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Chinese Exile Urges Clinton to Aid Other Jailed Dissidents

Rights: In New York news conference, a happy Wang Dan says he did not know U.S. was negotiating for his release.

April 24, 1998|MARK FRITZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — Chinese exile Wang Dan, happy "to breathe free again," albeit in a country other than his own, urged President Clinton on Thursday to press China to unshackle perhaps the largest population of political prisoners in the world.

Wang, forced into exile as the price for his freedom from prison, said he hoped that Clinton will make the thousands of less-prominent political prisoners his major human rights priority when he visits China in June.

"Although there are many, many aspects to the question of human rights in China--this one aspect sticks out as the key one," he told reporters at his first news conference since he was freed Sunday. "There are probably no other countries on Earth that have the same population of political prisoners as China does."

Wang was flanked by human rights activists, who have been critical of the conditions of his release and that of other dissidents. By forcing them into exile, rather than allowing them to remain in China, the government negates their influence on the country as symbols of oppression, while at the same time exacting favors from Washington in exchange for freeing high-profile activists.

Wang said he had no knowledge of the intricate negotiations and trade-offs between Washington and Beijing that removed him as perhaps the most powerful political symbol of China's shoddy human rights record and the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protesters at Tiananmen Square. Given a choice, he said, he would have taken freedom in China over exile abroad.

Wang, one of the most articulate and visible leaders of the doomed protests, also seemed to step back from the spotlight and the pressures and expectations of being a famous dissident detainee. Speaking through an interpreter, he said his top priorities are to go back to college, find a job, learn how to use a computer and finish the intellectual growth that he said was stunted by two stints in prison.

"I sincerely do feel that my education should come first, that in order to make a real contribution to China I need to raise my own level of education," he said. "I'm 29 years old."

Although he said he will continue in unspecified ways to work for democracy in China for the rest of his life, he added that "my reason for seeking education is not necessarily directed to preparing for political activity."

He alluded to the grass-roots revolutions in Eastern Europe that led to democratic governments there and said the Chinese will have to take control of the democracy movement and not wait for somebody to lead them. He said "the bottom-up effect to dismantling the dictatorship is the way to go."

Looking healthy and fit, wearing a green- and white-striped sport shirt under a charcoal jacket, the former student bounded onto a stage at an auditorium at the City University of New York and waved a victory sign to an audience packed with news crews. He was self-effacing to the extreme, playing down his reputation and calling his onetime ranking as the most-wanted man in China "a silly and huge mistake."

Wang was one of the most influential of the Beijing University students who led the democracy movement that began almost nine years ago, then was crushed by the army on June 4, 1989. Wang became a fugitive, but he was caught and spent four years in jail before being paroled in 1993.

Although he was followed constantly, he continued to criticize China's authoritarian one-party rule and was detained again in May 1995. In 1996, he was finally charged, convicted and sentenced to 11 years for plotting against the government. Wang was released under "medical parole," which he said referred to his persistent cough and periodic headaches. His release came just six weeks after the Clinton administration said it would not back a U.N. Human Rights Commission resolution criticizing China's human rights records.

During about 90 minutes of fielding questions from an international press corps, Wang was ebullient and at times melancholy about the spine-tingling stand by democracy activists in Tiananmen Square, the negotiations with the government that seemed to be bearing fruit and the crackdown that left as many as 1,000 dead.

"If I had known in advance that so many people would have died, I wouldn't have done things quite the same way," he said. "Any movement that results in the deaths of people, even if it is just one person, raises the question of the moral responsibility of the participants. When so many people died, I had a feeling of moral guilt in this matter, and I imagine I will have it for all of my life."

He said the main responsibility for the deaths rested with the government, "yet, we could have handled the situation differently." He would not provide specifics, saying he would save them for a history that he hopes to write.

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