Yu Dahai (David Yu)

Yu Dahai (David Yu)

Born 1961 in Tianjin, where he also attended elementary and secondary school. In 1978 he received an award in the national mathematics competition which allowed him to enter the Physics Department of Peking University at the age of 17 without having to pass the regular entry exams. Also in 1978 Yu Dahai met some activists of the Democracy Wall Movement, in 1980 he decided to participate in the Peking University election campaign to run - unsuccessfully - for a seat in the Haidian District People's Congress. After his graduation from the Physics Department in 1982, he was accepted for advanced studies in physics at Pennsylvania University, but later moved to Princeton University to obtain a PhD degree in economics. In 1985 Yu Dahai founded the Chinese Economists' Association in New York, and also became its first president. Yu also held several teaching and research posts in the United States.

From 1991 onwards he became chairman of the "Chinese Alliance for Democracy" and chief editor of the journals "China Spring" and "Beijing Spring", the main publications of the Chinese Democracy Movement in exile. More recently Yu Dahai has been involved with various business activities in the private sector.

Interview with Yu Dahai (on May 29, 2014 at the Asiatic Hotel in Flushing, New York)

Yu Dahai: I came to Beida [Peking University] in October 1978 from Tianjin when I was 17 years old. A little over a month after I got to Beijing, the so-called April 5th Movement of 1976 was re-evaluated by the Chinese Communist Party and was now said to have been a patriotic movement against the Gang of Four. Almost immediately after that happened, many big character wall posters appeared in many places of Beijing, especially along a small wall at Xidan [a main intersection of Beijing].

I was intrigued by what was going on, so I went to Xidan many times just to read the posters and draw inspirations and energy from the crowd, I found the ideas expressed there very refreshing and I agreed with many of them, the basic ideas being that China needed a dose of democracy, broader political participation, a concept of human rights, a redressing of Mao and the Cultural Revolution, and also changes in other policies including economy and education. […]

There were some scenes I remember vividly, including a demonstration or parade in Tiananmen Square on New Year's Day 1979. I also got to meet some of the activists, including someone at Beida named Xia Xunjian, and also Wang Juntao, a fellow Beida student who lived in the next building to ours. I learned a lot and found the ideas very agreeable, and that paved the way for my own participation in later activities.

Interviewer (Helmut Opletal): What was your family background, what happened to your family during the Cultural Revolution? How much did this influence you? What for example did you think about Mao Zedong at that time?

Yu: My family background is a very simple and apolitical one. My father was an engineer. Throughout his work life, and that includes the Cultural Revolution, he designed and built machines. My mother was a factory worker, she was not involved much in political things either. During the Cultural Revolution my family was not affected too much. But during the Cultural Revolution and the other years, China was so highly politicized that you really could not avoid things political. And as a youngster who was curious about a lot of things, I got drawn into trying to understand what was going on politically in the society. I read a lot of newspaper articles and tried to figure out what was going on.

I have to say I did not like what I saw, and some of the policies in the later years of Mao looked absurd to me, for example his campaign against Confucius who had died something like 2500 years ago. I also found very strange this campaign against a novel called "Shui Hu Zhuan" ["Water Margin" or "Outlaws of the March", one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature], I found that absurd because I liked that novel a lot.

So all in all I don’t think I had a very positive impression of Mao. Probably that was not that unusual, even though it sounded unusual, because everybody worshipped Mao as a kind of a god. But I did not have that kind of feeling at all, but had a much more favorable feeling towards [Prime Minister] Zhou Enlai who died in the same year as Mao. When he died I really felt some loss, but when Mao died, all I can say is that I felt relief and hope that better things would come afterwards.

Interviewer: We are approaching the Beida elections. How did you get involved in the elections, how were your discussions with collegues and superiors at that time?

