Biography of Wei Jingsheng

Childhood: An Unlikely Dissident

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Childhood: An Unlikely Dissident

In many ways, Wei Jingsheng made an unlikely dissident. He was a revolution baby born a year after the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1950, a time of great optimism and promise that life might become secure after years of war and chaos. The first child of a couple who were both Party members and had "joined the revolution" during the CCP's struggle for power, Wei was born in the capital and grew up at the center of power. His parents knew many of the top Party leaders. His father held a high-ranking, if invisible, job in the Foreign Ministry, while his mother served as a CCP cadre in a small shoe and hat factory. The family lived in compound in the center of the city on Zhengyi Road, along with many of the families of the nation's leadership. Wei's father tutored Mao Zedong's eldest son, Mao Anying, in written Chinese when the latter returned from years of study in the Soviet Union. Wei even remembered sitting on the lap of Mao Zedong's wife, Jiang Qing, as a small child.

Force to read MaoZedong's writings before he could get his evening meal, Wei Jingsheng grew up to be a committed communist. "Until my illusions were later shattered by the reality I witnessed, I was a

fanatic Maoist," said Wei in an autobiographical account written in the late 1970s, selections of . which were published abroad after his arrest and trial. In the Beijing of the 1960s, Wei lived in ? privilege, attending elite schools with the sons and daughters of the leadership. From the age of

seven to 12, he went to the Yuhong Primary School, where his classmates were mainly other children of high-ranking cadres. He moved for a year to another primary school before passing the entrance exam for the prestigious junior middle school attached to People's University - the main training university for officials - which he entered at the age of 13. He graduated from this school just as the Cultural Revolution broke out in 1966. As a teenager, Wei loved to read novels, and became interested in philosophy. But even then he also had a rebellious streak. "Our class was quite notorious for the boisterous debates we carried on every evening after school. We would debate standing on the desks, gesturing with pointers and pencil boxes as we shouted at one another. No teacher dared stop us; to do so was to invite insult. Sometimes we had interminable debates on strange, even absurd, topics, neither side yielding until every argument was exhausted."[The New York Times Magazine] But the group was not simply exploring heterodoxy. According to Wei, they also read virtually every important work in the communist canon of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Mao. Since they did not like the novels he preferred, Wei's parents encouraged such reading. His mother encouraged all her children to develop more than a theoretical understanding of communist ideals; she imbued them with a sense of empathy and compassion and taught Wei the traditional virtue of service to society. "1 once overheard an argument between my parents," Wei wrote. "My mother argued that we should be taught to feel the difference between love and hate, and that only when we could side emotionally with the people could we truly grasp the thought of Marx, Lenin and Mao Zedong. If a young person did not understand how people suffered, she said, then he would not try to understand the cause of their suffering and the need for revolution. This sort of education in emotion by my mother was decisively to affect my thinking later." It was precisely this identification with the suffering of others that made Wei feel the need to speak out against the regime's abuses in the late 1970s.

Cultural Revolution: "To Rebel is Justified"

The real roots of Wei's skepticism about Chinese socialism lay in the Cultural Revolution.

Despite the intellectual ferment among his group of middle school classmates, Wei had not questioned the promises of Chinese socialism. His doubts came only after Mao Zedong, in a last attempt to reassert power, turned the country upside down by enlisting young people like Wei in a battle against his opponents in the CCP and the government, which he claimed were infested with bureaucratism and capitalism. "At the outset of the Cultural Revolution in 1966," W ei wrote, "I was 16 and about to graduate from junior middle school. The Cultural Revolution disrupted everything, including my formal schooling. I still feel, however, that whatever our generation lost through aborted education was compensated for by the mental awakening that ensued from the cultural revolutionary turmoil." [The New York Times Magazine]

Like many in his generation, Wei joined the Cultural Revolution out of devotion to Mao Zedong but ended up becoming skeptical about everything, including the Chairman himself. This transformation was partly a result of the iconoclasm inherent in the Cultural Revolution itself, which adopted the slogan, "to rebel is justified." Such ideas merged with what he saw and who he met, in extensive travels around the country, and caused Wei to reexamine all his beliefs.

In Mao's "Red Guards," Wei and many of his classmates became teenage revolutionaries dedicated to transforming society through class struggle. "The Red Guard groups were fanatically Maoist but also, and most significantly, dissatisfied with reality, with the inequalities in society. It was this feeling of disaffection that inclined us toward rebellion and martyrdom. Thus, when Mao Zedong spoke of continuing class struggle under socialism and of class enemies concealed in the leadership, we immediately set forth to drag out these bad elements. We had a strong will to fight and formed a powerful force that was hard to defeat."

