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The Last Hero of Tiananmen

How an aging doctor became the conscience of China.

In the second half of 2003, Jiang Yanyong sat down to write a letter about what he had seen during the Tiananmen Square uprising and share it with the party's new leaders. Jiang had had a unique view of the massacre, and the words came easily, in a flood of suppressed memory and emotion. "I am a surgeon at the PLA No. 301 Hospital," he wrote.

I was chief of the department of general surgery on June 4, 1989. On the night of June 3, I heard repeated broadcasts urging people to stay off the streets. At about 10 p.m., I was in my apartment when I heard the sound of continuous gunfire from the north. Several minutes later, my pager beeped. It was the emergency room calling me, and I rushed over. What I found was unimaginable--on the floor and the tables of the emergency room were seven young people, their faces and bodies covered with blood. Two of them were later confirmed dead by EKG. My head buzzed and I nearly passed out. I had been a surgeon for more than 30 years. I had treated wounded soldiers before, while on the medical team of the PLA railway corps that built the Chengdu-Kunming Railway. But their injuries resulted from unavoidable accidents during the construction process, while before my eyes, in Beijing, the magnificent capital of China, lying in front of me, were our own people, killed by our people's army, with weapons supplied by the people.

Jiang wrote about how he had struggled to save a young athlete who died on his operating table because the hospital didn't have enough blood. He recalled his conversation with an army major, an innocent bystander, who had been shot but counted himself lucky because an elderly man and a young child standing next to him were killed. He reported that tiny bullet fragments had shredded the organs of several patients and suggested soldiers had used special ammunition to cause more harm.

On page after page, over a period of months, Jiang poured his heart into the letter. Every spring, as the anniversary of the massacre approached, the party became nervous and mobilized to prevent any attempt to memorialize the victims. But people had not forgotten, Jiang wrote. They had been bullied into silence, but, with each passing year, their anger and frustration grew. Jiang urged the new leaders to take a new approach. They should admit the party was wrong to send troops into the square and order them to fire on unarmed civilians. They should address the pain of those who lost their loved ones in the massacre and acknowledge, at long last, that the protesters were not "thugs" or "counter-revolutionaries" but patriots calling for a better and more honest government.

It would have been a daring gesture for any doctor to write such a letter. But Jiang was no ordinary physician. He was also a national hero. In the spring of 2003, he had blown the whistle on the government's cover-up of the SARS epidemic, sharing information with foreign reporters about the spread of the deadly disease. As a result, the government had been forced to abandon its lies. It was a remarkable reversal, and it showed that one man with the courage of his convictions could challenge the party-state and not just survive but prevail. For a time, state media had portrayed Jiang as the honest doctor who dared to speak when others were silent, the man who stood up to party bosses and saved lives around the world.

It was February 2004 by the time Jiang finished showing drafts of his letter to friends and making the final changes to the document. Nearly a year had passed since he exposed the SARS cover-up, and the National People's Congress was preparing to convene again. The fifteenth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre was just months away. From Jiang's perspective, the timing was perfect. He made 80 copies of the letter and prepared a list of the nation's top officials, including the leaders of the Congress. He sent most of the letters by express mail from his local post office. He asked a few well-connected friends to hand-deliver others. Finally, he gave several copies to his superiors at the hospital and asked them to pass them up through official channels. Then he went home to wait for a response.

Jiang was a semiretired military surgeon at the No. 301 Hospital when he exposed the SARS cover-up. Seventy-one, with a long, crinkled face and a head of hair that he dyed black in the manner popular among aging intellectuals and party officials, Jiang had spent most of his life struggling with the contradictions of practicing medicine under Communist rule. Decades of party control and corruption had corroded the medical profession and its values. In its mildest form, this meant physicians accepting bribes from patients or prescribing unnecessary drugs to boost profits. At its worst, it meant the trade in organs from executed prisoners, the forced abortion of pregnancies violating the one-child policy, the psychiatric commitment of dissidents, even the euthanasia of infants born with severe disabilities. Doctors in China were trained as technicians to serve the state, to do their work and leave questions of ethics and public policy to others.

If it was a cynical time to be a doctor in China, Jiang had come to the profession in a more hopeful era. Born to a wealthy Shanghai banking family, he studied medicine at Peking University just as the Communists were taking power, and he trained at Peking Union Medical College, the nation's most prestigious medical school. He eagerly joined the party and enlisted in the People's Liberation Army even before graduating. He was inspired to specialize in surgery by the example of Norman Bethune, the Canadian battlefield surgeon who joined the Red Army and was eulogized by Mao as a martyr after his death in the Second Sino-Japanese War.

