In the days after the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, two Chinese doctoral students at the University of Chicago, Sanyuan Li and Hui Yun Wang, wanted to do something to help the quelled democracy movement, something that was more than just a gesture. They saw no point in trying to tell Westerners what the Chinese government was doing--for once, Western journalists were crawling all over a China story, even if they couldn't seem to see beyond Beijing. It was the Chinese people who didn't know what was going on. "The government told people all over China that there was a counterrevolutionary rebellion against the government and the government killed no one," says Wang. "We wanted to transmit the true news."
Wang and Li called two close Chinese friends who were studying at Ohio State University, and together they considered setting up a journal or newspaper, creating a research institute, even going back to China and joining the underground movement--none of which, they decided, would accomplish very much. A radio station, however, would be difficult to blockade, and the number of people they could reach would be enormous.
Of course none of them knew anything about running a radio station. They drove out east--to Virginia, Washington, D.C., New York--to ask other dissident Chinese students and professors whether they thought such a station was realistic and where it might get funding. People were skeptical.
Determined to prove they could pull it off, the four of them decided to produce a few programs. They borrowed recording equipment, put together a show, bought time at a radio station in Gary, Indiana, and made their first broadcast in July 1989. For a month they broadcast daily, repeating a program until they could produce a new one, usually every two or three days. Back in Hyde Park, however, they could barely hear the station.
Funds began to trickle in, and in October 1989 they sent a tape to a station that broadcast the program to China from outside its borders. They promised not to reveal the station's location, and they're still keeping their word. Nevertheless the Chinese government knew from the very beginning exactly where it was. Monitoring Times, a radio enthusiasts' monthly, listed Taiwan as the source of the broadcast.
The two friends from Ohio State went back to school, Li became the program's director, and Wang its editor in chief. They hired four more full-time people: another editor and three experienced announcers. For more than a year and a half they worked out of a makeshift studio in Hyde Park, every week taping six half-hour news and commentary programs in Chinese. These were broadcast twice daily at the same times by the Taiwan station, and were also picked up sporadically by a number of other stations outside China, including some in the United States and France. All of the stations had to agree to broadcast the programs unaltered. It was a striking achievement, and Chinese exiles generally applauded it.
The little station in Hyde Park called itself the Voice of June Fourth--the only U.S. station, besides the Voice of America and a couple of religious stations, beaming programs to China. It more than irritated the Chinese government, which occasionally tried to jam the signal from Taiwan. For a few months after they started broadcasting, staff members also got anonymous threatening phone calls at the studio. "They said, 'Watch yourselves,' or something like that," says Li in his assertive, gravelly baritone. "Sometimes in English, sometimes in Chinese." The English was cloaked in a fake Eastern European accent, so it was impossible to tell where the person was really from. Other callers played strange music. Then the calls simply stopped.
Most of the financial support for the station, which grew into a budget of some $10,000 a month, eventually came from groups in Hong Kong and Taiwan; and all the big Hong Kong, Taiwanese, and American Chinese-language papers followed the station's progress. "I would say the Chinese all over the world know of the existence of us. So I'm sort of famous," says Li, letting out a long, rumbling chuckle. "Especially Chinese students all over the world, they know about me, about this radio station." But the station was only cursorily noticed by the mainstream American media, and only at the beginning: one story by the ubiquitous CNN, a spot on Good Morning America, a short piece on Channel Five, a few stories in university papers. "Few Americans know that we are here," says Li. "Only those who are really interested in China and follow closely the news from China know us."
Then, last April, the station's biggest funders suddenly cut it off. It was forced to shut down--a fact that was deplored in the Hong Kong, Taiwanese, and American Chinese press but unremarked in the American.
Late one afternoon near the end of April I visit the station, located in an apartment in a U. of C. married-housing building on South Kenwood. Two of the staff have already left Chicago, and Hui Yun Wang is out. Sanyuan Li is sitting at his desk intently reading a Hong Kong magazine that has just arrived. Xiao Yi (not her real name) is transferring some of the station's programs from cassette tapes to eight-millimeter videotapes, which are far more durable than audiotapes in long-term storage. Her daughter is doing homework at the kitchen table. Everyone is working silently. Occasionally the refrigerator hums or Yi turns up the volume on the tapes. And every once in a while the muffled voice of Yi's husband, Xin Ren (not his real name), floats down the hallway from the bedroom that has been turned into a recording studio.
The furniture in what was once the living room is resale-shop eclectic: red and brown vinyl chairs, a white laminated desk, a fake-wood-grain table, a gray steel-and-linoleum desk. Every level surface is cluttered with papers, magazines, dictionaries, and teetering piles of boxed cassettes and reel-to-reel tapes. A fax machine sits on one corner of Li's desk, and a large photocopier hunkers beside a file cabinet. A pair of barbells rests on the floor.
