Exiled Journalist Tries to Show True Stripes of Chinese Tiger

Profiles of Confluence: People drawing US and China closer.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Exiled dissident Wu Xuecan likes to quote an old Chinese saying: "A tiger becomes real after three people see it."

The adage inspires Mr. Wu, a former Beijing newspaperman now living in Washington, in his painstaking, long-distance effort to break down walls of propaganda and bring objective news to his compatriots back home.

"In China, the official news is neither new nor truthful - it is fake," Wu says over a cup of green tea in his sparse downtown office. "But if [Chinese citizens] hear something from us that rings true - one, two, three times - they will believe it," he says.

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Wu says his goal is the same now as when he was an editor in Beijing: to unmask lies and abuses by China's Communist Party.

For the Oct. 29 summit meeting of Chinese leader Jiang Zemin and President Clinton at the White House, Wu planned to join hundreds of Chinese and Tibetan protesters in a high-profile rally he organized to condemn China's human rights violations.

Yet like scores of Chinese dissidents forced overseas after Beijing crushed demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in 1989, Wu usually works in quiet anonymity. More than eight years after Chinese troops stormed Tiananmen, killing hundreds, Wu's life illustrates both the hopes and the hardships of the Chinese exile community.

As an editor at the party mouthpiece People's Daily during the 1980s, Wu sought out articles that challenged orthodox thinking. Then, amid mounting calls for press freedom during the 1989 student-led Tiananmen protests, Wu cast all caution aside. On May 20, the day that martial law was imposed on Beijing, he printed a People's Daily "extra" containing a critical five-point declaration by moderate party leader Zhao Ziyang.

After the June 4 massacre of protesters in Beijing, Wu was placed on China's "most wanted" list and went into hiding. But police detained him on the southern island of Hainan in December, and he was later sentenced to four years in prison for the crime of "counterrevolutionary propaganda and incitement."

In Beijing's Qincheng Prison, Wu developed severe insomnia. His health sharply deteriorated, and his weight dropped below 90 pounds. He believes he would have perished in jail if not for some fortuitous timing. In late 1993, as China sought to raise its image abroad to win a bid to host the 2000 Olympic Games, both Wu and Mr. Wei were suddenly freed.

In the United States, Wu joined a Washington-based dissident think-tank called the China Strategic Institute, where he edits a bimonthly newsletter called China Watch. He is also a board member of the Independent Federation of Chinese Students and Scholars, a large student coalition formed after Tiananmen.

Every week, Wu delivers radio addresses on the Voice of America called "The Hearts and Voices of Party Members," broadcasting back into China the concerns and criticisms he hears from his party contacts back in China.

"I think that in the end, it is the party members themselves who will overturn the party," Wu predicts. Judging from his contacts with mayors, party secretaries, and ordinary party members, Wu believes corruption and other social ills have undercut faith in the party leadership.

Still, like many dissidents abroad, Wu realizes his voice is limited. In recent years, a scarcity of funds, language difficulties, and the logistical problems of adjusting to life in the West have taken a toll on China's democracy movement. As China's propaganda machine works overtime to marginalize the exiles as traitors, internal schisms within the dissident community have also reduced its influence.

"There are a lot of different opinions - from those who seek to wage armed struggle to people like me, who advocate peaceful, nonviolent change," Wu says, adding, "Every movement has divisions."

Yet as the United States and other democratic nations increasingly refuse to place human rights considerations above trade and political interests in dealing with China, Wu says China's exiled activists must persevere.

"In the end, we can only depend on ourselves," he says. "As long as I have enough food and clothes so I won't freeze, I can pursue democracy," he says, stepping out on a busy Washington street. "And if I have a little tea to drink," he adds, "that would be fine, too."

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