SARS whistle-blower freed from detention in China

Military surgeon wrote letter that condemned Tiananmen crackdown


BEIJING - The Chinese military surgeon who exposed China's SARS cover-up and pressed state leaders to admit that the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protesters was wrong has been released from detention, people informed about his case said.

The doctor, Jiang Yanyong, 72, returned home late Monday after about 45 days in military custody, where he underwent political indoctrination sessions and was investigated for possible criminal activity, said one person who had been told about his case. Jiang is not expected to be charged with a crime.

Jiang, who is a senior Communist Party member and who holds a military rank that corresponds to lieutenant general or major general in the West, is expected to be kept under surveillance and to be prohibited from making contact with outsiders.

Yet the decision to allow him to return home appears to amount to a rare victory for a person who directly and repeatedly confronted China's Communist Party leaders. In a letter released in February, Jiang pressed state leaders to admit that the Tiananmen Square crackdown, perhaps the single most sensitive political vulnerability for China's current generation of leaders, was wrong.

While there is no evidence that senior officials are reconsidering their stance that the 1989 crackdown was justified, the decision to detain and then release Jiang suggests that leaders are conflicted when handling high-level dissent on the issue. That may fuel hopes that the party will eventually apologize for the bloody suppression of protesters that year.

`He did nothing wrong'

"I think many people believe that detaining him was stupid," said a party official interviewed while Jiang was being held. "On the one hand, he can't be allowed to criticize without punishment. But on the other, party elders do not allow their own people to be punished for nothing. He is elderly, he has a certain status, and he did nothing wrong."

The detention prompted sustained international criticism from human rights groups. U.S. national security adviser Condoleezza Rice urged Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing to release Jiang when she visited Beijing this month.

There was no official announcement of Jiang's detention on June 1, and the government has also said nothing publicly about his release. Jiang's wife and children could not be reached for comment.

But it seems likely that authorities will claim internally that Jiang showed remorse for his actions and, in Chinese party terminology, made progress in his political thinking under the instruction of military authorities.

Jiang has maintained that he had no role in circulating his February letter to the domestic or international news media. But he acknowledged in a "thought report" during his detention that the letter, addressed to top party and government officials, may have fallen into the hands of people who used it "for their own purposes."

Recognizing errors is considered a litmus test of political rehabilitation for those who violate party discipline. The statements as described would appear to fall short of the full self-confession authorities sometimes require before releasing an opponent.

SARS cover-up exposed

Jiang became a well-known national and international figure last year when he revealed in a letter to top leaders that numerous Beijing hospitals - including the elite No. 301 Military Hospital, where he is a semiretired senior surgeon - had far more SARS patients than health authorities had acknowledged.

Shortly thereafter, Chinese leaders fired the minister of health and the mayor of Beijing, acknowledged having provided inaccurate information about the spread of SARS, and began a nationwide effort to combat the disease. Jiang was initially hailed as a hero even by state news media, although coverage soon ceased and he and his family were closely monitored.

Jiang told friends that as he approached his twilight years he intended to use his newfound celebrity for greater good. In February, it became clear that his target was the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown. Discussing the event is taboo in party circles. Officials fear that reopening that wound of Tiananmen could lead to demands for political reform and threaten current leaders, nearly all of whom owe their positions to the political upheaval that followed the crackdown.

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