Yan Mingfu (simplified Chinese: 阎明复; pinyin: Yán Míngfù; born 1931) is a retired politician who has served in a number of government positions in the People’s Republic of China. His first prominent role in government began in 1985, when he was made leader of the United Front Work Department for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). He held the position until the CCP expelled him for inadequately following the party line in his dialogues with students during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. Yan returned to government work in 1991 when he became a vice minister of Civil Affairs.
Yan was born in Liaoning province in 1931. In 1949, he graduated from the Harbin Foreign Language College. He then became the official Russian translator for Mao Zedong, before being promoted to a high-ranking party position sometime in the late 1950s. During the Cultural Revolution he was arrested and did not reappear in a state position until 1985. His father, Yan Baohang, had been a member of both the Kuomintang and the CCP. Before Yan Mingfu was appointed head of the United Front Work Department in 1985, his father had held the position from the department’s inception during the Chinese Civil War. When students began protesting China’s corruption and economic problems after the death of Hu Yaobang on April 15, 1989, Yan was also serving as a Secretary in the 13th Politburo of the Communist Party of China.
Participation in 1989 Tiananmen Square protests
From the beginning of the protests at Tiananmen Square, the Politburo’s members had been working towards finding a resolution that would pacify the students. Some officials favored engaging with their demands, but others, such as Li Peng, felt that most pressing issue was to “get students back into their classrooms” before the situation escalated. At a meeting held on May 10, the Politburo, under the leadership of Zhao Ziyang, decided that holding discussions with every group involved in the protests would be an ideal path to resolving the students’ issues; along with Hu Qili and Rui Xingwen, Yan was asked to speak to journalists from various papers throughout the capital. According to Zhang Liang, the compiler of the document collection The Tiananmen Papers, the three officials saw in the protests “an opportunity to move decisively toward fuller, more truthful reporting.” Yan held his dialogue with Beijing’s journalists from May 11 to May 13; throughout these discussions, he repeatedly voiced his support for the students’ goals, downplayed the condemnation of the protest expressed in the April 26 Editorial, and maintained that Zhao was fully in favor of reforming the press.
After the students commenced their hunger strike on May 13, the Politburo sent Yan to Tiananmen Square to call for an end to the protests and implore students to return to class. For the most part, the meeting went badly. In his discussion with the student leaders, he acknowledged that the decision to protest was justified while reaffirming the Politburo’s desire to see the students return to their classrooms. He also condemned the decision to begin a hunger strike, telling the students that it “accomplishes nothing, either for the country or your own health. If you present your demands and suggestions through proper channels, I can responsibly tell you the door to dialogue is always open.” The meeting ended with both groups feeling misunderstood; when Yan reported back to Zhao, he noted that the student leaders “are in disagreement among themselves.”
On May 14, Yan returned to the Great Hall of the People and told students that a dialogue to be held later in the day would be recorded and broadcast on national television. During the discussion that afternoon, Zhang claims, Yan and Li Tieying maintained that their aim was “not to negotiate policy decisions but to exchange views and information.” After the dialogue broke down, Dai Qing and a group of eleven other intellectuals notified Yan that they were willing to meet with the students and urge them to stop their hunger strike. When the intellectuals returned from the dialogue, they claimed that the students would listen if the government would compromise first. For Yan, this indicated that the “students are getting greedier, their demands are getting stiffer, and they’re getting less and less unified among themselves.” The intellectuals resumed the discussion, but it again ended without either party reaching a resolution.
On May 16, Yan arrived at Tiananmen Square to advocate an end to the hunger strike. He offered himself as a hostage to demonstrate the sincerity of his belief that all issues would soon be resolved. The students believed his speech to be genuine, but they did not think that the government would truly capitulate. By May 18, Yan had grown tired of the disagreements between the students and the government. At a meeting between Li Peng and the student leaders that day, he stated that the “only issue I am concerned with is that of saving the children who are hunger striking in the Square, who are now in a very weakened state, their lives gravely threatened.” When Zhao was ousted on May 21, Yan lost his major source of political support; on June 23, the Politburo voted to eject him from his government positions. An article from The Asian Wall Street Journal contends that Yan “was criticized as handling the talks badly.” According to Zhang, Yan’s speech to students on May 16 also “became a major count against him” when the government began to expel its reform-minded members.
Return to government and retirement
Yan did not reappear in Chinese politics until 1991, when he was named vice minister of Civil Affairs. The promotion occurred almost exactly two years after the June 4 Massacre, but a New York Times article claims that Yan and other recently rehabilitated officials “did not mention their 1989 political disgrace or say why they were given new jobs.” According to Josephine Ma, Yan “lost his political clout” in 1996 and retired from all government work, although he remained involved in charity work and continued to serve as chairman of China’s Charity Association. In 2007, Yan became China’s chief negotiator with Taiwan for a brief period. While Yan’s promotion to vice minister of Civil Affairs indicated that he was “partially rehabilitated,” Ma reports that “observers” regarded his tenure as chief negotiator as “the famous liberal’s full rehabilitation.” Apart from these positions, Yan has maintained a “low profile” since his retirement.
- Josephine Ma, “Taiwan post marks former aide’s return to the fold,” South China Morning Post, October 30, 2007. http://www.scmp.com/article/613595/taiwan-post-marks-former-aides-return-fold
- “Ex-Allies of Purged Leader Zhao Are Assigned New Posts in China,” The Asian Wall Street Journal, June 3, 1991, 22.
- Lawrence R. Sullivan. “Yan Mingfu,” Historical Dictionary of the Chinese Communist Party (Plymouth: Scarecrow Press, 2012), 293.
- Rana Mitter, “Complicity, Repression, and Regionalism: Yan Baohang and Centripetal Nationalism, 1931-1949,” Modern China 25.1 (1999): 44.
- Han Minzhu, “[Parting Words] of a Hunger Striker,” Cries for Democracy: Writings and Speeches from the 1989 Chinese Democracy Movement, ed. Han Minzhu and Hua Sheng (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), 203.
- Zhang Liang, “Opinions divide in the Politburo,” The Tiananmen Papers, ed. Andrew J. Nathan and Perry Link (New York: Public Affairs, 2002), 136.
- Zhang, “Opinions divide in the Politburo,” The Tiananmen Papers, 138.
- Zhang, “Authorizing a liberal press policy,” The Tiananmen Papers, 146-7.
- Zhang, “Authorizing a liberal press policy,” The Tiananmen Papers, 152.
- Zhang, “The hunger strike begins,” The Tiananmen Papers, 159.
- Zhang, “Li Tieying and Yan Mingfu hold dialogue with students,” The Tiananmen Papers, 165.
- Zhang, “The intellectuals appeal,” The Tiananmen Papers, 165-6.
- Han, “Transcript of May 18 meeting between Premier Li Peng and students,” Cries for Democracy, 244.
- Zhang, “The Conflict Intensifies,” The Tiananmen Papers, 268.
- Zhang, “The Fourth Plenum of the Thirteenth Central Committee,” The Tiananmen Papers, 438.
- “Beijing Promotes 3 Officials Who Were Allies of Purged Party Chief,” New York Times, June 2, 1991. http://www.nytimes.com/1991/06/02/world/beijing-promotes-3-officials-who-were-allies-of-purged-party-chief.html
- Josephine Ma, “Top Taiwan negotiator chosen,” South China Morning Post, October 30, 2007. http://www.scmp.com/article/613614/top-taiwan-negotiator-chosen