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Harvard Hosts Prominent Chinese Dissidents

University IN REVIEW


A pair of high-profile Chinese dissidents--officially released from prison for medical reasons--passed through Harvard this year to share their experiences and to urge for further reforms in their home country.

In his April 30 visit--only weeks after his release from China--Wang Dan, 29, expressed regret for fellow demonstrators who lost their lives in the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. As one of three student leaders from Beijing University, Wang said he felt personally responsible.

"As somebody who survived, I carry the blood of all those who did die," Wang said through a translator during his appearance at the Fairbank Center for East Asian Research.

"And so I vow to make every effort to carry on the work. This is what I mean by giving my life to the democracy movement in China," he said to the applause of a largely ethnic Chinese audience.

Wang fielded a variety of questions from the audience and reiterated his intention of returning to China to help foster democracy and freedom.

During seven years of imprisonment, Wang had the opportunity to read a number of books written by Americans that often criticized China. Smuggled to him by friends, the books were not confiscated because his jailers couldn't read English.

Wei Jingsheng, who spoke at the ARCO Forum on May 6, was not a participant in the 1989 demonstrations.

Instead, he was serving time behind bars for posting anti-government literature on the "Democracy Wall"--a facade near Tiananmen Square where reformers tacked on criticisms of Deng Xiaoping's new government.

Wei encouraged overseas activists to carry on the work despite setbacks and international apathy.

"We who live in the West have lost a sense of urgency and crisis that ordinary Chinese citizens have," he said.

Even though Wei suffered an angina attack the day before his speech and had been hospitalized in Canada, he stood before the glowing lights for one-and-a-half hours.

With apparent grit and determination, Wei pounded home the necessity for individuals in China to speak up.

"We can't rely on foreign governments," he said. "To my face they are very polite but when they turn their back it's a whole different story."

Wei belonged to the first generation of the pro-democracy movement which came into prominence in 1978. Wei was first sentenced to 15 years in prison in 1979.

After Wei's release in 1993--mere days before a committee was to decide on Beijing's bid to host the 2000 Olympics--Wei again ran into trouble, this time for speaking with the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights.

Wei was sentenced to another 14 years of prison in 1995.

Wang, who is studying English as a second language at Harvard this summer, is part of the second wave of activists.

Wang said he hopes to pursue a doctorate in modern Chinese history at Harvard during his exile in America.

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