Yu: As I said, I met with Wang Juntao when he was involved in the Democracy Wall Movement. I saw copies of his magazine "Beijing Spring" from his door, so I met him that way and bought some copies of the magazine from him. In the latter part of the 1980s, suddenly there was this opportunity for Beida students to elect People's Deputies to the local People's Congress in Haidian District. Wang Juntao became a candidate very early on. That intrigued me even more than the Democracy Wall Movement, as it was something happening on campus. Wang Juntao lived in the next building, so I got very interested and wanted to learn everything about it.

I got then some encouragement from my classmates, who said since you are a natural sciences student, you have an advantage, because the only other natural sciences candidate was Wang Juntao, all the rest came from the humanities or social sciences, as you would call it in the West.

At that point I also had a fair amount of self-confidence, having been elected without campaigning to positions in the students' councils. So I thought this was an opportunity for me to try and see how far I could go, how much ability I actually had. So I registered as a candidate and engaged in some election activities.

Interviewer: You have said and told me before that you were member of the Youth League and also student representative?

Yu: I was a member of the Communist Youth League. I had joined in the last days of my high school career in Tianjin. It really came about because my school wanted me to be in. I had won a price in the national mass competition for high school students, that was very rare for Tianjin, and I was definitely the only one from my school, so they felt it would be nice if I became a member of the Youth League. The League I remember, did not have a lot of activities when I was in college. Pretty much everyone was a member of the Youth League, but there were very few Communist Party members, so they must have had special activities, but for the Youth League members it was not that usual.

I also was a member of the Physics' Department Student Council, and through that I had a chance to meet with some of the most active student leaders on campus. So I was already involved in social activities, you could say extra-curricular activities, and the elections were just one more to add, and it seemed to me an interesting opportunity to learn and figure out more things.

Interviewer: You must have been the youngest student, or one of the youngest when you went to university at the age of seventeen?

Yu: When I went to Beida I was seventeen, so I was among the younger ones, but there were some younger than me, even in my class of about forty students. There were two that were only fifteen, but you must remember that it was a very unusual time, the educational system was just being restored. So it did not really matter how many years of high school you had been through, there was not such a hierarchy in place. So whenever you showed competence, they would let you go to the college directly. On the other end of the spectrum, as the colleges were closed for several years during the Cultural Revolution, there were people in my class who were more than ten years older than me, an unusual phenomenon, but that's what it was.

Interviewer: Going back to the elections, I remember there all kinds of campaigning activities. How did you participate in all this? Did you write things? Were you interviewed?

Yu: I tried to figure out what to do, because it was of course a new experience to me. I tried to learn from the other candidates what was supposed to be done. But very soon I realized that they had more experience than me. They could speak better, they could write better, and they had had more prior involvements in social activities. So after a couple of weeks I decided I really was not one of the most serious candidates, and it did not make much sense to me to try to push it that way. The reality was there were many more candidates better prepared and more able than me, and in today's language one could say I suspended my campaign pretty soon.

Interviewer: But did you go to other candidates' meetings, or did you follow the elections otherwise?

Yu: I did follow the elections very closely of course, and one thing I got involved was this project of collecting material from the election  for historical records. It was started by someone named Huang He in the History Department. When we met at one of the gatherings, he realized that I was not so interested in campaigning any further, so he said, why don’t  you try with us, we have a group of mostly or even exclusively humanities and social sciences students who are putting together a record. I sai, fine, and I did a lot of work for them.

The most important was, being a science student, I was sent to Qinghua Daxue [Qinghua University] and the Beijing Gangtie Xueyuan [Iron and Steel College], two of the prestigious colleges in Beijing who also saw similar kinds of election activities. I went there very often, met with their candidates and reported back what I saw there. I wrote two articles about these two schools, and these articles were included in the final product of that group, This publication was called "Kaituo" ["preparing the ground"] , a collection of election materials, mostly of Beida, but also from some other colleges.

Interviewer: This was in 1981, if I remember…

Yu: This was in 1981, but the articles were already written in 1980. It came out in 1981, probably in March.

Interviewer: What happened to this collection of materials?

