Dissident China

Led by an exiled physician in Queens, the China Spring movement is working to undermine the repressive Beijing regime and light the spark of democracy.


It has been 75 years since the overthrow of China's last emperor and the founding of a Chinese republic. Thirty-eight years have passed since China's "liberation" by the Communist Party. Yet most of China's one billion people still are not permitted to choose what they will do for a living or where they will live. As illustrated by the crackdowns on dissent that followed the recent protests in Tibet and the student demonstrations in China's major cities last winter, the average Chinese citizen enjoys little or no freedom of speech, press, or assembly and has few rights and protections under the law.

Dr. Sun Yat-sen campaigned for decades among overseas Chinese to help bring about the fall of the Qing dynasty and the founding of the Chinese republic. In fact, when his dream finally became reality in 1911 he was on a train in Colorado. In a similar twist of fate, today the man most visibly working to undermine the Beijing government is a physician who lives among the Cuban-Chinese restaurants and store fronts of Flushing, Queens.

For the past few years, Dr. Wang Bingzhang, who at almost 39 is as old as the People's Republic of China itself, has toiled among overseas Chinese students and intellectuals to create an international network of Chinese dedicated to human rights and democracy in their motherland. His organization, the Chinese Alliance for Democracy (often referred to as "China Spring"), has mushroomed from 12 members when it launched the magazine China Spring in 1982 to some 50 branches on five continents. Drawing inspiration from the Solidarity movement in Poland, the alliance has pledged to use nonviolent means to "promote democracy and improve human rights conditions in China, with the ultimate goal of transforming the existing totalitarian system into a democratic one."

Over the last five years, the quality of China Spring has improved in spite of internecine squabbles typical of Chinese politics, dramatic exits by key staff members, and a gangland-style death threat against Wang. The circulation of China Spring has swelled from 4,000 to 20,000, and it has begun printing an English-language edition. The magazine has managed to obtain and publish the diary of one of China's leading political prisoners and has also distributed several recordings of famous pro-democracy speeches by Professor Fang Lizhi, "China's Sakharov," expelled from the Communist Party for his support of the student demonstrations.

In 1985, China Spring made international headlines when it sued the People's Daily, the Chinese Communist Party newspaper, in a U.S. court for libel. In 1984, People's Daily had referred to Wang and others as "political prostitutes…swindlers who used patriotism as a pretext to racketeer overseas Chinese so as to feather their own nest…hypocrites who deserted their mainland wives and children in order to look for new lovers." The suit is still pending.

Even Deng Xiaoping himself, in a speech to the Sixth Plenary Session published in March 1987, referred to Wang Bingzhang in the same breath as China's most famous dissident, Wei Jingsheng (in solitary confinement since his arrest after the Peking Spring movement in 1979 and recently reported by Amnesty International to have died). Deng accused Wei and Wang of "trying to lead China to bourgeois liberalization" and called them "representatives of this trend of thought."

"China Spring has become one of the best-selling Chinese-language publications among overseas Chinese intellectuals," Wang says proudly. Many Sinologists agree, although most do not dare speak on the record for fear of retribution the next time they apply for a visa to China.

Among those who would comment is Wu Yuanli, an economist and consultant at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He draws an analogy between the China Spring movement and the struggle to overthrow the Qing dynasty.

"In the pre-republican period, the movement started by Sun Yat-sen focused on the Chinese community outside China. Dr. Wang's current approach follows more or less the same lines, partly because the suppression of such dissent inside the country makes it very difficult to do much there," Wu says. But, he adds, "As in Sun's times, there are followers and cells in China.…Dr. Wang's magazine continues to give reports from Chinese correspondents. It is good to know he has authentic sources."

James Seymour, a researcher at Columbia University's East Asian Institute, says he gained confidence in China Spring's claim to be an influence on overseas Chinese when he was "pleasantly surprised to find that my Chinese laundry man reads China Spring. If he reads it, a lot of people read it. They're reaching the masses."

Inside China, it is a different story, Seymour says. "To some extent, the government has succeeded in channeling people's energies into economic progress. But the main reason the democracy movement is flagging is that it was suppressed. They arrested everyone connected with it. It's kind of hopeless."

Sitting amid the attic-like clutter of his office in an unmarked building in Queens, Wang addresses this and other issues. The democracy movement, he says, lives on in China through at least 50 underground "cells." To demonstrate the vitality of this network, Wang displays issues of an underground magazine from Guangzhou and the smuggled diary of a political prisoner in Yunnan province.

The scent of Chinese cooking wafts from a back kitchen as Wang talks in a deadpan monotone, hemmed in by file cabinets and dusty bales of printed material. He says that only a few people have been arrested in China for activities connected with China Spring: a young man was detained in Canton in 1983 for reprinting an article from the magazine, and at least one of those arrested in the 1986 Shanghai demonstrations is a member of China Spring.

