Ancient Chinese metaphysics holds that things give rise to their opposites; when a trend approaches an extreme, it undermines itself and feeds a reversal.
Thirty years ago, the flamboyant sights and sounds of Mao Tse-tung's Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution certainly did not seem to contain seeds of anti-Maoism. But in fact, it was just then that young Red Guards, their heads filled with the Great Leader's utopian visions, were leaving school and plunging into "the life of the masses," where they found that communism in action was utterly different from the communism of their dreams. In many cases, the shock of disillusion did not kill their idealism but only redirected it from support of Mao to opposition.
This generation, now in its 40s, differs clearly from both an older one that was educated in Soviet-style socialism and a younger one, whose thinking has been dominated by the moneymaking of the Deng Xiaoping years. Each generation continues to carry its distinctive values in China today.
Wei Jingsheng, 47 and now serving his 18th year in prison, is a vivid example of his rebellious generation. As a prisoner of conscience, he ranks with Andrei Sakharov, Vaclav Havel and Nelson Mandela but so far is not as well known as they. "The Courage to Stand Alone," which contains three of his best essays and a selection of his letters from prison, should help the world to understand him better. Most of the letters, which are addressed to government officials or to Wei's family, were confiscated in prison and stored in a file. We have them now only because in 1993, when Beijing released Wei briefly in support of its bid to host the Summer Olympic Games in 2000, Wei refused to leave prison unless he could take his letters with him.
The best way to read this book is to begin with Appendix III, an "autobiographical essay" that Wei wrote in 1979. Here Wei explains how, as an ardent Maoist in 1966, he led a group of his high school friends on a "field investigation" to China's northwest. At train stops west of Xi'an, "a horde of beggars swarmed around nearly every car." Wei was shocked to see a young woman who smeared herself with mud and soot because she had no clothes to wear.
Farmers told him stories of the great famine of 1959-'61 caused by Mao's absurd agricultural policies. At a desolate village, Wei observed "no roofs on these houses" and was told that "the entire village starved to death during the Communist Wind." Then he heard and was most profoundly shaken by "stories of how villagers had exchanged babies as food. I felt like I could practically see . . . the pained expressions of parents chewing the flesh of children they had exchanged for their own babies. . . . Who made them do this?" After some difficult rethinking, Wei concluded that he "could make out the face of the executioner quite clearly. . . . he was Mao Zedong."
The problem, as Wei saw it, was not just Mao but the whole layer of Communist officials who touted fine slogans like "serve the people" and "classless society" while bullying the people, caring only for their bureaucratic superiors and jealously guarding their personal interests. At 16, Wei decided that "unless there was solid evidence to convince me otherwise, [he would] regard all power holders as ruthless people lacking in conscience who had built their success on others' misfortunes."
In April 1976, Wei and many in his generation joined a protest of Maoism at Tiananmen Square, the very place they had cheered Mao wildly 10 years earlier. In 1978, Mao was dead, and Deng Xiaoping, in engineering his climb to power, announced his support for posters on Beijing's "Democracy Wall." Deng's aim was to elicit "mass opinion" that he could use to his advantage in battles with the Maoist holdovers, who were his principal rivals.
Wei, however, posted an eloquent essay called "The Fifth Modernization: Democracy," in which he argued that Deng's own program of the "Four Modernizations" was incomplete because it omitted democracy. Wei held that dictators (including Deng), who grab for themselves power that rightfully rests with the people, are "more despicable than any capitalist who robs the workers of the wealth earned with their own sweat and blood."
Nine months after publishing his essay, Wei was arrested, tried and sentenced to 15 years in prison for "the crime of counterrevolution." He was released on parole 14 1/2 years later at the time of the Olympic bid but, still refusing to keep quiet about democracy and human rights, he was rearrested after six months, detained extra-legally for a year and a half and then brought to a second trial.