Yu: One day Huang He, the leader of this group, asked me to come over. He said, we had this collection printed, but as soon as it was printed, it was discovered by the authorities, and they decided that it could not be distributed. So they took a copy away, but before they took all the copies away, they gave us a chance to take a look at our product. So all of our group went to that meeting to see this very thick volume of printed material that also included our writings. After that it was taken away by the authorities and we never saw it again.

But there is a post-script to this. About than ten years later, after 1989, a publisher in Hong Kong got hold of this whole thing, and he published this volume as a book. I don’t think it is quite exactly the same, maybe there were some omissions from the original volume. I am not sure, but it has the two articles of mine in it, I recognized them, so he did not change that. But it was mostly about other people, their declarations, and also included some surveys. [cf. Wang Juntao 王军涛, Hu Ping 胡平: Kaituo - Bei Da Xue Yun Wen Xian 开拓。北大学运文献 (Preparing the ground – contributing to the students‘ movement at Peking University). Tianyuan Shuwu 田园书屋. Hong Kong 1990]

Interviewer: So when you look back today on this election campaign that you were personally involved in, what impression, what feeling does it give to you? How important was it?

Yu: Well, it was a humble experience for me. I was not the ablest student, it was also a learning experience. I think I did not get many votes, about 160 …

Interviewer: Out of …

Yu: … a few thousand. […] As I said, I had already realized that I was not the best candidate, so I did not try terribly hard later on, I focused my energy rather on what was going on on other college campuses, but I felt it was a learning experience. You need to get involved to know your own abilities and positions [?]. So in that regard I feel positive about it, it is part of my growing up process. and in certain ways it paved the way for me to do other things later, like running [the journals] "China Spring" and "Beijing Spring" in this country.

Interviewer: This was the meaning for you personally. But did it mean something for China, for the Chinese society? Did it leave something, when you look back at it, or was it just a little episode? How do you evaluate the importance of these events?

Yu: I think the events made it clear that the Beida students at that time were eager to find an alternative path for China's future development. They were very much in favor of the general idea of democracy, freedom, human rights. Even the college leadership was very accommodating to these student activities. So I guess, these events left a deep mark on that generation of Chinese college students, and I like to think that it helped to fuel the later democracy movements of 1986/87 and 1988/89.

In a broader picture, I think that these democracy movements, even though they did not succeed in their main goals, helped to push China into a more moderate direction, more open direction, and therefore I think, yes, I have a positive assessment of the whole.

Interviewer: You don’t think it was just a failure?

Yu: No, of course not. It was an amazing kind of exercise where people learned to, instead of getting into a power struggle, express their ideas competitively, and then let voters decide which one they prefer. That's an element of democracy.

Interviewer: When we go back a little bit again to the beginning of the Democracy Movement, when you frequented the Democracy Wall, when you met these people, bought their journals, when you joined this election campaign, did anybody of the university superiors ever talk to you on these things, did they ever warn you, did somebody tell you this was dangerous? Did you ever have the feeling of any danger?

Yu: Strangely, I don’t think I had a formal talk with anybody higher up. As I said, my impression wais that they were very accommodating, they even allowed us to use the main auditorium on campus for these activities and campaign meetings free of charge. I do remember though that I talked - I guess privately - to some people from the "Zhongyang Diaocha Bu" [Central Investigation Department …], the investigating arm of the Chinese Communist Party. But they did not seem threatening, they just wanted to know what was going on, and as we did not have anything to hide, I did not feel intimidated in any way.

Interviewer: They were from outside the university?

Yu: Yes. And talking about safety, my impression was, we were just following the election law. The electoral law said there should be candidates and they could compete. And also the general political atmosphere at that time was not so bad. Deng Xiaoping was at the head of the country, and there were constant changes. So we did not feel that this was necessarily considered to be a bad thing by anybody. No, I didn’t feel danger in this regard.

Interviewer: But after all, there were some people arrested like Fu Yuehua or Wei Jingsheng. How did you learn about these things, and what did it make to you?

