The Magazine


Jun 22, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 40 • By DAVID AIKMAN
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Even before his second arrest, Wang was no advocate of sudden political change. "We should clear a new path and devote ourselves to building a civil society by focusing our efforts on social movements, not political movements, self-consciously maintaining a distance from political power and political organs," he told Beijing Spring in the 1995 interview. He went on: "I feel that society still needs idealists, people who are working to sacrifice themselves to uphold the basic ideals of freedom and democracy." Intellectuals, in particular, have a duty to speak out against abuses of power, he feels; but today, "they have given up their moral responsibility" and been co-opted by the regime for economic advantage. And maybe not just inside China: Fellow Tiananmen Square leader Chai Ling, who does not share Wang's continuing anguish over the Tiananmen deaths, is currently completing her MBA at Harvard.

In accordance with his emphasis on gradually readying society for democracy, Wang welcomes U.S. trade with China and a certain crass consumerism by ordinary Chinese. "In a consumer society, people at least care about something," he points out, contrasting this with the hyper-politicized China of the 1950s and '60s, when children denounced their parents for deviating from the party line. What matters to Wang is that China's intelligentsia recover the democratic idealism that inspired it early in the century -- and without which, he believes, China could develop into a dangerous rogue state.

Much as he regrets the hundreds of deaths at Tiananmen Square nine years ago, Wang believes that the crackdown changed China forever. "Before Tiananmen, most Chinese had a very vague idea about democracy," he says. "But after 1989, most of the people had a good idea what it was. The fact that the government used military violence to crush the democrats led to the complete abandonment of any illusions about the government."

Like almost all Chinese intellectuals and democratic activists in the past 100 years, Wang is fascinated by America's democratic tradition. He mentions the Mayflower Compact of 1620 and the role of religious freedom in fostering this country's democratic culture. Now enjoying the liberty to read and converse as widely as he wishes, he is immersed in the practice as well as the philosophy of freedom. His ambition, he says, is to be president of Beijing University. But first he is investing his energies in the work of making China free.

David Aikman, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, covered the Tiananmen Square massacre for Time.