On Friday evening, over a hundred University faculty, staff, and students, as well as community members, congregated on the North Lawn of Frist Campus Center in solidarity and support of imprisoned graduate student Xiyue Wang.
The Iranian government imprisoned Wang, a fifth-year doctorate candidate in the history department, in August 2016 on two counts of espionage and sentenced him to 10 years of prison mid-last year. A Chinese-born U.S. citizen, Wang was in Iran to conduct scholarly research on the administrative and cultural history of the Qajar dynasty.
The Iranian judiciary accused him of using his cover as a researcher to gather secret intelligence and infiltrate Iran’s national archive. Since then, the University has retained counsel for Wang and worked closely with authorities and his family to try to secure his release. The University, however, did not release a public statement until after his conviction and sentence were announced in July 2017. Despite an appeal, the court upheld the sentence, and Wang has remained in Evin Prison since. His family and the University have maintained his innocence.
Several colleagues, classmates, and representatives of the larger Princeton community spoke at the rally on Friday. Jane Manners GS, one of Wang’s classmates, delivered opening remarks before introducing Dean Sarah-Jane Leslie ’07 to the podium.
“We are grateful that tonight’s gathering has brought together not only Wang’s friends and colleagues who know him well, but also so many others who are moved by his unjust and unjustifiable captivity,” Leslie said.
Leslie thanked students, faculty, staff, and members of the town of Princeton for standing together in solidarity. She also thanked representatives from the state and federal government and expressed appreciation for the messages of support shared via social media.
“The charges against him — espionage — are completely false,” Leslie said. “A team of University officials and others have been working day-by-day on his behalf and we continue to work day-by-day to secure his release and support his family. The work will not cease until he is home.”
Despite the challenges, Leslie remains optimistic.
“We persevere in hopeful and faithful anticipation of the day that he will rejoin us here at Princeton and be reunited with his family,” she said.
Turning to Wang’s wife, Hua Qu, Leslie addressed her directly.
“You have shown unbelievable courage, loving devotion, and unflagging determination in all of your efforts to free your husband,” she said. “You are an inspiration and example to us all, and I personally stand in awe.”
To Qu, Leslie reaffirmed the University’s support of her husband.
“We hope that the support and commitment displayed here will sustain you and remind you of the commitment that we all share to bring Wang home,” she said.
A close friend of Wang, Dongxian Jiang GS, spoke next. Jiang highlighted the threat that populist movements and government censorship pose to academic freedom. He shared some of his memories with Wang and noted that he was impressed by Wang’s “erudition, enthusiasm, and keen intelligence.”
“He’s one of us. A dedicated scholar, a loving husband, a caring father,” Jiang said.
Wang has been allowed to make phone calls from prison, and Jiang said that they speak almost every other day, up to 50 minutes each time.
“In prison, Xiyue keeps exchanging ideas with his friends in order to maintain his intellectual capacity and mental health," he said.
Jiang described how Wang teaches him a “free, undergraduate-level course, Iran 101” over the phone, while he returns the favor with his own course, “Introduction to Political Theory.”
“The U.S. has been long regarded and always regards itself as the torch of freedom and human rights. Eulogy is not for eulogy’s sake, but is a reminder of their ideals, duties, and obligations,” Jiang said. “We urge you to show Princetonian solidarity in order to safeguard academic freedom and prevent any other American student and researcher from suffering what Xiyue and his family have been enduring in the last 21 months.”
Jiang concluded by imploring members of the University community, the president of the United States, and Congress to take all necessary actions for the immediate release of Wang.
Sarah Carson GS, another close friend of Wang, echoed Jiang’s sentiments. She expressed the utter shock and disbelief Wang conveyed to her over the phone.
“One of the thoughts that went through my mind was, ‘Could this have been me?’” she said. “I suspect that many of us have had that same thought.”
Carson emphasized that Wang did not view Iran as an enemy but has always been fascinated by the region’s complex languages, culture, and history. Wang went through the proper channels, obtained all necessary government permissions, and worked through scholarly organizations and universities. According to Carson, everything he did was public and appropriate for his profession.
