With minutes to spare before the beginning of the event, more than 120 Cornellians occupied every single seat in a crowded Goldwin Smith Hall to witness the speech of one of China’s most famous dissidents Wang Dan, world-renowned for organizing the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest against the Chinese government. Several more students stood in the aisles.
Breaking out two years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Tiananmen square protest was a nation-wide demonstration calling for democratization — that was violently quashed by the Chinese state. Wang was not spared from this swift crackdown: within a course of the month, the freshman at the prestigious Peking University became one of China’s most wanted figures.
After serving in Chinese prison for several years and then earning a Ph.D. in history from Harvard University, Wang arrived in Ithaca — nearly 30 years after the protest — to give a 30 minute long speech to Cornellians on Wednesday evening.
CPU, which co-hosted the event with four other student organizations, asked Wang to answer one question: “Should the United States actively support democratization in China?” The speaker began the lecture with a “simple direct answer” to the prompt: “why not?”
Specifying what sort of support he expects from the United States, he argued that U.S. politicians should support Chinese dissidents and raise human rights issue with their counterparts, citing how China improved Wang’s prison conditions in response to western engagement.
“Western countries can do a lot of things,” Wang said. “I was in prison for almost seven years, but my treatment was pretty good. Why? Just because I drew a lot of international attention. When Western country leaders visit Beijing they ask ‘How’s Wang Dan doing?’ — they expressed concern about me, and that translated into better treatment.”
The 49-year old activist is indeed a benefactor of U.S. diplomacy: Wang is a free man today because the Clinton-era United States negotiated his release from a 11-year prison sentence under the communist regime, The New York Times reported in 1998.
Most of his lecture, however, was dedicated to Wang’s analysis of contemporary China, which he did by distinguishing between the Chinese state and its people.
“It’s important to realize that many Chinese people do not agree with the Chinese communist party on many issues,” Wang said. “The people cannot express their opinion because they don’t have freedom of speech, so it will appear as so the Chinese people support the government.”
Wang later further juxtaposed the Chinese people with the Chinese state while conceptualizing the role in U.S. academia of Chinese Student and Scholar Association — a Chinese embassy-backed organization for overseas Chinese students that was blasted by China watcher Gordan Chang ’73 as “the long arm of Chinese totalitarianism” in a different speech hosted by CPU. He echoed Chang’s sentiment by criticizing the association while supporting Chinese international students in general.
“This kind of organizations [that] get money from embassy of China, I think this should be illegal potentially, I don’t understand why U.S. government do nothing to this,” Wang said. “But you have to distinguish Chinese embassy’s activity and Chinese overseas students’ activity. A lot of Chinese students … just want to study democracy here.”
But while the people remain controlled by the government as of today, the former student organizer recognized a potential in the Chinese people to reform the “totalitarian” state, urging them to go out to the streets and protest their regime.
As for the ruling Chinese Communist party that the people would be up against, Wang saw them as a “corrupt but yet to be defeated” force that continued to exploit the state apparatus for their personal gain. He went further on to say that corruption was the “lifeline of the CCP,” arguing that the party apparatus cannot easily transition to democracy as a result of this dependency on cronyism.
“In appearance, the party looks like … a flourishing tree that has led for a century already, but in fact, inside the trunk, there is a lot of problems,” Wang said. “Corruption itself has become the party’s life line. Corruption is lifeline of CCP. Without corruption, I don’t think many people will follow [Chinese President] Xi Jinping.”
The corruption of the CCP is merely one symptom of the larger problem that Wang sees in today’s China: the “unbalanced development model,” which prioritizes economic growth over all other social advances. “Although the economy has developed really quickly in China, other things like politics, society, education and culture have not developed at the same pace,” Dan noted.
Wang said that this disheveled development is unsustainable: no regime can support high economic growth forever. And as growth slows to a critical point, Wang predicts that the Chinese people will begin to demand democracy — but that people’s revolt is not adequate. He thinks that other conditions, including support from the international community, is required for a truly successful democratization.
“For the tree trunk to shatter, winter wind and rain and snow are needed,” Wang said, adding on his earlier metaphor describing the CCP as a tree. “China has only started raining. For the decisive moment to occur, more conditions are needed.”
Despite his apprehension that the party will control China for a “long time,” he ended his lecture on a hopeful note, predicting the fall of the CCP as a historical inevitability.
“The rotten part [of the party] is the core, so overturning of tree is unavoidable. The only thing we don’t know is when the tree is going to fall,” Dan said. “Some people think this is a dark age — winter is coming — but there is always dawn after the darkness. Always. So therefore everything that has happened in China does not necessarily mean democracy has no hope in China.”