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On the Frontiers of Free Speech: Dan Wang

Jenah Shaw



A student leader during the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, Dan Wang has spent seven years in prison for conspiring to overthrow the Communist Party of China. In 1998, after international pressure, Wang was exiled and has spent the rest of his life giving lectures after completing a PhD at Harvard University. At the eve of a speaking tour in New Zealand, Salient volunteer feature writer Jenah Shaw spoke with Wang about democracy, activism and China.

THE image is instantly recognisable: a lone figure in front of four tanks, one man against the advancing machines. This image has become an icon – of protest, of the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, of China’s suppression of the pro-democracy movement. In many ways it is the photograph which has immortalised the Tiananmen protests in collective memory. What the image fails to capture are the surrounding details – the sheer length of the protests and demonstrations, stretching from mid April to the culminating massacre of 4 June, the hunger strikes and the sacrifices made by those at the protest’s centre.
Wang Dan was twenty when he became a student leader of 1989 Tiananmen protests. A history major at Beijing University, Wang is considered to be the brains of Tiananmen protest movement. Lasting six weeks, from mid April to the 4th of June, students and civilians came together in Tiananmen Square to stage marches and demonstrations. Sparked by the death of reformer and former-Communist Party leader Hu Yaobang, the initial demands were for Hu’s reputation to be restored. Over the weeks, demands expanded to include democratic reforms.
The protests built steadily and, by the beginning of June, there were at least a million protestors gathered in the square. On June 3 the Communist leaders, worried that their authority was being undermined, moved a military contingent into the square. What followed on June 4 has come to be known as the Tiananmen Square massacre. While exact figures have never been confirmed, hundreds and maybe even thousands of the protestors were killed.
Wang’s role as a student leader also made him number one on China’s list of “21 Most Wanted Beijing Student Leaders”.
Following the protests, he was imprisoned for spreading “counter-revolutionary propaganda and incitement”. In 1993, after four years in jail, Wang was released – an action coinciding with China’s bid to host the 2000 Olympic Games.
Although out of jail, Wang was unable to return to Beijing University and was refused entry to correspondence courses.
He was also threatened with death by the police. Nevertheless, he was unshaken in his beliefs, continuing to write essays for overseas publications. The basis for his freedom had been unstable to begin with and was not to last long. In 1995 Wang was re-arrested and sentenced to an eleven year term for “plotting to subvert the government”. In 1998, only two years into the sentence, he accepted exile to the US. His release, two months before President Clinton was due to arrive in China, was the result of international pressure. Clinton himself was reported to have requested Wang’s release.
In America, Wang studied East Asian History at Harvard, where he subsequently worked on a Ph.D. Like many dissidents, he is now consigned to life in exile. Where others have found new focuses, creating new lives in new lands, Wang remains committed to the cause of Chinese democracy.
Wang has never been back to China. His applications to return are continually denied.
[In one account of the Tiananmen protests, fellow protestor Li Lu describes Wang as having “great internal strength. He was always calm and steady and, when he answered questions, he was logical and alert and sensitive. He was able to unite people; in consequence he was the most popular leader.”]
You were one of the student leaders of the Tiananmen protests of 1989, and subsequently named the ‘Number One Most Wanted Student’. Had you intended to be at the fore of the protest?
Yes, I intended to be involved into student movement even early in 1988, when I was freshman at Peking University. I organised the democratic salon during 1988, I guess that’s the reason the government named me as number one in their most wanted list.
When did you begin questioning China’s regime? Why?
I began to question when I got in Peking University, partly because the atmosphere in university. During 1988, both student and teachers in Peking University were interested in talking about politic and looking forward to political reform.
You spent four years in prison following 1989, and another three years from 1995. Did this period of time change your views?
The life in prison can never change my views, on the contrary, it give more willingness to seek for freedom, because the prison life made me know how painful it will be without freedom.
In 1995, after your release, you wrote that “A society still needs idealists – people who are willing to sacrifice themselves to uphold the basic ideals of freedom and democracy.” Do you still consider yourself an idealist?
Yes, I still think I am an idealist.
In 1989 you spoke of the people’s “yearning for democracy”. How widespread is the desire for democracy in China today?
After 1989, I believe Chinese people have more faith on democracy, Even though in appearance most of them show little interest in promoting democracy, but in their mind, nobody really dislike it. During economic reform, since many people lost their benefit, the value of democracy will become more and more precious.
Are China’s students today as concerned about the issue of democracy as your generation, or has there since been a shift in priorities and concerns?
The young generation today seems more concerned with themselves and making money more than democracy, but since they cherish the independence and individual freedom even more than our generation, sooner or later, their value will clash with CCP’s, at that time, the passion for democracy will appear again.
Has your view of democracy changed since you’ve seen it running first-hand in America?
When I was student in Peking University, I see democracy totally as political thing, like balance of power, free election, etc. But the experience in US changed the view of democracy in my mind. Now I think democracy is rather a cultural thing. I mean, without a mature civil society, the democracy will be hopeless.
What has changed since the 1989 protests? How have you changed?
No answer for this, sorry.
What is your dream for China?
My dream is that China can be a country that our people live with freedom and human rights.
What difficulties are there in pursuing Chinese democracy from America?
Since we are in an internet era, I don’t think it is really difficult to pursuing democracy for China.
In 1999 you said you believed there would be a significant change in the ruling regime within 5-8 years. Have you seen any of the changes you expected? What do you now foresee for China’s next decades?
There are already a lot changes have happened. The most important one is the appearance of civil society, even though it is still immature. I believe the political reform will be raised to the agenda very soon and we can go back to China sooner or later.
In your opinion, will the 2008 Olympics be a catalyst for change, or will it result in increased suppression?
The Olympics is a chance not only for government but for Chinese civil society to contact outside world, and this will be helpful for the grown up of our civil society. So I expect that it will bring changes.
The image of the lone figure in front of the tanks remains iconic. Eighteen years on, what legacy has Tiananmen Square left?
The legacy of 1989 is: Chinese people eager to have democracy, and have willingness to seek it with peaceful method.
At the time of press it was still uncertain where Dan Wang will be speaking when he visits New Zealand. Salient understands that his tour may include a lecture at Victoria University on the 17th or 18th this month. Contact Shirley Pack for further details, shirley.pack@vuw.ac.nz, or (04) 463 5635.