Jutting into the room are several seven-foot bookcases filled with journals and magazines in English and Chinese and stacks of newspapers--the Tribune, the New York Times, and several Chinese-language papers, including the World News Daily, which is published in New York. The Encyclopaedia Britannica lines two top shelves, and books cram others. Most of them have Chinese characters on their spines, but many have English titles: Radical Change Through Communications in Mao's China, News Reporting and Writing, The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution, The American Challenge, Competitive Comrades, the Reader's Digest Family Word Finder, The Chinese Enlightenment, Your 60-Minute Tax Return 1990.
A large map of the world is tacked to the wall in the hallway, and taped over the kitchen table is a poster of the man who stood in front of a tank during the '89 crackdown. An unshaded fluorescent lamp hangs halfway up the wall over Yi and Ren's desks; above it are sheets of newsprint hand-lettered in black and red: "Voice of June Fourth." In smaller print, over the address and phone number, is "We Need Articles and Donations." It's not clear who's being exhorted, since few people have ever come to the station. Another newsprint poster has Chinese characters across the top and English below: "Professionalism, Long-term Operation, Return to Beijing."
The door to the recording studio opens, and Ren comes down the hall. Everyone says hello to everyone else in English, and then Ren, Yi, and Li switch to Mandarin. Ren was a chemistry professor in Nanjing before he came to the United States as a visiting scholar nearly three years ago, and Yi worked in international trade. Neither speaks English well, and when they're obliged to try, they seem awkward and self-conscious. Even Li, whose English is good enough that he can be genuinely witty in it, seems relieved not to have to make the effort.
Not speaking Chinese, I catch mostly shifting emotions. They are animated, then laughing, then serious. At one point Ren gets increasingly irritated; suddenly he stands up and spits out in English "Mao is great!" before fuming on in Chinese. Later Li explains that he was angry about a young woman who made that comment, and angrier still that she is apparently typical of young Chinese growing nostalgic for the better economic times they've heard existed when Mao was alive. The only other words I understand are Beijing, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Tiananmen. At one point I catch myself doing what I've often seen refugees do when they're surrounded by Americans flying along in English: smiling to let them know I don't mind that they exclude me, and trying to look attentive so they can forget that I'm excluded.
Some 20 minutes later Li pushes his chair back and stands up. Knowing it's a silly question, I ask what they were talking about. The politics of why their funds were cut off, he says. Pressed to explain, he looks around the room and says it's all very complicated, even he doesn't understand all the motivations. Then he says he has to transfer the programs Ren has just finished recording on reel-to-reel tapes to the cassettes that will be shipped to the broadcast station. I follow him down the hall to the recording studio.
It's a small room. To deaden the sound, quilts, sheets, and blankets are tacked to the walls and ceiling, and a mattress stands in one corner. Three sets of equipment face three walls--two two-track setups and one single-track, all of it old and temperamental. Taped high on one wall is another handmade newsprint poster with Chinese characters, which Li translates as "Staying in the shabby hut, but our voice can be heard all over the world."
Li drops one of a stack of three large reels, each containing a single half-hour program, onto the spindle of a tape deck. He deftly laces the tape through the machine onto an empty reel, then drops a cassette into the tape deck above it. He monitors each program, for he has to manually adjust the volume to allow for the shift in pitch as the announcer changes from Ren to Yi, who have done most of the announcing.
This program begins, as they all do, with a fanfare from Dvorak's New World Symphony and the program's signature voice-over: "This is the Voice of June Fourth. We are representing Chinese students overseas broadcasting to China." The programs generally start with shorter news pieces, then shift to longer stories and commentaries. Ren's crisp, authoritative voice is first, reading a report on censorship in China and then a short commentary on how the concept of an ideal society is false--on how, Li summarizes, "One can do all sorts of evil things in pursuit of a perfect society." Yi's sweet, musical voice follows, describing a survey done in the Soviet Union on people's concepts of the function of money. Among other reports that Li summarizes for me is an interview with a policeman in Moscow about the rising crime rate in the city, the difficulty of arresting the many criminals who are protected by the KGB, the resurgence of religion in the U.S.S.R.
Li lifts the first reel off and drops the second onto the spindle. He holds up the other two reels in his long, elegant fingers and says, smiling wryly, "Maybe these are the last ones."
The second reel includes a story about Qin Benli, the famous editor in chief of a Shanghai newspaper who recently died of cancer; his paper was closed down after he published statements by the '89 student demonstrators. There's a report on prison labor in China and the plants that use the labor, including one that was capitalized by Taiwanese businessmen, and a story about the Dalai Lama visiting Britain and Prime Minister John Major refusing to meet him. The third reel has a story about George Bush agreeing to meet the Dalai Lama, as well as news about one of the Soviet republics defying the central government and a memorial to Hu Yaobang, the former general secretary of the Communist Party whose death in 1989 catalyzed the Tiananmen Square demonstrations.
Not every program is so serious. Ren sometimes writes jokes, and they pick up others from magazines. There was the one about the man who said Prime Minister Li Peng was a fool and was overheard by plainclothes policemen. The man was arrested and quickly sentenced to 20 years in prison. But he was well aware of Chinese law and knew that the maximum sentence for criticizing an official was only five years. He complained to the judge, who acknowledged that the man was well informed but explained that his sentence was still legal, for he was guilty of not one but two crimes. "The first is to attack a high official," the judge said. "The second is to release one of the country's top secrets."
