Leader Profile: Student Activist Wang Dan

“I was an undergraduate student in my first year at Beijing University when the 1989 Democracy Movement broke out,” Wang wrote in an e-mail interview. “But before 1989, I had already spent one year organizing a series of seminars called Democracy Salon, in which intellectuals were invited to talk about the concepts and ideas of democracy. I naturally fell into the student movement when it began.”

Wang, born in 1969, led hunger strikes, class boycotts and sit-ins in 1989, hoping to exert pressure on the government to promote the progress of democracy.

He was on the Beijing University campus at the time of crackdown. “I got a phone call from my classmate at the Square saying that the government had opened fire,” Wang recalled. “He said someone next to him was shot and that he saw another person’s brains falling out. This was so tremendously shocking that my mind went blank after I heard the news. It was simply inconceivable.”

After the military clampdown on the student protests, Wang was at the top of the government’s most-wanted list. He was arrested in July 1989 and served the next four years in prison, including time in solitary confinement.

After being released in 1993, Wang continued to write essays in favor of democracy. He was detained again in 1995, and after being held without charges for 17 months, was sentenced to 11 years in prison for subversion.

“My trial was a political one throughout,” Wang said. “The outcome was determined by the Politburo rather than by the judge. The trial procedures were simply a show.”

He said he spent most of his time in prison reading.

Several months before then-U.S. President Bill Clinton’s trip to China in June 1998, Wang was released and put on a plane to the United States for medical treatment.

“Wang had reportedly suffered from headaches, dizziness, and prostate problems while in prison. But doctors at Detroit’s Henry Ford Hospital today ruled out major illnesses,” according to a Spencer Michels report aired on the NewsHour in 1998.

Wang later attended Harvard University and completed his master’s degree in East Asian history in 2001 and his doctorate in 2008.

Wang is currently chairman of the Chinese Constitutional Reform Association, which organizes political activities to try to push constitutional changes in China.