Yan Mingfu, Who Tried to Defuse the Tiananmen Powder Keg, Dies at 91

Yan Mingfu, the son of a Chinese Communist Party spy who became Mao Zedong’s interpreter and a negotiator who sought to defuse the standoff between the party and student protesters occupying Tiananmen Square in 1989, died on Monday in Beijing. He was 91.

His daughter, Yan Lan, confirmed the death in a statement in the Chinese magazine Caixin. She did not specify a cause, but Mr. Yan had endured a succession of illnesses in old age.

“Dad passed away peacefully, putting a full stop on a life filled with tumult and drama,” Ms. Yan wrote.

Mr. Yan was thrust onto the center stage for key moments in China’s Cold War years. He was a Russian-language translator for Mao as he built an alliance with the Soviet Union in the 1950s, and later as the alliance slid toward bitter animosity. He accompanied Chinese leaders again in 1989, when the Soviet leader, Mikhail S. Gorbachev, visited Beijing to heal the rupture.

But the most dramatic and perhaps most painful episode of Mr. Yan’s life involved the pro-democracy protests that occupied Tiananmen Square in 1989, overshadowing Mr. Gorbachev’s visit. Mr. Yan became an envoy to the protesters and to the Chinese intellectuals who were trying to head off a bloody clampdown.

“All his life, Yan Mingfu stayed inside the system as a follower of the Communist Party, but at that crucial moment in 1989, his humanity overcame his party-mindedness,” Wang Dan, a former student leader of the 1989 protests now living the United States, wrote in a tribute. “People like him are very rare inside the Communist Party.”

Mr. Yan was born in Beijing on Nov. 11, 1931, the youngest of six children. His father, Yan Baohang, was an official of the ruling Nationalist Party who secretly joined the rival Communist Party in 1937 and became a clandestine agent. His mother, Gao Sutong, was a homemaker.

The family moved from city to city as the Japanese invasion expanded across China, Mr. Yan recalled in a memoir published in 2015, and settled in the southwestern Chinese city of Chongqing, which became the wartime base for the Nationalists.

The young Mingfu watched as mysterious visitors — Communist Party contacts — slipped into a second-floor room of the family home to meet with his father.

“Ostensibly, they were playing mahjong,” Mr. Yan wrote in his memoir. “In fact, they were holding meetings.”

The family later moved to northeast China, near the frontier with the Soviet Union, and Mr. Yan decided to study Russian. After Mao’s Communists took control in 1949, he became an interpreter for government officials. It was an era when China looked to the Soviet Union as an inspiration, and Mr. Yan became an interpreter for the Soviet advisers helping Mao’s government.

In 1955, he married Wu Keliang, a fellow interpreter. She died in 2015. In addition to their daughter, Ms. Yan, he is survived by a grandson, according to a memoir that his daughter wrote about her family.

Mr. Yan accompanied Chinese leaders on visits to the Soviet Union, and in 1957 he served as Mao’s interpreter during delicate discussions in Moscow when tensions over ideology and foreign policy were beginning to complicate ties between the two countries.

On a hot August day in 1958, Mao and the visiting Soviet leader, Nikita S. Khrushchev, volleyed thoughts at each other while they floated in a swimming pool. Mr. Yan and another interpreter circled around the edge of the pool, straining to catch each leader’s words and shout them to the other leader.

“By the time they had finished their swim and climbed out to get dressed,” Mr. Yan recalled, “we were drenched in sweat.”

In the two decades that followed, Mr. Yan was dragged down by the deepening turmoil of Mao’s revolution and by the government’s increasing suspicion of officials who had close contacts with the Soviet Union. He was thrown into prison in 1967, accused of being a Soviet spy and a traitor.

His wife, Ms. Wu, also endured harsh interrogation and was exiled to the countryside. The couple and their daughter were reunited when Mr. Yan was released from prison in 1975 as Mao’s Cultural Revolution waned.

By 1989, Mr. Yan was the head of the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front Department, which handled relations with intellectuals as well as with ethnic and religious groups.

When student protesters occupied Tiananmen Square to demand democratization and an end to official corruption, Mr. Yan was sent as an intermediary by the reformist party secretary, Zhao Ziyang, who wanted to persuade the students to end a hunger strike and ensure a successful visit to Beijing by Mr. Gorbachev.

Deng Xiaoping, China’s top leader, had asked Mr. Yan to be present for Mr. Gorbachev’s meetings. “Over many years, Mingfu was always involved in these Chinese-Soviet negotiations,” Mr. Deng said, according to Mr. Yan’s memoir. “Let him be here this time too.”

In meetings with student leaders, Mr. Yan tried to persuade them to call off the hunger strike, which had taken political passions to a high pitch. He and other officials also turned to liberal-minded journalists, academics and intellectuals to try finding common ground with the protesters.

But hard-line party leaders were impatient for a showdown and rejected the possibility of making any major concessions. And the ardent, churning pro-democracy movement was not an easy negotiating partner.

Mr. Yan ventured to Tiananmen Square in mid-May to try to win over the protesters, many of them slumped on bedding because of their refusal to eat and drink. He promised that their demands would be considered and that they would not suffer recriminations.

“When I see you students like this, I feel deeply, deeply upset,” Mr. Yan told the crowd, according to Zhou Duo, an intellectual who was with Mr. Yan in Tiananmen Square. “You students are fine-spirited and your wishes are well meant.”

He ended with a plea: “If you don’t believe my assurances, you can take me, Yan Mingfu, back to your school as a hostage.”

Mr. Zhou wrote that Mr. Yan had shown him that “not all Communists are from one monolithic lump of iron.”

Deng pushed aside the attempts to find a peaceful way out of the impasse. Less than three weeks later, troops poured into central Beijing, shooting at the crowds that had gathered to protest or watch. Hundreds of civilians — or, by some estimates, thousands — died.

Mr. Yan was demoted. He spent the rest of his career as a vice minister for civil affairs and then president of the China Charity Federation, a government-sponsored philanthropic organization.

In retirement, he wrote his memoirs. Reflecting the official sensitivities about discussion of that era, they did not touch on the 1980s.

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