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.