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Vigil marks third year of Wang’s detainment


Hua Qu, Xiyue Wang’s wife, speaks during a vigil in October 2019, as Michael McGovern GS, President of “Free Xiyue Wang,” looks on.

At 5:00 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 3, the Free Xiyue Wang Working Group held a public vigil, attended by students, faculty, and community members, in honor of Xiyue Wang, a Ph.D. student in the History Department who has been detained in Iran for over three years on charges of espionage. The vigil, which was held in Chancellor Green, included the reading of a statement written by Wang, as well as speeches from Wang’s wife, Hua Qu, his friend Will Whitham GS, and several University professors. The reading of Wang’s statement was followed by a moment of silence.

“In her many efforts to rescue me … my wife describes what has happened to me as a ‘terrible misunderstanding.’ My situation is anything but a misunderstanding,” Wang wrote in the statement, read aloud  by organizers of the Working Group, in the Chancellor Green Rotunda. 


“I’m incarcerated here because, and only because, I came to this country on a navy-blue passport with a bald eagle emblem.”

In his statement, Wang wrote that he “was arrested, forced into confession, unjustly convicted, and imprisoned as a spy.” He has been sentenced to 10 years in prison. His son, Shaofan, who was three years old when Wang was arrested, is now six-and-a-half. At the vigil, Qu reiterated her call for Wang’s immediate release.

“Working with others around the world, the United States government must uphold the values that attract many of the world’s greatest minds to its shores,” Qu said. “Securing the release of Xiyue would prove a commitment to the freedom of thought, international scholarship, and cultural understanding that he represents.”


Students, professors, administrators, and community members attended the vigil.

Photo Credit: Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian

Wang’s name was thrust into the spotlight recently after Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif discussed a possible prisoner exchange involving Wang on NPR. Though encouraged by these statements, Qu said that she sees no sign of dialogue between the two nations and fears that recent developments may spur false hope.


“My husband and our family have become innocent victims,” she said. “It is fundamentally unjust that he continues to be treated as a hostage and a bargaining chip in this geopolitical dispute.”

Although Hua hopes for decisive action from the international community, Stanley Katz, former director of the University’s Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies, said that international law alone will not be sufficient to rescue Wang.

“In August of this year, [Iran’s] Foreign Minister Zarif, speaking to the Chinese foreign minister in Beijing, made a statement on that point, saying that the problem between the two countries was the rejection of international law,” Katz said. “If that was a real value rather than a meaningless statement, Xiyue wouldn’t be where he is right now.”

After the vigil, Casey Eilbert, co-organizer of the Working Group, underscored the lack of diplomacy between the United States and Iran.

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“The U.N. General Assembly was held two weeks ago in New York. There was a lot of discussion of the U.S.-Iranian relationship, then with the State Department. Officials [from Iran] made statements regarding the relationship [but] there’s not a lot of transparency with these diplomatic efforts,” Eilbert said.

Vigil_3 Xiyue Wang

From left to right: Molly Greene, Professor of History and Hellenic Studies, as well as Xiyue Wang's former instructor; Stanley Katz, President Emeritus of the American Council of Learned Societies; Anthony Grafton, the Henry Putnam University Professor of History; Tracy K. Smith, Chair of the Lewis Center for the Arts; and Will Whitham GS, a friend of Wang’s. All five spoke at the vigil.

Photo Credit: Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian

Despite slow negotiations, Wang’s friend, Whitham, expressed faith in Wang’s ability to persevere in prison.

“In prison, a curious person may become indifferent; a passionate person may become apathetic … After three long years, you might expect a lesser person to have regressed or declined,“ he said. “Xiyue Wang is not a lesser person.”

In his speech during the vigil, he compared Wang to Edmund Dantes, the protagonist in Alexandre Dumas’s famous novel, “The Count of Monte Cristo.” In the book, Dantes, betrayed and unjustly incarcerated, survives in prison for 21 years, before finally escaping.

“Edmund Dantes endures. He is sustained by his faith in justice, by his will to learn, and by a friend with whom he discusses history, philosophy, science, and more. Doesn’t this sound familiar to you? It certainly did to me. Xiyue Wang is, to me, Edmund Dantes. He is Princeton’s Edmund Dantes,” Whitham said.

Though Wang has seven years left in his own prison term, Wang’s wife still hopes for his imminent release.

“I continue to pray that next year, when Shaofan blows out his birthday candles next year, Xiyue will be right there with us,” Qu said.