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A Tiananmen Leader-Turned US Army Chaplain Is Desperate to Visit His Dying Mother in China

Former Tiananmen Square leader Xiong Yan says he has spent two years asking for permission to return to visit China, but claims he is being ignored because he is still seen as a dissident.
Photo via Yan Xiong

A former Tiananmen Square student leader has issued a plea to be allowed to return to China to see his dying mother.

Xiong Yan — who has not been back to his homeland in 23 years — is now an American citizen who works in El Paso as a US army chaplain. He told VICE News that he had been trying to get permission to return for two years, but had not received a response from Chinese officials.

"My mother is 80 years old and she is dying," Xiong told VICE News. He said that his decision to go public with his request had been provoked by a photo his brother sent him a week ago that shows his aged mother in a hospital bed.


Related: This dissident really wants to go home, but China refuses to arrest him. Read more here.

Xiong, who did visit Hong Kong in 2009 but has been unable to return to mainland China, said he had been repeatedly contacting the Chinese embassy for two years to apply for a visa. He believes his past is the reason why his application is ignored. "Personally [I think] it's because of the political systems. They know I was a Tiananmen Square student leader so they know if they allow me to go back, possibly from their perspective or from their political philosophy it's bad," he said, declaring he thinks this logic is flawed. "I love my motherland even more than before," he said.

Yan (right) is pictured with his mother Xiong Yuan Wu, and elder brother Liu Yu Feng, now a teacher. Photo courtesy of Xiong Yan

Xiong was a law student in 1989 before being named as one of China's 21 "most wanted," a list of activists accused of organizing that year's pro-democracy demonstrations. After the Tiananmen Square massacre on the night of June 3, the group's names and pictures were broadcast. Chinese citizens were asked to prevent them from "escaping."

While seven of his fellow activists did escape, Xiong was captured and detained in 1989. He was released in 1992 and fled the country. He studied at Harvard before joining the US Army, becoming a chaplain in 2003 and later serving in Iraq. He has not seen his mother since 1995 when she managed to visit him for six months in a US military base.

'My heart experiences unspeakable pain.'


A commentary published in China's Global Times pro-government newspaper about the "political turmoil" of 1989 said that Xiong "continues to stand in opposition to the Chinese political system."

Xiong said that this photo was taken when he was 100 days old and his mother brought him to a photographer. Photo courtesy of Xiong Yan

In a letter he wrote to the Chinese authorities and translated for VICE News, Xiong said: "My mom [Xiong Yuan Wu] was a doctor before she retired; she now stays at the Loudi Rehabilitation Hospital on the third floor, and has come close to the end of her life. As her son, I feel very guilty, for my mother has taken care of me, but I cannot repay her for all she has done for me. Now my mother is dying, as the son of my mother I wanted to go back and visit her as soon as possible.

"Last night I pulled out a picture of my mother, she was holding me at a studio shoot when I was only 100 days old. I then thought about my mother in Loudi City, in the third floor of the rehabilitation hospital dying of exhaustion, the tears of sadness flow uncontrollably. My heart experiences unspeakable pain.

"The US military understands my situation, and grants me a special leave in order to return to China to visit my mother. One of the greatest aspects of Chinese culture is filial piety. I believe that Chairman Xi and Prime Minister Li will support my request for returning to see my dying mother."

Related: China's attitude toward homosexuality is beginning to shift, with parents leading the way. Read more here.

Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd