Wu holds a B.A. in journalism from Beijing University, an M.A. in law from the Chinese Academic of Social Sciences, and an M.A. and Ph.D. in political science from Princeton University. He has been a sent-down youth, a factory assistant, secretary to the president of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, chief editor of the department of current affairs at the ''People's Daily'', and a member of the Office for Restructuring Central Politics. From 1986 to 1987, he participated in researching and formulating the Chinese Communist Party's policy on political reform, and, as an assistant to Zhao Ziyang's political secretary, Baotong, was one of the drafters of the Chinese Communist Party's '13th General Meeting' report on political reform. He is intimately familiar with Zhao's thought about and efforts on behalf of political reform. Later he resigned in response to the Tiananmen Incident, about which he was previously interviewed in the documentary ''Tiananmen''.
Wu was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, a Luce Fellow at Columbia University, and a Wang An Post-Doctoral Fellow at the John King Fairbank Center for East Asian Research at Harvard University. He was also an assistant and an associate professor in the Department of Politics and Administration at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and is currently an associate professor at the University of Victoria, where he teaches in the Departments of Political Science and History and holds the China Program Chair at the Centre for Asia-Pacific Initiatives.