Jiang's idealism was shattered not long after he was assigned to the staff of the No. 301 Hospital in 1957. His brothers were persecuted in the Anti-Rightist Campaign, and he came under attack himself in the Cultural Revolution. Imprisoned in the hospital, he endured beatings and public condemnations because of his privileged family background. Later, he spent five lonely years on a prison farm in the remote deserts of Qinghai Province in western China, separated from his wife and children. Mao's rule shook his faith in the party, but Jiang was the kind of man who needed to believe in something, and, when he finally returned to Beijing and the No. 301 Hospital, he committed himself to the values of his profession. If he could not change society, he decided, he could at least do right by his patients. By the time of the Tiananmen demonstrations in 1989, Jiang had developed a reputation as one of the nation's finest surgeons. He served as the hospital's chief of general surgery and counted senior party officials and their relatives as former patients. After the massacre, the party asked him to express support for the suppression of the student-led democracy movement, but Jiang resisted. The hospital responded by easing him into retirement.

Yet the hospital retained Jiang as a member of its experts' committee and continued to call on him to perform operations and consult on difficult cases. It was in that role that he heard about cases of "atypical pneumonia" spreading rapidly from patients to hospital staff. It soon became clear to Jiang that this "atypical pneumonia" was the same disease that had struck hospitals around the world and that the World Health Organization was calling SARS. After hearing the minister of health, a fellow doctor, declare on television, "I can tell you all responsibly that it is safe to work, live, and travel in China," Jiang grew furious, and the intensity of his outrage surprised him. He had been a party member long enough to understand how common it was for government officials to lie to the public. But this was somehow worse. Jiang knew that SARS was a dangerous disease and that a major epidemic could be in the works in Beijing. "As a doctor," he later told me, "I felt I had a duty to tell the truth." He e-mailed the state press, and eventually, when nothing happened, he sent the e-mails on to friends, who relayed them to the foreign press. Soon, the world knew of China's SARS epidemic.

Faced with condemnation abroad and growing skepticism at home, the new president and party leader, Hu Jintao, decided the cover-up was no longer tenable and ordered an end to the lies. But, even as the government worked to contain the epidemic, Jiang felt a pang of guilt. The SARS cover-up was not the first time he had to decide whether to keep quiet about party wrongdoing. He had confronted a similar choice after the Tiananmen massacre. At the time, he believed he had acted honorably. But now, as the public praised his integrity and hailed him as the "honest doctor" who exposed the SARS cover-up, those feelings of shame and remorse were stronger than ever. If one person speaking truth to power could change history, as he had shown in the SARS crisis, then why had he remained quiet for so long about Tiananmen? Although Jiang had escaped serious punishment after speaking out on SARS, he knew there were great risks to speaking out again. But he had gained a measure of fame and political capital, and he resolved to use it on behalf of the victims of Tiananmen and their families.

Jiang's letter made for a dramatic story: The elderly surgeon who had forced the government to abandon the SARS cover-up was now challenging the party to come clean on the Tiananmen massacre. The full text of the letter was published on Internet sites overseas, and copies circulated throughout Beijing, where some people began selling them in the city's underground book markets.

At first, the authorities responded with restraint. No one came to put him under house arrest or drag him to prison in handcuffs, as the police sometimes did to those who spoke out about Tiananmen. Instead, they sent various officials who urged him again and again to admit he was wrong to send the letter. He refused. Gradually, they stepped up the pressure. When Jiang arranged to travel to western China to oversee an operation on an old patient, they assigned an official to accompany him, and then, at the airport, they suddenly tried to stop him from leaving before he boarded the plane. When he made plans to attend a literary conference in Beijing, a half-dozen officials showed up at his home and tried to persuade him not to go, and, when he insisted, they told him he couldn't use the hospital's car service. He hailed a cab and went anyway.

In late March, three senior officials in the military's discipline department began meeting with Jiang and questioning him at length. The officials challenged Jiang to prove parts of the letter--his estimate that hundreds of people were killed in the massacre, his claim that soldiers fired bullets that fragmented and shredded organs. The doctor told them that, if the number of deaths was in question, they could check with city hospitals and come up with a more accurate figure. As for the bullets, he acknowledged he was not a weapons specialist, and he offered to issue a clarification saying that he could only confirm that tiny metal fragments were discovered in the wounds of several patients, and that photos and x-rays taken at the time would back him up.

Finally, after about two weeks, the men showed Jiang a lengthy printout of their interview notes. He read through it carefully, made a few corrections, and signed his name.

The next several weeks passed uneventfully, and Jiang began to wonder if the party had decided not to take action against him after all. Every summer, he and his wife traveled to the United States to visit their daughter and grandson in California, and he reserved tickets on a flight in mid-June and applied for a visa at the American Embassy. But, in late May, as the fifteenth anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre approached, his superiors began trying to persuade him to leave Beijing and "recuperate" outside the city somewhere. Every year, the police forced prominent dissidents to leave the capital and spend the anniversary of the massacre elsewhere, and Jiang assumed that he had now made that list of "troublemakers." He insisted there was no need for him to leave, adding that there would be plenty of time for him to "recuperate" in California.