Each program signs off with a section from the slow movement of the New World Symphony and another signature voice-over: "It's the end of the broadcast today, and we're thinking of all our relatives in China. We hope you are well and that we'll meet you again tomorrow." Li lifts out the last cassette, swiftly labels it, and closes it in its case. He'll make three cassette copies of each program; one will be express-mailed to the Taiwan station, one will be sent to Brandeis University for a weekly broadcast there, and one will be transferred to videotape to become part of the station's records.
The decision of which stories would run generally belonged to Hui Yun Wang and the other editor, who's already left Chicago. They also edited the stories and laid out the programs. Wang, an unassuming yet self-possessed man, worked in the back bedroom, with the door shut because he smoked and the others didn't. Sometimes he cut and pasted articles for Ren and Yi to use as scripts, sometimes he wrote stories out by hand, and sometimes he typed them into a computer with special Chinese software that transliterates from the Roman alphabet keyboard.
Stories for the programs were usually pulled from scores of journals and newspapers, then shortened, reworked in colloquial Mandarin, or completely rewritten. Occasionally the staff wrote original pieces, Wang more often than the others. Everyone read voraciously, chasing news and insights. Before he started at the station, Wang barely followed current events--all his time went to studying. Once he started trying to keep up, he was nearly overwhelmed. "You have to follow everything--more than China. Because what is happening in Poland, what is happening in Eastern Europe, is very important to the Chinese. Communist countries making reform, and finally they gave up the communist rule--that really encouraged the Chinese people." He even read the People's Daily, the official Beijing paper; the government will send a subscription free to any Chinese student who requests one, and remarkably his subscription has not yet been cut off.
Sanyuan Li--restless, intense, and charmingly boyish--was responsible for persuading dissidents who came through Chicago to tape parts of programs; Shen Tong, Wan Runnan, and Liu Binyan all did interviews. It's no secret that there are competing factions of exiled Chinese dissidents, but Li says the staff at the station always tried to keep clear of any infighting--they wanted many voices on their program and needed every source they could get.
They knew when they started the station that the Voice of America and other countries' government-sponsored programs were beamed to China every day, but they believed they had a freer hand. "Much of the stuff that we use in our broadcast," says Li, "would not be picked up by programs like those of the Voice of America, CBC, BBC, simply because they represent their governments--they represent the United States government, they represent the British government. They have to be 'neutral,' they claim." He adds that the VOA--which broadcasts ten hours a day in Mandarin, almost half of which is simply a translation of a general English-language program sent to many countries--has a different focus. "We are more interested in using stories written by Chinese students, whereas they are more interested in picking up news, daily news around the world. So our programs will be more in-depth. Their programs will be more current, more up-to-date." As a result, he says, the VOA tends to focus on sensations.
"They would think, maybe, if people were massacred, that would be a major piece of news," says Li. "For us, the treatment that the relatives of dissidents get in China was a very important piece of news. If a Chinese student organization has a meeting and the Chinese consulate of that locality tries to interfere, this could be a piece of news. And we use a lot of stuff written by Chinese students about their own experiences studying abroad, about their opinions of the political systems--the weaknesses and the strong points that exist here. And what a Chinese student sees around him, how they feel living here in the United States. The difficulties they experienced. How they decided what to learn, how they found their jobs."
The staff has gotten very little feedback from China--mostly from people who traveled there or friends in Beijing. Yet Li is convinced that information about daily life in America appealed to their audience. "They want to know how a little guy, a common person, lives in the United States. And especially they would be interested in how Chinese students abroad adapt themselves in a foreign society. So they will listen to us very carefully, attentively. And because of our being Chinese students, of being relatives of Chinese people, our message will be welcomed, will be taken with some confidence." He admits that the viewpoint of the Chinese student intelligentsia in America is necessarily narrow, but thinks a lot of people in China wanted to hear it. "They are interested, especially the young people who are curious about the outside world, Western civilization. The ambitious, the restless." The people most likely to push for change.
When Li talks about the difficulty of adjusting to life in America, he doesn't mean only the things most immigrants face--managing in a new language or trying to find work with skills that don't transfer well. He also means the many smaller things disconcerting to those who come from totalitarian states. Like having to file income-tax returns. "That's something Chinese students feel uncomfortable with. In China no one is supposed to report income tax." He chuckles. "The government takes taxes before the allocation of salaries--and no one knows how much it is. So they will feel very uncomfortable to have the responsibility of paying the government out of their own pocket--and on their own initiative."
The students here are also isolated from the Chinese professionals who live in the suburbs and from many of the Chinese in Chinatown. Wang lives in Chinatown but says it doesn't feel like home: "Almost everybody there speaks Cantonese, and I can't understand it." He laughs. "I am an alien. I tried to learn to speak Cantonese, but I failed." And like Li and many other Chinese students, he's found it difficult to make American friends. In China, Wang had few close friends because it was dangerous to trust anyone. "After the Cultural Revolution, everybody is hating everybody. The relationships between people were so bad--distrust, more than that. If you talked to somebody who was not your close friend, he might turn you in to the government. So you cannot tell the truth to everybody." But the relationships he had with his close friends were intense, far stronger than the friendships he's seen here.
