I MET Wang Meng, China's recently ousted Culture Minister, for the first and only time in New York City in the cold winter of 1986. Wang and four colleagues were attending the 48th International PEN Writers' Conference. They all seemed uneasy - it was their first trip to the United States - when I met them and interviewed them separately for an article in The Christian Science Monitor. Once or twice, I remember how Mr. Wang - the most celebrated of Chinese writers there, and now the highest-ranking official to be ousted since the military crackdown on the demonstrations in China last June - seemed as annoyed at my probing questions about artistic freedom in China as I was annoyed at his evasive answers. Yet, he seemed genuinely hopeful; he seemed to see a change ahead, a change that would allow the kind of artistic freedom I was trying to get him to say he wanted for his country.
Shortly after our meeting, he was made culture minister. In the years that followed - two of which I spent in China - he managed to keep himself out of the press, and to express himself through what he allowed to appear in print, on the screen, and in museums. His most recent success was China's first avant-garde art exhibit last February in the normally staid China National Art Gallery. On the opening day, one artist fired shots at her work with a starting pistol, bringing the police to the scene to close the show.
Sometime earlier, I sat in a crowded theater in Beijing as one of China's most popular films, ``A Town Called Hibiscus,'' showed how a tormented couple survived the Cultural Revolution by having an illegitimate relationship, and even a child out of wedlock - activities considered highly taboo in China, but which, much to the chagrin of officials, occur there. I remember how the people in the theater spoke and clicked their tongues in sympathy with many of the things they saw and had endured themselves.
When Wang had told me how he thought that post-1949 Chinese literature was influenced too much by politics, that it didn't have a life of its own, that it didn't reflect the reality of life in China. He wanted Chinese literature to be on a par with the great contemporary works, something that, he seemed to want to say, could only be accomplished with absolute freedom. He welcomed the influence of Western writers, including his favorite, John Cheever.
One of Wang's colleagues attending the PEN conference was Huang Qingyun. This popular writer of children's literature recalled with startling vehemence a children's book published during the Cultural Revolution. ``It was absurd,'' she spat. ``The book was about a child who came from a village and he knew everything. He even taught his teacher. He was from the working class and she was an intellectual, so she had to learn from him.'' She then spoke eloquently about the need in Chinese society for writers to write about ``love and a sense of beauty'' and to inspire children ``not to listen to others without using your own judgment.''
Those were strong words by contemporary Chinese standards then. They are, now, too; perhaps even more so as the government continues its campaign to eliminate the remnants of Western influences, or ``bourgeois liberalization.''
The Chinese writers I spoke to at that conference seemed ready to carry new Chinese literature into the world. True, they looked worn out by years of struggle suffered at the hands of Mao Zedong's ultra-leftists. Wang himself was banished in 1963 to a remote area in China's harsh northwest, where he was forced to remain for 16 years and was forbidden to write. Relief came in 1976 after the fall of the ``gang of four,'' which had sought to continue Mr. Mao's violent and despotic reign after his death.
It is a sad irony for us to see how this particular drama has ended. When I interviewed Wang in a busy meeting room during the PEN conference, I think much of his uneasiness had to do with how he really wanted to answer my questions about artistic freedom in China. I think what he wanted to say was far more fierce and true than what he allowed himself to say.
Perhaps Wang was just in the wrong job. He is a writer, and no writer can live long with the ambiguity and squeamishness that pervades life in politics. Early in his career, Wang wrote a famous story called ``The Newcomer in the Organization Department,'' for which he was denounced in the Communist Party's anti-rightist movement in 1957 and sent to work on a farm.
Perhaps in that story's main character, an enthusiastic young party worker who challenges an inert bureaucracy, he foreshadowed his own brush with party politics. Like the character, Wang, too, is an optimist despite all odds. And, like the character, Wang must now come to terms with a broken dream.