In 1985, through contacts within China's secret police, China Spring managed to spirit out of a Beijing prison a 243-page manuscript entitled "My Defense." It was written by Xu Wenli, former editor of April Fifth Forum, the most popular unofficial journal in north China during the brief flowering of the democracy movement in the late 1970s.

A 43-year-old electrician who calls himself a "small potato," Xu was arrested at midnight on April 10, 1981, and held in detention for 17 months before his trial. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison for "organizing counter-revolutionary groups, disseminating counter-revolutionary propaganda and trying to destroy the dictatorship of the Communist Party."

Xu's diary, made up of 110,000 Chinese characters inscribed in a cheap notebook decorated with sketches of cats, horses, and tigers, has been authenticated by experts. In it, Xu describes his 200 interrogations while in detention, his Kafkaesque trial, and the "screams of those being beaten and electrically shocked" that he heard from his prison cell.

"I will not kill myself. I will not escape because I am innocent. I will not run away. My physical condition is good, I don't have any fatal diseases," he writes, implying that if he died in prison, it would be from unnatural causes. "I am very afraid of having a breakdown, but for the sake of my wife and child I will not collapse." Xu recounts how he was kept in a freezing cell where he and several other inmates shared one overcoat.

"In China, you are guilty until you prove yourself innocent," he writes. "You can be arrested by mistake, but you can never be released by mistake.…it is easy to be falsely accused for political reasons. I think the problem is that the nerves of the officials are too sensitive.…These officials think anyone who disagrees with them is a capitalist, and this is wrong."

Xu "asked for trouble" at his trial, which was filmed by television crews, by talking out of turn when the judge asked the court a routine question: "Is there anyone here who has any prior connection with the defendant and therefore should disqualify himself from the proceedings?"

"Yes, you should disqualify yourself, judge, for you already have talked with me several times and told me to confess," Xu says he told the court. The TV lights went out and the trial was adjourned.

A few months after China Spring published Xu's diary, newspapers reported that he had been punished for allowing his writings to be smuggled to the West. According to evidence disclosed by Amnesty International, Xu was placed in solitary confinement in a windowless cell to which the only access is a trap door in the ceiling. His wife was forbidden to visit him and the quality of his food was reduced. Since Chinese prisoners have been known to emerge from jail with teeth enamel worn away by a low-protein diet consisting mainly of gritty corn meal, this latter measure is more severe than it might appear. Despite these conditions, a Chinese Justice Ministry official announced in June 1986 that Xu was in "good health."

Chinese activists at home have tended to work together, but philosophical differences have splintered the movement in the United States. A major schism took place when Liang Heng, author with his American ex-wife, Judith Shapiro, of Son of the Revolution and other books, resigned as executive editor of China Spring after its first issue appeared in 1982. He has since started his own magazine, The Chinese Intellectual.

Liang and Shapiro took a trip back to China after the publication of their first book, an indictment of the Cultural Revolution. They revised their position, saying Deng's economic reforms were promising enough to make them mute criticisms of other aspects of the system. Liang is bitter toward his former colleagues at China Spring and refuses to comment on why he resigned.

His magazine, academic rather than polemical in content and funded by a National Endowment for Democracy grant, has been deemed acceptable for distribution in China. China Spring wrote a letter of protest to U.S. officials, complaining that the NED's grant selection process was flawed, because "The Chinese Intellectual is of abstract, academic interest, having little specifically to do with the cause of democracy in China."

"Should money from the NED support Xu Wenli's followers or be used to extol Deng Xiaoping, who put Xu in jail?" Wang asks in an interview.

"If there is any philosophical difference between China Spring and Liang Heng and others like him, it is that we believe for China to become a democracy, a third force [independent of the Chinese Communist Party and the Kuomintang, Taiwan's ruling party] must emerge, whereas Liang Heng believes he is an intellectual and an intellectual can only depend on the reforming faction of the CCP at this point. This is why The Chinese Intellectual is accepted by Beijing," says Wang.

Liang Heng and some other former members of China Spring claim the organization is funded clandestinely by the Kuomintang. Wang denies this, and his group has consistently maintained a neutral policy toward Taipei, encouraging it to set a good example for the mainland by agreeing to direct negotiations with Beijing. James Fan, a former translator and PR man for China Spring, says he found no evidence of Taiwanese support and much evidence of financial need, slaked by broad-based fundraising efforts that would belie steady bankrolling by the Kuomintang.

