BEIJING — Last month, Chinese police invited Wang Gongquan in for a “cup of tea,” often a prelude here to detention. He had launched a public petition calling for the release of arrested dissident Xu Zhiyong, and the authorities were not amused. But Wang effectively told the police to forget it — he had no time for tea, he was traveling, and he had said everything he wanted to say.
Wang figured he could get away with defying the Chinese government. He was a respected businessman, a multimillionaire who had made a fortune in real estate and in Silicon Valley. He was a social media sensation, and he had been careful, as he saw it, not to break any laws. But he knew he was taking a chance.
On Friday, the police came for him.
More than 20 police officers arrived at Wang’s house at 11:30 a.m. with a warrant accusing him of “organizing a mob to disturb public order.” He was led off to criminal detention as his wife looked on, she later told fellow activist and columnist Chen Min. The police searched his house for two hours and seized his computer, according to Chen, who had co-written the petition.
Since Xi Jinping took over as president in March, China has launched a crackdown on political activists and critics, whether they have been organizing street protests or merely commenting online. Wang, as one of a small band of Chinese entrepreneurs calling for political reform and a leading member of a new group campaigning for citizens’ rights, knew he was sailing close to the wind.
“It is people’s natural instinct to pursue freedom, but you have to decide how big a price you are prepared to pay for it,” he said during a series of interviews over the past two months.
Wang, 51, says he is not like other businessmen: Instead of spending time at banquets, on yachts or playing golf, he reads books. He says he has missed many business opportunities because he was not prepared to “collude with power.”
But in July, he went a step further, setting himself up in what he calls “constructive opposition” to China’s political system. In their petition for Xu’s release, Wang and Chen vowed never to “yield in the face of despotic power.”
“We believe we stand on the right side of history,” they wrote. “There is no amount of intimidation or bribery that can divide us.”
Usually dressed in a Chinese silk shirt, with rimless spectacles and a Tissot watch, Wang cuts an elegant figure. Lining his office in Beijing’s central business district are shelves of books he has commissioned or published to preserve the poetry of the turbulent period between the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1912 and the advent of communist rule in 1949, a cultural era long neglected for political reasons.
As a promising engineering student in the early 1980s, Wang was recruited by the Communist Party and later served in the propaganda department of the Jilin provincial government. But he became disillusioned, he said, after studying the history of the global communist movement and being granted access to books banned for ordinary citizens. After the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, he was detained for six months, because, he said, some of his friends had taken part in the demonstrations.
On his release, Wang made his fortune, first by investing in real estate on the island of Hainan off southern China in the 1990s, then by investing in Silicon Valley during the dot.com boom later that decade. In 2004, he became a Buddhist and finally quit the Communist Party, an atheist organization.
But in 2011, Wang became the most talked-about man in the country, when he announced on his Weibo social media account that he was leaving his wife and eloping with his mistress. “I can’t explain to you guys and I am ashamed. So I leave without saying goodbye,” he wrote. “I kowtow for forgiveness!” The post went viral, reposted more than 70,000 times.
Ashamed or not, Wang later posted a video of himself standing in front of a lake singing a self-penned ode to his mistress that professed “a heart longing for love.” Nicknamed the “Emperor of Elopement,” Wang quit the venture-capital firm he had founded and spent a year as a visiting scholar at Columbia University, where he says he studied civil society, democratic transformations around the world and the supervision of public finances.
Even before that, however, Wang had emerged as a human rights advocate in China, protesting earlier in 2011 outside one of the secretive “black jails” where petitioners who bring grievances to the central government are often locked up because their complaints embarrass those in power. More recently, he has become a leading member of Xu’s New Citizens Movement, a social campaign to promote civil society, the rule of law and limits on the unbridled power of Communist Party officials.
This year, members angered authorities by unfurling banners in Beijing demanding that officials publicly declare their assets. More than a dozen were later arrested or detained, including Xu and now Wang, although neither took part in the protests.
Business leaders and activists said the detention of someone as respected as Wang would send a chill throughout their ranks.
“It’s a very serious warning for everyone,” said Chen, better known by his pen name, Xiao Shu. “I am prepared for the worst.”
Everyone is scared, said a businessman who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “It seems we are no longer allowed speak out, or care about the country anymore,” he said.
With corruption rampant, inequality growing and the environment devastated, Wang says, citizens and entrepreneurs need to join together to push for change, or the country risks a social explosion. Like many of his peers, Wang says China needs a judiciary that is independent of the Communist Party, stronger property rights and economic growth that is less reliant on state-directed investment.