Traveling around the countryto spread the culture Revolution in what were called "revolutionary link-ups," Wei was shocked by what he saw. "When our train stopped at a station in the Gansu Corridor, a woman with a dirty face and long, loose hair came forward in a group of beggars," Wei wrote. "She stood begging below the window of my compartment, together with several teenagers. I leaned out of the window to hold out a few buns, but instantly fell back, because I saw something I could never have imagined: the woman with long, loose hair was a girl of 18 and her body was naked. What I had thought were clothes were coal dust and mud that covered her body The naked girl stood on tiptoe and stretched her arms up towards me, her eyes imploring me I couldn't understand her dialect but I knew she still wanted food. Perhaps she had lost out in the scramble for what I had tossed down the fIrst time. I gave my last buns to her I was relieved when the train pulled out of the station. But the sight of the girl haunted me constantly for the next two days, making me search for the causes of her suffering." [Garside]

As well as widespread poverty, Wei also saw many people he respected fall victim to brutal purges. When Wei met a journalist in the far western province of Xinjiang who had been exiled there as a "rightist" in the 1950s, he was suspicious at first of her scathing views of the Party leadership until she showed him people whose standard of living had changed little since the

1949 "Liberation." "Why should good people always be struck down and bad people rise higher and higher?" Wei began to ask. He and his friends set out to find their own answers to these questions. "I was waking from a dream, but I was waking in darkness," Wei wrote of the impact of this period on his thinking. [Garside]

Returning to Beijing, Wei became a member of the "United Action Committee," (UAC)

one of the more radical and sometimes violent Red Guard groups formed in late 1966 by a group . of children of high-ranking CCP cadres. the group raided political police archives and battled ~ with Red Guards sponsored by Mao's wife, Jiang Qing. After UAC was banned in early 1967,

Wei was detained for three or four months. Following his release on April 22, Wei and other

members of the banned group continued to conduct "propaganda" through music and theatricals, ~ by joining with a choir and orchestra. "We gave concerts, ran a theatrical troupe, began making k films and put out a magazine called Get Ready," he said. "This kept me occupied and gave me experience in administration and leadership. But there were things I didn't like about the group, and they were typical of that time. Most of the funds for the group came from cash and goods, worth $120,000 U.S., stolen from a warehouse The main political activity of the group was voicing grievance on behalf of veteran cadres, to whom many of the members were related. I was dissatisfied that nothing was done for the common people." [Garside]

The choir was soon dissolved, Wei wrote, as "organizations supporting Jiang Qing began

to take action against members of our group." In 1968 as Mao turned against the Red Guards for ~ creating "chaos" and ordered many of the leaders arrested, Wei became increasingly disillusioned. ~ Believing he too might be detained, Wei fled to his family's ancestral village in Anhui Province in central China. He spent a year living there, hearing shocking stories of the devastation caused by the famine of the late 1950s and early 1960s which followed Mao Zedong's disastrous Great Leap Forward. He saw whole villages of abandoned houses, their roofs caved in and their walls buckling, which belonged to inhabitants who had all starved to death. He heard of villagers driven to eating the flesh of children. He also began to study Marx and Engels more closely. Considering , them "more scientific" than Lenin or Stalin, he concluded that the kind of "class struggle" Mao had been inciting had nothing to do with the Marxist concept of class. "As I watched Mao Zedong whip up class struggle in the countryside, during my year in Anhui and later when I joined the army, I began to understand," Wei wrote. "[Mao] put people into imaginary interest groups, and set them to struggle against each other so that they lost touch with reality and could no longer see where their true interests lay." [Garside]

In 1969, through family connections, Wei joined the army. This was the only alternative to being "sent down" to the countryside as "educated youth," as many young people were after the Red Guards were disbanded. Most were then unable to return home to the city. Wei left the army in 1973 and went home to Beijing to work as an electrician at the Beijing Zoo.

In the late 1960s, Wei met Ping Ni, a young Tibetan woman who stimulated in him an interest in Tibet and provided further revelations about the experience of those who had the misfortune of becoming enemies of the regime. Ping Ni's family was famous in Beijing because her father, Phuntsog Wangyal, was initially one of the regime's highest-ranking Tibetan officials. He had, however, been arrested as a "spy" in 1961, because of his relations with the Indian and Soviet Communist Parties prior to 1949. When Ping Ni's mother, also Tibetan and a noted beauty, was also arrested in 1968 during the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, she slit her wrists. Her husband was still in Qincheng Prison, where he stayed for close to 15 years. He was to provide much of the information for Wei's investigative report on that notorious prison (excerpts are reproduced in the selections from Wei's writings). Sometime in the early 1970s, Wei and Ping Ni began to "speak of love," as the Chinese say. By this time, Ping Ni was understandably bitter about the regime. Around the same time, Wei began to study Tibetan history and culture, and when graduate programs restarted in 1977, Wei immediately applied to read Tibetan history and sat for the entrance examination. Failing to win a place, he was forced to continue working at his uninspiring job at the Beijing Zoo.

Wei's family had not been immune from the savagery of the Cultural Revolution either. As a ranking cadre in the CCP, Wei's mother was harassed repeatedly during the Cultural Revolution. Like so many people who had been labeled "class enemies," when she was diagnosed with cancer she was prevented from receiving proper treatment and died quickly, passing away on October 22,1976.

"We have come a long way since the Cultural Revolution started," Wei wrote in his

autobiography. "In the beginning, people rose up in anger to defend the man who was the author of their suffering. They opposed the slave system but worshipped its creator. They demanded democratic rights but despised democratic systems. They even tried to use a dictator's thought to win democratic rights. However, during the ten years of the Cultural Revolution great changes took place in their understanding. Many of those who in 1966 had stood in Tiananmen like idiots, with tears in their eyes, before that man who stripped them of their freedom, returned courageously in 1976 to oppose him in that same place." [Garside] Wei went to the square to read the poems which had been put up to commemorate Zhou Enlai during the April Fifth Movement of 1976. But he had no urge to contribute, he told Marie Holzman. He remembers not being particularly moved by Zhou Enlai's death. He did not begin to articulate his political opinions until the Democracy Wall movement started in 1978.

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