Chinese dissident’s exile aids democracy

Pro-democracy demonstrators killed or imprisoned by the Chinese military during the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident is still fresh in the minds of many. The leader of that demonstration, Wang Dan, was exiled after his release from a Chinese prison last week for medical purposes. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, in preparation for her visit to China today, said “While some Chinese dissidents have been released to exile in recent months, the Chinese government’s repression of dissident and religious freedom has not ceased.” Despite criticisms that the release is a publicity stunt, the event mainly marks the beginning of a more politically free China.
Democracy appears to be taking hold in some form, even if just a dangling thread. Dan is finally free at age 29 and now wants to study Chinese history at an American college. Dan said recently that political activism is not his main priority. He simply wants the freedom to pursue his studies, as he did when the Tiananmen Square incident erupted. Although Dan does not plan to have a major activist role, his exile inevitably offers new hope to democracy efforts in China. The press and his supporters already have deemed him a crusader for political freedom. And Dan will continue to be a celebrity of sorts.
But for Dan, this icon role might not be one he wants to play. Fighting off the media in the future will be his biggest freedom battle. The media will monitor Dan’s life in America as they continue to emphasize how Dan was one of China’s most famous political prisoners. His exile from China, departure from his family and already publicized debt will be continued focus issues. Dan’s experiences will also be related to other pro-democracy battles in China. To critics, the decision to release and exile Dan or other political prisoners only proves that the Chinese government still holds political control. China’s cooperation with the United States is also seen as a temporary strategy to improve relations before President Clinton’s visit in June.
Although communist China has taken steps to allow more diverse political beliefs, hundreds still remain in prison for pro-democracy demonstrations. The Chinese government will have to do a lot more than release dissidents. As a first step, the Chinese military has to stop accumulating political prisoners as often as it releases them. Just last week a math teacher, Wang Tingjin, was thrown into a labor camp for two years after he was caught secretly meeting with another exiled dissident.
Clinton will fall under attack if he doesn’t raise the issue of existing political prisoners during his visit. His trip will be one of the most important foreign interactions of his career, marking the first visit by a U.S. president since the Tiananmen Square incident. The visit also follows on the heels of Chinese President Jiang Zamin’s trip to the United States last year. Chinese officials know visits by American officials will only help China’s struggling economy. Even if some freedom advocates claim that Dan’s release was just a publicity stunt for Clinton’s important trip, the event still makes a political difference. Only when more chances to get information from primary sources arise can the world have a greater understanding and increased dialogue about China’s politics and people.