His father recently warned him over dinner not to put himself in jeopardy by opposing the government, he said in one interview; a longtime friend broke with him for the same reason. He had already steeled himself for his possible arrest but insisted he had no regrets.
“In China, we are at a moment when the old ruling system of the party and traditional value systems are changing and under reconstruction,” he said. “A new era is coming.”
Wang said he had refused to have tea with the police because they would not say whom he would be meeting with. “To be frank, I also wanted to conduct a small experiment,” he said. “I wanted to test if they came to me just to talk or if they want to pursue me. It seems they don’t mean to arrest me yet.”
Last Saturday, he attended his daughter’s wedding in Zhejiang province, and his last toast was “to love the motherland and obey your conscience,” according to a fellow guest.
Less than a week later, Wang was behind bars.
Zhang Jie contributed to this report.
Wang Gongquan, 51, is one of the most prominent Chinese entrepreneurs to call for political reform and a leading member of a new group campaigning for citizen’s rights. He was escorted from his home in the Chinese capital by about 20 police officers just before noon, according to a fellow activist who spoke to his wife, and taken to the same detention center where another prominent activist, Xu Zhiyong, is being held, according to Xu’s lawyer said.
The summons warrant, a copy of which was seen by The Washington Post, accused Wang of “organizing a mob to disturb public order." Under Chinese law, he can be held for up to 37 days without being formally charged.
Wang’s house was searched for approximately two hours and his computer seized, said fellow activist and columnist Chen Min, best known by his pen name Xiao Shu. The pair had drafted a petition in July calling for Xu’s release. In the petition, they vowed never to “yield in the face of despotic power.”
Wang, Chen and Xu are members of the New Citizens Movement, a social campaign that aims to promote civil society, the rule of law and limits to the unbridled power of Communist Party officials.
Earlier this year, members of the group angered authorities by unfurling banners in Beijing demanding that officials publicly declare their assets. More than a dozen members were arrested or detained. The U.S. government has added Xu to a list of seven dissidents whose cases it has raised with the Chinese authorities.
Chen said the interrogation of Wang was part of a dual crackdown on both the New Citizens Movement and on opinion leaders who have used social media to criticize the government.
“The government is launching a boxing combination to punish people who dare to challenge its authority in the public,” Chen said. “It’s a very serious warning for everyone. I am prepared for the worst.”
As a promising engineering student in the early 1980s, Wang was recruited by the Communist Party and subsequently served in the propaganda department of the Jilin provincial government. But he became disillusioned after studying the history of the global communist movement and being granted access to books banned for ordinary citizens. After the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, he was detained by the authorities for six months because, he says, some of his friends had taken part in the demonstrations.
After his release, Wang got revenge by making his fortune, first by investing in real estate on the island of Hainan off southern China in the 1990s and then by investing in California’s Silicon Valley during the dot.com boom later that decade.
In 2004, he became a Buddhist and finally quit the Communist Party, an atheist organization that says its members should not follow any religion.
In 2002, Wang was one of the founders of CDH Investments, which has billions of dollars invested in private equity, venture capital and real estate. He quit the firm after publicly eloping with his mistress in 2011.
Another prominent businessman, 60-year-old Chinese American Charles Xue, was also detained last month and accused of soliciting a prostitute. Xue has about 12 million followers on Sina Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, and was a leading liberal voice on the Internet. As part of a new campaign against online “rumor mongers,” the country’s Supreme Court on Monday issued a ruling threatening anyone who posted libelous material on the Internet with up to three years imprisonment, especially if their posts were clicked on more than 5,000 times or re-posted more than 500 times.
On Friday, the nonprofit Human Rights Watch called that ruling a direct assault on the relative freedoms of expression generated by social media. “The government claims these new penalties focus only on malicious and libelous content, but critics of the government and whistleblowers are the real target,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch.
Under Chinese law, Wang can be held for up to 24 hours for questioning, although he may be officially detained for a longer period if police deem it necessary, said Zhang Qingfang, who is Xu Zhiyong’s lawyer. “There is still hope that Wang Gongquan will be released later,” he said. “I don't want to believe that they are that crazy.”
Wang had earlier told The Post that police had called him in “for a cup of tea” and a chat in July, but he had declined to attend, pleading prior travel plans and maintaining that his petition spoke for itself.
“To be frank, I also want to conduct a small experiment,” he said at the time. “I want to test if they come to me just to talk, or if they want to pursue me. It seems they don’t mean to arrest me yet.”
Zhang Jie contributed to this report.