Send a postcard to Yang Jianli– detained in China

Media | Access/Network

Dr. Yang Jianli is a neighbor of mine in Washington Sq., but it may some time before I run into him again. Dr. Jianli, had been living in forced exile from China since his participation as an activist at Tiananman Square activist. He returned to China in April 2002 to assist labor activists, but within a week was caught and detained by the Chinese government– as a Communist country, they have a version of the "USA Patriot Act" which allows citizens to be detained indefinitely without access to a lawyer. His wife and children remain here in Brookline. Joining them in appeals to the Chinese government are his employer, the John F. Kennedy School of Goverment at Harvard, and the United States Congress. And now me.

I have followed Jianli's ordeal through the local papers, and also through his Free Dr. Yang Jianli website. So, 666 days into his ordeal, I've dug up one of my springtime photos of our neighborhood park, put on some appropriate stamps, and wrote a nice message:

What's a bit astonishing is that it took me until the first-year anniversary to hear about Jianli at all. True, I do not follow many of the Amnesty International alerts. But I would have expected that some of my Washington Sq. neighborhood businesses– a few of which are run by Chinese-Americans– would have gotten the word out as well. These retail stores may not want to get involved in politics, but they should make a little effort to let neighbors know about the plight of one of our own.

I gathered some post cards, some stamps, and went for a a walk. An Internet website can motivate so much.

So I walked down to Washington Sq. in my brown fedora and trenchcoat. My point was not as much to affect Humphrey Bogart as a private investigator, but because I usually wear this getup so that people recognize me (and besides, it was very misty out). For certain, this Caucasion could not be mistaken for a Beijing agent, or for gonzo documentarian Michael Moore, for that matter.. I intended mostly on going to places I know, and where I'm known, since I'm still very new at this gumshoe game.

I started at Washington St. Dry Cleaners, where I had some clothes to drop off and pick up. The family who runs the shop, I learned, are from Korea, and generally didn't follow news about China. But they were willing to look at the pages I printed out from the website, and at my postcard. Their daughter, about high school-age, did not quickly pick up on the story. Before I left, she asked if I could let them know if I heard back from Jianli. "I don't think so," I said. "They're not even letting him talk to his family."

I went over to Connelly Hardware, which has been a fixture at Washington Square for the better part of the century. A place where customers, such as the former Governor, linger to chat with Kathleen as she rings them up. As it turns out, they had heard of Jianli, through the Episcopal church where he and his family are members. Figuring that they were aware of the postcard campaign, I wished them well and told them I'd be back in another month to pick up some seeds.

Then came a series of strikeouts. Our favorite Chinese takeout, Dragon Star, hadn't really heard of him. Up Beacon St., the maitre d' at the opulent Golden Temple restaurant had pointed out that they were from Hong Kong, and didn't follow news from mainland China. I started wondering if Asians were a bit affronted that I had thought them all to be Chinese– sort of like somebody in 1939 asking some Lithuanian immigrants whether they were following the news about European Jews. So I walked down to the Asian grocer on back down Beacon. Maybe the grocer was a place where customers lingered as well to talk. As I entered and looked around, I saw foods from all over the Orient, but recognized Korean characters from the newspaper headlines. Plus I saw the girl from the dry cleaners, who asked me why I was there. To pick up some noodles, I told her. She started conversing in Korean with the woman at the cash register, so I asked her whether I should inquire about Jianli. The girl said that the woman didn't know.

After passing on Brookline Tai Chi, I saw my friend Maria and her daughter, who is one of my Washington Square neighbors. They were walking home, so I turned around and crossed Beacon St. with them. Maria had until recently been an IT professional, and like me, she has frequent access to the Internet. Yes, she had heard of Jianli from an email, and she was vaguely aware that he lived in the neighborhood. When I told her of my afternoon quest, she said that yes, "people hear by word of mouth." But why has "word of mouth" stopped being circulated in the neighborhood, and is only on the Internet? I stopped to explain Jianli's situation to her young daughter, who gave the reaction I had been waiting to hear all afternoon: "That's not very nice." I told her that's how things used to be in the place her mother came from (the former Soviet Union).

I stopped at two more places: the Washington Square Tavern, which has the best entrees under $20 anywhere I know. The Tavern is only 5 years old, but perhaps the Square's favorite "neighborhood" gathering place. (the Temple, and the Fireplace may tarry with that). Jerry, the owner, was outside on a ladder fixing the bulb outside. No, he didn't know the name. But his father, a lawyer in Ireland, had recently written an article talking about Chinese justice. I headed home, and stopped at our second-favorite takeout place (Rice Garden), which we use when we lose the menu for Dragon Star. And I got the same blank stares that I'd gotten at Dragon Star.

It's not that I expect every business establishment to have a picture of every prisoner tracked by Amnesty International on their wall. I just figured they do something, just once– for a neighborhood guy they'd very much like as their customer once again.

So, I kept the rest of my postcards and stamps. I'm going to send this story over to Jianli's supporters, and to John Kamm at the Dui Hua foundation, as well as some of my friends and neighbors in the area. Somebody may walk around tomorrow, or next weekend, and ask whether local retailers know who Yang Jianli is. They should know.

I interviewed Yang Jianli's wife Christina Fu this past weekend, while rewriting this piece for the TAB.

Update, May 7, 2007: Yang Jianli was released two weeks ago, five years after his arrest.