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Dauntless ‘til death

June 12, 2002

Yang Zi remembers Wang Ruowang

Writer and dissident Wang Ruowang passed away on December 19, 2001, in New York at the age of 83. Wang Yu spoke to his wife, Yang Zi, about her husband’s lifelong struggle for freedom, democracy and human rights in China, and their life in exile from their native Shanghai.

Wang Yu: Are you also a writer? I remember reading one of your articles, When Will You Come Home Ruowang, My Dear Husband?, published in a Hong Kong magazine. It was very moving.

Yang Zi: No, I am not a writer. In college I studied engineering. After college I worked for a factory in Hunan as a mechanic, making locomotives. The factory belonged to the Department of Railways.

As you know, my husband totally supported the 1989 student movement. Even after the Chinese authorities crushed the movement in Beijing on June 4, he continued to speak out, giving his support and making his opinion very clear: that China needs democracy. For this he was jailed for 14 months.

I wrote that article while he was in jail, because I felt I should let the world know what had happened to him. None of the media in China dared to print or publicize my article. So I took a risk and sent it to Hong Kong.

WY: Could you tell us about some of the events and ideas that characterize Mr. Wang’s personality?

YZ: Just before we left China, he was detained once again. After round-the-clock interrogation, he fell asleep. The interrogators thought because he was 70 years old that he must have fainted; they called for help to give him emergency treatment. Later when asked how he could fall asleep under such conditions, he replied, “I hadn’t done anything wrong. I had nothing to worry about. When I feel tired I always fall asleep.” He was always such an optimistic and magnanimous person.

Although he was known as a strong and very determined man, he could be very gentle. When he was sick, he never complained, but rather he comforted me, telling me that he was all right. On the day before last Thanksgiving, less than a month before his death, when I left him for work, he held my hand tightly and wouldn’t let go. He didn’t say anything, but tears streamed down his face. I felt my heart breaking. He was so lonely.

WY: Despite being under intensive surveillance by the security police in Shanghai, you managed to leave China and come to the United States. How did you do this?

YZ: In 1988, we received an invitation from Professor Andrew Nathan of Columbia University to visit New York, but our visa application was rejected.

Then, many things happened. By 1991, the authorities viewed my husband as one of the big troublemakers. Fourteen months in jail hadn’t dented his belief in democracy. After his release in 1990, we set up a “democracy forum,” holding discussions on seeking a democratic system for our motherland. But after a very short time, more than 20 people who participated in the discussions, including ourselves, were detained and questioned by the police. On our release, we were told not to meet again. The democracy forum was then dissolved. From then on under tightened surveillance our life became like stagnant water. We felt suffocated.

When Professor Nathan again issued us an invitation in 1991, we just welcomed it with enthusiasm. Luckily, the Chinese authorities had by then changed their strategy in dealing with dissidents. Instead of keeping the troublemakers inside China, the authorities chose to let them go abroad.

We decided to come here, to the United States, because we believed that here we could do a great deal for the democracy movement in China, as well as living a free life, for which we had yearned for so long. With great expectations, we arrived here in August 1992.

WY: What were your impressions and feelings when you first arrived in this country?

YZ: We received a heart-warming welcome from the Chinese community, as well as from exiled Chinese in a similar position to us.

At that time, Mr. Huang Yushi was head of the Chinese Democratic Education Foundation. He not only took a great deal of trouble to help us get out of China, but also provided us with $10,000 to start our life here. I feel eternally grateful to him. When he passed away two years ago, I felt very sad. Besides Huang Yushi, we also received $20,000 from other groups. This money lasted us for a long time.

I was profoundly moved, not because of the money, but by the warm and sincere care those people showed us. Our devotion to democracy united us as a whole. I felt very proud to be a part of it. At that time I had high hopes for the future of the democracy movement.

WY: Did your hopes match the reality you found?

YZ: We soon found out that although the Chinese dissidents in exile advocated democracy, they didn’t follow democratic means to fulfill their goal. But we have never given up hope. In all the years here, we have consistently demonstrated our support for democracy in China.

