Biography of Wei Jingsheng



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A Prisoner of the State


"My freedom is your victory," Wei told Marie Holzman soon after his 1993 release. On one point he was emphatic - that without the international pressure which had been brought to bear on his behalf, he would have been killed in prison. He is convinced that the prison regimen at the beginning of his incarceration was expressly designed to weaken him in the hopes that he would collapse and die. While his fourteen-and-a-half years of incarceration certainly succeeded in weakening him physically, it did not weaken him mentally. "The loneliness, the impression that no one was concerned about me any more weighed on me terribly," he told Holzman. Even beatings, he acknowledged, were sometimes preferable to the crushing solitude.

From his arrest until 1981, Wei was held in the notorious K-Block of Banbuqiao Detention Center, a section which was supposed to house only prisoners who had not yet been sentenced and

those who had been condemned to death. In his solitary confinement cell, he maintained his health by practicing calisthenics and boxing daily and sleeping with the window open even in freezing temperatures. His guards permitted him to go outside for a few minutes every day. It was on one of these occasions in 1980 that Liu Qing saw Wei while crossing a courtyard. "As I was returning to my cell after being let out for exercise, I came face to face with Wei Jingsheng," Liu wrote in his account of his own early days in prison. "He was pale and thin, and when he saw me, there was an expression of bewilderment on his face. Two interrogators led him straight past me."[SPEARHead]

Then, in 1981, Wei was transferred to a solitary confinement cell in Beijing No.1 Prison. : For most of 1982 and 1983, he was not allowed to leave his cell. Moreover, his food rations became increasingly meager, the main diet consisting of coarse grains and thin "vegetable soup" which was actually little more than water with a dash of soy sauce. "When I asked to buy fruit with the money my brother and sisters sent me," Wei said, "they just laughed in my face."

Normally, if prisoners had money they could ask the guards to purchase food for them to supplement the severely inadequate diet which is an aspect of all Chinese prisons. What is more,

Wei believed that the flue from a heating stove in the neighboring ce)1 was intentionally directed towards his tiny window so that he could not allow fresh air into his cell. "I lived in total pollution," he said. [Holzman] During this period, Wei's health declined precipitously: he lost eight of his teeth, developed a heart condition, contracted hepatitis and became very weak. Several hunger strikes in protest brought no changes in his conditions. Wei realized the reason for the lack of a response 2 when he discovered that the guards who were charged with recording his every word and action t: were writing down that he was eating the meals brought to him. He decided that hunger strikes under such conditions were worse than pointless, and decided he must try to maintain his strength. He was kept so incommunicado that even the guards were forbidden to speak to him. "In 1984, it was difficult for me to speak since my vocal chords had lost the habit of functioning," he later remembered. "It was hard for me to utter any words." [Holzman] Somehow, Weisurvived this inhuman treatment, and in 1984, he was finally sent to a labor ~' camp in Qinghai Province, on a high desert plateau at Tanggemu. "They tried to find a labor camp fwhich was at an altitude of above 3,500 meters, because in general, people with heart conditions don't survive this kind of expedition," Wei said. Most such camps were in Tibet, but since the authorities were worried about security there, Wei was sent to Tanggemu, where the altitude was only 3,000 meters. [Holzman]

The strategy backfired: in Qinghai Weiwas able to go outside and the clear air and the company of three other prisoners transferred with him helped to restore him to relative good health. He was also able to raise rabbits in the yard outside his cell, and thus earned some extra money to supplement his meager diet. Ironically, two of Wei's three companions in the tiny wing for political prisoners were former Red Guards who had belonged to the pro-Jiang Qing faction and had been sent to prison for their actions. The third was a CCP official convicted of embezzlement. Wei believes that the three were incarcerated with him to serve as "impartial" witnesses to what the authorities hoped would be a death from "natural causes." Despite their differing political careers, Wei formed a close friendship with Kuai Dafu, one of Beijing's most notorious Red Guard leaders, during their four years together in Qinghai.

Starting in December 1979, his family was permitted to begin sending him things in prison. From August 1981 onwards, his brother and two sisters were able to see him every two or three months, but only when notified, not on any regular schedule. Such notification had to precede all family visits during Wei's long imprisonment. During his time in Qinghai he was allowed only one visit annually until 1990 when it became biannual. Visits were occasionally suspended, the family was never given a reason for this. Wei's father, who was said to have been pressured to cut off relations with Wei, to "draw a clear line of demarcation with the enemy," did not wish to visit his son. In all his years in prison, Wei never knew of the campaigns being waged for his release in the outside world, the termination of all visits was threatened if his siblings spoke of anything but family matters during their annual reunions. Their visits were taped and filmed, Wei said. In the absence of any concrete information about Wei's condition, rumors abounded. In 1984, there were reports that he had had a nervous breakdown, was suffering from schizophrenia and had twice been admitted to a psychiatric hospital; in 1987 rumors circulated that he had died in prison. Rumors were used to demoralize other dissidents. Liu Qing remembers: "Around the time of the June 4th massacre in 1989, the prisoners and guards said to me: 'Have you heard? Wei Jingsheng is suffering a complete mental and physical breakdown.' They said Deng Xiaoping had personally ordered that Wei be sent to Beijing for treatment, since he wished to preserve Wei as a living lesson for any who would challenge him. Whether Deng ever said any such thing may never be known, but the fact that both prisoners and guards all knew Wei Jingsheng by name shows that although his fourteen years in jail may have silenced his voice, his fame actually increased."

