One of China’s few remaining Tiananmen protester inmates is released from jail

Tiananmen Square in Beijing, April 1989.
Tiananmen Square in Beijing, April 1989.
Image: Getty Images / David Hume Kennerly
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Chinese authorities have released 73-year-old Jiang Yaquen, one of only a few people still imprisoned for their involvement in pro-democracy demonstrations in 1989 that left at least hundreds dead in Beijing. Human rights group Dui Hua announced on Thursday that it believes police released Jiang late last year because of his old age and Alzheimers.

The news comes less than a week before the June 4 anniversary of the violent military crackdown on students, workers and others who were protesting in Tiananmen Square, a pivotal event in the history of modern China. Countries around the world condemned Beijing, and social stability became the Chinese Communist Party’s top priority, as it remains today. Web searches for terms related to Tiananmen like 64, for June 4, are censored (even to the extent that the term Nintendo 64 has been blocked) and the official narrative, when the incident is even acknowledged, is that the student demonstrators were led astray by anti-government plotters.

Soon after June 4, thousands of people like Jiang were detained and about 1,600 were convicted of crimes like “counterrevolution,” as in Jiang’s case, as well as arson, sabotaging transportation equipment, and “hooliganism.” Over the past two decades, the ranks of the imprisoned has been whittled away. Death sentences were changed to life sentences, and those terms were also reduced, says John Kamm, Dui Hua’s founder. He believes there are likely less than five people still held in prison over the 1989 protests.

The release of Jiang and other Tiananmen-related prisoners is not a sign that China is having a change of heart—these former demonstrators just don’t pose any further threat to the regime. “These guys have been in for 20 to 25 years. They’re broken,” Kamm said.

The political leadership remains harsh on dissidents today. Since 2010, when imprisoned Chinese writer Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the country has granted only three early releases of Chinese political prisoners convicted for subversion or incitement of subversion (often a euphemism for political activism), Kamm says. Censors have shut down the blog of a prominent critic and writer, Murong Xuecun. Activists have been arrested for calling on Chinese officials to publicize their financial assets, and police reportedly beat a group of human rights lawyers who were trying to visit one of the government’s unofficial detention centers, or black jails.

Little is known about Jiang’s specific role in the Tiananmen protests. He was originally given a death sentence that was changed to a term of life in prison, and then his term was reduced several times after that, according to Dui Hua’s research. A statement (link in Chinese) from a Beijing Neighborhood council says he has a sister and a 92-year-old mother.