Tiananmen Square crackdown 30th anniversary
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Yan Jiaqi in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Photo: Handout

Dissident political scientist Yan Jiaqi believes only vindication for Tiananmen Square democracy movement will bring China justice

  • Self-exiled political scientist has no faith that foreign powers will nudge China towards democracy: ‘We can only count on ourselves’.
  • Now 77, Yan still wants Beijing to reverse stance on June 4 crackdown

Yan Jiaqi was part of a mission in 1986 that once seemed likely to bring about major changes to modern China.

A prominent political scientist, he had been invited to join a task force on political reform that was led by Zhao Ziyang, then the head of the Chinese Communist Party. The mission’s objective was no small task: to push for the introduction of democracy in the mainland.

The members of the task force were motivated by a deep concern that power had become too concentrated at the top tiers of government, and it wanted the party’s role in daily­ work of the state to be reduced.

After just three years, however, the liberal Zhao was purged from the party for opposing the June 4, 1989, military crackdown on the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy movement.

Zhao Ziyang (left) and Yan Jiaqi (right foreground) in Beijing in 1987. Photo: Handout

As for Yan, who had been an adviser to Zhao, he signed petitions condemning the government’s handling of the crackdown and was named honorary president of the “Democracy University” founded by student protesters in Tiananmen.

How Hong Kong has kept the June 4 flame alive for 30 years

Yan soon found himself on a wanted list in China and fled the country. He spent five years in France before settling down in the United States. Zhao died in 2005.

Yan Jiaqi now lives in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Photo: Xinyan Yu

Now 77, Yan lives in a retirement community in Maryland with his wife. He was exasperated to learn of President Xi Jinping’s move to abolish term limits for China’s presidents, which would allow him to remain in office past 2023.

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“Zhao’s views on what constitutes a democratic system were very clear: China should take the path of legislative democracy and there should be a succession of the top executive leader,” Yan said.

He said removing the president’s two-term limit, a measure introduced by former leader Deng Xiaoping, was a “huge regression”.

Yan Jiaqi (centre) with fellow dissident Zhang Boli (right) in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Photo: Handout

A lack of justice and ethics has been the cause of several social problems that have arisen in China over the past 30 years, according to Yan, a former director of the Institute of Politics at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

To Yan, these problems trace back to the night Chinese tanks rolled over civilians who were expressing their aspirations for democracy.

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He believes that justice will prevail only when Beijing’s official verdict on the 1989 pro-democracy movement is reversed and the truth is established.

Yan remembered an earlier demonstration at Tiananmen Square. After the death of Zhou Enlai, the former premier, protesters gathered at the square to express their dissatisfaction with the central government.

The protest was ruled counter-revolutionary by the authorities – but that label was overturned two years later. Deng, the former leader, used the incident to launch major changes across China, notably the reform and opening up of the economy.

The vindication of the [1989] Tiananmen incident will change China by bringing in the rule of law and democracy
Yan Jiaqi, exiled political scientist

“The economic reform and opening up would not have been possible without the vindication of the first Tiananmen incident,” Yan said.

In his view, the same type of exoneration is needed for the 1989 pro-democracy movement.

“The vindication of the second Tiananmen incident will change China by bringing in the rule of law and democracy,” Yan said.

During his three decades in self-imposed exile, Yan was a prolific writer of articles for various publications on subjects such as China’s political system and constitutional development. He pointed to the pain of living away from home – but also the benefits.

“I obtained freedom in the US and France. If I were not in exile, I would not have been able to reach the academic level I have achieved today,” he said, adding that he was able to study several disciplines, including international and maritime law.

“But I lost my motherland, the connection with my family, and my right to express my views on Chinese soil.”

Yan Jiaqi in Tiananmen Square in 1989. After condemning the government’s handling of the crackdown, Yan found himself on wanted lists. Photo: Handout

He said he refrained from contacting friends on the mainland over the years, fearing it would give the Communist Party an excuse to go after them.

Yan said he would not ask Beijing for permission to return until the issue of the Tiananmen crackdown is settled. He still believes the day will come – despite the tightening political situation in Beijing.

The Chinese people, and journalists especially, must keep the memory of June 4, 1989, alive, according to Yan, and the people must continue to appeal for the record to be set right.

He has noticed that China’s young generation tends to express their political aspirations through literature and the arts. He said this is because the space for open political discussion is shrinking.

Yan also said he has no faith that foreign powers will nudge China towards democracy.

“We can only count on ourselves,” he said. “It is our own business to decide how the country should proceed forward.”