"I think generally Americans are very nice," says Wang. "They are very enthusiastic when they meet people--they always feel very high-spirited and meet people happily. But actually foreigners feel they cannot make a real good friend with an American. Not like in China, where people shared everything--happiness, sorrow, what kind of girlfriend, what kind of boyfriend you choose. Everyone has a couple of very close friends, and if you have some difficulties, if you ask them for help, they even want to die for you. But here everybody seems not very close, and people are very individual." Wang does have some American friends, but says, "We think we are pretty close, but actually not like Chinese friends. Privacy is respected by everyone here, and when we talk about something, you have to keep away from private things, so you cannot talk in depth."
Students may find it hard to adjust, says Li, but older mainland Chinese professionals who have come in the last few years often find it even harder. Most of them, for the first time in their lives, must search for a job themselves instead of simply accepting, however grudgingly, whatever the party assigns them. "Sometimes people in China are forced to accept the low salary," says Li, "forced to be controlled totally by the party--all these things are forced on them. In the Chinese system one is controlled, but in another sense one is protected also. In the American system one is free, but one has to take a lot of responsibilities and one has to worry a lot more about one's future."
And, Li says, the Chinese who struggle with English, who can't find jobs with the kind of prestige they had in China, often feel not only miserable but trapped, unable to return to China. "It's a kind of fashion now in China to get out, because people think there are a lot of opportunities outside of China. In frustration and desperation people like to dream, dream about the prosperity and freedom of the West, of the United States. So it's thought that those who are able should come out. And if someone came out and found it is not a place for himself, he would be unlikely to go back to China. One can go back, but they would not go back because there's pressure from their friends. They would be considered a fool, an impotent person, because they failed to get prosperous in a land full of opportunities and full of wealth. If he sticks to the United States, if he lingers on here, then nobody knows how well he does."
But why can't those who want to go back simply say they prefer to be with their families in their homeland? "When your friends in your so-called homeland are all looking for an opportunity to get out, how can you convince them that it's worthwhile to go home and stay home? No. They simply refuse to be convinced. There are a few people, very few people, who went back. Those were the really privileged, the children of cadres. They could do almost anything in China, and here they were really nobody. They went back and they took the attacks from their friends."
It's the beginning of May, and Sanyuan Li is striding into the radio station, headed for the box of tissues on his desk. His allergies have hit him early this year, even though he has been submitting to a series of painful shots to ward them off. He had wavered about getting the shots, not sure which would be worse--them or the hay fever. "Now it seems I must suffer both," he says dryly. He never had allergies in China. "Here there are more flowers and plants, I guess, or something foreign that I"--he blows his nose-- "haven't adjusted to. So that's one reason I should go back to China." He laughs.
Li isn't planning to go back anytime soon, however. "I know if I go back, they will throw me into prison--almost for sure. I don't know. The most terrible thing about the Chinese system is you don't know what will happen. People don't have any sense of security, they don't know where the line of the law lies." Yet he's added to his offenses by being so open about the station; most Chinese student activists prefer to work quietly, without bylines. "Probably I have burned my bridges to some extent," he admits. "I have attended a lot of prodemocracy meetings and demonstrations here. Since I have been exposed a lot, a little more exposure doesn't hurt."
Li doesn't believe that his dissidence has hurt his relatives back in China--a sister and his parents, who are retired and living on a pension. "They can't arrest them for what I am doing here," he says firmly. Yet just three months ago he discovered by accident, through another relative, that his parents have been asked to take all of his letters down to the security bureau. His family always wanted him to quit the station, and now they're happy that he has to.
Li, who's 34, grew up in Beijing, where both his parents worked as schoolteachers. When he graduated from high school, in 1975, he was sent to work in the country with the peasants, like others of his age. At the time, only those who were recommended by their party unit could go on to college, and Li wasn't. In 1977 that system was discarded and the old, fiercely competitive entrance exams were restored. As soon as he could, Li took the exams and was accepted at Beijing University in the English literature program.
He had started studying English when he was in high school. "I wanted to have some books to read. It was hard to find interesting books in Chinese for a while because of the censorship--even novels. So I thought if I could read a foreign language and if I could listen to the radio, then that would be a source of information--and it was harder for the authorities to censor. Then, because I studied a foreign language, it was easier for me to pass the entrance exams."
Li got his BA and then taught English at Qinghua University for a semester. He never joined a protest movement while he was in China. "I was only a potential troublemaker," he says, and laughs. Yet his interest in politics was growing; he applied to the new Institute of Political Science and got in. "At that time, not many Chinese had a political science education. We didn't have this for many years--we didn't have sociology for many years. They were banned as 'bourgeois disciplines' until about '78 or '79," he says sardonically. "So since I had studied literature and knew a little about society, and I had the advantage of being able to read the language--most of the textbooks and literature were in foreign languages--I had an edge over other people." He wound up doing research on the layers of bureaucracy in local governments and the relationships between those governments, the Communist Party, and the peasants. "We could do what we were interested in--basically we got a salary for doing what we liked." Yet after two and a half years at the institute he applied to the University of Chicago, where he knew he could learn things he couldn't in China. He was accepted as a graduate student in the political science department and given a full scholarship.
