Publication: China Brief Volume: 2 Issue: 2

By Jonathan Mirsky

In a month of sad Christmas stories–the Chinese Communist Party’s futile ban on Santa Claus newspaper stories providing comic relief–one of the saddest was the death in New York of Wang Ruowang, aged 83. Two events make clear Wang’s immense stature: Soon after he died on December 19, the security forces in Shanghai arrested ten men who were discussing a memorial service for Wang. And when Wang’s memorial service was held in New York hundreds crowded into the hall; among them were most of the significant Chinese exiles in the United States, many of whom no longer talk to each other. Wang’s life and death brought them together.

Wang was a great Chinese. It is part of the tragedy of modern China that he suffered as much as he did. One of his distinctions was his imprisonment under both Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong.

When he was sixteen Wang was jailed by Chiang’s police for writing political satires. In 1937, soon after joining the Party, he travelled to Mao’s guerrilla base at Yan’an. When Mao initiated his first great campaign against intellectuals in 1942, Wang was criticised for writing wall posters which exposed bureaucrats for acting as if they were better than others. He was expelled from the Party as a Rightist in 1957: He had criticised the Party and Chairman Mao. During the Cultural Revolution, Red Guards confined Wang in the “niupen,” ox-shed, for four years, a close form of detention punctuated by verbal and physical abuse suffered by thousands of intellectuals. Wang was rehabilitated in 1979 and allowed to rejoin the Party but in 1987 was expelled again for attacking its record on law and human rights and for criticising Deng Xiaoping by name. In 1989, having marched in support of Qin Benli, the sacked editor of the “Shanghai Economic Journal,” Wang was jailed for fourteen months–in the same cell in which he had been imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution. Wang and his wife Yang Zi were interrogated for two days in 1991, accused of links to an illegal human rights journal. Soon the party began allowing certain dissidents to go abroad, for “medical treatment,” on the understanding that they stayed away, and in 1992 Wang was permitted to take up a long-standing invitation from Professor Andrew Nathan at Columbia University

During the late 1980s, like other journalists I interviewed Wang and his admirable wife. In a memoir published in 1986 Wang said he fell in love with Yang after the death of his first wife who had died in great anguish because of the persecution of her husband and children. At a time of life when most people are edging into retirement, Wang and Yang were supporting ordinary people who had grievances against the authorities. They researched their cases and helped them write their complaints.


At Wang’s memorial service, according to Perry Link of Princeton who also spoke, China’s greatest investigative journalist Liu Binyan, “speaking slowly and pausing often–from a need more to swallow sobs than to select words–gave the most memorable speech.” Professor Link paraphrased Liu’s words: “He asked what Wang’s crimes were, that he should have been imprisoned by the Kuomintang, and then by the Japanese, then by Mao, and then by Deng and Jiang? Wasn’t he just wanting the best for his country? He started his life with high ideals and the vigor of youth. He invested these in the Communist Party, whose leaders soon expelled him, then banished him, then imprisoned him, then starved and tortured him, then ruined his family, then ‘forgave’ him, readmitted him, re-expelled him, re-imprisoned him and finally forced him into exile, where he contracted cancer and was not allowed to travel home to die.”

“Everyone,” Perry Link said,” could see that Liu, whose own life (except for the broken family) follows the same overall curve, was speaking of himself as well. Why did we do it?, Liu continued, still between sobs. Were we wrong to start out with those ideals? Were we wrong to try to tell the truth? The forbidden truth? Mr. Wang is gone now, and I am in the final chapter of my own life. When we look at China today, do we see the China that Wang and I hoped for sixty years ago? Were we hoping for a China where corruption, deception, cynicism are rife? Where exploitation, disease, prostitution and gangsterism have their ways? Where the rural suicide rate is highest in the world? Where the “smart” people have no moral values and no interest in them? Where the natural environment will recover only in decades, if ever? Ruled by a regime that still will not look squarely at the tens of millions of untimely deaths it caused in the Great Leap famine, but still harshly represses any voice or any organisation, that speaks–or even might speak–against it? Is that where Wang Ruowang thought we would end up when he began his life’s journey? “

What Liu said at Wang’s memorial was the simple painful truth.If there was a more admirable Chinese than Wang Ruowang during the last sixty years I have yet to hear of him.