WY: What do you think you achieved during your exile, difficult though the circumstances have been?

YZ: In 1996 we established a newsletter, Exploration (Tansuo), written in a simple style and with each issue composed of only a few pages. But it provided those people concerned about China’s democracy movement a place to express opinions, discuss problems and to seek achievements. The newsletter received a warm response and brought us wonderful friendships. In more than five years we published 61 issues. It ended last year.

In addition to that, while here we have enjoyed freedom; we have lived without fear.

WY: Could you tell us about your everyday life here in New York?

YZ: We lived in a small apartment, and to save money we shared it with a lodger.

I worked for an American family, five days a week, taking care of the children. The work was not hard, but having to leave my husband alone made me sad. When he reached a certain age obviously he had a greater need for companionship. I felt I had let him down by not being there all the time with him.

But he had a happy personality. He knew how to arrange life. He spent most of his time reading newspapers, magazines and watching TV. When the weather permitted, even when he was over 80, in the morning he would play tennis alone, hitting the ball against a wall all by himself. At dinner I always provided him with a glass of wine, which he sipped with pleasure as we chatted about any subject that would arise.

His health was always good. I didn’t expect his death to come so soon. During the time of his illness, he often comforted me by saying, “It’s not serious, and soon I’ll be all right.” I really believed him.

Thinking of old age, I feel scared now. He is gone; I am left alone, without a family. How lonely will my future be?

WY: I heard that some people in Shanghai held a memorial for Mr. Wang. Did they contact you? Do you know who they are? What happened to them?

YZ: As far as I know, they are a group of young people. I have no idea who they are. When they learned of the death of my husband, they decided to hold a memorial for him. They asked me for his picture. I sent it to them through e-mail. I warned them to think carefully and be cautious. I didn’t want them to get into trouble, though I was deeply impressed and moved.

They held the memorial in a restaurant. The police came and arrested them there. They were taken into detention and then released.

WY: Do you have any plans for the future?

YZ: At the moment, my mind is not clear. I don’t think about the future yet. But there is one thing that, since the death of my husband, has always been on my mind. I don’t need to think about it. It is there. I have decided to fight for the right to bring his ashes back to China with dignity, and at that time people will find out what a life he had.

WY: I remember at Mr. Wang’s memorial, there was a proposal to initiate a campaign to “return home with dignity.” How is this idea progressing?

YZ: You see, there are quite a number of elderly dissidents abroad. The memorial must have stirred up feelings.

On December 6 last year, my husband was taken to hospital. The same day my younger sister in Shanghai phoned us. She had been informed by the Chinese authorities there that my husband would be allowed to go home for medical treatment, but under two conditions: once in China, he should not contact other people and secondly, he could not touch any sensitive subject, either by talking about it or writing about it. Since we had no medical insurance in the United States, because of economic reasons, returning home for medical treatment was a great temptation, but nevertheless my husband refused the offer. He stated strongly that he wouldn’t trade his ideals or dignity for anything. He chose that sad ending, dying in a foreign land, far away from home, from his beloved motherland.

That could be why at his memorial some people proposed the campaign to “return home with dignity,” meaning without conditions. I have not heard of any developments so far.

WY: What did you feel about his decision?

YZ: I supported his decision on this matter. He had a strong sense of principle. No matter how much he wanted to go home or how deeply he missed his children, he wouldn’t return with conditions imposed on him by the Chinese authorities. Only without any conditions, with dignity, would he return to China. He was a dauntless man in life; and he died one too.

WY: What were Mr. Wang’s wishes in his last days?

YZ: I am his second wife. His first wife died before I met him. We had no children, but he had seven children from his first marriage.

When he was very sick he told me he had two wishes. One was to see his children again, and the other was to see unity among all the democracy activists. He believed that the activists would eventually realize that “unity is strength.” His first wish was fulfilled in part. Two of his children arrived here on his last day. Another two came to attend his funeral. His second wish is still unfulfilled. I hope one day his confidence in the democracy activists will be rewarded.

Wang Yu is a poet and a board member of Human Rights in China.