When Li arrived in Chicago in July 1985, he knew only one person. He was homesick for six months, but the intense pressure to keep up focused him--he would lose his scholarship if he didn't maintain a B+ average. And if he lost the scholarship, "I couldn't make it, because it was too expensive. I didn't have that much money." He was surprised at how ill prepared he was academically. "The strange thing is that Chinese students who study natural sciences, they come here and they find it easy--though they have a language problem. But those who study social sciences and the humanities, they find it very hard here. Here it's much more serious than the study in China. In China, because of the censorship, because of the domination of Marxism, not many schools of thought are allowed to be introduced, and there are not that many books for the students to read." (Later, Hui Yun Wang, who is also in the political science department at U. of C., takes up his point. "American students read the newspaper every day and have accumulated knowledge for more than ten years. We just began reading the New York Times. A lot of things we don't know--names of people, references to events and people in the past. Chinese students may know about Watergate, but very few details. They only know Nixon--they don't know his aides.") Li estimates that only about 10 percent of mainland Chinese students in Chicago are studying in social-science or humanities programs.
Asked if he has run into any prejudice against Chinese students, Li says, "Not that obvious, I should say. Here you are just nobody. Nobody really pays any attention to you--everybody is busy with their own work. Some professors have the concept that students from third-world countries are less established academically. Sometimes unconsciously they show that attitude. But it's not that bad. One just has to get adjusted to being nobody." He starts laughing. And was he somebody in Beijing? "At least I had a lot of friends and--" He pauses. "Yeah. I was somebody."
Li lived in International House for a year and a half and sometimes worked in the student-affairs office there. Later he took on a few part-time jobs: editing for Encyclopaedia Britannica, teaching Chinese for Berlitz, and translating and helping to make contacts for a Chicago company that wanted to start trading with China. One of his projects for them was trying to arrange the sale of a shut-down cement factory in California whose owners didn't want to renovate it.
Two years after he arrived here, Li met his wife, who was also a student at U. of C. "She changed from biology to psychology to education, because each time she believed she could do more for China by studying the other subject," Li says. She settled on education, and is now preparing her dissertation and working part-time as a consultant to Chicago's Board of Education. They have two little boys. His wife's 72-year-old aunt came here to help look after them, but at the beginning of May she took the children back to China. They will stay there, taken care of by their many relatives, until Li and his wife finish their dissertations--a fairly common practice among Chinese students in the U.S.
The birth of their children made Li and his wife change their plans about going back to China. "I want my kids to have an education here," Li says. "I want them to be Americans, because it seems to me that there is more freedom and prosperity in this country. And I want my kids to study natural sciences if they can do it, because it's easier for them to fit into the society, to be appreciated by the society. I was intending to go back and stay, and now I'll probably--I guess the ideal job would be doing teaching or research here in the United States for some time, and then from time to time being able to go back to do some teaching and research. I don't want to be based in China, because that's risky. Even if things change, it'll be shaky for a long time."
Li, who received his MA in political science in 1986, is still working on his dissertation proposal--the working title is "How Chinese Intellectuals Can Establish Some Counter Hegemony of Ideology in China." He says he will analyze how intellectuals have changed China and how they could fuse Western and Chinese ideas to create a system of values to fill the current vacuum. He'd like to interview as many of the dissident leaders now living in the United States as he can. He also plans to turn the final product into a book.
After he gets his degree, Li hopes to find a university teaching job that combines his specialties--political theory and Chinese politics. "I want to create, I want to write, and I want to be one of the leading scholars in China--maybe in the United States also. Because few people can think about this country the way I do--because they have too much background in Western culture, they don't have a background in a struggling place like China, so they do not see things that I can see sometimes." He has every intention of helping to shape China's future, though it's hard to see him content trying to do that as a bookish scholar.
Li is particularly dismayed that so many people in China seem to see the American system as the perfect model. "They imagine all the good things are here, and they won't believe that there are bad things," he says. "There are fundamental wrongs in this system, in the theory and also in the attitudes. When capitalism and American society are exerting more and more influence on Chinese society and the socialist system, it becomes more and more important for someone to point out the weaknesses and wrongs of this American system so China does not make the same mistakes." He can list the problems as well as any American: crime, poor education, pollution, corruption, an obsession with material things. Of course China has its own variations on all of these, and Li is quick to say that when it comes to being materialistic the Chinese tend to be even worse. Yet he would rather China didn't appropriate new troubles.
