[N}elson Mandela. Vaclav Havel. Andrei Sakharov. Martin Luther King Jr. Mahatma Gandhi. To this list of 20th century freedom fighters it is now high time to add another: Wei Jingsheng, the Chinese dissident whose fierce, earthy, crusading, darkly comic prison letters are being published this month. That Mr. Wei (pronounced WAY-eh) is not already a household name is, at first glance, puzzling. Certainly he has put in the time -- nearly 18 years behind bars, mainly in solitary confinement -- and endured enough horrors -- loss of all his teeth, sub-freezing prison cells, countless beatings -- to qualify as a martyr of resistance. Above all, Wei has stood his ground.
When Chinese authorities wanted to release Wei from prison six months early, on Sept. 14, 1993, in a transparent effort to bolster China's campaign to host the 2000 Olympic Games, Wei's price was the return of the scores of letters he had written from jail; hence this book. Freed, Wei picked up where he had left off 14 years before, agitating anew for democratic reform. He was soon sentenced to an additional 15 years in jail, where he languishes to this day, reportedly near death. Meanwhile, his communist oppressors are feted and flattered by capitalist governments and corporations whose lust for market access produces nauseating double-talk about not allowing dealings with China to be "held hostage" to human rights. Wei would be more famous, perhaps, if his enemies were as ideologically useful as, say, Sakharov's were.
Wei seems incapable of double talk in his own dealings with dictators. "I've long known that you are precisely the kind of idiot to do something foolish like this," he writes to Deng Xiaoping 11 days after the June 4, 1989, massacre at Tienanmen Square, "just as you've long known that I am precisely the kind of idiot who will remain stubborn to the end and take blows with his head up." The two men's "intimate mutual disgust" dates to 1978, when Wei was a leading voice at Beijing's Democracy Wall. Wei's essay "The Fifth Modernization" (included here, along with other valuable background material), argued that China's efforts to modernize were doomed without democracy. Deng exploited such sentiments in his return to power after the Gang of Four fell, then had Wei and other dissenters arrested in March 1979.
Like Lech Walesa of Poland's Solidarity movement, Wei was an electrician by day. In his letters, he demonstrates the towering self-assurance of Mandela, negotiating with his jailers as (at least) their equal; the moral rectitude of Gandhi; the faith and fearlessness of King; the ironic humor of Havel. "Your most devoted hostile element," Wei signs a 1982 letter to General Secretary Hu Yaobang. Also reminiscent of Havel was Wei's remark to fellow activist Liu Qing that many people were more able than Wei, but they were always waiting for the right moment to act. "History is created by those brave enough to propel it forward," Wei said. Wei's most singular characteristic is a selflessness that borders on the divine, a trait encouraged by his revolutionary mother, who took seriously the Party's rhetoric about "sacrifice for those who are suffering." On May 4, 1989, a month before the Tienanmen massacre, Wei writes to Premier Li Peng. The students have occupied the square, citizens are supporting them, the whole world is watching. Wei warns Li not to follow the lead of Deng, who is "senile" and has "brought ruin upon himself." But Wei is shrewd enough to know that Li might have to placate hard-liners, so he urges Li to "use my continued imprisonment" as a bargaining chip. If it would help secure the students' reforms, Wei writes, he would feel "extremely honored" to remain in jail a few more years.
Superbly translated into a pungent, stylish English, these letters may be the final testament of one of the great heroes of our time. Read them. Help him. --Salon
With the Chinese prison system, as Liu Qing's preface notes, an "iron curtain behind the iron curtain," the publication of letters written from prison by one of the most celebrated and courageous human-rights activists in China is indeed unprecedented.
Wei came to prominence in 1978 when he caused a sensation by adding a poster to Beijing's Democracy Wall in which he insisted that the government's Four Modernizations (in industry, agriculture, defense, and science) were inadequate without the addition of a fifth, democracy. It was the culmination of the growing disillusionment of one who had described himself as having been "a fanatic Maoist." After a farce of a trial (captured here in part by a secret tape recording), he was sentenced to 15 years' imprisonment. For two of those years he was not even allowed to leave his tiny cell, the light was left on all night, his food became increasingly meager, and his health declined precipitously. In 1993, confronted by worldwide criticism of the country's human- rights record, and in an effort to have Beijing declared the site of the next Olympic Games, the Chinese authorities released him. He refused to accept release until they allowed him access to his letters to the Chinese authorities written during confinement. It is remarkable readingfor the skill with which he uses the Communist classics to indict the regime, for his forbearance, for his savage wit, but most of all for his courage in telling the truth. A few months after his release he was arrested again, subjected to a trial where his lawyers had less than a day to review a 1,996-page dossier, and sentenced to another 14 years in prison. The letters gathered here, along with Wei's political essays, offer a unique perspective on the Chinese Communist system, as well as a fascinating record of dissent in modern China.
Difficult, often painful reading, but an unforgettable portrait of a man of sublime courage.