This much is not disputed: Wang Ruowang, a dissident Chinese
writer and onetime Columbia professor who’d spent decades of his life in jail,
died of lung cancer on Dec. 19 in Queens. He was 83.
Mr. Wang’s funeral was held in the Central Funeral Home in
Flushing on Dec. 29. More than 200
people came, according to organizers, which made it possibly the largest
gathering of Chinese dissident émigrés in history. All the big names in the
movement were there. Fang Lizhi, the world-famous class-enemy astrophysicist,
flew in from Arizona. Wei Jingsheng, the former electrician who went to jail
for speaking against the government in 1979, spoke. So did Wang Dan, the
student who led the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989.
“The only problem was there wasn’t much ventilation in the room,”
said Perry Link, a Princeton professor who also eulogized Mr. Wang. There
weren’t any windows either, and after a couple of hours in that pressure-cooker
atmosphere, the gathering of steel-willed political activists had grown sweaty
and uncomfortable. Factor in the revolutionaries’ clashing styles and
philosophies and the suspicion that a Chinese government spy was among them,
and it’s little surprise that a skirmish ensued.
What happened next depends on whom you ask. It was either a minor
scuffle between mourners and cops or a full-on, bare-knuckle donnybrook-an
“attempt by the Communists to jeopardize the gathering,” in the words of one of
the funeral’s organizers, who wished to remain anonymous. At least one person
was dragged away, apparently bleeding.
But as the many widely divergent accounts of the fracas are
dissected and chewed over in the city’s Chinese communities and academic chat
rooms, one universal truth has emerged: It is incredibly frustrating-and
occasionally humiliating-to be a political dissident in a city that embraces
democracy to the hilt.
“There’s a saying,” said C.T. Hsia, a retired Columbia professor
of language and culture who was at Mr. Wang’s funeral. “‘Freedom gained,
influence lost.’ All these people are free now, but what good is it? No one in
any government has to listen to them.”
After the Tiananmen Square massacre, lots of dissidents were
brought to New York to be lecturers, professors or political organizers. But
with no flagrant incidents in the last 12 years and President Bush preparing
for a diplomatic visit to China, interest in the dissidents and their cause has
been waning in the U.S.
Sometime after the initial fanfare that greeted Mr. Wang’s
arrival at Columbia, he slipped through the cracks. Instead of educating
university students or this country’s international policy makers, Mr. Wang
ended up spending most of his time playing pool in his Flushing neighborhood.
For this, he gave up nearly all his power in China.
The only people who listen to the dissidents (many of whom don’t
speak English) are other dissidents-and they aren’t easily impressed. Political
activists who flee China for the U.S. are often perceived as losers or, worse,
traitors, even by those who have preceded them here under similar
circumstances. Through an interpreter, dissident novelist Zheng Yi, author of Old Well , who came to the U.S. in 1992 and lives in Washington,
D.C., called Mr. Wang “a failure.”
The sects that came here from China have themselves dissolved
into sects. And when a large number of
indomitable men, many of whom spent the best years of their lives being
imprisoned and tortured for their beliefs, cram together into a small, unventilated
room, it makes perfect sense that a fight-and a fight about the fight-would
According to Mr. Link, the fight started “right next to me. I
noticed this kind of wave in the crowd. I looked at it, and I saw a guard
embracing this young man who had a very angry look on his face, and after about
three seconds he said, ‘Why are you holding me like this?’ It was one shove and
one counter shove. I don’t know why it happened, and I doubt anyone does.” He
went on, “But to call it a ‘scuffle’ trivializes the huge drama that that
Mr. Link has been arguing bitterly about this with one of his
colleagues over the academic chat group Chinapol. The colleague-a distinguished
professor who didn’t want his name used-was surprised by the “scant media
attention” the fight had drawn.
This incensed Mr. Link. “It was not about the scuffle. The funeral was a remarkable sort of
retrospection on two-thirds of the last century,” he said. “It brought together
people who otherwise don’t come together very easily. It was so powerful and
dramatic. There was an intense mood of unity in the room.”
Mr. Wang had come to this country 10 years ago, after an
alternately dismal and turbulent life in China. He was first imprisoned in
1933, at age 16, by the Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek for supporting the
Communists. He joined the Party officially in 1937, only to be purged by Mao
Zedong 20 years later, along with some 250,000 other intellectuals and
activists. After spending much of the 1960’s in prison-during which he lost his
first wife-he rejoined the Party in 1979 at Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping’s
invitation. (Deng himself had come back to the party in 1977, after being
purged in 1966 and again in 1976.) But in 1987, Mr. Wang was purged again for,
among other things, calling Deng “a senile dictator.”
Around that time, Andy Nathan, a political-science professor at
Columbia, began sending invitations to Mr. Wang to teach in his department. Mr.
Nathan is a Chinese democratic activist with close ties to dissidents. Last
year he edited The Tiananmen Papers ,
transcripts of secret meetings among top Chinese officials during the 1989
massacres in Beijing.
Mr. Wang was interested, but the Communist Party wouldn’t let him
leave the country. For years, Mr. Nathan and the Chinese government exchanged
letters. Columbia President Michael Sovern even wrote on Mr. Wang’s behalf.