But angry tirades are far from the worst Wang has faced. On September 30, 1984, Wang says he received a message from a Chinese gangster called White Wolf, who warned him that Los Angeles's "Mainland Guys" gang had told White Wolf they'd been paid $5,000 to kill Wang. Such actions are not unknown in Chinese politics. Just two weeks after Wang allegedly received the death threat, a prominent Taiwanese dissident, Henry Liu, was gunned down in Daly City, California, by two Asian men on bicycles. It was later discovered that the gangsters had been hired by a Taiwanese government official to kill Liu because of a critical biography he had written of Taiwan's president Chiang Chingkuo. Wang says he moved, alerted the FBI, and was shielded by the bad publicity arising from the Henry Liu case. The FBI says it cannot comment on Wang's charges.

Even more endangering to the success of the China Spring movement than infighting or external threats may be Wang's own lack of charisma. A small, pale, exhausted-looking man with an expressionless face, Wang says he tries to show some emotion when addressing crowds at fundraising events. But he avoids rabble-rousing or speaking too much from the heart because such an approach would backfire with the intellectual Chinese audiences he targets.

Citing the Chinese proverb "Grass does not grow under a big tree," Wang says, "Among members of China Spring, there is general concern that the most endangering thing is that this organization is being held together by a single leader.…According to Chinese philosophy, a leader should be a man of great wisdom who appears slow-witted."

To understand China Spring, one must examine not only the recent unrest among Chinese college students, but also the Peking Spring movement of the late 1970s. Then Chinese in 29 cities were permitted to hang protest posters on walls such as Xidan in Beijing. Deng needed the support of those still nursing the wounds of the Cultural Revolution of 1966–76, when Deng himself was purged and 100 million Chinese were persecuted, at least 20 million of them to death.

"Perhaps the greatest tragedy in the history of the world," Wang says of the Cultural Revolution, which began when he was a precocious 17-year-old student at Peking Medical College. He watched his classmates, fellow members of China's "lost generation," squander their years of training on political activities—and occasionally perform surgery without any medical education whatsoever.

During those tumultuous years, Wang settled down after a brief, disillusioning stint as a Red Guard, to concentrate on studying under the old physicians on the medical school faculty. His "self-study" paid off in 1978, when he became one of the few to pass the first national examinations to qualify for study abroad. An underground supporter of the Peking Spring movement, Wang promised its leaders to carry his spirit overseas.

At Montreal's McGill University, where he received a Ph.D. in experimental medicine in 1982, Wang read that Deng had repudiated the Democracy Wall, rounded up dissidents, and thrown them in jail. Instead of returning to China, Wang announced that he would defect to the United States and launch a campaign to revive the Chinese democracy movement from overseas. "I shall…put aside my beloved physician's stethoscope and pick up the scalpel of a social reformer, that I may cut off the malignant tumors that have endangered Chinese society," he said at the time.

"Traditionally, in Chinese history, intellectuals have taken social responsibility," says Wang today. "When I was young, I learned about the examples of Dr. Sun Yat-sen and Dr. Lu Xun, medical doctors who also had strong social consciences. When I was a doctor, I thought the basic problem in our country was the social system. I felt I could not be a good physician under the system."

"When I was a surgeon, my friends and relatives always asked me to write medical certificates proving that someone had an illness or disease. These people had been sent down to the countryside and wanted to return home to the cities. I always faced this dilemma.…If I wanted to buy a good bicycle, the seller would say, 'I can get you a good one if you write me a medical certificate.' If I lived under this unfair, corrupt system, eventually I would get mental problems. If we don't lose our consciences, we must change the whole system."

Dr. Wang believes last winter's outbreak of student demonstrations in China—and the signing of a protest petition by more than 1,000 Chinese students living in the United States—represents a harvest of China Spring's efforts. While the undergraduates who marched were too young to have studied abroad, most had been influenced by professors and graduate students who had. And most of these, in turn, had been influenced by China Spring.

For Wang, the mood of the Chinese people today is summed up in the words of one of the pro-democracy posters hung at Beijing University: "The whole country is covered with dry lumber; a single spark can start a forest fire."

"It is the most difficult task in the world to change the Communist system to democratic," Wang says. "However, if I look at history, Dr. Sun tried for 30 years to terminate the Qing dynasty. Many thought it was impossible. But after 30 years, Dr. Sun did his job. Five years ago in the Philippines, nobody would have accepted that Marcos would be crushed. But Mrs. Aquino finally succeeded. Democracy is an unstoppable trend. The Communist regime is against human nature. It is an irrational system."

Or, in the words of Lu Xun, a Chinese physician turned writer and reformer whom Wang greatly admires: "Hope cannot be said to exist, nor can it be said not to exist. It is just like roads across the earth. For actually, there were no roads to begin with. But when many men pass one way, a road is made."

Susan Ruel, a former resident of Shanghai, is editorial publicity director for Newsweek.