He was shocked, for example, when he sat in on U. of C. law classes, that the professors seemed to be teaching their students not how to further the cause of justice but how to find loopholes in the law. Li has his own experiences to support his contemptuous assessment of Chicago's court system. First there was the drunk who hit his car head-on. "He didn't have a job, he didn't have insurance, and no lawyer would accept my case. Then I filed a suit against him on my own in the small-claims court. I showed them a picture of my wrecked car. I showed them the record of the junkyard disposing of my car. The judge was not satisfied. He said, 'In this country, you have to bring in an expert to give me his evaluation of the loss of your car.'" A lawyer he talked to said that would probably cost $300 to $500, which he didn't have.
"I didn't file the lawsuit to get money out of the drunk, because most likely he didn't have it," says Li. "I filed to get some justice--he should be punished. If I don't file the lawsuit, he's not punished at all. I told the judge, 'Next time it may be you who gets hit by a drunk.'" Li laughs. "He asked me to be removed from the court."
And then there was the time Li caught a man trying to steal his bike out of his car in Hyde Park. "We got into a discussion, and the police pulled over and asked what happened. I told the police he was trying to steal the bike. He denied it. The police asked me if I would like to file a complaint. I said yes. Then the police tried to handcuff him, and he wrestled a little bit with the police and ran away. I tried to chase him--the police were too fat," he says, laughing. Li's nearly six foot three, weighs 190 pounds, and did the pentathlon for Beijing University's track team.
"Fortunately there were some police patrolling close by, and the area was surrounded. I and the police had to do a lot of paperwork to send him to the station--and they released him a half day after he paid a bond of $50. I and the police showed up in court, and the thief didn't show up. And the judge dismissed his case. The police didn't say that he resisted arrest, just the attempted theft of the bike. Now anybody here in this situation--poor, without a job, but very strong and healthy physically--will of course do nothing but steal. And few people are as foolish as me to chase him. In the meantime, the police and I are spending time with this stupid court system--one and one-half days."
Li seems to have a natural bent toward politics, but Hui Yun Wang was reluctantly drawn in. When the Cultural Revolution closed China's schools in 1966, he had just finished fourth grade. Two years later, when Mao Tse-tung decided young people should return to school and study revolution, Wang was assigned to a middle school. But in his first year back, he was accused of being a counterrevolutionary after he said that his fellow students should not beat their teachers and that they should respect traditional history and culture--a respect he had been taught by his mother and by the many classic Chinese books he'd borrowed from a neighbor educated in the U.S. in the 1920s. Tormented by the other students, Wang nearly committed suicide, but he refused to disown his opinions. The next year, when he was only 14, he had the distinction of becoming one of China's youngest political prisoners. For having raised such a child and for refusing to denounce him, his mother was sentenced to ten years in another prison. His father, a mason, had been living far from his family because he had to stay with his work unit, so he was not accused of contributing to Wang's depravity. Wang was detained in prison for almost a year without trial and then sent to a prison labor camp, where the only things he was allowed to read were Mao's thoughts.
He was nearly 18 when he was released and sent back to Beijing. He had never recanted his statements. "I thought what I had done was right," he says simply. The party officials said they were being lenient with him because he was young and potentially reformable, and they set his neighborhood party committee to watch him. "That meant I was just transferred from a small prison to a big prison," he says. For a while he had to report daily everything he had done, and sometimes a member of the committee would burst into his room and ask what he was doing. He was not allowed to go back to school and had to support himself with odd jobs he picked up, mostly carpenter's work. At night he spent hours reading everything he could persuade friends to borrow for him from the university libraries. To discipline himself, he also memorized classical Chinese poetry, and says he can still remember more than a hundred poems. In 1975 he began teaching himself English from books and by listening to VOA.
When the competitive university entrance exams were reinstated in 1977, he took them and scored high. But no university would accept him. He took the tests again the next year, and again no one wanted him. Finally someone from one of the universities explained that no one would dare admit him as long as his record stated that he had been a counterrevolutionary, and suggested he try to get his case redressed.
Wang went back to his old school and to the old party officials. Six months later they acknowledged that he had been unjustly imprisoned but said, "We can do nothing to compensate for the ten years. People like you are just thousands upon thousands." They said they destroyed his record, though Wang doubts they really did, and put a new one in its place stating that he had been accused of being a counterrevolutionary but had actually been a "good comrade."
Even then only the Beijing Second College of Foreign Languages agreed to take him, and he says it was only because his English was good. He was 24 when he walked into his first class since going to prison. Because the mood of the country had changed, he was soon something of a hero and was asked to join the Communist Party. He laughs and says in his quiet voice that the party secretary told him, "Right now you are a hero. During the Cultural Revolution you suffered for ten years, but you didn't change your ideas. You insisted on what was the correct thing. So we think you are a good comrade." He laughs again. "But I said, 'I don't want to join the party. I'm not a good comrade.'"
He was in the English program at the college for the first year and a half, then switched to tourism management. He wasn't particularly interested in business; history or literature would have made him much happier. But, he says, "I wanted a good job. At that time my family was very poor, and I couldn't afford any books. My mother had just come back from prison, and my brother had no job." Yet by the time he graduated, his family was working again. He took the entrance exams for Beijing University and was accepted in the master's program in its Institute of South Asian Studies, where he focused on Buddhism and Indian religious philosophy. He graduated three years later, and the party assigned him to a faculty post at the institute. But such teaching jobs brought little respect and even less pay: 80 percent of his salary would have gone for food, and he would have had to share a small dorm room with two other teachers. There would have been no way he could even think about getting married or starting a family. He applied to Purdue University and was accepted into its master's program in history on a full scholarship.
