A daughter’s determination
by Wendy Helfenbaum
Being the child of an imprisoned Chinese dissident is not for the faint of heart. At age 24, Ti-Anna Wang, BA’12, already has more than 10 years of human rights advocacy under her belt. She has lobbied politicians worldwide and overcome her fear of public speaking in the hopes that her efforts will one day free her father.
When Wang Bingzhang, PhD’82, completed his doctoral studies at McGill in coronary-arterial research, he became the first Chinese national to obtain a graduate degree from a Western university since the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Soon afterwards, he renounced his career in medicine to dedicate his life to pro-democracy activism.
Named for the victims of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, Ti-Anna Wang grew up in Montreal’s Mile End area. She loved to bake and hoped to become a pastry chef. She seldom saw her father.
“I don’t have any resentment; my mother explained that my father didn’t abandon us because he didn’t love us. She made sure we realized that some people have to make the ultimate sacrifice, and that my father was one of them,” explains Wang.
Just after Wang’s 13th birthday, her father was arrested in Vietnam, charged with terrorism and espionage and tried behind closed doors. He was sentenced to life in a Chinese prison; he has been in solitary confinement ever since.
At 14, Wang presided at her first press conference in Ottawa. At 15, she travelled to China for the first time to see her father in captivity. At 19, she deferred her university studies and moved to Washington to advocate on her father’s behalf.
“There was a lot of attention on me as his youngest daughter; people were curious to speak to me about my father’s case; it seemed like an effective angle for my advocacy work,” recalls Wang.
Wang’s impassioned op-ed, “Fighting for my father’s freedom,” ran in the Washington Post in 2009 and caught the attention of the paper’s editorial page writer, Fred Hiatt. With Wang’s blessing, he wrote a young adult novel, Nine Days, based on her story.
“It’s nothing short of magical to have your life fictionalized into a novel, and until I went to DC in April for the launch, I could never have anticipated how this would elevate my father’s case in the public consciousness,” says Wang, who graduated from McGill in East Asian studies before spending a year studying Mandarin in Taipei.
Despite calls from the U.S., Canada, Taiwan, the European Union, the United Nations and Amnesty International for Dr. Wang’s release, his situation remains unchanged. His health is deteriorating. Wang has not been allowed to visit her father in five years.
“With any kind of human rights work, if you focus too much on an end goal, it’s quite depressing,” she says. “You have to think about it as a never-ending process.”
During a recent TEDx talk in Toronto, Wang admitted to feeling frustrated, but she will continue to speak out.
“I’m embracing the fact that what I’m doing is not just for my father,” she says. “Speaking for other prisoners of conscience and their families is a big motivator.”
Wang’s most difficult challenge? Balancing her devotion to her father’s cause with building a life for herself.
“When I was at McGill, I didn’t want too many professors to know what I was doing; I wanted to separate that from my life,” she says. “But a few – like Johanna Ransmeier, who teaches Chinese history and also used to work in Chinese human rights – knew about my father’s fate, and were very encouraging.
“I can’t imagine ever just totally walking away from this cause,” says Wang. “This work makes my life incredibly rich.”
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