On June 1, Jiang and his wife were scheduled to visit the American Embassy for their visa interviews. The first sign something was wrong came when the young soldier assigned by the hospital to drive them showed up with a small van instead of the regular car, which he said was being repaired. Then, after they boarded the van, he drove toward a rear gate of their apartment compound, telling them there was too much traffic at the main gate. Suddenly, he stopped short, the doors flung open, and eight large soldiers rushed in and pinned Jiang and his wife to their seats.

A half-hour later, the van arrived at a military guesthouse on the outskirts of Beijing, and the soldiers escorted Jiang and his wife to a conference room inside. Several officials were waiting. "We have invited you here for your own safety," said one. "June 4 is approaching, and there will be various people outside looking for you, which would be harmful for your security. Here, you can rest, study, and improve your understanding."

Jiang was furious. He demanded to see a formal document approving his detention. The officials said they did not have one but promised to show him one soon. "You haven't even received formal approval, but you can arrest people?" Jiang asked. "What's the use of the constitution then?" He demanded pen and paper and quickly scribbled out two letters. The first was a letter of protest addressed to Hu Jintao, accusing the men who had detained him of acting without regard to the law or the party's policies. The second was a letter expressing his desire to resign from the military. He asked the men to pass both letters up the chain of command. They agreed, and then they left.

The doctor assumed at first that he had been detained as part of the government's regular security sweep before the June 4 anniversary and that he would be released soon afterward. But, as the anniversary came and went and he remained in custody, Jiang realized something else was happening. His days were divided into "rest time" and "study time," and, during the "study sessions," military officials grilled him about his letter and tried to pressure him into retracting it. Jiang resisted and went on a hunger strike. The next day, officials announced that his detention had been extended another week.

Then, a week later, he was told he was being detained under party regulations that allowed him to be held indefinitely. His wife could go home, but he would have to stay until he "changed his thinking" and "improved his understanding." Jiang had survived the Cultural Revolution, so he was familiar with the party's indoctrination methods--the lengthy interrogations, the ideological harangues, the daily demands for written statements. The pressure in these "study sessions" was intense, especially for a man of his age. Some of the officials berated him and tried to scare him into backing down. Others adopted a softer approach, gently urging him to consider the party's point of view. But, day after day, he stood by his letter.

As the weeks passed, Jiang began searching for a way to persuade the authorities to release him. He settled on a medical metaphor to illustrate his "improved understanding" of the Tiananmen massacre. There were costs and benefits to using troops to suppress the student protests, he wrote. If the benefits outweighed the costs, then one might take such action. "The situation could be likened to that of a patient with rectal cancer," he continued. "With surgery, he might live and that would be a benefit, but the colostomy would make life inconvenient and that would be a cost. Comparing the major benefit of living with the minor cost of a colostomy, the benefits still outweigh the costs, so the surgery should take place. ... On June 4th, hundreds of students and ordinary people were killed. This was an extremely high cost to pay. But in the end, the Communist Party was not toppled, the People's Republic was not overthrown, and this was also a significant benefit."

That was as far as Jiang was willing to go. He hoped the authorities would focus on his conciliatory tone instead of his refusal to endorse the massacre. He hoped they would overlook the fact that he had just compared the party to a dying cancer patient who could no longer have normal bowel movements and was likely to suffer impotence and incontinence.

Seven weeks after Jiang was detained, the authorities suddenly sent him home. He had to stay in his apartment, accept restrictions on his ability to see and talk to people, stop using e-mail, and disconnect his Internet line. But at least he was home.

Jiang never learned why he was released. His more conciliatory statement might have been a factor. The officials assigned to reeducate him might have concluded that that was the closest they would ever get to an admission of guilt from such a stubborn old man. Or maybe the party's leaders recognized the risk they were taking by arresting a man who had become a hero for exposing the SARS cover-up. If they had not released him, he would have become the nation's most famous political prisoner.

The government never charged Jiang with a crime, and he was finally released from house arrest in March 2005. Afterward, though, he disappeared from public view. When I last visited him, he turned up the volume on his television set because he believed his apartment might be bugged, and he whispered that he was trying to avoid provoking the government. He said he still wanted to visit his daughter and grandson in California, and he believed that, if he behaved, the authorities would give him permission to go. As I listened to him speak, I couldn't help but feel a pang of disappointment. The state had been unable to break Jiang, but it had succeeded in silencing him.

After I left his apartment, though, I decided it was unfair to expect the elderly doctor to continue standing up to the party. He had already achieved more than most and paid a price for it. I doubted the government would ever let him visit his daughter and grandson, but how could anyone expect him to give up that hope? There was only so much one man could do, and only so much a nation could ask of him.

Philip P. Pan is the former Beijing bureau chief for The Washington Post. This piece is adapted from his new book Out of Mao's Shadow: The Struggle for the Soul of a New China. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.