In the years after he left prison, he had kept quiet about politics. During the brief Democracy Wall movement in 1978 and '79, he went almost daily to read the posters calling for reforms that activists hung near Tiananmen Square, but he didn't join the protests. "I didn't do anything so that they couldn't trap me. I know the Chinese government is very, very changeable. Something like the weather in Chicago," he says, one corner of his mouth lifting. "You cannot predict it. Maybe right now you follow them, and maybe the next day you become the enemy of the government. To keep your distance from them is the best policy. So when I was in China, I just concentrated myself on learning everything I wanted. I kept away from politics, but actually I was still interested."
Even after he came to the United States in 1985 he kept his opinions to himself. He finished his master's in Sino-American diplomatic relations in two years and then transferred, again on scholarship, to the University of Chicago to work on a doctorate in comparative politics. He concentrated on his class work, on publishing numerous articles in scholarly journals, and on the odd jobs he picked up as a translator and research assistant.
But the '89 Tiananmen Square massacre drove him to speak out. "I thought this government really lost legitimacy in the view of the whole country, all of China. And I thought finally it will be overthrown by the people. Seeing the government that killed its own people, I thought I should speak of what I wanted."
His parents, who have been staying with him since last fall and will probably go back to China in a few months, have no idea that he was a founder and the editor in chief of the Voice of June Fourth. "I just told them I was working at a radio station," he says. "They don't know what kind of radio station." They seldom talk about politics, and he doesn't want to worry them. His wife, whom he met at Purdue, agreed from the beginning with his decision to work at the station. She is still at Purdue, where she has nearly finished her doctorate in pharmacy--they have been living apart for three years, one of them driving the 250-mile round trip every weekend. Luckily Wang enjoys driving; like most mainland Chinese, he never had a chance to drive in China.
Wang, who's 36, may not have been as visible as Sanyuan Li in the running of the radio station, but it would be just as dangerous for him to return to China now. Still, he intends to go back to live, though he may have to wait five or ten years. He has finished the course work for his doctorate and has turned in a proposal for his thesis, which will analyze current issues in India and China and how their traditions could be adapted for the modern world. He says that when he eventually goes back to China, probably to a university teaching job, he wants to help restore the best of China's own traditions. "Actually," he says, "I don't like politics. But I think it's the kind of work I should do. I should use this agency to transfer my ideas to the Chinese people. As Gandhi said, politics should be moralized."
When he finishes his dissertation, Wang hopes to find a teaching position here. Then he wants to write a book on his life in China and a history of the radio station. And he hopes to find time to write poetry again. He says he doesn't much care about making money or gaining prestige here, and he doesn't at all care for the intense pace of American life. "In some non-Western countries, people can control themselves," he says softly. "But in modernized countries, people are controlled by machines, by the society--you've lost yourselves."
In March, the staff of the Voice of June Fourth knew their major funders were cutting them off. The funders had asked them not to disclose their identities, but it was widely believed among Chinese exiles that a large portion of the funding came from the Taiwanese government--causing some carping among exiles who thought government money could compromise the station's independence. Of course the station had many donors, though few in this country and only a couple in Chicago. One man in Hong Kong even worked a second job to be able to send $500 a month. But the smaller donations weren't enough to keep the station going.
After the initial push to find funders, which Sanyuan Li managed quite successfully, the staff stopped selling the station aggressively to potential new funders, though they continued to run ads in Chinese newspapers. "If we had tried harder, we could have hired professional fund-raisers," says Li. "But we had enough support, so we didn't put our energy into that."
They also never pushed very hard for publicity. The mainstream American media, which tend to remember the Chinese community in this country only when a huge murder story or gambling scandal breaks, never followed up on their early stories about the station. They gave far more attention to the Goddess of Democracy ship, which never succeeded in broadcasting a single program and is now docked in a Taiwan harbor, the site of an exhibit of mainland Chinese art.
Why the major funders withdrew was never made very clear to me, though Li speculated about it briefly. "Because, I guess, people are now forgetting about what happened in Tiananmen Square. Or maybe they think that China is not going to change overnight, so they would rather draw back a little bit and see what happens, instead of trying to support some so-called radical project like ours." He added, adamantly, "This is not radical. We are not involved in any sort of violence--we advocate a dissident movement without any violence."
Li suggested a few other reasons for the cutoff. "Those who are supporting us cannot really hear the program themselves, so there is a lack of feedback. If it's a newspaper, then people can read what they are funding, and they will be encouraged if there are stories they care about. But if it's a radio station being beamed to mainland China and the supporters never go to mainland China, then they lose sight of what we are doing." The staff never could say how many people they reached--though VOA doesn't know how many people it reaches either.
