SAN FRANCISCO (August 28, 2007) – The reunion last week of Boston-based Chinese dissident Yang Jianli with his wife and son after five years in a Chinese prison hopefully marks the first of many conciliatory gestures Beijing will make as it prepares to improve China’s image in the area of human rights before next year’s Olympic Games.

In particular, the fact that Yang was granted a Chinese passport—identifying him as a Chinese citizen with the right to return to China at will—could be seen as a sign of Beijing’s softening stance toward political dissent. Looking closer, however, at this and other recent events suggests that Yang Jianli’s passport is the exception and that China still plans to use restriction on travel as a means of punishing those who hold different political views.

Obtaining a passport was a particularly sweet victory for Yang, who having left China for the United States after the crackdown on the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations, was not allowed to return because of his continued outspokenness on the need for political reform in China. Without a passport, Yang risked returning to China in 2002 using a friend’s documents. Once discovered, he was subjected to a protracted two-year pre-trial detention before finally being sentenced to five years in prison on charges of espionage and illegal border crossing.

Since his return to the United States, Yang has revealed that he had refused four opportunities for early release in part because Chinese authorities could not guarantee his right to return to China. Last September, Chinese authorities arranged Yang’s release only to have him turn the offer down at the airport because they would not make such a guarantee. From the moment he was released from prison in April, Yang embarked on a frustrating quest to confirm his status as a Chinese citizen and receive a passport.

One of the most unusual things about Yang Jianli’s new passport is that, strictly speaking, it appears to have been issued in violation of Chinese law. Though released from prison, Yang was still technically serving his sentence, having been deprived of his political rights for a year under the court’s original verdict. This means that under China’s passport law, which prohibits individuals serving sentences from obtaining a passport, Yang should not have been eligible for one until April 2008.

Except in those rare cases in which dissidents have been allowed to travel abroad to seek medical treatment, the Chinese authorities have until now been quite consistent about denying travel rights to individuals released from imprisonment on “state security” charges but still awaiting the restoration of their political rights. Jiang Weiping, an investigative journalist whose exposés of official corruption resulted in a five-year stay in prison, was told upon his release not even to bother applying for a passport to visit his wife and daughter in Canada until the three-year deprivation period was up in January 2009.

China also invokes its passport law in rejecting applications to travel from those who by going abroad pose a “possible threat to state security and national interests.” Yuan Weijing, the wife of an imprisoned rights activist, had her passport revoked as she attempted to travel to Manila last week to accept a human rights award on his behalf. Shanghai lawyer Zheng Enchong, whose advocacy for victims of urban development projects led to a three-year prison sentence completed in 2006, was just informed that he, too, would not be issued a passport because he was a “suspect in a criminal investigation.”

And what of Chinese activists who, like Yang Jianli, left their homeland after 1989 and, for want of a passport, have never been allowed to return? Now approaching middle age, former student leader Wang Dan worries not only about the fate of his country but also about the health of his elderly parents. How can China justify giving Yang Jianli a passport but not Wang Dan?

This is not to say that Yang should not have been granted a passport. Indeed, had his right to return to China been observed from the beginning, he may never have been imprisoned in the first place. The problem is not simply the inconsistent application of Chinese law but the law itself. By denying travel documents based on vague assertions of national security interests, China is in conflict with international human rights laws that Beijing, with its seat on the UN Human Rights Council, is committed to uphold.

It remains to be seen whether Yang Jianli’s hard-won passport will truly offer him free passage back to China. After five years in prison, he understandably wants to spend some time at home with his family. Hopefully, his next trip to China will be less eventful than the last and will help to convince the Chinese government that restricting the travels of its citizens—regardless of their individual political views—is unnecessary for protecting national security.

The Dui Hua Foundation
San Francisco, California
August 28, 2007