Wang Dan: China’s Student Outlaw

In Chinese Politics this semester, I also learned about the Tiananmen Square Movement and some key individuals who took part in the protest. This was a 1989 student movement to speak out in favor of political reform; the protest turned violent when, after several days of occupying Tiananmen Square in the center of Beijing, the students were forcibly removed by the military. 

One significant figure in the movement was Wang Dan, a Peking University student who had a passion for political involvement and started the movement. When the movement was broken up, he managed to escape to Taiwan. Now he lives in the United States. As I was learning about him, I was fascinated that he has still managed to stay so vocal about and involved in Chinese political reform, despite being an exile from his country.

Wang is remembered as the brave student who spearheaded the democracy movement in the spring of 1989. Although the leadership groups he was a part of were weak and unstable, his willingness to step forward and lead when others wouldn’t gained him respect among students then and now. Since 1989, Wang has published 3 books about his experience and has been nominated three times for the Nobel Peace Prize for his part in the democracy movement.[

Wang Dan remains vocal to this day about Chinese political reform. He says that he has more fleshed-out ideas now than he did in 1989, and that he’s a “born idealist” – he can’t stop pushing for reform in China. He’s been very active in discussions about America’s role in Chinese reform specifically. Speaking on political and economic reform in China, Wang said, “I believe they will not do it if there is no pressure from the Chinese people and from the international community.”In 2017, he traveled throughout the United States hosting “China salons” at universities, hoping to encourage discussion between Chinese and American students on topics that are taboo in China. However, he discovered that political conversations in even these settings are affected by the scope of the Chinese government’s authoritarianism: “The Chinese Communist Party is extending its surveillance of critics abroad, reaching into Western academic communities and silencing visiting Chinese students.” Thus, his influence in China has been limited because of intimidation from the Chinese government.

In the last year, Wang has two new ideas for pushing reform. He plans to found a think tank in Washington, D.C. to oppose the Chinese government, a project he is calling “the second major battle of my life.” Next, he is trying to launch a forum with the Confucius Institute, “1989 Pro-Democracy Movement and Its Suppression”, both to encourage discussion and to “play up what critics say are contradictions and controversies surrounding the Confucius Institute.” However, he doesn’t expect the Confucius Institute to respond to his request,as he sees the organization as a mouthpiece of the CCP.[

As previously mentioned, the influence of Wang Dan and his current ideas are limited in China due to the monitoring and censorship by the Chinese government. However, while teaching in Taiwan, he found that visiting Chinese students still know who he is. What’s more, many choose to take his classes and aren’t afraid to have his name on their transcripts. This gives Wang Dan hope for the future of democracy and frees peech in China. Wang Dan leaves the Communist Party with this warning regarding their future:“There will be only two choices: democracy, or die.”


Foarde, Connor. “Tiananmen Square Hero Challenges China-Backed Institutes with Provocative 30-Year Memorial.” The Washington Times, July 4, 2018, World.

He,Rowena Xiaoqing. Tiananmen Exiles: Voices of the Struggle for Democracy in China. New York City: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

Tsao, Nadia. “Chinese Dissident Wang Dan to Start New US Think Tank.” Taipei Times, January 20, 2018, Taiwan News.

Tsui, Anjali, and Esther Pang. “China’s Tiananmen Activists: Where Are They Now?” CNN, June 4, 2014, On China.

Wang Dan. “Beijing Hinders Free Speech in America.” The New York Times, November 26, 2017, Opinion. 

Wang Dan. Speech, June 2, 2003. In Voice of the Small Handful: 1989 Student Movement Leaders Assess Human Rights in Today’s China, by Congressional-Executive Commission on China, 7-42. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2003.

Wang Dan and Cao Yaoxue. “Twenty-Eight Years After – An Interview with Wang Dan.” Dialogue China. Last modified October 25, 2017.

Wright, Teresa Ann. “Protest and Peril: Students, Democracy, and the State of China and Taiwan.” PhD diss., University of California, Berkeley.

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