Wei Jingsheng

Chinese human rights activist Wei Jingsheng (born 1950) has spent most of his adult life either in prison or exile for his participation in protests against his government's policies.

On November 16, 1997, Chinese dissident Wei Jingsheng was released from prison in his country and allowed to fly to the United States. Imprisoned for all but six months since 1979, Wei's crime had not been a physical act but an intellectual one: questioning the policies of his country's Communist government. For his participation in the "Democracy Wall" movement in 1978, Wei had spent 14 years in prison. When, upon his release in 1993, he had proven himself unwilling to keep quiet about the abridgement of freedoms under China's totalitarian system, he was sentenced to another 14 years. But following talks between United States President Bill Clinton and China's President Jiang Zemin, Wei had been released and flown to Detroit, Michigan, where he received special treatment for medical conditions exacerbated by his long imprisonment. In the next few months, the Nobel Peace Prize nominee would embark on a new career as a free man, an outspoken proponent of human rights. Though he now resided in a country where he was free to speak his mind, it was clear that Wei desired something more: to enjoy that freedom in his homeland, the country for which he had endured nearly 18 years of imprisonment.

In his early days, Wei would hardly have seemed like a future opponent of Communism. His parents were high-ranking officials in the regime established by Mao Zedong, who took power in 1949. The oldest of four, Wei grew up in Beijing, where he was well-acquainted with Mao and his wife, Jiang Qing. Young Wei was steeped in Communist doctrine, learning the precepts not only of his country's leader, but of Mao's intellectual forebears, including Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin. In 1966 Wei was a student at one of China's top-ranking high schools, attached to the People's University in Beijing. That was the year when his country entered a tumultuous series of events called the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, which would sweep up Wei and the rest of China.

At the beginning of the Cultural Revolution in August, 1966, Mao called for a reinvigoration of Chinese Communism, and urged young people in the "Red Guards" to direct their energies to the task of rooting out all forces opposed to revolution. In practice this meant enormous bloodshed, with millions of teenagers allowed to wreak violence on the country. One of those teens was Wei, and by the end of 1966 he had graduated from the Red Guards to the elite United Action Committee, a group composed of children of high-ranking party officials. By then, however, the Cultural Revolution had gotten so completely out of hand that even Mao was committed to suppressing the revolutionary fervor he had unleashed. As a result, Wei spent the first months of 1967 in prison, and upon his release became involved in a propaganda movement that included publication of a revolutionary periodical called Preparation. The following year saw an increased backlash against the perpetrators of the Cultural Revolution, and Wei fled to Chao County, Anhui Province, in the hinterlands of China.

As he recalled in a 1998 interview with China News Daily, Wei's year in the country had a large impact on his political views. Up until that time, Wei had been a fervent believer in Communism, and throughout the upheavals of the Cultural Revolution had remained assured that Mao's system would produce peace and prosperity for the people of China. Now, for the first time removed from the relative luxury of the big city, he glimpsed firsthand the poverty wrought by Mao's forced modernization of agriculture. A subsequent stint in the army (1969-73) further broadened Wei's awareness of conditions in his country, as he realized that most of his fellow soldiers were peasants.

Wei then began to seriously reevaluate the precepts he had accepted without question since childhood. Particularly troublesome was the claim that China under Mao represented a "people's democratic dictatorship." He came to recognize the contradiction in terms inherent in this phrase, as he told the China News Daily: "If you want democracy, folks will get together to discuss diverse opinions. If you have dictatorship, nobody can discuss with you…. [I]f you still had to listen to [the leader], then what was the point of democracy?"

Events in his personal life contributed further to Wei's questioning of political conditions in China. His mother died in 1976, discredited by the party leadership, and his father suffered in a labor camp. Because his family lost their high position, Wei did not have a variety of career options available to him when he completed his army service in 1973. He became an electrician, and obtained employment at the Beijing Zoo. During this time he met and became engaged to Ping Ni, a Tibetan who had suffered greatly as a result of the Maoist takeover of her country in the 1950s. Her father, formerly a leader in the Communist Party of Tibet, had been in prison since 1961; and her mother committed suicide in 1968. Many years later, while in prison, Wei would write a long letter to Deng Xiaoping (who assumed leadership of China after a power struggle that followed Mao's death) criticizing the Chinese Communist Party for poisoning its people's minds against the Tibetans.

Mao died in 1976, and by 1978, the youth of China had begun to agitate for greater freedom. A focal point for this opposition became the "Democracy Wall, " an area near Tienanmen Square in Beijing where students displayed manifestoes called "big-character posters." Particularly noteworthy was a poster by Wei in response to Deng's call for "Four Modernizations": in addition to modernization of areas such as defense and technology, as Deng had outlined, Wei demanded a "Fifth Modernization"-democracy.

