WITH THE release last week of astrophysicist Fang Lizhi from confinement in the American embassy in Beijing, two of the original triumverate of renowned intellectuals who were pilloried in 1987 as "bourgeois liberalizers" and expelled from the party after the first wave of democracy demonstrations, are now safely out of China. Writer Liu Binyan found refuge in Cambridge, Mass., at Harvard in 1988; Fang Lizhi has found sanctuary in Cambridge, England, at King's College. Now only their 73-year-old colleague, Shanghai writer Wang Ruowang, remains in China and under detention.

That the plight of so prominent a writer as Wang Ruowang has gone unnoticed in the West for so long reminds us of the Chinese government's success in keeping most of its victims both nameless and faceless before the outside world. Wang's tale serves as an emblem for all those who remain incarcerated and for the human rights abuses that continue in China on a monumental scale.

Wang Ruowang has been well acquainted with prison throughout his life-time. In 1933, at age 16, he was sentenced to 10 years by the Nationalists for a sarcastic article criticizing Chiang Kai-shek for having capitulated to the Japanese in Manchuria. He was released 3 1/2 years later and joined Mao's forces in order, as he put it, "to fight evil, autocracy and oppression." After Mao came to power, Wang assaulted these same evils and earned the wrath of the communists as well. In the Anti-Rightist Campaign of 1957, a movement led by Deng Xiaoping that saw more than half a million Chinese intellectuals brutally persecuted, Wang was attacked as a "reactionary" and a "rightist," fired from his job, expelled from the party, separated from his family and sent to do forced labor in the countryside. Wang's wife, Li Ming, terrified and finally stripped of her own job when she refused to denounce her husband, suffered a nervous breakdown in Shanghai. Frantic at being unable to help either her or his children from his place of exile, he was later to write:

"I would break out in a cold sweat, and my breathing would become strained. Once I was even unable to restrain myself and I found myself running off westward down the road. But after only a few steps I became suddenly exhausted. . . . 'Take it easy, Wang Ruowang,' I told myself. 'What is important now is that you don't lose your mind too. You must somehow keep going for Li Ming and your children.' And then, I remembered that I was there in the countryside to do 'penal labor under the surveillance of the masses' and that trying to leave without permission could only call forth new persecutions. So, dragging my weary feet, I slowly walked back."

Rehabilitated in 1960, Wang was reunited with his family. But in 1962 the party struck again. Criticizing a piece of fiction he had written satirizing collectivization, Wang was again accused of being a "rightist," and once more his life was overturned.

"I myself became utterly helpless, unable to do anything but to try and rally from my misery and despair and somehow accept this new calamity from heaven," Wang later recalled. And, for his wife, his latest downfall was "like a dagger thrust deep into her heart. . . . Even now when I recall her voice crying out as mechanically as a recorded message. 'It is finished! It is finished!' I recognize it as the cry of utterly helpless indignation; the cry of someone wrestling with madness induced by persecution; the cry of someone who welcomes death."

In one of her last lucid moments, his wife begged him for the sake of the family never to write again. She died shortly thereafter. But for Wang, the worst was yet to come. In 1966, the Cultural Revolution broke out and he was again attacked for his writing and thrown into jail, this time for six more years.

"There I tasted fascist brutality and cruelty first hand," he recalled. "Several of my cell mates were so old and weak that they were finally unable to endure the persecution and died. In fact, one of them passed away right in my arms, nearly breaking my heart, and I swore in the name of those who died that if I ever got out alive, I would struggle for the rest of my life against such injustices, inhumanity and fake Marxist-Leninist doctrine."

In 1979, Wang was once again rehabilitated and even had his party membership restored. In spite of his wife's plea of years before, he made good his prison oath and began to write again.

"Li Ming, forever gone? Your life was given in sacrifice for my scribblings. My dying a hundred times over could never atone for the sense of regret I bear now in my winter years. Unable to comply with your final plea, I have again taken up my pen for the sake of the children. . . . Perhaps this pen of mine can make a contribution yet!" His contributions were to write about government corruption and the incompleteness of Deng Xiaoping's vaunted reforms. The result was that in 1987, Wang, along with Fang Lizhi and Liu Binyan, again came under attack.

"During my life I have never surrendered or bowed my head to anyone, whether in a Nationalist prison or a Gang of Four jail," he later told an interviewer. "If someone is autocratic, deceitful or unjust, then without inquiring how high that person's position is, or how famous he is, I begin to boil uncontrollably with rage. . . caring nothing for my personal safety. Toward such negative forces and people I am willing enough to have it said that I have 'hard bones.' To submit to humiliation, to bow my head or bend my back before such indignities, is just not part of my moral character."

In spite of his politically delicate position, Wang's "moral character" compelled him onto the political stage again in the spring of 1989. When students in Shanghai marched for freedom of expression and democracy, he joined them. The last photo that we have of him before he disappeared show an elderly, white-haired man marching in front of a student banner, with an expression not of defiance but of almost dream-like resignation. Across his chest he wore a broad white sash inscribed boldly with his name, and the characters, "Hearts as hard as steel and stone can only make one sigh and lament," a thinly veiled reference to the Chinese government's hardline position against the students.

After the Tiananmen Square massacre, Wang is said to have gone into hiding. Accused of listening to the Voice of America and of spreading "rumors" based on these broadcasts, of making counter-revolutionary speeches and of supporting student hunger strikers, he is reported to have turned himself in last September to face his accusers. But even though no formal charges against him have been announced, and even though he is known to be in poor health, Wang remains in detention, purportedly under "investigation."

Wang has been no less courageous than Fang Lizhi or Liu Binyan and no less worthy of international adulation and help. In the future his name may even enter the pantheon of such dissidents as Sakharov, Mandela, Solzhenitsyn, Havel, Timmerman and Michnik. But for the moment, he along with thousands of other Chinese is forgotten and without his freedom. We can only hope that now the international community, with our own government in the lead, will turn its attention to men like Wang, who are now not able even to "sigh and lament" in public at their government's obduracy in the face of freedom of expression.

Orville Schell, a long-time China observer, is the author most recently of "Discos and Democracy: China in the Throes of Reform."