In the fall of 1989, Wei was again transferred, this time to a labor camp, the Nanpu New

Life Salt Works on the Bohai Gulf near the city of Tangshan. This is one of the largest penal colonies in the PRC and the largest coastal salt works in Asia. Its production generates a great deal of revenue for the authorities. Wei, however, was not put to work. He was confined entirely to a special compound, consisting of a cell measuring two by two and a half meters with an adjoining IS-square meter yard. He was allowed no contact with fellow prisoners. .

During his time at Nanpu, Wei protested almost constantly, demanding improvements in his conditions such as more access to reading material. He also pressed relentlessly for a reexamination and appeal of his case. He wanted to engage a lawyer to mount a legal challenge against his conviction, but this was denied. He staged a number of hunger strikes. During one, which lasted close to 100 days, he consumed only a teaspoon of sugar dissolved in water per day. His fasts achieved only limited success: Wei was given more books, magazines and newspapers (all of which had first to be vetted by the prison authorities) and the color TV he had asked for.

Concern about the situation of political prisoners in China reached a high point after the suppression of the 1989 democracy movement, and Wei Jingsheng' s case was frequently raised by governments and human rights organizations around the world. In May 1992, the first picture of Wei seen abroad since his trial was published in a Beijing-run magazine in Hong Kong. The picture showed Wei being examined by a doctor, who was looking into his mouth, and was said to "prove" that Wei had neither been tortured nor lost his teeth.

Between 1979 and 1981, Wei was not even permitted to have a pen. Like many other uncooperative dissidents who also refused to "admit their crimes," he was forbidden to write letters, even to his family or friends. Only letters to the "higher authorities" were permitted. Consequently, he wrote to all the top leaders of the CCP and the government, filling thousands of pages with questions on such subjects as the future of Tibet (excerpts reprinted below), the treatment of political prisoners, the development of China's economy and human rights (excerpts reprinted below), as well as numerous appeals related to his own case.

After Wei's release in 1993, when the Chinese-language Taiwan newspaper chain, United Daily, published some of his prison letters, readers could discern the same ironic turns of phrase of Wei's earlier writings. He addressed the leaders as equals in the same familiar, somewhat disrespectful tone evident in "Do We Want Democracy or New Autocracy?" For instance, at the beginning of a letter dated September 1990 to CCP General Secretary Jiang Zemin (who was brought in after the 1989 crackdown to replace ousted Party leader Zhao Ziyang), Wei wrote: "On the TV screen you look fatter than you were in Shanghai; I guess this only indicates what your very skillful cook has achieved, rather than implying that you are having an easy time. In fact, you are not. Nominally, you are the most senior leader but you still have to echo what others say." Wei impudently went on to encourage Jiang to stand for political and economic progress and reject outdated thinking of th~ reactionaries in the Party.

"Throughout his long years in prison, Wei never stopped thinking, analyzing, planning for the future," said Robin Munro, Hong Kong director of Human Rights Watch/Asia. "The rare glimpses of dogged resistance and perseverance by one solitary man on behalf of an ideal that these letters give, coming as they did from the depths of the Chinese gulag, are of an awe- inspiring intensity."

Considering their author's situation, the letters show a remarkable grasp of world events. "When I was in prison, I did not know much about things happening in the outside world," Wei told United Daily on the eve of the publication of his first letter. "Sometimes I had to rely on conjectures, which were not necessarily accurate. However, from another point of view, if you speak for the sake of accuracy only, then you had better shut your mouth completely in prison. Therefore, readers can consider what is correct and just laugh at the mistakes I have made." Reading between the lines in the official press, Wei learned of the 1989 protest movement and its bloody conclusion. Following the international community's condemnation of the authorities' massacre of peaceful demonstrators, he responded to the Party's attempts to recapture the political high-ground by formulating its own defamation of human rights.

