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A Chinese Half-Century of Satire and Dissent

February 05, 1989|Kyna Rubin | Kyna Rubin is a professional associate at the Committee on Scholarly Communication with the People's Republic of China at the National Academy of Sciences. The views in this article reflect those of the author and not those of the committee, its sponsors or the National Research Council

WASHINGTON — We often use the terms "reining in" and "letting out" to describe the political climate in China. The fact is that what we mean by "letting out" is lifting up the bird cage cover, and what we mean by "reining in" is lowering the same cover. --Wang Ruowang, autumn, 1988

Exactly two years have passed since the Chinese Communist Party launched its latest political campaign against intellectuals it perceived as too liberal-minded and anxious for political democratization. In January, 1987, the party expelled three controversial but eminently popular figures: Fang Lizhi, the internationally known astrophysicist who recently wrote an open letter to Deng Xiaoping asking for the release of Chinese political prisoners; Liu Binyan, the reporter/whistle-blower on party corruption, and Wang Ruowang, the satirical essayist, who is scorned by the authorities for his exceedingly audacious broadsides against the party and its pace of reform. All three are veterans of political persecution, having earlier been victims of China's much more noxious campaigns, and all have enjoyed the fruits of political rehabilitation under Deng Xiaoping's regime. Since Deng's resumption of power in the late 1970s, however, all have been equally subject to periodic, if relatively minor, campaigns against intellectuals critical of the status quo.

Despite or because of this continuing victimization, Liu Binyan has gained a hero's status among the Chinese populace for his courageous exposure of the dark side of party ethics. Fang Lizhi has built an almost universal respect among Chinese students and other intellectuals for his liberal political philosophy, expressed openly during his vice presidency of one of China's leading science universities. Wang Ruowang, too, has had his audience, mainly in literary magazines, legal journals and newspapers, and by the mid-1980s, at the podiums of standing-room-only university halls.

World reaction to the 1987 expulsion of these three men for their alleged encouragement of university student demonstrations in December, 1986, was swift and effective. In response to the international outrage that took Chinese government leaders by surprise in 1988, the authorities permitted Fang and Liu to travel abroad. Wang has been consistently denied permission to leave China, despite invitations from groups in the United States.

Wang is the oldest of the three and had been a party member longest--50 years. Since his satirical criticism of the Kuomintang government in the 1930s (he was imprisoned as a youth of 16), Wang has always taken great pleasure in launching direct, humorous attacks against authority, speaking out for the underdog, advocating good over evil, "truth" over fiction and a change from the status quo.

Liu became known outside China, in part, from the English translation of his reportage in the early 1980s by American China scholars, most notably E. Perry Link Jr. of UCLA. Fang was a noted figure to American scientists who worked with him during his 1986 research stint at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study, among other places. Thus, Chinese leaders felt great pressure to be lenient with these two individuals. Wang, on the other hand, is less a household name to the general China-watcher; although this author has begun to introduce his views to an American audience, Wang's critical essays and pungent wit have not been given much international exposure.

Wang's great popularity in China and Hong Kong has protected him from any sort of punishment even mildly resembling the prosecution of the Cultural Revolution. He is living comfortably in Shanghai, free to speak with foreigners and to publish once again, although he must still resort to publishing anything of a political nature outside of China.

What follow are translated excerpts from a lengthy interview Wang recently granted to Chen Yige of the Nineties (a Hong Kong monthly magazine, December, 1988). Here, he dispenses with his usual humor and wit, choosing instead to spell out a no-nonsense critique of the Chinese political and economic scene of the 1980s. The excerpts focus on Wang's view of the inevitable demise of the Chinese Communist Party and how the present government might even take a lesson from Mikhail S. Gorbachev. Does Wang advocate the demise of the Communist Party? One suspects not, but rather that he puts forth extreme views as a way to prod the Chinese leadership.

Wang Ruowang is now 71 years old. These excerpts suggest that the youthful Wang who poked vicious fun at the nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek in the early 1930s is very much alive--in his own words, still "the naive" person he has always been, compelled to speak out despite the odds against him and his convictions.

For clarity, I have grouped these excerpts topically; the subtitles are my own.

The Advantages of Capitalist Democracies and the Hypocrisy of Socialism :

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