How golden boy split with party

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 July, 2011, 12:00am


If he had toed the party line, Dr Wang Juntao would probably be a prominent political figure in the Communist Party by now. Instead, he became one of the most prominent Chinese dissidents.

Jailed for 'inciting, organising and masterminding a counter-revolutionary rebellion' in the 1989 Tiananmen democracy movement, he now lives in exile in the United States.

Wang (pictured), son of a high-ranking officer in the People's Liberation Army, once had the makings of a party leader. As a student, he was hand-picked to join the Communist Youth League's central committee - a training ground where talented young party members are groomed into future leaders.

But he had never been an orthodox thinker. As a precocious 17-year-old, he already showed a rebellious streak when he took part in the 1976 Tiananmen democracy movement and was jailed for seven months.

He became an activist again soon after his release, participating in the 1978-79 Democracy Wall movement.

At the prestigious Peking University, along with other liberal-minded students, he campaigned for election as a district people's congress representative. The students gained more support with their radical views than the official candidates, but unnerved the authorities. Wang asserted that Mao Zedong could not be considered a Marxist.

Wang did not win the election, but the authorities felt threatened enough to think about expelling him from university anyway.

They relented, and the nuclear physics graduate was given a job at The Chinese Academy of Sciences upon graduation. But after two years there he once again spurned the opportunity to have a promising career in the state system.

In 1986, Wang joined a private think tank, the Beijing Social and Economic Sciences Research Institute, set up by fellow political activist Chen Ziming, and became the deputy editor of the publication Economics Weekly until their arrest in 1989. Wang and Chen, who advised students, were accused of being among the 'black hands' behind the Tiananmen democracy movement - a charge they denied. They were each sentenced to 13 years in jail. Wang was released in 1994 on medical parole under international pressure after serving nearly five years of his term, and was permitted to go into exile in the US.

Now co-chairman of the New York-based China Democracy Party, Wang said he regarded his estrangement from the Communist Party as a 'very natural thing'.

'I sensed that the promises made by the Communist Party were quite different from the reality,' the 52-year-old activist said recently. 'This was the start of the estrangement.'

He saw widespread poverty among peasants when he was sent to the countryside as a youngster in Mao's 'down to the countryside' movement during the Cultural Revolution, and when he went to prison in 1976 he saw a side of society previously unknown in his relatively privileged upbringing.

'In retrospect, what I was thinking and what the party was thinking were quite different from the start,' Wang said. 'But I only realised the difference when we parted.'

He said his 'weaning' moment came in 1976 - the year he was arrested while joining protesters mourning the death of respected premier Zhou Enlai. '[I realised] we needed to think independently and couldn't expect the Communist Party to tell us everything,' he said.

His prescription for the country to advance and modernise - democratisation - was not what the party wanted to hear. Sharing the same fate as others who shared the vision, he was transformed from the party's golden boy into someone regarded as an enemy of the state.

A contemporary at Peking University who was also active in the Communist Youth League circle was Li Keqiang . Li, now a vice-premier, is widely expected to succeed Wen Jiabao as premier in a leadership reshuffle next year.

But Wang, who vowed in his youth to dedicate his life to China's democratisation, has no regrets. He got a PhD at Columbia University, researching regime transitions.

He said the party's recent crackdown on dissidents, activists and rights lawyers would only drag the country into deeper trouble.

'They are attacking people who try to treat the country's illnesses, like the lawyers,' he said. 'They're swallowing opium to mask their pain but this will only lead to greater woes. Unless they carry out reforms, they will no longer be able to continue on the same path.'