Injecting sobering doses of reality into the euphoric aftermath of Hong Kong's return to China, 600 people in Los Angeles spent one night this week remembering imprisoned Chinese democracy advocate Wei Jingsheng and his work.
"The whole world should cry together--'Save Wei Jingsheng!' " said Alan Gleitsman, a human rights activist who has been in contact with Wei's family.
"It's important that we speak out for Wei and all the political prisoners in China," said Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), chairwoman of the Congressional Working Group on China and an outspoken critic of China's record on human rights.
During a three-hour tribute to China's best known political prisoner at the Music Center's Mark Taper Forum on Tuesday, actors read from Wei's prison writings and his supporters discussed Beijing's human rights violations and fielded questions from the audience. Among the presenters was astrophysicist Fang Lizhi, once known as "China's Sakharov," who now teaches at the University of Arizona.
The tribute ended with the showing of a videotaped interview with Wei, 47. In it, the soft-spoken Wei says that he will remain in China whatever the personal cost and that "China's problems must be solved through democracy."
Wei's letters from prison were recently published in the United States as "The Courage to Stand Alone: Letters from Political Prisoner Wei Jingsheng."
Political prisoners in China usually write about their attempts to reform themselves, but not Wei.
He chronicled the boredom of prison life, his brotherly concern for his younger siblings, his deteriorating health, the arts and his thoughts on Chinese leaders.
Addressing China's most powerful man as simply, "Dear Deng Xiaoping," Wei writes:
"You might not be able to remember a person you wronged, but it isn't easy for me to forget the one who wronged me.
"Our situations are very different--you are at the top of a billion people, and I am at the very bottom. It's just that I'm not the one making your life difficult, while you're the one making it hard for me.
"Therefore, when things start looking up for you, you might still on occasion remember a person you once wronged. But if my days get better, then perhaps I won't have the time to remember all the people who once wronged me. For the number of people you have wronged, and who have wronged me, are many."
In another "Dear Deng Xiaoping" letter:
"I've written to you so many times now that I'm probably beginning to get on your nerves and you're wondering 'why can't this guy just sit in prison quietly?' This appears to be a real problem, but it is not entirely my fault.
"I am very capable of staying quiet, but if people don't allow me to be, then I can also be very unquiet. This makes me no different from most people in our country. When we are living in times of relative peace and tranquillity, we are the quietest people on Earth. But if we are oppressed beyond reason, then, as the history books show, we can be the most unquiet.
"My endless letters and constant badgering are in the tradition of 'When officials oppress, the people rebel.' "
Deng did not answer Wei's letters. But Deng did mention Wei in a confidential 1987 speech that was later leaked to the press.
In that speech, Deng said: "People who confuse truth and falsehood, or black and white, and who start rumors, must not be tolerated. We put Wei Jingsheng behind bars, didn't we? Did that damage China's reputation? We haven't released him, but China's image has not been tarnished by that. Our reputation improves day by day!"
What earned him Deng's wrath was Wei's fiery 1978 essay called "The Fifth Modernization." It attacked Deng's "Four Modernizations"--agriculture, industry, science and defense--a program that was designed to undo Mao Tse-tung's disastrous economic policies.
Wei, then a 28-year-old electrician for the Beijing Zoo, accused Deng of ignoring the most important modernization: democracy. Without it, he warned, Deng would become another dictator. He posted his essay on the Democracy Wall in Beijing for all to see.
Punishment was swift. In 1979, Wei was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Scheduled to be released six months early in 1993, when Beijing was fiercely bidding for the 2000 Summer Olympics, Wei resisted, saying that he would not agree to leave prison unless authorities turned over his letters.
Conscious of its international image at the time, authorities did.
But China lost the Olympics and Wei was resentenced to 14 years in prison for "conspiring to subvert the government."
Last month, Associated Press, quoting human rights advocates, reported that Wei was severely beaten by fellow inmates who were promised reduced sentences if they attacked him.
China's Justice Ministry has called the reports of Wei's beating "sheer fabrication."
Gleitsman said he recently received a letter from one of Wei's sisters about her brother's grave condition.