He had posted the message, Wei told the China News Daily 20 years later, to prove "that not all Chinese were spineless." His poster, written in one night and posted the next day, became particularly popular, and aroused repeated readings and discussions. Wei then wrote his name and address on the poster in the middle of the night, and soon a group of the fiercest agitators for freedom gathered around him. The risks and consequences of such activities, Wei remembered, were quite clear, and he and the others faced them willingly. "In fact, " he told Fang Wu in an interview for China News Digest, "which country has acquired democracy, freedom, and human rights without hard struggle, and shedding blood and sweat? You could not possibly wait for someone to present you with a democracy. There might have been exceptions with very small countries, but for a major people in the world to achieve democracy, methodical efforts with donations of life, blood, sweat, and pain would be required. Could the Chinese achieve democracy without such donations? Impossible!"

With limited time to act before the inevitable government crackdown, Wei and the small group who joined him proceeded to print and distribute a publication called Exploration. As funds were limited, the group took what was considered a highly unusual step: instead of giving away copies of their journal, they sold copies to pay for future issues. Word of the monthly grew, and Wei became so involved in his activities that he had to take an extended leave from his job. A doctor friend wrote him fake medical passes, and when that physician came under scrutiny for it, an elderly doctor stepped in and promised to provide Wei with leave permits.

But Wei knew the end of his freedom was near, and as he told the China News Daily, the Chinese withdrawal from the war with Vietnam in March, 1979 signaled the end: "Once the troops were pulled out, I knew it was time to deal with us." He conducted a quick rearguard action, destroying his records. He also met with Ping Ni one last time, and told her that once he was arrested, she would announce that she and Wei had broken off their relationship-thus protecting herself and her family from harm. He was arrested at the end of March, and tried on October 16. Held in various institutions in Beijing, he was routinely denied medical and dental care, and lost a number of his teeth. After five years of imprisonment, he was moved to a labor camp of whose location he was never certain, though it seems to have been in the northwest part of the country. Five more years passed before he was placed in the Nangpu New Life Salt Works in 1989.

Then in 1993, while China was involved in its ultimately unsuccessful bid to host the 2000 Olympics in Beijing, the government announced that Wei would be released a year early. But Wei, physically depleted as he was, refused to accept freedom until the authorities returned to him the large volume of letters he had written over the preceding years but had not been allowed to send. These letters would form the basis for Wei's 1997 publication in the United States, The Courage to Stand Alone.

Once he was released from prison on September 14, 1993, Wei returned to his political activities with vigor. Wei's friend and assistant Tong Yi, in her New York Times editorial, wrote that Wei met with an American official and told him that "The U.S. should be at least as firm in its position on human rights in China as the Chinese government is." Five days later, both Wei and Tong were arrested. Tong Yi wrote an editorial urging President Clinton in an upcoming meeting with President Jiang, to call for Wei's release. The article was published on September 29, 1997, and six weeks later, on November 16, Wei was released. According to Simon Beck of the South China Morning Post, "His release was hailed as a sign of bilateral progress made during the recent Sino-U.S. summit."

On December 5, Columbia University announced that Wei had accepted a position as a visiting scholar in its School of International and Public Affairs, where he would work with Tong Yi.

In a speech at Amnesty International, published in Index online, Wei recalled a discussion with a prison guard in which he discovered his purpose in life: "I suddenly realized that my determination to help others was the great cause which had been helping me to withstand physical and mental suffering and helped me maintain my optimism and strength. Once I realized this point, I became aware that I could not shake off my life-long responsibility to other people."

Further Reading on Wei Jingsheng

Wei Jingsheng, The Courage to Stand Alone: Letters from Prison and Other Writings, edited and translated by Kristina M. Torgeson, Viking Penguin, 1997.

China News Digest, January 15, 1998.

Columbia University Record, December 5, 1997.

New York Times, September 29, 1997.

San Francisco Chronicle, December 23, 1997.

South China Morning Post, November 17, 1997.

"China Rights Forum, " Human Rights in China, http://www.igc.apc.org/hric (February 22, 1998).

"Further Information on Wei Jingsheng's Release, "Writers in Prison Committee, http://www.democracy.org (February 22, 1998).

"A Handful of Pennies" (Amnesty International Address), Index online, http://www.oneworld.org (February 22, 1998).

"Interview with Wei Jingsheng, " World News Tonight, http://www.abcnews.com (February 22, 1998).

"Newsmaker: Wei Jingsheng, " Online Newshour, http://www.pbs.org (February 22, 1998).

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