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Wei Jingsheng

Fighting in Absentia For Democracy in China

June 21, 1998|Nancy Yoshihara | Nancy Yoshihara is an editorial writer for The Times

On Nov. 16, 1997, Wei Jingsheng was banished from China. Since his arrival in the United States the next day, China's best-known democracy leader and human-rights activist has worked tirelessly and traveled extensively to advance the cause of democracy in China.

Most of his adult life--18 years--has been spent in prison. Wei, 48, was an electrician at the Beijing Zoo when he first raised the idea of democracy during the 1978-79 Democracy Wall Movement in Beijing. The movement was the first spontaneous public discussion of politics in communist China and Wei, a former Red Guard, wrote that Deng Xiaoping's economic reform program, labeled "The Four Modernizations" would not transform Chinese society unless it was accompanied by "the Fifth Modernization: Democracy."

The essay infuriated Chinese leaders, especially Deng. Wei was arrested soon after for "counterrevolutionary activities" and sentenced to his first prison term of 15 years. Even as his health deteriorated, undermined by harsh prison conditions and solitary confinement, Wei remained defiant, writing critical letters to government and prison officials. In 1993, Wei was abruptly paroled six months before serving his full sentence, just as Beijing was seeking to host the 2000 Olympic games. He refused to sign his parole unless prison authorities returned all the unmailed letters in his file. Then Wei went right back to high-profile work for the democracy movement.

His freedom was short-lived. Wei "disappeared" in 1994; his whereabouts were unknown for more than a year, until his family learned that he was under arrest. Finally, in December 1995, he was tried in Beijing on charges of subversion and sentenced to another 14-year prison term. It was during this time that letters from his first imprisonment were compiled into a book, "The Courage to Stand Alone." Proceeds from its sale were held in trust in the West for Wei, who received the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 1996 and the Olaf Palme Award in 1995.

His exile to America began in a Detroit hospital where he received a checkup. He moved on to New York, where he has been a visiting scholar at the Center for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University. Later this month, he will go to UC Berkeley, to begin a second book. In conversation, Wei appears smart and well read. He smiles easily. When he saw the seating arrangement for a meeting last week with Times editors and writers, he quipped that it looked just like his trial--and laughed.

Wei is at once direct and indirect. He is forthright in his opinions, then slips into piquant metaphor to make his points. But he has the naivete of the truly committed. He is openly critical of President Bill Clinton, who has not answered any of his letters since the two met last year. Asked if Clinton is misguided in his China policy, "It is polite to say the policy is incorrect. But I can say he has no policy." When Clinton goes to Beijing this week, Wei says the president should state clearly his desire to see democracy.

Wei, who is single, has learned little English except for "no problem," "good luck" and "see you later." He still wears clothes brought from China by his friends. A heavy smoker, he likes to remind Californians, "smoking is a right, too."


Question: President Clinton recently asserted that with China, "choosing isolation over engagement would not make the world safer, but would make it more dangerous." Would you agree?

Answer: That logic is completely the opposite of the truth. Take a neighbor who beats his wife. If many neighbors try to isolate him, he may conclude that they are isolating him because he beats his wife. So he will stop. Clinton says not to isolate China, but in doing so he is only encouraging the dictatorship.


Q: One of the great domestic pressures on the Clinton administration comes from those who believe more trade and business builds democracy in China. Can you comment on this theory?

A: The theory is nonsense. I would ask individuals who purport this: Was it trade accommodation that brought democracy to America? There was no connection at all. During the 1930s, what was needed with Hitler was to open business and ties? The same then with the Japanese? What did commercial ties bring? Certainly not democracy. Before the United States, Switzerland had democracy and Switzerland was the poorest of countries. There are number of other historical examples.


Q: What works best with China, carrots or sticks?

A: Ways are available in any culture or time to punish people. For anyone who does bad things, people and societies have ways to push them to reconsider the consequences of what they have done. . . . What the Clinton administration must be convinced of is that China is a wolf, not a lamb. By giving the wolf more meat, it will not change its ways.


Q: What steps should the U.S. take to get other countries not to feed the wolf?

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