Surprise, You’re Free

By Charlotte Bruce Harvey '78 / May / June 2004
June 15th, 2007
Thirty-six hours after his unexpected release from a Chinese prison, the former Tiananmen Square activist Wang Youcai landed at Rhode Island’s T.F. Green airport, on March 5. Greeting him was fellow activist Xu Wenli, who had been freed under similar circumstances in December 2002, and has since been a visiting fellow at Brown’s Watson Institute for International Studies. The two had never met, but both are key figures in China’s pro-democracy movement, and after imprisonment in China, both had been sent (exiled might be a more apt word) to the United States on medical parole. Wang, thirty-eight, wore a crisp black suit and new shoes, courtesy of Chinese officials; he’d been given $400 by the U.S. State Department, which had arranged for Xu to serve as the younger man’s sponsor. As TV cameras greeted him in the airport, Wang looked shell shocked.

At a Watson Institute press conference three days later, Wang apologized for his rusty English, noting that in prison he had not been permitted to speak or read English. He’d been a graduate student studying physics at the time of the Tiananmen Square uprising, but politics had sidelined his science studies since then. He said he remained surprised by “the amount of violence released in the massacre.” Wang was one of twenty-one students arrested afterward. “All these twenty-one people were considered heroes of the student movement,” Xu told reporters.

Wang was rearrested when he and two others registered to vote for the Chinese Democratic Party; that move earned him an eleven-year sentence, of which he’d served six years. The night before his release, he said, Chinese officials had taken him to see his parents, explaining to them that he was being sent to the United States to be treated for a mysterious pulmonary or heart problem. Describing this, Wang looked doubtful. China often uses “medical parole” to rid itself of activists whose cases have attracted international attention. Meantime, he said, his parents encouraged him “to study constitutional democracy in America.”

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May / June 2004