An Ode to China’s Future: Former Reform Leader Wang Youcai Speaks
During my final pit stop in New York, I had the fortuitous opportunity to meet with Wang Youcai, a prominent leader in the Tiananmen Protests and one of the former founding members of the now illegalized China Democracy Party. This would also be the first of the dissidents I have met who kept much of his present and past personal life veiled, although he was quite outspoken in more political matters regarding China.
“You’ve met with Yang Jianli right? He still looks so young and handsome, even though he’s a few years older. Look at me, I’m so tired from life,” Wang chuckled in self-deprecation. Yet some part of him seemed to have internalized this. He looked straight at me with sunken eyes as if hoping I could understand his trauma without the burden of speaking in English.
Here is a man who I saw was deeply complex, who was frustrated by a reality which could not house his innermost political passions without witnessing hurtful consequences.
I sought to understand him once and for all.
What is your connection to Tiananmen, and the series of events that have led you to where you are now?
I first participated in the student democracy movement in 1986, when I was studying in Zhejiang University. In 1987, I went to Beijing University for my masters degree in physics. In 1989, I got involved in the democracy protests, but you know that already.
Then shortly afterwards in June 13, I was announced as one of the most wanted men by the Chinese government. They captured me in August 19 and I spent 4 years in prison. It was only when James Baker, a US Secretary General, visited Beijing in 1991 that I got a conditional release.
So I left to go work in Hangzhou. At the time I was traveling around China to continue my democracy work because I felt that what we did preceding 1989 was not yet complete. I believed that China still needed to transition into a Democratic country in order to improve. I was working on trying to form a China Democracy Party. Little did I know that for 7 or some years, the police were still following my every move.
How did you know they were following you?
You cannot begin to imagine all the things the goverment does to scare dissidents. When I bought an apartment in Hangzhou, I found out that my neighbor was a spy. The police had bought the apartment next door and driven a hole through the wall to watch my every move.
The police had bought the apartment next door and driven a hole through the wall to watch my every move.
In the US, I cannot say anything because I don’t know if there are spies, but I would not be surprised. You know Voice of America and Human Rights in China? Even in those organizations there may be Chinese spies. I don’t have hard evidence, but I feel definite.
Some dissidents told me that even in universities, the Chinese government taps into students through the CSSA (Chinese Student Scholars Association). Is that true?
My god, yes, that’s very complicated. I had tried to organize a pro-democracy association in my university and I would get into fights with the CSSA all the time.
When did you begin to think that forming a Democracy Party would be necessary?
Before 1978, China was a very poor country. Many desired to become more rich and for that to happen, they sought a change in society. Between 1978 and up to the 1990s, more Chinese people were getting higher education or reading more material outside of China, so we were becoming more informed about what an open society looked like. We had begun to witness a growing trend in democratic success like in South Korea, West Germany and the United States. Even following the Soviet collapse in 1991, Eastern europe emerged to become more democratic. So we all thought that China would also be on its way to democracy.
I think the turning point for China was in 2008, during the economic crisis. The Chinese economic system continued to grow and this led the Communist Party to be much more proud about keeping their party in total power. Of course, the intellectuals are angry, but they cannot say anything. The situation is not me but the everyday person in China.
What does the everyday person think in China?
Well for the general public, a lot of people are fine with the CCP as long as the economy continues to grow under their rule. I think this is ingrained in their past life in poverty. They want a better lifestyle and all the surface level qualities of life like affording food and a home. So it’s hard to be democratic because people have become rich under the CCP.
I think the same can be said for the millenial generation. My feeling is that most only have an interest in survival. Only few people mentally search for democracy but in most cases this is only when the government has actively done something to give them a bad time, since the people will then have a reason to hate the government.
My purpose, though, is not that of an economic one. Rather, I wish to see individuals have more rights and more influence over public government issues. I want us to actually have the ability to influence leaders and their policy decisions.
What about millenials who are studying in the US?
They probably know that life in the US is better than in China. But as you know, living in the US is hard. If they eventually get a job in China, they will probably be fine with China’s political power.
In the end, what the Chinese people really care about is how the government treats them. So I think for the government to truly change, there must be some sort of economic struggle or if there is some internal conflict within the CCP. If the economy changes, like maybe if there is a 0% increase in GDP, then the Chinese people will start to be dissatisfied with the party. Many people in China in fact know about democracy, but as long as their lives on the surface are unaffected, they don’t really care.
What led you to now live in the US?