“I urge and hope that the U.S. State Department, President Trump, members of Congress, and the citizens of the United States renew their efforts to get him home soon,” she said.
Princeton Mayor Liz Lempert followed with a few remarks on her own before reading a statement from New Jersey Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker, who was not able to attend.
“This is a horrible, unjust, unspeakable ordeal and it violates everything our community holds dear,” Lempert said.
In a written statement, Zwicker stressed the need for people to conduct research and express their right to intellectual freedom “without political interference and without fear of governmental retribution.”
“These are not Republican or Democratic-set principles,” Zwicker wrote. “They are not even solely American; these principles reflect universal and humanistic ideals.”
New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez, the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was represented by his deputy director of constituent services.
“It is a heartbreaking outrage that your husband has been away from you and your son for this long,” Menendez wrote. “The United States cannot tolerate this blatant, politically motivated violations of basic human rights and freedoms. I will continue to press the State Department and White House to do more to negotiate Wang’s release.”
Menendez highlighted examples of other Americans who were also unjustly detained in Iran and reaffirmed his commitment to the bill he co-sponsored that passed unanimously in the Senate, S.Res.245, calling on the government of Iran to immediately release unjustly obtained U.S. citizens and legal permanent resident aliens.
Representative Chris Smith of New Jersey’s fourth district spoke next. As the senior member on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and Chairman of the Subcommittee of Global Human Rights, Smith maintained that there was “absolutely nothing treasonous” in Wang’s case.
Smith expressed his gratitude for the participants of the rally and offered Qu a congressional hearing to tell the story of her husband to raise even more awareness.
“One thing we can’t do is lose hope,” Smith said. “When we make it a priority in our diplomacy, when we prudently and in Solomon-like fashion use sanctions that are most likely to achieve a positive outcome, we can see the release of prisoners who are unjustly incarcerated.”
The evening concluded with a candlelight vigil and a direct letter of appeal from Qu to President Trump. She expressed optimism after seeing the three former hostages imprisoned in North Korea returning home.
“Thank you for reminding the free world that Iran must stop its unjust imprisonment of foreigners including American citizens,” she said. “We hope that President Trump can achieve a similar breakthrough in my husband’s situation.”
Qu maintained her husband’s innocence and described the immense difficulties she and her five-year-old son have been enduring. She asked that Trump meet with her to show his support and allow her to share her story.
“He’s being used as a hostage and a pawn by Iranian hardliners in their negotiations with the United States,” Qu said. “But, Mr. President, without your help, I’m afraid nothing will happen. You are our skilled negotiator that brought North Korea to the bargaining table, [which] other presidents and conventional diplomats have failed [to do]. Sir, I hope that you will carry on this good work to bring this innocent American scholar home.”
Qu concluded by thanking the crowd for its solidarity, as well as the organizers and volunteers for the event. She expressed her hopeful optimism that she would see her husband again this summer.
Marina Finley ’19, who attended the event, expressed the importance of support for Wang.
“I learned of this particular rally from the many posters up around campus advertising the event, but I initially became interested in the hostage situation because I study China and Chinese language, and I think among the Chinese community, Wang's situation is a very important issue,” said Finley.
She emphasized the need for widespread interest in Wang’s case.
“I believe this is a human rights issue that everyone should be invested in,” Finley said. “Princeton students and the academic community in particular have a real stake in it because it calls into question a lot of the things that we supposedly believe in and hold dear, like academic freedom and integrity.”
She also expressed doubts with regards to the likelihood of Wang being released, especially as President Trump had pulled the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal earlier last week.
“My reaction at first was shock, horror, sadness, and as Wang's situation has continued to evolve it seems not a lot of progress has been made toward his release,” she said, adding that she doesn’t see the deal falling through as being a positive development.
The rally took place on Friday, May 11, at 7 p.m. on Frist North Lawn.