideas and strategies of how to engage in nonviolent resistance. So, I ended up in prison.

Author: Yang used a fake ID and defied the ban.  He entered China and addressed the demonstrators. The reason of the protests? Mainly construction workers who rebelled against the government because of public treatment, and farmers whose lands were expropriated. Up to this date, the CCP has taken around four million properties from their owners a year. Private property wasn’t regulated until 2008 and it was only among the cities.

How was your time in prison? What did the party charge you with?

YJ: I was put in solitary confinement for nearly 15 months, which was the most difficult part of my imprisonment. And later with the pressure from the U.S. and the International Community, the Chinese government agreed to improve my situation. Later, they charged me with accusations of espionage and illegal entry to the country, and they sentenced me to five years in prison.

Yang Jianli hugs his wife Christina Fu as he returns home after five years in a Chinese prison. REUTERS.

You talked about the current state of China as even a fascist superpower. And the problem is, you cannot take down China because it is so interconnected with the outside world that if you do so, it means the world would lose an economic supporter. So, I wanted to ask you, not a forecast, but an analysis on the possibility of a freer China. Is it possible to take down the regime pacifically first, and to reconstruct a pacific China that respects the people’s will?

YJ: Of course, I think it is possible, although it is very difficult. First of all, we have to recognize what China is, its nature. If we are not clear about this question, then that’s a wrong starting point.
If we think China is a competitive power, we continue to work with it, and stay at peace with it. Let it get away with whatever it wants. I think it would be wrong. So first the international community must recognize what China is: a criminal state.
Second: we need a viable democratic opposition in China. And also, we need international recognition of that opposition. If we do have a democratic opposition, then I think there’s going to be a crack in leadership. When we have a crack in the leadership with viable opposition and international support, I know we can work out a timetable for the democratization in China.
So, we don’t foresee, we don’t want the scenario to take place that the whole building just collapses and puts everybody in a pure chaotic situation. Now that’s not something we are working for. We try to work with all forces possible in China and outside China, to work out, you know, a peaceful transition plan.

I just need to ask…is there any sort of gleam of a democratic opposition in China? Because it seems like the party…

YJ: There are a lot of people opposing this regime, but it’s not viable yet.

And the party won’t allow it, they are trying to clean their heads with propaganda…

YJ: Right? Exactly. Yeah. It’s very difficult. That’s the most difficult part. If we say a few conditions must come together to change China, the viable democratic opposition is the most difficult part.

4. Covid-19 Update

By Chris Chappel

Do you see any parallels between how the Chinese Communist Party covered up the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 and how they covered up the Coronavirus outbreak in 2020?

The regime that is ruling China, the CCP regime, is the same regime that massacred thousands of students 31 years ago in Tiananmen Square. The nature of this regime has not changed. The Coronavirus outbreak, once again exposed the nature of this regime, so we understand that once again this regime could power and control over human lives.

So, do you think the Communist Party is responsible for the Coronavirus outbreak?

Yes. Of course. And according to the information and evidence we have collected, the CCP is almost fully responsible for the initially controllable virus outbreak to become a global pandemic. When the virus outbreak first happened in China, and the first reaction of the regime is cover-up, because they think this crisis can make the whole society unstable, and the regime always want to look good, so they covered up and suppressed free speech and tracked down whistleblowers, and at least, some experts estimated, at least they delayed three weeks, or even longer to react to the virus outbreak, that actually helped the virus to spread to the entire world.

There are people who say that how the Chinese Communist Party responded to the Coronavirus outbreak, it was authoritarian, but it was effective, it stopped the spread of the virus. What do you have to say about that?

Yes. There are a lot of sayings about that, but we cannot forget the fact: it is the CCP that who covered up the truth, covered up the situation and played down the extent of the casualties in China, so that other countries did not pay attention to what’s going on, and that actually helped the outbreak become a global catastrophe.

People in China are skeptical about the information provided by the Chinese government. We have not much information whatsoever whether there’s still more cases coming up every day, and how many actually died. We still have no exact number about it, and because the authoritarian power can put measures into the whole society, with very restricted tools and measures, of course, you know, to certain degree it will control the spread of the virus, but at the same time the suffering for people, because the government heavy-handed restrictions on movement and everything else, especially free speech. How much people have suffered? And all the world has no idea about it.

And we all know the whistleblower Li Wenliang’s story. His death actually unleashed the people’s anger against the government and caused people to demand for free speech. He is a very strong voice, is unprecedentedly strong. And the government, instead of learning lessons and changing behavior, it doubled down ever since the death of Li Wenliang clamping down free expression and free speech, and many dissidents, and citizens, and journalists ever since… have ever since gone down and disappeared, so this fact should not be overlooked.


The opinions and statements expressed in this publication are the sole responsibility of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect those of the team, Fundacion para el Progreso, or the organizations that cooperate with this project. The same is valid for the opinions, statements and actions of the interviewees in other moments and contexts, both in the past and in the future.