Wei Jingsheng's dissident life began with a precipitous suddenness. In just under four months, during the 1978-79 Democracy Wall movement, his unique talent as a thinker, writer and activist burst forth and blossomed. In fact, Wei did not actually go to Democracy Wall until several weeks after poster-writers in Beijing had started to center their efforts there. His first visit filled him with inspiration: in a single night he wrote his celebrated essay, "The Fifth Modernization - Democracy." With virtually no revisions, it was posted on Democracy Wall by a friend at 2 o'clock in the morning of December 5, 1978. After he had put up the original, Wei wrote two additional parts expanding his initial arguments and responding to critics who had written their comments on and around the poster. (The first part is reprinted in full below.) In those four months, Wei lived in a fever of activity, often sleeping no more than three hours a night, according to friends. He published and distributed four issues of the journal, Exploration, which he founded and which consisted mostly of his own articles. He went out to conduct "social investigations," even daring to question police officers at local Public Security Bureau stations about imprisoned fellow activist, Fu Yuehua. He also met with foreign diplomats and journalists to discuss ideas about China and the world, engaging in a dialogue which had previously been unthinkable.
Although it was November and the beginning of what was to be an extremely cold winter, Beijing's political atmosphere was positively spring-like. Deng Xiaoping had just returned formally to power on a wave of popular discontent with Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) policies. As one of the principal victims of that decade-long "permanent revolution," Deng became the hope of those inside and outside the Party who wished to see an end to unrealistic economic policies and the ceaseless "class struggle" movements advocated by Mao Zedong. The Third Plenum of the Eleventh Central Committee, held in November 1978, marked the turning point in Deng's victory over those identified with the legacy of the Cultural Revolution. This was the culmination of a long process of gradual retreat from radical policies, which had begun in the autumn of 1976 with the Chairman's death and the arrest of the "Gang of Four," a group of top Party leaders centered around Mao's wife, Jiang Qing. At that time, Deng was again in disgrace, having been briefly rehabilitated in 1975 at the behest of Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, and then thrown out of power again after Zhou's death in January 1976.
Paradoxically, Deng chose to enlist Mao's Thought in defense of his new pragmatic agenda to, in Cultural Revolution parlance, "wave the Red Flag to oppose the Red Flag." At a speech to an army conference in June 1978, Deng legitimized the two slogans identified with his faction - "seeking the truth from facts" and "practice is the sole criterion of truth" - by quoting from Mao's early writings to show that Mao had warned against a dogmatic approach to any theory and advocated "investigation and study of objective social conditions."This view was contrasted with that of Deng's opponents, who became known through pro-Deng propaganda as "the Whateverists," since their principal credo was that Mao's decisions and assessments should be accepted and obeyed without question.
On November 15 the newspaper favored by China's intellectuals, Guangming Daily, announced that 100,000 people labeled as political enemies in the 1957 Anti-Rightist Campaign had been rehabilitated and that the 1976 demonstrations commemorating Zhou Enlai and criticizing Cultural Revolution policies, known as the Tiananmen Incident (or the April Fifth Movement), had been declared "completely revolutionary." Everywhere, mouths that had been sealed opened. At first, Deng had enlisted expressions of discontent, such as wall posters, in the service of his return to power. But as Democracy Wall activists began to go beyond the limited role he had envisaged for them and to criticize China's whole political system, Deng began to reconsider this alliance of convenience.
In the spirit of China's first unorchestrated, large-scale protests since 1949, the April Fifth Movement, the Democracy Wall movement let loose a flood of new and previously taboo ideas, creating the only sustained, spontaneous, critical political discussion the People's Republic had known. This debate was not confined to Beijing. Across the country, young people, mostly workers, picked up their pens and began to write the "big-character" wall posters (dazibao) and to post them in public places in each city. In Beijing, posters first went up in the main shopping street, Wangfujing, and on the fence surrounding the construction site of Mao's mausoleum in Tiananmen Square. Political activists soon began to congregate near a long, low gray brick wall around a bus yard just to the west of Tiananmen on Chang'an Boulevard, by Xidan. This became known as Democracy Wall.
The Fifth Modernization
One of the posters which attracted the most attention and controversy appeared on December 5, 1978, some three weeks after Democracy wall had become the epicenter of dissent. This was "The Fifth Modernization - Democracy," signed with the pen-name Wei Jingsheng was to use throughout the Democracy Wall movement, Jin Sheng (golden voice). The poster was rather different from those which had come before. "We want to be masters of our own destiny," it said. "We need no gods or emperors. We do not believe in the existence of any savior. We want to be masters in our world and not instruments used by autocrats to carry out their wild ambitions. We want a modem lifestyle and democracy for the people. Freedom and happiness are our sole objectives in accomplishing modernization. Without this fifth modernization all others are merely another promise." [Seymour]
"We were all so amazed. Finally, there was this young Chinese man who was speaking in a way we could understand," said Marie Holzman, a French Sinologist then working for Agence France Presse who made daily trips to Democracy Wall to read each new harvest of posters. She met Wei towards the end of December 1978. "All the others were still using the Marxist jargon. Of course we could understand the language of the posters, but we couldn't understand what was really in their minds Y ou don't really think that people believe what they are writing when they use thatjargon But Wei just said exactly what he thought."
Wei's articles took the argument a crucial step further by boldly criticizing the CCP and its leaders and asserting : the right of Chinese citizens to speak in opposition to the ideas the Party presented as "truth." Without new institutional structures to ensure that the government followed the will of the people, argued Wei, all its "promises" were worth nothing.
Wei was even skeptical of CCP promises that it would construct a rule of law and act according to
"socialist legality." Exploring the relationship between human rights, equality under , the law and
democracy, he wrote, in the third part of The Fifth Modernization, "History shows us
that an autocracy backed up by the rule of law is simply tyranny We must reject the dregs of Confucianism, that is, the fantasy that tyrants can ever be persuaded to practice benevolent
government. But the essence of Confucianism, which we do want to retain, is the concept that people are born with equal rights We want a rule of law, but we want the kind of rule of law which is conducive to the realization of equal rights. The people must attentively watch the progress of lawmaking and be sure that the laws being adopted are the kind of laws designed to
protect equal rights." [Seymour]
Wei was the only activist of the democracy movement, so far as I am aware, who made a - sustained political challenge to the Communist Party of China," wrote Roger Garside, a British ~ diplomat who was stationed in China from 1976 to 1979. "He was perhaps the only activist with ~ an international reputation who could accurately be described as a dissident, a label that has been ~ too readily applied to people who unlike Wei did not challenge the right claimed by the ~ Communist Party to lead the nation. He saw himself as a democratic socialist and, like many in ~ that tradition, perceived a great gulf separating democratic socialists from those who join and lead ~ Communist Parties."[Garside]