Wang Ruoshui, a renowned philosopher and journalist, and one of four dissidents who joined the board of Human Rights in China while still living in China, died of lung cancer at the age of 75 on January 9, 2002, in Boston. He was staying in the city while his wife, Feng Yuan, took up a Nieman fellowship at Harvard University. A former deputy editor-in-chief of Peoples Daily, Wang eventually lost his job and his membership in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) due to his commitment to human rights and political reform.
Born on October 25, 1926, in Shanghai, Wang in his youth was an ardent follower of Mao Zedong. He remained an avowed Marxist until the time of his death, but became disillusioned with the direction of the CCP during the Cultural Revolution.
After completing high school in his native Hunan, Wang began a philosophy degree at Beijing University in 1946, and joined the underground communist party there in 1948. At university he developed a reputation as a talented writer and a profound thinker, and was offered a position in the theory department of the Peoples Daily upon graduation. In 1957, Wang penned contributions to the paper supporting the Hundred Flowers movement, in which people were encouraged to criticize the shortcomings of the Party. In 1964 he wrote a well-received volume entitled Philosophy at the Table.
In 1972, Wang wrote a letter to Mao Zedong criticizing the extreme policies now associated with the Gang of Four, and supporting the more moderate line of then Premier Zhou Enlai. Wang was sent to the countryside to perform manual labor for having the temerity to express such sentiments. He was back in Beijing by the time of the 1976 April 5th Movement, a series of mass demonstrations in Tiananmen Square memorializing Zhou Enlai and denouncing the Gang of Four. Aware of the significance of what were the first truly spontaneous mass protests since 1949, he cycled daily to the city center to find out what was happening before the demonstrations were crushed with force and widespread arrests.
After Maos death later that year, which was followed quickly by the arrest of the Gang of Four, Wang was reinstated at Peoples Daily, and in 1977, promoted to the post of deputy editor-in-chief. He was a member of the first delegation of journalists to visit the United States before relations were normalized, and wrote a number of objective articles on America for his paper. A year later, Wang became a deputy to the National Peoples Congress and a member of the CCPs Central Discipline Inspection Commission.
In the late 1970s, Wang was one of the strongest advocates of the need to address the reasons behind the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, including the personality cult around Mao. He was one of the few people who explored the complicity in creating the disasters that befell China of people like himself, who had wholeheartedly supported Mao. We should not blame Lin Biao and the Gang of Four alone for all this. Many people including myself took part in propagating the cult of Mao and did so out of warm feelings.
Wang was a member of the Party group set up to review Maos contribution to the history of the country in 1980-81, so as to determine the CCPs position on the vexed questions of the responsibility of the father of the revolution for the many terrible things that had happened. Wangs draft of the section on Maos later years was rejected as too critical. He would continue to ponder the role of Mao and his relationship with Chinas intellectuals for the rest of his life.
He further explored the psychological and philosophical implications of his insights into the past in the early 1980s, publishing seminal essays on the Marxist concept of alienation, arguing that economic, social and political alienation could occur under socialism. Once a party which was formerly oppressed comes into power, its position is changed, his May 1981 essay On Alienation stated. There is a danger it will cut itself off from the masses and become alienated. This problem exists at all levels of our leadership, and has not yet been solved. Wang even argued that the worship of Mao was itself a form of alienation.
Another key concern was the concept of humanism, an idea fundamental to Marxism, he argued. He saw the rejection of humanism as a key cause of the brutality and chaos of the Cultural Revolution. This was in effect one of the initial arguments for the Partys acceptance of the universality of human rights, which it had previously dismissed as a bourgeois concept.
A conservative backlash against such frank explorations of the past along with their unnerving implications resulted in Wangs dismissal from his post in 1983 during the Anti-Spiritual Pollution campaign. Four years later when then CCP General Secretary Hu Yaobang was forced to resign as another wave of reaction resulted in the Anti-Bourgeois Liberalization campaign, Wang was thrown out of the CCP and stripped of the right to publish his writings.
In the ensuing years, Wang held a number of academic positions overseas: he was a visiting scholar at the Fairbanks Center for East Asian Research at Harvard University (1989, 1993-1994), at the Institute of East Asian Studies at the University of California at Berkeley (1994) and at the Center of East and Southeast Asian Studies at Lund University, Sweden (1998). However, he did not become an exile, but spent most of his last years living in Beijing.
Wang was in the United States when the demonstrations began in 1989, and he insisted on going home, despite the concern of some of his friends. During regular visits to Tiananmen Square, he recalled later, hearing the students using slogans reminiscent of those from his own student days brought him a strange and sad sense of d□□vu. His revulsion at the crackdown was one of the reasons why he agreed to join the board of Human Rights in China in 1992.
Along with numerous articles, Wang published a number of books, Marxist Epistemology is the Doctrine of Practice (1964), On the Philosophical Front (1980), In Defense of Humanism(1986), The Pain of Wisdom (1989), and Behind the Resignation of Hu Yaobang: The Fate of Humanism in China (1997). Wangs last article, Rectification Movements Overwhelmed Enlightenment: the Collision of the Spirit of May Fourth and Party Culture was published in Modern China Studies, in December 2001.
In a eulogy at the private memorial held shortly after Wangs death, HRIC President Liu Qing remembered Wang as a profound thinker with strong moral convictions. Although I did not hold the same political views as Wang, namely his faith in Marxism, we shared the belief that human beings should control their own destiny, enjoy the protection of human rights and live with dignity. Wangs belief in the need for serious reforms, based on moral grounds, contributed greatly to the struggle to realize human rights in China.
Wang is survived by his wife, Feng Yuan, and two children, Wang Sitong and Zhong Xiaodan.
Joseph Chaney and Sophia Woodman