Yu: That's an interesting question. I think I and others felt that our activities were different from the Democracy Wall Movement It was on campus, it was sort of quiet. The Democracy Wall Movement was in a public place, it intended to get as much attention as possible. What we were doing though, was just conducting elections on campus that were mandated by the election laws.

True, we expressed opinions that might have been considered a departure from the official line. But the official line was not all that clear at this point. [Former State President] Liu Shaoqi for example had been considered the biggest villain, but in May 1980 he was rehabilitated and considered now almost an equal of Mao in terms of his contribution. So we did not feel that we were doing anything that was not acceptable, at least I did not feel that way. And what happened afterwards sort of proved this point.

The year after, in 1981, there was an examination conducted by  the Nobel Prize winning physicist T.D. Lee [Tsung-Dao Lee, Li Zhengdao (李政道) in Mandarin, American physicist of Chinese origin, awarded the Nobel Price for physics in 1957] who was teaching at Columbia [University] at that time. I took part in this exam and got good results, and was able to apply to graduate schools in the US, and nobody hindered me in any way in that process. So I came to the United States in 1982 without any difficulties caused by having taken part in the elections.

Now I know, Hu Ping for example had difficulties in getting a job after he graduated from Beida. But even that was a fairly mild punishment compared to imprisonment and that sort of thing. So all in all we can say, I didn’t feel the whole thing was so dangerous, and it proved that generally we were correct.

Interviewer: What did you know about the people that were arrested at the Democracy Wall earlier, and then later again in 1981?

Yu: We knew a fair amount, and the issue of Wei Jingsheng also came up quite often during the election campaign. I think most of the students, and all of the candidates, felt that he should not have been arrested, and they expressed that view straightforwardly.

Interviewer: What did you think?

Yu: Just the same, that he should not have been arrested and put into prison. That's the issue of freedom of the speech guaranteed even by the Chinese constitution, therefore it was wrong that he was arrested.

Interviewer: Then in 1981, when the Democracy Wall was closed and most of the activists were arrested, how did you get to know about ist, and what did you think then?

Yu: I knew about these things…

Interviewer: What did you know?

Yu: …that the Democracy Wall was moved to this little park in Beijing… I don’t remember having had a very strong reaction towards it, perhaps because my interest in it had waned a little bit as the result of challenging […] war forever.

Interviewer: When in 1981 many other people were arrested, after Wei Jingsheng had been sentenced to 15 years in prison, what did you hear, did you read about it?

Yu: I heard about it to some extent, Wei Jingsheng's case was reported in the official press, but the others were not. But as I said: We had the opinion that it was wrong what the government did, but it was just an opinion. And we thought what we were doing, was different: We did not feel that there was a direct connection.

Interviewer: I still want to ask you about your involvement in the Democracy Movement in the United States when you came here. How did you chose to take up a role here, what made you participate in these organizations and publications?

Yu: I came to the US as a physics graduate student. I enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School in 1982, but very soon my interest in social things distracted me from more doing physics. As I wanted to go back to China after my education here, I decided it would be better for me to study something else, either law or management or economics. I tried all three, but in the end I applied to economics graduate programs in this country. I got accepted by Princeton [University], so I went to Princeton and started my PhD program there in 1983.

I still had the idea of getting my education and then going back to China to serve my country and my people to help bringing about China's modernization. But things looked unpromising, because China turned towards - as we may say - the leftist or conservative side. In 1983 there was this anti-cultural pollution movement [officially: Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign], a small movement, not a big deal, but in 1986 there were massive student demonstrations again, calling for democracy and freedom, and in the aftermath of this movement the reformist Communist Party Secretary General Hu Yaobang was removed from his office. There was also criticism of the so-called bourgeois liberalization, and that really got me very upset.