In a March 1991 letter to Jiang Zemin and Premier Li Peng, Wei criticizes the Party's use of the Criminal Code's articles on "counterrevolutionary crimes" to imprison its opponents, as well as the petty restrictions it places on such prisoners. "Whether a political view is correct or not is an issue that must be decided by history rather than by judges Moreover, no one in this . country can be an outsider in political terms, so it is impossible to have real judicial : independence." Political prisoners, wrote Wei, are treated even worse in Chinese prisons than criminal offenders. In Wei's view, enforced political "stability," the watchword of the post-1989 leadership, only allowed pressure to build up dangerously for the future. "Only in a society where internal hate is minimized and intemal disputes are resolved in as gentle a way as possible can the greatest possible capabilities be brought into play and can people work for development and construction Only when a mild approach is adopted can there be no future trouble, can people be sincerely persuaded, and can disputes be resolved fairly and reasonably. Compelling people into submission by using force just postpones arguments and allows disputes to accumulate and will solve no problems." Wei concludes his letter, "I will observe and await your responses while carrying out a hunger strike." Although he was told by his guards that they were transmitted to the highest levels, he never received a single response to any of his letters.

Released as a Bargaining Chip

As the final year of Wei's sentence began, publications around the world again began reprinting excerpts from his writings, as many had done annually since his arrest. On March 29, 1993, the first G1eitsman International Activist Award was conferred on Wei and questions began to be raised about whether he would really be allowed out the following year when he had completed his IS-year term. At the beginning of 1993, a senior Ministry of Justice official replied to inquiries about Wei from human rights activist and businessman John Kamm, with the following remarks: "Frankly, his reform is going too slowly. He persists in his strong anti- government attitude. He is strongly against socialism And his attitude is not cooperative He likes to rise late and then stay up late watching TV in the adjacent room where the guards are. He always likes to argue with and tries to refute the guards." The official insisted that unless Wei's behavior changed, he would not be considered for early release.

Just before the anniversary of Wei's arrest in March, the Chinese government released videotape of Wei, showing him apparently in good health and being taken on a trip to a museum and a department store in the city of Tangshan before eating a large meal and visiting the dentist. The tape was clearly an attempt to allay foreign criticisms about Wei's continued imprisonment and conditions. It was not shown within China, however. As it turned out, the tape was also part of an aggressive Chinese government campaign to win Beijing the 2000 Olympic Games. Then a few months later, Wei was taken on a special trip to Beijing. Clearly the authorities hoped that the bustling commerce, new highways and towering hotels of the capital would help persuade the recalcitrant Wei that he had been wrong about China's need for democracy as a "fifth modernization." But Wei was not convinced that modernization without democratization had been a success. When Kamm asked what impact the visits had had on Wei's views, the official reluctantly admitted, "None whatsoever." In January 1994, when asked again about the transformation of his city, Wei said, "Yes, Beijing is much changed at least, its appearance. But, has the basic situation changed? The country is still dominated by totalitarian power. While cadres and officials are getting rich and are benefiting from their traffic in all kinds of goods and influence, the little people still have no voice. I still stick to the same argument: without the introduction of a democratic political system, China will not be able to develop in a stable and sustainable fashion." [Holzman]

Considering his stubbornness and unchanged attitude, Wei's early release appeared unlikely. But then, on September 14, 1993, just nine days before the International Olympic Committee was to vote on Beijing's bid for the Games, the authorities suddenly announced that Wei had been released on probation. Pictures and videotape of Wei signing release papers were released by the authorities, and the tape was even shown briefly on Chinese TV. Wei himself,

however, continued to be held in a guest house outside Beijing, unable to return home for another week. Wei's own view on his release was characteristic. Just before the decision on Beijing's Olympic bid went to a vote, Wei Jingsheng told The New York Times that trading political prisoners for the Games was "dirty and abnormal." Wei's release seemed to boomerang on the Chinese authorities, serving only to further focus the world's attention on China's human rights record and its cynical effort to manipulate world opinion. Beijing ended up losing the privilege of hosting the Games to Sydney by a very close margin.

Days after his release, Wei told journalists that he would continue to press for democratization and respect for human rights and would challenge the validity of his conviction through the legal process. But since he was on parole until the completion of his prison term in March 1994 (and would then be subject to three further years of deprivation of political rights), he remained under certain restrictions. He would not only be denied the right to vote and to exercise his right to free expression, but also to form any kind of organization or even do business. He insisted, however, that he had no regrets about what he had done.

He said that he fully expected that he would be jailed again, because he felt certain that the . authorities were not prepared to tolerate him continuing to exercise his right to free expression.