Finally, during a period of liberalization, the government released Mr. Wang in
After all that, though, life in New York didn’t seem to suit Mr.
Wang. “It was easy to adjust to living in New York at first, because it was
easy to buy Chinese food and drinks in our neighborhood,” his widow, Yang Zi,
said through an interpreter. “It was easy to play tennis, too. So he could get
exercise. That made life better.” But Mr. Wang didn’t get out of Flushing much.
“The Columbia people helped him a lot to get to the U.S., but after the first
year they lost contact,” Ms. Yang said. “He stopped talking to Andy Nathan. It
wasn’t so much that they didn’t do anything for him, but that they couldn’t do anything for him.”
Mr. Nathan agreed. “He was not active at Columbia,” Mr. Nathan
said. “We didn’t see much of him. He just kind of disappeared into the
dissident community. He became pretty isolated. He didn’t have a lot of social
contact, and he was very poor, he and his wife. I share the guilt-I never
followed up as to where he was or what he was doing.”
Mr. Nathan said Mr. Wang tried to become an officer in a
dissident group, but he was considered too radical and uncompromising and was
not elected. So Mr. Wang kept busy by playing pool four days a week with a
group of Chinese old-timers. Eventually, though, Ms. Yang said, “he stopped
going out altogether. He got thinner and thinner.” She was crying.
Mr. Wang was sick, but his friends said he was unfamiliar with
the public hospital system and did not seek medical treatment until his cancer
was at a very advanced stage. He died only two weeks after his diagnosis.
Mr. Wang was not heard from outside his small circle until he
learned of his disease. During that time, he asked to be allowed to spend his
last days in his native country. The Chinese government said yes-provided he
renounced his democratic views. Mr. Wang refused.
Many of Mr. Wang’s mourners confessed to feelings of guilt that
he hadn’t been better cared for during his time in New York. “He made several
logistical mistakes to utilize programs and services,” said Xiao Qiang, the
executive director of the New York–based organization Human Rights in China.
“He had a hard time getting the help he needed.”
The writer Mr. Zheng said, “The other dissidents didn’t give
enough support and help to Wang Ruowang during his life, and they are
culpable.” He thought for a moment. “I don’t mean to blame others. Both I and
everyone else share the guilt.”
Clearly, Mr. Wang was not the only émigré in desperate but
unheralded straits. The alleged
instigators of the fight at Mr. Wang’s funeral were two of his friends and
supporters, Bao Ge and Xu Shuiliang. They, too, were dissidents who came to
this country after years spent in squalid prisons, only to find themselves
reduced to wage labor and piecemeal activism.
Mr. Bao, 37, is a writer and democracy activist from Shanghai who
came to this country after three years of incarceration and disappeared into
the dissident world (he could not be found for comment). Mr. Xu-an old tennis
partner of Mr. Wang’s-is 56. He came to this country in 1998 as a democracy
hero after spending 13 years in jail. Now he works in a lamp factory. “Being a
dissident doesn’t pay the bills,” he said through an interpreter.
“I was standing there chatting with others, some of whom I seldom
get to see,” Mr. Xu explained. “Bao came over, and the others shook his hand. I
didn’t want to shake his hand, so I didn’t-and I didn’t talk to him.” Mr. Xu
said he doesn’t like Mr. Bao’s writing. “I think he spreads rumors about
people,” Mr. Xu said.
What’s worse, Mr. Xu said, he suspects Mr. Bao could be a Chinese
government infiltrator. “There’s no evidence that Bao is a spy of the Communist
party, but I think he is …. There were others at the funeral that thought they
saw something in Bao’s sleeve. It was shaped like a pen, and later on they told
me they thought it was a video camera. But we haven’t investigated that.”
Mr. Bao walked away from Mr. Xu angrily. He tried to speak to Mr.
Xu’s wife, but, said Mr. Xu, “She’s not very involved in the dissident circle,
so she didn’t really have a conversation with him.” About 10 minutes later, Mr.
Bao is said to have come over and slugged Mr. Xu twice.
The crowd erupted.
“Immediately, people came over and pulled him away from me. While
they were trying to pull him away from me and my wife, who stood between him,
and me he tried and scratched both my wife’s hands and my hands. He also kicked
my leg three times. I thought he was acting like a girl with all that
scratching. You know, he’s not very buff. I didn’t fight back.
“The security came and took him away. I was told by someone to go
home with my wife because Bao’s family was there, and they were going to come
over and beat us up. The only thing I said to Bao during the entire ordeal-even
when he called me a spy for the Communist party while hitting me-was, ‘Everyone
is clear who is a spy here.'”
In the end, though, Mr. Xu said, “The dissident circle thought
the funeral was successful. Yes, there were little problems, but we had little
time to organize this event.”
Mr. Zheng, however, said, “It was a big embarrassment to
Mr. Wang’s widow, Ms. Yang, seemed to agree. “Wang Ruowang saw
his role as trying to unite all the dissidents,” she said. “But they are too
fragmented and disputatious. He couldn’t bring them together. They wouldn’t
listen. The problem with Chinese people is that they all want to be No. 1.
There’s a proverb that pretty much says it: They’d rather be the head of the
chicken than the ass of a bull.”
-Interpreting by Ingrid Huang