I said, if you do this, so how can I go back and play a positive role in the Chinese society. I had been in some other student activities, I was the founder of the Chinese Economists' Society in this country, so i early 1987 I got involved in organizing a petition to the government. We gathered well over thousand signatures from the Chinese students in this country, and presented them to the Chinese government. From what I was told later, this letter helped, although it was not the only reason of course, to shorten the period of active campaigning against "bourgeois liberalization" in China. In a way it made things easier for the other reformist Communist Party Secretary General Zhao Ziyang.

Nevertheless, after that I thought I would never be able to go back to China, so I had to think about an alternative. Then of course 1989 came, they killed a lot of peaceful demonstrators, and that was it. After that I decided there was not anything I could do any more with the Chinese government, and so I joined - actually before the massacre already - the group "China Spring" and also the Chinese Alliance for Democracy, and became an active member of this group.

Two years later, in 1991, I became the head of this group and the publisher of the "China Spring" magazine. I served in that role for two years, but in 1993, after some internal disputes, Hu Ping and I, and another friend named Xue Wei, we started a sort of a re-incarnation of the Democracy Wall magazine "Beijing Spring". I was the publisher of that for a long time. Officially I am still the publisher, it's over twenty years now. All these activities can be traced back to my involvement and to my observations on the Democracy Wall Movement and to my involvement in the Beida election activities.

Interviewer: Actually you got a lot more politicized and critical after you had come to the United States?

Yu: I guess the massacres in Beijing radicalized many of us. The only difference is that I stayed radicalized. A lot of Chinese students here may have protested louder than me, but then they still went back to China and co-operated with the Chinese government. That is […] their choice, but I could not do that, so I stayed.

Interviewer: Have you never been back to China since?

Yu: No, no.

Interviewer: How do you see the state of the Democracy Movement in exile today? How big is the force you still have? How do you see the whole situation?

Yu: I do rather see a disappointment, but I don’t regret having taken part in it. I think the cause is just, the ideas are right for China. But during the immediate aftermath of June 4 [1989], a lot of us, I am not sure if that includes me, but a lot of the exiled people had the hope that China would not be able to sustain its high pressure policy, and they would be able to return to China. That of course did not materialize, and you can say that this exiled or overseas groups got marginalized to some extent. I think that's true.

But that does not mean that the movement has no hope. There are people active in China, we have connections with them, and I remain hopeful that some Chinese leaders will follow into the steps of Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, and push for reforms one day, and that China will be able to join the world community of democracies, hopefully during my lifetime.

Interviewer: How do you see this question of internal disputes and in-fights between the groups outside China?

Yu: We try to avoid those things as much as we can, but sometimes it is just unavoidable. I talked about starting "Beijing Spring" in 1983, that was the result of a split among the groups. But it is hard operate as a group outside of China. Communication is difficult, people have very different backgrounds, resources are very limited, so what we do, is just doing our own thing, even if it means it is a smaller  group, that's still fine, and that's how we have been doing.  

Interviewer: Maybe you have also seen some damaging activities or pressure from the Chinese government. How important is this, how do you see this question of Beijing trying to harm the exiled movement?

Yu: I am sure the government tries to infiltrate and sabotage the Democracy Movement both in China and overseas. I have read something about Russia. During Tsarist times there was a Bolshevik committee of five people in Petersburg, and four of them were spies. When the five held a meeting, four of them were spies! I don’t think it is that bad here, but I would not eliminate the possibility that quite a few of the people involved had other…

Interviewer: Do you have your own experience, were you ever approached by embassy officials or other Chinese government representatives?

Yu: Not really, no. But I did want to go back to China once. When I wanted to apply for a visa to go back, the first thing they said to me was, you have to write a self-criticism, and we will see if the criticism is profound enough to issue you with a visa. But my attitude has always been, the government killed hundreds of demonstrators, it never criticized itself, so why should I criticize myself? That is just not going to happen.

Another thing I have noticed several times, is that our websites and e-mail accounts get hacked very often, and I do not see any other reason than that this is related to our democracy activities. I imagine the Chinese government is spending a fair amount of money trying to get information and trying to influence events in the democracy movement.