So in 1998, my colleagues, friends and I thought it was necessary to form an opposition party, so we attempted to register a China Democracy Party. They declined and immediately detained everybody involved. I was sentenced to prison for 11 years.
In 2004, after China dealt with a number of negotiations with US organizations under my aid, I was sent to the US, where Harvard granted me a position as a visiting scholar. At the time I had high hopes of going into politics in the US. But I struggled in Harvard, because my English was not very good, as you can witness now. Within a year, I transferred to UIUC, where I continued my physics studies. Shortly afterwards, I worked for Newport News at the Jefferson National Laboratory and then went back to UIUC to get a PHD in physics. Then in 2011, I moved to New York, where I landed a job at a bank. I’ve since switched companies, but it’s still hard work.
When I was in China, I was never concerned with money. It was never a problem I had to face. Here in America, life is hard. It’s not easy in New York. The workforce is very competitive. I realized how important money is to survive.
For the first 10 years in the US, I was very active in my democracy activities. But later on, I stopped being as active.
Why did you stop?
Well there are lots of reasons. You know Xi Jinping? He’s a real dictator. With his current policies, I can do nothing to change China. He will eliminate anybody who does not agree with him. So my personal view on Xi Jinping is that I don’t like him very much. But a lot of people are brainwashed and just choose to follow those in power. It’s hard to compartmentalize this political view because it runs in China’s long history of hierarchical society. Some people even call Xi Jinping the emperor.
The second reason is that Chinese government authorities send a lot of spies overseas. If we want to build an organization, we’ll lose. They’ll sabotage us without question. They have more time, money and people to gain information, so they’ll always have the upper hand. Even if the Chinese goverment knows that democracy is better for the people, they want absolute power.
I’m a physics person, so I’m naturally more interested in organizational work. I’ve never been one to get involved in writing or broadcasting work. But making an organization is much harder than publishing articles online. To really be able to make a change, one needs to have direct relations in China. But I’m stuck in the US. I can’t do much because of that.
At the moment, I don’t think I can do anything to impact China. What I want to do is hold organization activity, but I also don’t want to make people’s lives harder in China. The sacrifice is necessary sometimes, but I don’t want others to suffer because of me. What I did before led a lot of people in prison. It still pains me to remember that. Even though many involved say it was not my fault, I still feel guilty, like I was somewhat responsible for their lives. Prison in China is really terrible.
I don’t want others to suffer because of me. What I did before led a lot of people in prison. It still pains me to remember that. Even though many involved say that it was not my fault, I still feel guilty, like I was somewhat responsible for their lives.
How is your current relationship with China?
I cannot go back to China right now, but I have some hope that in the future, maybe 10 or more years later, I can safely go back. But I think the family situation is tricky. No one in my immediate circle dares to try to go back because the police will definitely want to have meetings with one of us.
If the 1989 Movement had been successful, what would victory have looked like?
What do you mean by success? There are so many ways to view that. I don’t know the real answer.
Well, in other words, what is your definition of success and its possible outcome?
The 1989 movement began because there was over a general concern that China needed a more open society. We thought this was possible through a pro-democracy approach and we elected student leaders to guide the people. However, I think the assumption that student leaders would have replaced CCP leaders is completely misguided. The CCP would have still been in power regardless. But, government elections could have been monitored by our democracy organizations, so that power would be put in check. So my idea of success would have been that university students receive more automatic rights.
I took a big jump to see this success happen by registering for the Democracy Party in 1998, but the Chinese government was not confident enough to let the people have an opposition party. The Cultural Revolution was a disaster for the Chinese people. So they knew that if people had extended rights, they [the people] would not want to elect the communist party.
Was this in some way why the protests failed?
To be honest, I don’t think the protests would have succeeded anyways. The only thing that really mattered was how the CCP would react to this movement, because only those in high positions have the power to make changes. If Zhao Ziyang (former Secretary General of the CCP) had been a stronger person, China would have been different. But he stepped down and so we had no chance.
In the top level of the CCP, there are currently no members from the new generation born after 1960. I think that China will change after Xi Jinping’s rule, because people in the new generation will be in power. Those born after 1960 would have witnessed the China’s democratic activities between 1978–1989, and would be willing to put more liberal policies in place.
My biggest hope for China’s future is that a stronger person will be in charge to lead the nation towards a transition. And when that time comes, I think I will be ready to go back.
Wang Youcai who was a former leader of the Beijing Students Autonomous Federation and founder of the China Democracy Party. He has requested not to reveal his current career or activities.
Grace Wong is an interdisciplinary artist and arts administrator. She is interested in the potential for photography, writing and media to address humanity and human rights.