SHANGHAI -- His eyesight is badly clouded, and his steps are shaky. But at 75 years old, Wang Ruowang is still eager to embrace for the first time an ideal for which he has fought more than a half-century, the ideal of democracy.
A noted writer, social critic and former Communist Party member long labeled the "grandfather" of the Chinese dissident movement, Mr. Wang is expected to leave Shanghai today with his wife to spend at least a year as a visiting scholar at Columbia University in New York City.
Once there, he plans immediately to undergo a long-delayed operation on the cataracts that have greatly diminished his eyesight but not his political vision.
"I'm happy that someone as old as I am can still see a free place," Mr. Wang said in his book-lined Shanghai apartment Sunday. "I want to go see for my own eyes and investigate a free country. The model of American culture, of American tradition, of American democracy has really given me a lot of inspiration."
In China, that inspiration has earned Mr. Wang long periods of suffering and isolation. He has been a political prisoner three times, having been jailed for his opinions once by the Chinese Nationalists in the 1930s for being a Communist and twice later by the Communist Party.
He last was imprisoned for more than 400 days until Oct. 30, 1990, for leading a protest march outside the Shanghai government offices during the time of the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations. Since then, he has been under virtual house arrest.
Mr. Wang, until recently denied a passport needed to accept repeated invitations from Columbia, finally is being allowed to leave China partly as a result of U.S. diplomatic pressure. His case was among those raised by U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker III, when he visited Beijing last fall.
In going to America, Mr. Wang follows Liu Qing, another dissident jailed from 1979 to 1989, who left China earlier this summer for Columbia. Several other prominent activists involved in the 1989 protests also are expected to be able to leave for U.S. universities soon.
A government official in Beijing privately claims that this shift in China's stance is evidence that a somewhat freer political atmosphere may be slowly evolving as a result of Chinese patriarch Deng Xiaoping's renewed push this year for rapid economic reforms. "This couldn't have happened two years ago," the official said.
But Mr. Wang says that China is allowing him and other dissidents to leave partly as a way to diminish their impact within the country.
"It is true that for certain people like myself things have loosened up," he said. "But for normal people, things haven't improved.
"The basic problem of human rights here has not been resolved. This idea that there has been progress is something that the party has created to fool people." He cited the recent secret trial and sentencing of Bao Tong, the former aide to ousted party chief Zhao Ziyang, for his role in the Tiananmen protests.
"There is no real freedom in China. . . . The party wants to keep the people as slaves. They don't really understand what human rights mean," he said.
Yet Mr. Wang is optimistic that a more democratic future will eventually come.
"There may still be some people who think that socialism is the way to go, but every day these people are less and less here," he said. "No less than 60 percent of the people in Shanghai already believe that the road of socialism is wrong."
Mr. Wang believes that this transition will not take place easily nor without possible violence but that China's capitalist-style economic reforms have set in motion mounting conflicts that cannot be resolved without greater political freedom.
Many dissidents are quietly but determinedly working underground, waiting for the opportunity "to rise up," he said. "Our defeat [in the Tiananmen Square protests] was a good lesson. It will make us stronger for the future, more prepared."
Mr. Wang's consistent refusal to bend his belief in democracy has cost him greatly. His 1979 autobiographical novella, the "Hunger Trilogy," vividly describes his and other inmates' physical and spiritual starvation while in jail from 1968-72 during China's Cultural Revolution. His first wife died as a result of the strain from the political attacks on him that continued for years after his release from that jail stint.
"I've survived because I trained myself not to break under the pressure," Mr. Wang said. "I can't at all thank the Communist Party for the fact that I've lived to this day."