Friday February 8, 2002
It is 20 years since Wang Ruoshui, who has died aged 75 of lung cancer,
wrote his first warning to the Communist party of China, but it remains as
apposite as ever: "Once a party which was formerly oppressed comes into
power, its position is changed," he noted in his essay, On Alienation, in
May 1981. "There is a danger it will cut itself off from the masses and
become alienated. This problem exists at all levels of our leadership, and
has not yet been solved."
At the time a senior editor at the People's Daily, Wang belonged to a
small group of Marxist intellectuals who were trying to work out what had
gone wrong in the Mao Zedong era, and specifically with Mao himself. Wang
suggested that the worship of Mao was itself a form of alienation, comparing
it with mankind's attribution of its own wisdom to God. It was the people,
not Mao, who should be regarded as the life-giving sun, and the people, not
the party, who should be seen as the mother of the nation.
Wang and other reformist intellectuals received guarded support from the
late Deng Xiaoping, who was trying himself to liquidate the legacy of Mao.
They were encouraged more warmly by Hu Yaobang, Deng's second-in-command,
who said that Marxism could no longer solve all of China's problems.
However, the attempt to humanise the party and its politics foundered in
1987 when Deng, egged on by ageing reactionaries, sacked Hu for failing to
curb student protest.
Wang had already lost his post at the paper during an earlier campaign in
1983 against "spiritual pollution". In what became known as the "incident of
the five gentlemen", he and four other prominent reformers now received a
warning to keep quiet, and were dismissed from the party.
Born in Changde, in the southern province of Hunan, Wang attended Peking
University before joining the People's Daily in 1950. As a budding
journalist, he had identified himself wholeheartedly with the cause of
H e used to receive late-night phone calls from the chairman himself to
discuss a new editorial in the party newspaper. He would later say he was a
"true believer". The experience made him perhaps China's most acute observer
of the psychological warping of intellectual independence under an
In 1989, while the students were massing in Tiananmen Square, Wang told a
seminar in the United States that, under Mao, the intellectuals had
developed "a sense of original sin", collaborating in their own destruction.
During the repression that followed the Beijing masssacre, he brushed off
his friends' fears and returned home. He spent the last decade living in the
People's Daily compound, unable to publish at home, although not banned from
In 1995, he signed a petition published by the US-based Human Rights in
China (his name appeared on their board) calling for "the realisation of
tolerance in China" and a fresh verdict on the events of 1989. He sometimes
offered foreign journalists his own wry comments on progress under Deng's
successor Jiang Zemin. On the party campaign, which involved lecturing
officials on the evils of corruption, he observed that it was "music to the
ears of the corrupt... Go to a few lectures and cure themselves. It's a lot
better than jail."
Wang died in the US, where he had accompanied his wife on her fellowship
at Harvard. Unusually, the People's Daily published a brief note of
condolences. Perhaps they respected him for his rare quality: he was a
Marxist humanist who never gave up hope. "There is a ghost haunting the vast
expanse of China," he had written in an essay that got him into trouble in
1983. "'Who are you?' 'I am humanity.'"
·Wang Ruoshui, journalist, born 1926; died January 10 2002.