The Washington, D.C., branch of the Chinese Alliance for Democracy, a large international organization with far better access to funding, agreed to try to take over the station's operations. But finding enough money to sustain a high-quality operation may be difficult. Li points out that though $10,000 a month may seem a large budget, it covered rent, a huge phone bill, salaries for six people, subscriptions and postage from Taiwan and Hong Kong, and numerous machines that were expensive to buy and repair. One group that had wanted to take over the station told Li they'd lined up people who were happy to volunteer. "I said that I appreciated their enthusiasm, but I would advise them to find funding sources so they could pay people to work instead of depending on people to volunteer their time."
Everyone at the station knew it couldn't last forever, though Li had hoped for three to five years. Both Li and Wang say they've learned things they couldn't have learned anywhere else, including things that surprised them. "I have contacted a lot of prodemocracy people in the United States," says Li, "and I've really observed them--how they think, how they act. Also I have developed more interest in studying political science and politics. And somehow I have developed the belief that if I try hard, if I study hard, I should be able to contribute something to the theory about the transition from authoritarianism to democracy.
"Also I have done some real work on administration, how to manage an organization in the United States. It's a lot harder than if this organization were owned by me. Here the authority lies at some very subtle place. On the one hand, I have to take the responsibility, I have to contact different people to be responsible for the work of this organization. But on the other hand, nothing really is mine. I cannot give orders to people, I have to try to coordinate, try to persuade. It's hard work, but hard work sometimes teaches people more."
None of them is happy that it's over, and all are frustrated that it may be a long time before anyone else manages to broadcast the same kind of information. Representative John Porter, of Winnetka, recently proposed that Congress create a Radio Free China, which would have a far freer hand than VOA, but a bill is not likely to be voted on until next year at the earliest.
Xin Ren is now looking for a job where he can use his chemistry background, Xiao Yi wants to open a shop, and Li and Wang are impatient to get on with their dissertations. "We played well," says Li. "We reached a lot of people in China. And now we face the end." He laughs. "So let's face it." It's classic stiff-upper-lip nonchalance.
When I go to the station the last time, late one afternoon in early May, Sanyuan Li and Hui Yun Wang are pulling books from the shelves, trying to remember who owns which. The kettle is whistling on the stove, and Xin Ren, who's making himself a cup of tea, is singing cheerfully in his clear tenor. Xiao Yi is sorting through files, invoices, and check stubs and packing them into a box. Li leaves with a stack of books and eventually comes back with an empty suitcase. All records and videotape copies of the programs will go to his apartment.
Two men and a woman from the Washington branch of the Chinese Alliance for Democracy arrived a few days ago to learn how to use the recording equipment and transport it back east. The woman and one of the men are in the recording studio, and their voices occasionally rise above the faint sound of an old program they're listening to. Around five o'clock Wang leaves for an appointment, and Yi and Ren head home. Li walks down the hallway to the studio to ask if the man and the woman want to go out for dinner. They say yes, and Li and I go to pick up his wife at their apartment across the street.
As Li drives us up to Chinatown, he tells the somber story of a blind student who described his life in China and the U.S. in an article in a Chinese journal that Wang adapted for one of the station's programs. Li is still spinning out the details when we turn off Lake Shore Drive onto the 23rd Street viaduct, and his wife complains that he's taking too long to tell the story. "Because I have to drive at the same time," he explains, and then laughs. "If I drive like crazy and tell a good story, you wouldn't enjoy it as much." Everyone laughs.
Li parks in a lot north of Cermak, then lopes across the street ahead of the others. He strides down Wentworth past the Chinatown archway, with its banner declaring Chinatown's support of the Desert Storm troops, and ducks into a small store, hoping to find the current edition of a Hong Kong magazine. The shop doesn't have it.
We walk down a few doors and upstairs to a Shanghai-style restaurant, where we settle around a large table. Li's wife--a small, delicate woman whose English is quick and precise--takes out of her purse a small plastic case that holds pictures of her two sons and sets it up on the table in front of her.
The conversation quickly shifts from English to easy, fluid Mandarin. Occasionally Li turns to me and translates. Once he says they're talking about what it means to be the older or the younger sibling in a family--the man from Washington was a psychiatrist in China. Another time Li says, "You know, my wife was in prison for nine months when she was 19." He says she rarely tells anyone, but that when dissidents get together the subject comes up.
In the car on the way back to Hyde Park, I ask who has the harder time adjusting to life in America, men or women? They assume I mean financially, and talk back and forth about who gets more aid and who gets better jobs. The consensus seems to be that women have it harder. But what about adjusting socially, culturally? I ask. Men have it harder, says Li. Women, says his wife. We all laugh.
One week later the people from Washington have left. Li had expected anyone the alliance sent to stay a month, but the people who came hadn't been particularly sure they wanted to run the station. They rented a truck, loaded up the desks, the bookcases, the file cabinets, the photocopier, and all the recording equipment, and headed off to Washington. On the way they stopped at the New Jersey office of the Chinese Alliance for Democracy, one of the branches that originally wanted to take over the station. Apparently everyone agreed that it was better to leave the equipment there, and they unloaded it into a warehouse. That was in mid-May. The last Li heard, it was still there.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.