Wang Ruowang, a Chinese writer and social critic who was one of three prominent intellectuals expelled from the Communist Party in 1987 as “bourgeois liberalizers,” died Wednesday at a New York City hospital. He was 83.
The cause of death was lung cancer, a hospital spokesman said.
Wang was sometimes called the grandfather of Chinese dissidents because he was the eldest of the triumvirate that included the better-known scientist Fang Lizhi and writer Liu Binyan. He was a party member longer than either Fang or Liu, and in 1992 became the last of the three permitted to leave China.
A veteran of political persecution, Wang spent 20 years in Chinese jails, under both Kuomintang and Communist governments. Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai-shek condemned him as a communist agitator in the 1930s. Mao Tse-tung denounced him as a rightist in the 1950s. Red Guards attacked his ideas as counter-revolutionary in the 1960s.
“He lived Chinese Communist history. He was a survivor,” said Bei Ling, the dissident poet who was deported from China last year. “His whole life was so special. We feel very, very heavy, very sad.”
Wang wrote “Hunger Trilogy,” an autobiographical work, published in 1980, that described his experiences in the Chinese gulag, starting in the 1930s when he was an idealistic young Communist jailed by Chiang’s Nationalists.
When he claimed that his Nationalist jailers were kinder than the Communist ones who followed, he became a hero of the young.
"['Trilogy’] is restrained, good, objective writing,” said Perry Link, a China scholar at Princeton University who has translated Wang’s work. “It was very powerful because it showed the Communist prison to be the cruelest of all.”
Wang made his reputation as a wry satirist early in life. He was 16 in 1933 when, as a member of Shanghai’s literary underground, he wrote a sarcastic article mocking Chiang’s capitulation to the Japanese in Manchuria. He spent the next four years in prison.
When he was released, he joined Mao’s crusade because, Wang said, he wanted to “fight evil, autocracy and oppression.”
But when he realized that Mao had perpetuated the same evils, he became a thorn in the Communists’ side. He clung to that role for the next several decades.
Vilified in Mao’s anti-rightist campaign of 1957, Wang lost his job, was ejected from the party, and sent away from his family to a forced labor camp in the countryside. He would spend most of the next two decades in labor camps or prisons.
His wife, Li Ming, also lost her job. When she refused to denounce him, she suffered a mental breakdown and died in the early 1960s.
“The party killed her,” Wang bluntly told an interviewer several years ago.
Just before she died, she begged him to protect his family and never write again. But he was, veteran China watcher Orville Schell said, “one of those people who could not not write. He was wry and principled in a very determined way.”
When the Cultural Revolution began in 1966, Wang again was jailed for his writing, this time for six years.
“There I tasted fascist brutality and cruelty firsthand,” he recalled. “Several of my cellmates were so old and weak that they were finally unable to endure the persecution and died. In fact, one of them passed away right in my arms, nearly breaking my heart, and I swore in the name of those who died that if I ever got out alive, I would struggle for the rest of my life against such injustices. . . .”
In the 1980s, Wang had “probably the best foreign reputation of any working Chinese writer,” Link said at the time. Then, in 1987, the audacious essayist was accused by the Deng Xiaoping regime of five “major mistakes.” These included his alleged characterization of China’s brand of socialism as “feudal or semi-feudal in essence” and urging students to travel down “the road of liberalization.”
Deng personally denounced him as “wildly presumptuous” and ordered his expulsion from the party.
Although he had received the severest form of political discipline, effectively prevented from holding any kind of leadership position in Chinese society, Wang would not be muted.
In a 1988 interview in a Hong Kong magazine, Wang came close to advocating the abolition of the Communist Party. “We must have the courage to discard this harmful model. . . . There is a new concept, new for China, at least, that asks, ‘Why should a whole nation and a whole people die because of the degeneration and deterioration of one party?’ ”
He was last imprisoned in 1989 for leading a protest march outside Shanghai government offices during the Tiananmen Square demonstrations in Beijing in the spring of 1989. He spent 400 days in jail and another few years under virtual house arrest.
After pressure from the U.S. government, he was allowed to leave China in 1992 for a one-year appointment to Columbia University.
Wang found life in America difficult. “He was something of a fish out of water here,” observed Schell, who knew Wang in China and saw him several times after he moved to the U.S. “He never learned English. When the Chinese Communist Party discovered the best treatment for dissidents was to export them, that was a very fateful and brilliant strategic moment . . . because almost none of the people survived very long outside of China in the sense of being efficacious politically. It was hard for them to write. They had no constituency, no context.”
Remarried in China, Wang and his second wife, Yang Zi, shared a modest Flushing, N.Y., apartment with another family. He had no income of his own and was sustained by his wife, who worked as a baby-sitter, and the kindness of friends.
Link said that in his later years, Wang seemed to enjoy his gadfly role too conspicuously and lost stature among other dissidents.
But some 200 admirers came to see him as he lay dying last week. According to Bei, the poet, two of his seven children were granted last-minute visas to the U.S. and spent a few hours with him before he died.