Twenty years ago, I was in Qincheng, the most well-known of China’s political prisons, along with several hundred other students and intellectuals who had taken part in the student movement of the previous summer. On a particularly cold winter morning, I sat on my bed and picked up my copy of The People’s Daily, the government newspaper we were allowed to read, and saw that Nelson Mandela had been released from prison.
I was overwhelmed by complicated feelings. We had not known much about Mr. Mandela’s story, but the message of his release was instantly clear to me: in the pursuit of freedom, there are times when we must pay the price of losing our freedom. In faraway China, we had been imprisoned for harboring the same ideals as Mr. Mandela.
While I was happy for Mr. Mandela and all South Africans, I could not help feeling sad for the Chinese people. And yet the news gave me more confidence for the future. One tenacious person had prevailed over a system, and I thought, “If Nelson Mandela could persist for 27 years, then why can’t I?”
What struck me most about the newspaper photo of Mr. Mandela leaving prison was the smile on his face. On the day I was released from jail, in 1993, I also walked out with a smile — and held up my right arm and made a V-for-victory sign to my family waiting outside. I was walking in Mr. Mandela’s footsteps.
Wang Dan, a student leader at Peking University who helped organize the Tiananmen protest, was returned to prison from 1995 to 1998 and now teaches history at National Chengchi University in Taiwan.