Yang, known by his pen name Yang Tianshui, was detained along with a friend in Nanjing, eastern China. He was tried on charges of subverting state power and, on May 17, 2006, the Zhenjiang Intermediate People’s Court sentenced him to 12 years in prison.
Yang was a well-known writer and member of the Independent Chinese PEN Center. He was a frequent contributor to U.S.-based websites banned in China, including Boxun News and Epoch Times. He often wrote critically about the ruling Communist Party and advocated the release of jailed internet writers.
According to the verdict in Yang’s case, which was translated into English by the U.S.-based prisoner advocacy group Dui Hua Foundation, the harsh sentence was over a fictitious online election, established by overseas Chinese citizens, for a “democratic Chinese transitional government.” His colleagues said he was elected to the leadership of the fictional government without his prior knowledge. He later wrote an article in Epoch Times in support of the model.
Prosecutors also accused Yang of transferring money from overseas to Wang Wenjiang, a Chinese dissident jailed for endangering state security. Yang’s defense lawyer argued that this money was humanitarian assistance to Wang’s family and should not have constituted a criminal act.
Believing that the proceedings were fundamentally unjust, Yang did not appeal. He had already spent 10 years in prison for his opposition to the military crackdown on demonstrators at Tiananmen Square in 1989.
In June 2008, Shandong provincial authorities refused to renew the law license of Yang’s lawyer, press freedom advocate Li Jianqiang. In 2008, the PEN American Center announced that Yang had received the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award.
Yang’s health deteriorated in 2015. He has pleural tuberculosis, nephritis, diabetes, high blood pressure, and other conditions, according to Radio France Internationale. Because Yang maintains he is innocent, his medical parole applications have been rejected. To demand his right to proper medical care, Yang has staged hunger strikes, according to Radio France Internationale.
Yang is being held in Nanjing No. 1 Prison in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, according to Radio Free Asia. In late 2016, Hua Chunhui, a democracy activist who has spoken with a friend of the columnist, told CPJ that Yang’s health problems persist.