Mao Portrait Protesters Get Asylum

Two men jailed for a high-profile act of vandalism in 1989 get U.S. asylum and treatment for trauma suffered in prison.

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mao-1989-305.jpg The portrait of Mao Zedong which hangs over the entrance to the Forbidden City in Tiananmen Square is defaced with paint, May 23, 1989.

HONG KONG—Two protesters who helped splatter Mao Zedong’s portrait with red paint during the Tiananmen pro-democracy movement 20 years ago have been granted political asylum in the United States, informed sources said.

Former journalist and art critic Yu Dongyue was the last of three protesters jailed by Chinese authorities for defacing Mao's portrait to be freed. He was released in February 2006 after serving 17 years behind bars.

His family says he still suffers from severe mental impairment following repeated beatings in Chishan Prison, Yuanjiang city, in the central province of Hunan.

Yu Dongyue, his sister Yu Rixia, fellow portrait protester Yu Zhijian, and his wife are currently in Thailand after fleeing China secretly. All have been granted asylum.

An official who answered the phone at the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok declined to comment on the matter.

Treatment sought

Yu Dongyue's brother Yu Xiyue said his mental state had shown little improvement since his release.

"We have taken him to the [mental] hospital many times but he has not recovered," Yu Xiyue said."The situation is still the same ... We don’t think he can recover here."

Yu Xiyue was deliberately vague about his brother's whereabouts, but confirmed that he had long since left home.

"My parents are missing him very much since he left," he said. "But if it is good for his health, that is OK."

"My father has high blood pressure and is currently in the hospital," he added.

Yu Xiyue said the main purpose of Yu's departure was to get better treatment for the mental illness he has suffered since his incarceration.

The third portrait protester, former bus driver Lu Decheng, escaped China illegally in 2004, spending several months in a Bangkok jail before finally arriving in Canada, but without his wife and child.

He declined to comment on the granting of asylum to Yu Dongyue and Yu Zhijian, saying it was "inconvenient" to speak about their case.

“It’s 20 years already,” Lu said, adding that he was overjoyed to be reunited with his old friends. “It is a kind of sadness.”

International pressure

After Lu and Yu Zhijiang were released in parole in 1998 and 2000, respectively, they visited Yu Dongyue in 2001 in prison. They reported that he was unable to recognize them, and spoke incoherently to himself.

“Without international pressure on China, Yu Dongyue would have died in prison,” Lu said.

All three men are expected to attend a memorial service held by the Washington-based Laogai Foundation on June 4, 2009, to mark the 20th anniversary of the armed crackdown, in which up to 1,000 people may have died.

Yu Dongyue was freed on Feb. 22, 2006, Lu Decheng in 1999 after 10 years in jail, while Yu Zhijian was freed in 2000 after serving 11 years.

Before they defaced the Mao portrait on May 23, 1989, all three had been active in the pro-democracy movement in the provincial capital Changsha, traveling to Beijing in mid-May that year to join thousands of demonstrators at Tiananmen Square.

Yu Dongyue, Lu, and Yu Zhijian were handed over to national security police after prolonged negotiations with the student command on the Square, a decision Lu and Yu Zhijian regard as having been made with the broader interests of the student movement in mind.

But U.S.-based former student activist Wang Dan has since said he deeply regrets what happened to the three men.

Original reporting in Cantonese by Lillian Cheung. Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. Written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.


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