Andy Nathan, who had invited Wang to Columbia, said at the service, “When I met him I could see he was a ‘straight’ person, with straight hair, a straight gaze and straight talk. It is often said that American culture is frank and blunt and Chinese culture is indirect and polite. But Wang showed that this is not so. He fought from the ideas of truth and freedom, not for any movement or party, and did so without compromise to the end. “

In her excellent book, “Sowing the Seeds of Democracy,” Merle Goldman of Boston University, who has devoted her scholarly life to Chinese dissident intellectuals, wrote that after Wang reemerged from his Cultural Revolution ordeal, he was in “feisty, irrepressible spirits.” In a series of articles he attacked “the leadership and political system that had allowed the Cultural Revolution to happen. “When the Party attempted to limit such criticism, Professor Goldman relates, Wang “responded with a piece entitled ‘a Gust of Cold Wind in Spring,’ in which he asserted that no boundaries should be put on detailing the crimes committed in the Cultural Revolution.” In 1979, according to Professor Goldman, Wang “protested the party’s treatment of writers as ‘kindergartners or elementary school students who have to be led by nannies.'” In another article Wang observed that he had been hungrier during his persecution by the Party than in his Kuomintang cell, and asked “Does such a political regime deserve to be called a proletarian political power?” In speeches in the mid-1980s he ventured into some of the most forbidden ideological territory by calling for a multiparty system and after martial law was proclaimed in Tibet in 1989 he was virtually unique among Chinese intellectuals for condemning it.


It is very easy to criticize exiles like Wang. Wei Jingsheng is condemned for his erratic behaviour and for accusing other dissidents, like Xu Wenli, of being Communist agents. This is indeed bad behaviour. Liu Binyan is accused of never finding anything good to say of China. After thirty years of trying to make it better, is this a surprise? Fang Lizhi, who also spoke at Wang’s memorial service, whose great mind was wasted by years of Cultural Revolution imprisonment and who electrified university students in the mid-1980s by his bold attacks on Communism, is criticised for having withdrawn into scholarly work on astrophysics in Arizona and saying little about Chinese politics. Wang Dan, now at Harvard, endures the same attacks. Wang Ruowang was described by some in America as an egocentric loudmouth.

To all such charges I reply: These men have not led quiet intellectual lives. They suffered torture, jail and constant verbal attacks in one of the most frightening political systems of the 20th century, one in which millions died before their time. They stood up for human rights, law and decency over long periods. Wei Jingsheng wrote wallposters in 1979 calling for democracy and suggesting that Deng Xiaoping was little better than Mao. He spent two long terms in prison, emerging into his American exile only in 1997. Wang Ruowang, Liu Binyan, and Fang Lizhi were expelled from the Party twice and spent years in prison. Wang Dan went to prison after Tiananmen. It was perhaps their shortcoming, and certainly sad for China, that these men and others like them, never formed a national movement to bring down the Communist Party. And all of them knew what the consequences would certainly, absolutely, predictably be if they opened their mouths–words are dangerous weapons in communist regimes–and spoke the truth. But they did it anyway. Because, as Martin Luther said centuries ago, “Here I stand, I can do no other.”

I have lived most my life in the democracies of the United States and Great Britain, but for many years worked as a journalist in China, where I was lucky to meet Wang Ruowang and Fang Lizhi (and Wang Shuxian, his admirable wife). In America I came to know Wei Jingsheng, Liu Binyan and Wang Dan. If they were driven crazy here, eccentric there, or have left public life, I say: So what? As Americans say, all of them paid their dues. In China such payments, if they are not fatal, damage one’s health.

Jonathan Mirsky, was the China correspondent of The Observer [London] and East Asia Editor of The Times [London]. In 1989 he was named the British editors’ International Journalist of the Year for his reporting from Tiananmen. He lives in London.