It is immediately clear that Wang Dan would prefer not to focus on his own past, but in-
stead on China’s future. An outspoken critic of the Chinese Communist Party, Wang has spent almost half of the last 30 years in prison and is still banned from the country
to this day. His campaign for democracy in China has defined his life since his days as a student leader during the Tiananmen protests in 1989, but
he refuses to think of himself as a martyr. Today’s China couldn’t be more different from the government he challenged decades ago, but until his dreams of a democratic China are realised, he isn’t prepared to stop.
Rather than becoming disillusioned, or worse, during the eleven years he spent in a single cell, he describes the experience less in terms of its horrors than its formative influence on his thinking. “Reading was the only thing I could do,” he explains, “I still think it is beneficial for me to have read so many books.”
Yet contemplative solitude is evidently not Wang’s preferred course of action. While undoubtedly an intellectual appreciation for democracy provided the incentive for the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, it was a movement that was as firmly grounded in the experiences and thoughts of individual students as in abstract philosophies. In 1988, Wang set up the first “campus salons” at his university, engaging his fellow students and teachers on the issue of China’s democratic development.
“We tried to form an atmosphere in the campus,” he says. “To do this we tried to encourage our students to participate – I mean, if you want something to happen you have to do something.”
It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that when I ask Wang about his influences, he answers not with a political theoretician – although he admits he got the initial “idea of democracy” from high school classes – but with his teachers.
“I’m not just referring to those supervisors,” he clarifies, “but I mean young teachers – when I was a student, I had very close relationships with young teachers. They were like family, they had a lot of influence on me.”
Even today, Wang is still trying to foster these kinds of constructive conversations, melding academic principles of democracy with individual and contemporary circumstances. He has set up the think-tank Dialogue, a group of mostly Chinese overseas academics, who hope to bring public attention to the issues surrounding China’s current constitution.
Part of the group’s project is to create a series of video clips, each describing a different benefit of democracy which they intend to disseminate to the public over social media. He proudly tells me that his current YouTube channel has 4,000 followers, with “some of them from mainland China.” His optimism, however, is noticeably forced. Although he claims that the mainland population often circumvent the government’s online firewall, there seems little hope that his attempts at social “enlightenment” will reach anywhere near the levels required to establish a native movement.
“My opinion is pretty negative because – the Chinese government did a lot of things so that there are a lot of lies about what is true democracy.
“I mean, they pick up a lot of the shortcomings of democracy, they pick up the problems of the UK and the US and they try to say that democracy does nothing helpful and that the Communist Party is better than them.
“The Chinese government has done a lot of this kind of propaganda and it has worked. A lot of the younger generation, that are not going abroad, they really have no idea, no channel, they just listen to the government’s propaganda, so maybe younger generations, they don’t have a good impression about democracy.”
While there are recognised democratic parties in China, they are compliant with the current Communist system, mostly acting as groups of academics and professionals who advise the main party, the CCP, on scientific aspects of policy, rather than championing any abstract democratic ideals. However, even if Wang did hear of any activist groups in China, he would be nervous about contacting them.
“I think it is too dangerous for them. If I tried to give them some money or offer some instruction, it would be giving the government an opportunity to crack down on them.” The Chinese government’s chokehold on discourse has led to what Wang calls a lack of “common sense” among the Chinese population.
“There is a lot of common sense in the US and the UK, but we don’t have it.
“For example, like people cannot easily just shoot other people – gunmen can shoot other people – but in the case of June 4th [The Tiananmen protests], a lot of Chinese people think if government do this its OK.”
However, although Wang seems to frame the debate about democracy around highly Westernised terms – alongside “common sense”, he suggests that China should accept democracy to gain the “respect” of Western countries. As the interview continues, it transpires that he is far from satisfied with the UK and the US’s attitude towards an increasingly totalitarian China.
“Western countries can do a lot, for example like use their personal relationship with Xi Jinping or other high-level officials to persuade them to start doing something – say “This is something you can do,” or something like that.”
One of the most problematic facets of Xi Jinping’s current policy, in Wang’s opinion, is the national attitude to Taiwan. A democratic state with its own distinctive entrepreneurial spirit, yet still unrecognized as a country by many, including the UK, and increasingly reliant on China economically, Wang tells me the re-capture of the island state has become one of Xi’s most important ideological principles. To reunite Taiwan and China would satisfy a Communist obsession that has plagued CCP leaders, and most significantly Mao himself, since the Kuomintang retreat to the island in 1949 following the Civil War.
“Taking back Taiwan [is] more important than any other thing for him, and maybe the most important thing [for Xi],” Wang says, “He won’t be the hero in the party’s history [if he doesn’t do it].”
Nor is Taiwan the only symptom of Xi’s aim to take up Mao’s legacy. In February of this year, China’s President Xi Jinping eliminated the two-term rule for China’s premiership, which would allow him to remain the nominal head of state for the country indefinitely. Imperial ambition, Wang believes, is manifest.
“Xi may not be called an emperor, he may be called a President but he wants to be that kind of person that can do anything.”
Although obviously an ambivalent figure, Wang describes a country that still hasn’t shaken off the aspects of Mao’s original cult of personality. Government officials still harbour effigies of Mao in their homes and village squares are often graced with his stony presence.
The longing for security in a world increasingly characterised by economic and political turbulence means that strongman rulership – and not just in China, but indeed worldwide – couldn’t be more in vogue.
“Xi grew up in Mao’s area,” Wang tells me. “That is very important for him and he’s not a person with a background in high level education. So all his education comes from Mao’s era – his ideas about the war, about how to be a person, has all come from the cultural revolution. [Mao is] still really a hero for younger generation, including him. This kind of shadow or influence still keeping in his mind I think.”
While ‘democracy with Chinese characteristics’ may have been a stock phrase in recent decades, Wang rejects the idea that there is “just some Western democracy”, which can be superficially altered to fit China. He believes in democracy (rather than a “vague definition”) as a series of “concrete policies” that have been borne out of the specific concerns and material problems for China’s population.
Privatisation is his key policy: freedom, he believes, can only be achieved with the disassembly of state monopolies over industry, and by returning the land to the “peasant” class in China’s still highly rural economy.
Wang’s principal model for this economic change comes immediately – China in the 1980s.“I think the 1980s is the golden time, because at that time there is cooperation between society and the State and I think that now you can see that there is no cooperation between society and state. This cooperation is very important for our country if you want developments , mostly – so in 1980 we have links – in 1980s we have a democracy idea, what people want to do something not only for themselves but for their country.”
Paradoxically perhaps, Wang condemns the current system of unified state control as killing patriotic fervor in the young.
“Today we cannot see this kind of -ism, this kind of ideology, to persuade young generations to work for their country, for the country benefit, they just want to make money for themselves.”
Wang views economic freedom and political freedom as a kind of symbiosis, claiming that the democratic outcry in 1989 in Tiananmen Square itself was a natural product of the entrepreneurial, independent-minded spirit that was cultivated in the preceding decade, as China began to open up their cities to Western trade.
So which will begin first? As I pose the question, the interview is brought to a hasty close. Wang earlier pinpointed the urban middle classes and the younger generation as the “driving force” for democratic revolution. But will he ever gain revolutionary commitment from the group that has, benefited the most from Xi? Without real pressure from the West, itself mired in the democratic question, Wang’s vision of a democratic China perhaps does not look rosy.