Young Wang’s eyes have seen more than they let on. He is a GW graduate student. He has worked, climbing up from a lowly dish washing job. He has garnered prizes and acclaim as a bilingual poet. And he once headed a parade of students through the streets of Beijing, toward a park called Tiananmen Square.
Roots of dissent
Wang was born in 1967 in a central province of China. He lived most of his young days there, reared by his father, a school principal, and mother, a Chinese language teacher.
When political clashes closed the province’s shops and factories, Wang’s father brought his family to his own childhood home in the countryside.
“I know the suffering of those times and those people,” Wang said. “I remember.”
As a child, Wang and his classmates sang Mao “praise songs,” and played games designed to strengthen their dedication to Maoism.
“We believed in Mao in primary school because in that period Chinese people knew nothing of the outside world,” Wang said. “You could only praise him – even as a child, you could never say no. If you said no, you would get in trouble.”
In 1986, Wang enrolled in Beijing’s Nanjing University. He was 18, and China’s open-door policy was less than a decade old. As a student, Wang specialized in American literature, filling his head with the English language.
“I loved most of all Whitman’s `The Captain,’ about Lincoln,” Wang said. “It is a daring, open poem. It characterized the American people at that time. And Frost I love – I appreciate his moods.”
American poets like Whitman, Frost and Dickinson wrote of free will and the human spirit. To Wang, a child of Maoist China, the lyrics dashed color into the glimpses of capitalism and market economy that drifted through China’s newly-opened doors.
He was entranced. And he began to ask questions.
“I don’t think I ever had these ideas before I got to the university,” Wang said. “For the first time, I had the idea that I had choices.”
As Wang grew more critical of the Chinese government, his father worried about his son’s strange attitudes. The two spent long nights hacking at political questions. The debates were fierce, Wang said.
“I said, `We have to change,’ ” Wang recalled. “When I was a child he often told me that America was a nightmare, that you should not believe in that kind of a system. My parents stuck to the idea that you should love only Mao.”
Years later, during the dragging weeks of demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, Wang’s father remained cold to his son’s cause.
“My mother was sympathetic,” Wang said. “She believes in fate, that you cannot fight fate. But my father said nothing except, `We do not do that.’ “
The family smoothed out again before Wang came to Washington last summer, he said. His father softened toward the United States.
“He changed a little bit,” Wang recalled. “He said, `They cannot be all bad because they gave my son a fellowship.’ “
In the square
Wang insists Tiananmen Square began as a relatively innocuous gesture from the students. He never foresaw the epic height the demonstrations would reach in the world’s imagination.
“It began small. We just said that we should do something to show opposition to the corruption of the government,” Wang said. “But then the government was angry and said that what we were doing was illegal.”
Wang said the student groups were puzzled by the official Chinese reaction to the demonstrations. They wanted to show the government that they were hurt.
“So we just stayed in the Square, and then they said that they wanted us shot,” Wang remembered. “We didn’t want to do violence; we didn’t understand then the cruelty of politics. We didn’t understand that until afterwards.”
Wang spent long weeks in the square. The students chanted. Some fasted. Mostly, they sat.
“We thought we should come out and say the doubts that the people had,” Wang said. “We said, `We’re young. If we don’t say the doubts, who will?’ In history in every period it is the young people who stand out and do the dangerous things.”
Patience finally evaporated, and students and police collided messily. Television sets replayed scenes of the crisis in living rooms around the globe. Police scooped up Wang, and he was detained along with other student ringleaders.
Crime and punishment
“I wasn’t in prison – you can’t say that, because to go to prison, you must first be sentenced,” Wang said. “There was no trial, no lawyer. It would be unimaginable in America.”
Wang spent a year in interrogation. He and the other leaders were forced to attend daily seminars and read pro-communism pamphlets. Every day he was ordered to admit his participation in the demonstrations was a mistake. And every day, he refused.
“I was locked up until the day I admitted that I was wrong,” Wang said. “But I was not wrong – I was 20, but I was right. I knew students that lost their lives, but I only lost a few months.”
At last, Wang confessed and was allowed to leave government custody. But the punishment continued – an award-winning writer, Wang was assigned to wash dishes in a hotel kitchen.
The State University of New York, along with other American universities, sent Wang fellowship offers. But China refused to let Wang leave the country. He was denied a passport.
“At that time, I was angry,” Wang explained. “I wanted nothing to do with the government. I wanted to do something with my heart.”
He scoured plates for years, but eventually clawed himself a position as Public Relations director of the hotel.
Out of China
And in 1995, China granted Wang a passport. He accepted a fellowship offer from GW, and moved to D.C. in the flush of summer.
Wang’s first months here were peppered with a sort of hoopla. In the United States, the words “Tiananmen Square” evoke dusty images of courage before snarling tanks, sincere fists shoved in the air, a cry of democracy. He made the rounds through the White House and Capitol Hill, pressing palms and telling his stories in cracked accents.
During President Jiang’s autumn visit, Wang accepted invitations to White House receptions. He slipped out early, though, and crossed the street to watch the demonstrations in Lafayette Park.
Now his days have settled down. He shares an Arlington apartment with two Chinese roommates. He is studying hard, chasing down his masters in GW’s Event Management program.
Wang says events fascinate him because they can leave dents in memory. Events have the power to plant ideas and visions. He said he wants to organize educational events for children in the poor rural lands he remembers from his childhood. Wang’s goal, he said, is basic – to help China.
Despite his rocky history with his homeland, he insists he never will give up his Chinese citizenship.
“I am here now, but I know people that still can’t leave that country, who can’t even get food or clothes,” Wang said. “That’s why I will go back to China. There is poverty, disease, violence. But I must show them what I have seen.
“Then my life will not have been a waste.”