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Chinese crackdown nets multimillionaire activist

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By The Washington Post
Friday, Sept. 13, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

BEIJING — Last month, Chinese police invited Wang Gongquan in for a “cup of tea,” often a prelude here to detention. He had introduced 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 been cracking down 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.”

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.

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