Tiananmen Square activist describes need for global democracy

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Dr. Dan Wang tells his story and the journey he took throughout China and the U.S. to learn about democracy. COURTESY PHOTO / WM.EDU

Monday, Oct. 7, Dr. Wang Dan, a Tiananmen dissident, spoke about his role in the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations that resulted in the Tiananmen Square massacre June 4, 1989.

The forum was sponsored by the College of William and Mary’s government department, the Wendy and Emery Reves Center for International Studies and the Global Research Institute. Sophia Hart, visiting assistant professor of government, moderated the discussion.

Hart started the panel with a brief introduction to China’s history of dabbling with authoritarian leadership and its interest in democracy throughout the 19th century.

“However, the economic form has not been matched by political reform. New problems created by corruption and inflation led to price reform advocated by hardline politicos who wanted China to have a more traditional orthodox centrally planned economy. This was the situation in April 1989.”

“China has pursued tremendously successful economic modernization policy,” Hart said. “However, the economic form has not been matched by political reform. New problems created by corruption and inflation led to price reform advocated by hardline politicos who wanted China to have a more traditional orthodox centrally planned economy. This was the situation in April 1989.”

Economic reform in China has produced some unintended consequences socially and politically, and the Tiananmen Square Massacre was the most unintended consequence of economic reform. The sudden death of former Party Secretary Hu Yaobang, an advocate of liberal economic reform, transformed a student-led demonstration tribute in honor of Hu’s passing into a mass anti-government protest.

The demonstration attracted millions of workers, ordinary citizens and students.

In the late 1980s, Dan was a history student at Peking University. He participated and organized the 1989 democracy movement and participated in a hunger strike. After the Tiananmen crackdown, Dan became a wanted fugitive by the Chinese government.

He was ultimately imprisoned by the Chinese authorities for seven years before eventually being granted medical parole and exiled to the United States.

Since fleeing China, Dan has pursued education as well as political activism. In exile, he studied at Harvard University and received an M.A. and Ph.D. in history, then went on to teach at Oxford University and several universities in Taiwan.

After returning to the United States, Dan launched “Dialogue China,” a think tank in Washington D.C. dedicated to connecting people that have faith in the future of Chinese democracy.

“After spending tens years in America, I gradually realized democracy is not simple,” Dan said. “Democracy is not only about some political changes, but it also means the change of men. Therefore, I think the most important thing for democracy is education. This is why I chose to teach in Taiwan for several years and hope that one day I could be back to my (alma mater) Peking University to continue teaching democracy.”

“After spending tens years in America, I gradually realized democracy is not simple,” Dan said. “Democracy is not only about some political changes, but it also means the change of men. Therefore, I think the most important thing for democracy is education. This is why I chose to teach in Taiwan for several years and hope that one day I could be back to my (alma mater) Peking University to continue teaching democracy.”

Dan shared with the audience some of his interesting insights into the future of Chinese democracy during the question and answer session.

The Tiananmen Square Protests have been described as the Chinese version of the Poland Solidarity Movement. After being asked if the collapse of one-party communist rule in East Central Europe may also be replicated in China, Dan replied such effort cannot be achieved over a night, especially being in a country like China.

Rather than making sweeping structural changes, Dan suggests that the Chinese government take baby steps towards allowing greater flexibility pertaining to political expression.

“What I want a democratization in China is not to do something but is to let us start doing something as a first step of democratization in China,” Dan said. “For example, Liu Xiaobo who is a Chinese writer, literary critic, human rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate is known by many people. He wrote some articles criticizing the government even not inside (mainland) China, but he was incarcerated for 11 years just because of his disagreement with the CCP. The current administration led by President Xi Jinping is intellectually interested in maintaining control rather than expressing the possibility of Chinese democracy or expanding human rights.”

Moreover, Dan emphasized the ongoing challenges to creating a strong Chinese civil society. Dan stressed that widespread activism among ordinary people is necessary, and that placing excessive hopes on political elites to change civil society is a fruitless venture. Furthermore, according to Dan, current U.S. diplomatic engagement has failed to bolster civil society’s attempts to bring democracy to China.

“There are two levels of China — the state and the society,” Dan said. “Among American politicians, they actually do not want a Chinese regime change because they are afraid of a proceeding regime crisis which could destroy the established diplomatic relations and some quid pro quos. Therefore, they only have dialogue with state officials who represent today’s China. But, if they also conduct conversations with the people who are active units in Chinese civil society, they will have a dialogue with tomorrow’s China.”

Leah Griffith ’20 appreciated how Dan discussed Chinese democracy.

“I thought it was very interesting to get Dr. Wang Dan’s opinion on the future of Chinese democracy and hear his view of the current PRC government,” Griffith said. “As my capstone is Chinese Revolutions, it was cool to make connections from class with things he spoke about.”

Irene Zhang ’22 asked Dan if he studied abroad as a historian scholar to learn to overthrow the authoritarian regime like the first peasant uprising in Chinese history.

“I studied abroad to learn democracy,” Dan said. “I hope the younger generation study abroad not only to learn those Western thoughts, but also the dignity of human beings.”

“I studied abroad to learn democracy,” Dan said. “I hope the younger generation study abroad not only to learn those Western thoughts, but also the dignity of human beings.”

In his additional remarks, Dan reiterated his views on dialogue and democracy.

“Darkness before the dawn is democracy,” Dan said. “Although government is not giving space to freely express opinion, we need to be prepared for new opportunities, such as having dialogues about concrete policies and solutions. This can be another effort of the Tiananmen generation and younger generation who have bright expectations for the future.”