Chinese Dissidents Paying a High Price for Freedom


Wang Dan, the Chinese dissident released Sunday from prison for “medical parole,” didn’t want to go. He had refused earlier offers to leave his country, saying it was better to be imprisoned in China than to live free elsewhere with less power to push for political reform. He feared, he said, losing his “spiritual sustenance.”

Indeed, a fellow leader from Tiananmen Square, who fled the country in 1989 and lost his bearings once out of the political spotlight, said he had mixed feelings when he heard that Wang was free. “I don’t know whether I should congratulate him on his release or express my regret on his beginning of exile--which is a torture on the mental level,” said Wuer Kaixi, who lives in Taiwan.

While Wang’s deportation was a double victory for China--the government won humanitarian points for his release and rid itself of a dissident hero--for him, freedom comes at a personal and political price. When he arrived in the United States on a one-way ticket, he became the newest member of a fractured group of exiled Chinese dissident leaders that has never quite regained what it lost--a homeland, moral authority, the heady glory and power of the moments when it looked as if activism really could change China.

Many are finding it increasingly difficult to shape their country from afar. Separated from compatriots they want to influence, banished activists have been silenced by distance, increasingly ignored by Western leaders who concede that commercial interests take a higher priority than human rights, and frustrated as they watch China move on without them. And as the overseas democracy movement struggles with new strategies to keep pressure focused on Beijing, the group is splintering and sniping, producing as much division as democracy.


“Since more people have come over [from China to the U.S.], the field has become more complicated, full of splits and factions and power struggles,” said Andrew Nathan, a China scholar at Columbia University who follows the overseas movement. “There are many big fish in a small pond.”

Dissidents Diverge on How to Achieve Aims

Wang, 28, is the freshest arrival, who on Monday in Detroit was pronounced medically fit, though suffering from a touch of asthma. His philosophy of openly building legal institutions in China represents the most idealistic end of the spectrum. On the other end lies Wang Bingzhang, one of the oldest leaders of the overseas movement, who is trying to create an underground party to directly challenge the government--violently if necessary. (The two Wangs are unrelated.)

After 20 years of living outside China, Wang Bingzhang, 50, knows better than most what can be lost in exile. This year, in a high-stakes gamble to reinvigorate the movement and place himself at the head of it, he might have lost even more.


In 1982, in New York, Wang Bingzhang started the first group for overseas Chinese dissidents, the Chinese Alliance for Democracy, and a political journal called China Spring. But after years of ineffectual pressure from outside, he decided to sneak back into China in January to set up a domestic opposition group, the Chinese Democracy and Justice Party.

“The Beijing government is at a crossroads,” the elder Wang said later. “Either they carry on political reform or maintain a one-party dictatorship. If they carry on political reform, we will work with them. If not, they will face a serious social crisis like in 1989. We will be prepared to take action.”

With a forged passport stuffed in the pocket of his pinstriped suit, Wang slipped into China on Jan. 23 to sow the seeds for a revolution. He entered via the Portuguese enclave of Macao using false documents in the name of Qi Xin, and began his journey to weave a clandestine network of democracy activists.

But fearing Wang would be captured by secret police and no one outside the country would know, Lu Siqing, his colleague in Hong Kong, announced to the media that the dissident had outwitted Chinese security and, in effect, was plotting a revolution under the government’s nose. Within hours, China’s secret police arrested Wang in Anhui province, and, after three days of questioning, expelled him. In his wake, at least 15 people he had met with were arrested in a nationwide police sweep.


Less than a week later, the New York-based journal Beijing Spring published an account of his trip, detailing his route, names of his contacts and where he met them. Yang Qinheng, a Shanghai-based dissident and one of Wang’s most outspoken colleagues, was charged with stirring social dissent after meeting with him and giving radio interviews about China’s labor problems. He was sentenced in March to three years in a labor camp, Yang’s brother told reporters.

Despite the wave of detentions after he had safely left China, Wang defends the publicity about his trip as a form of protection. “At that time, I was being followed by the Public Security Bureau,” he said. “They could do ridiculous things to try to kill me, like a car accident. They could make me disappear. My colleagues decided to release this news to protect me. I think the decision was right.”

A month later, he decided to try again. But spooked in Macao, he aborted his trip and tried to return to Hong Kong on a U.S. passport bearing yet another name: Corwin Lau Hin-ping. This time, the forgery was detected--his picture was pasted over the original. He was expelled from Hong Kong and arrested when he returned to New York for using a false U.S. passport.

Despite the inglorious outcome, Wang Bingzhang grandly declares he is on the verge of doing what has not been achieved in the half-century history of the Communist state: building a nationwide opposition party within China. He claims it has 17 branches, with more than 100 members.


But instead of being welcomed as this generation’s Sun Yat-sen, Wang has been greeted by skepticism and mistrust from those he believed shared his ideals. Wang’s critics--once his allies--say that in his public quest for change in China, he endangers dissidents on the mainland and alienates colleagues in the democracy movement overseas. Calling his efforts “doomed” and “irresponsible,” some even say he couldn’t do more damage to their efforts if he were a double agent.

‘You Have Failed Us,’ Rights Panel Is Told

Wei Jingsheng, freed on medical parole in 1997 after 18 years in prison, angrily distanced himself from Wang’s claims that he would sneak Wei back into the mainland. Wei, considered by many to be the true leader of the movement born at Democracy Wall in Beijing in 1978, now embraces a different strategy: He is traveling, meeting international leaders and bluntly criticizing them for putting business with China ahead of human rights concerns.

But Wei is frustrated that his efforts seem to bear so little fruit. Despite face-to-face appeals to President Clinton, British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook and speeches in Geneva to the U.N. Human Rights Commission, the United States and the European Union abandoned their annual condemnation of China’s human rights performance this year.


On the day that Wang Dan was released, human rights activists reminded the commission that there are 158 lesser-known Tiananmen activists still imprisoned and perhaps thousands more prisoners of conscience whose names are not known. “You have failed us in China,” Wei told the commission.

Turned Back While Trying to Go Home

Han Dongfang, another leader in exile, is taking his case directly to the people. The 35-year-old labor leader who was imprisoned after Tiananmen Square was released on medical parole in 1992 when he contracted tuberculosis.

When he tried to return to China after he recovered, he was expelled by officials and spent the night on a bridge in the no man’s land between Hong Kong and China. “It was my right to enter my country,” he says with a fresh flash of anger. “I am still Chinese.”


While the State Department insisted Monday that Wang Dan and other dissidents have the right to return to their native land if they wish, Han had to receive special permission in 1997 to settle in Hong Kong and stay close to home. He says wryly that China returned to him when it reclaimed Hong Kong.

Although he cannot cross the border, his voice fills the country via his regular broadcasts on Radio Free Asia. Han counsels workers who haven’t been paid for months not to be violent but to organize and work through channels. Sometimes, listeners call him collect at the radio station and tell him he doesn’t understand China anymore.

Though he is closest to the mainland of all the blacklisted dissidents, he still feels the sting of exile. “I am not in prison, but how free am I?” he asks. “I can’t go back to my country. There is only one door out for dissidents, and there is no way to return.”

Times staff writer Jim Mann in Washington contributed to this report.