He said that he would not formally accept interviews, but would instead "have chats" with . journalists. When Public Security Bureau officials complained, he claimed that he could not I control what they did with his remarks. Wei also ignored the authorities' injunction against speaking about his time in jail. He was ~ not particularly interested in endless examination of the past, however; he was looking towards ~ the future, worrying about the potential for conflict created by a government which he believed t had cut itself off from ordinary people. But in spite of his apparent defiance, he was actually ill with heart and kidney problems. He told Holzman that he was sure he had been given some drug I like steroids, possibly in his food, to make him put on weight prior to his release. He continued to lose teeth, making a joke of it when one fell out during a meal. Although his doctor had told him that he could gradually make a full recovery from the heart condition (which left him tired after walking only a short distance) if he would only spend the time to rest, Wei immediately restarted : his activism.

Despite the exhortations of friends to take it easy for a while, just weeks after his release he sought out Ding Zilin, a People's. University professor whose 17-year-old son had died from bullet wounds when the army began Its assault on BelJmg on the night of June 3, 1989. Ding has M devoted her life to collecting the names of those killed and wounded during the military crackdown. She had also been channeling assistance received from overseas groups to the bereaved families and the injured, as well as helping such people find ways to band together and share their grief in the face of government harassment and discrimination. Somehow, Wei Jingsheng had heard of Ding's work while he was still in prison.

"As in 1979, when he took up Fu Yuehua's case, as soon as he came out of prison, he took ~ up Ding Zilin's case," said Marie Holzman. Although Holzman was in Beijing in January 1994 . just to see him, Wei insisted that she spend time with Ding and meet some of the people Ding was . helping. When the $50,000 from The Gleitsman Foundation's International Activist Award was : fmally transferred to him, Wei was ready to give it all to support Ding's work and assist the 7 bereaved and wounded. Ding, however, dissuaded him, reminding him that he would need money for his own life. He still found ways to use this money to help with her activities.



Living Surrounded by Police, Without Fear

Following his release, Wei refused to be limited in his activities by the conspicuous surveillance under which he lived, although he was always mindful of the effects this might have on those with whom he had contact. Living fIrst in his father's house and then later in an apartment belonging to his brother, he met up with many of his old friends and gave freely of his time to dissidents and journalists alike. He set up an office with a computer staffed by a young secretary and interpreter, Tong Vi, a veteran of the 1989 student movement, and went around the city with a wallet stuffed full of bills, telling Holzman that he never knew when he might meet someone who really needed help. At the homes of needy friends, he would quietly slip several hundred yuan into a book on the table or stuff bank notes into their pockets, with discreet generosity.

"To meet with Wei," said Robin Munro, who met him in Beijing after his September release, "was to feel oneself in the presence of an immense moral will and an exceptional, if formally untutored, political intellect. Not only had he somehow survived a fourteen-and-a-half year period of solitary incarceration in some of the worst prisons and labor camps the Chinese authorities have to offer, but upon his release he immediately plunged himself back into tireless activity on behalf of his original goal of helping bring greater human rights and democracy to China. During his six months of freedom, he was constantly on the move around the Chinese capital, networking with scattered pro-democracy cells; encouraging and sometimes cajoling activists into joining their forces to achieve greater things; and, above all, inspiring everyone he met with his unique combination of dauntless resolve, commitment, wit and vision."

By November 1993, Wei's prison letters were appearing around the world in United Daily and his articles and statements calling for more pressure on China to improve human rights were enraging the authorities. "If there wasn't international pressure," Wei told the South China Morning Post, "a lot of political prisoners wouldn't have been set free, including me. Not only would we not have been set free, but according to the standards of the CCP, many of us, including me, would have been executed." He said pressure had improved human rights conditions and contributed to a growing sense of rights among ordinary people. "Many Communist Party cadres at least now have the concept of human rights and of the violation of human rights," he said. "Before they didn't even have this."

The Public Security Bureau warned him repeatedly that as a "criminal" released on parole, he was not permitted to grant interviews to journalists or to publish his own writings, and was even threatened with re-arrest on a number of occasions. He could only write short pieces, he told a family member, since his hand would quickly tire and he would be left exhausted. He did manage to write two opinion pieces for The New York Times (reprinted below), a column for the newly-launched Hong Kong paper Eastern Express, and a number of other brief articles. In his first piece written since his release, a November 18 editorial in The New York Times published on the eve of a meeting between Jiang Zemin and US. President Bill Clinton in Seattle, Wei bravely argued that the violations of basic rights in China were severe and would not change without pressure from the international community, including the linking of trade privileges such as Most Favored Nation (MFN) to human rights concessions from the Chinese government. He argued that this position was consistent with his patriotism, even though the Chinese leadership has been fairly successful in tarring those who take such a position as traitors. "Since democracy has never been imposed by one country on another, China's democracy can only be realized by the Chinese people," Wei told Hong Kong's Ming Pao just days after his release from prison. "The Chinese government should contribute to democratization by gradually delegating power to the people."

Wei does not believe, however, that democracy will, or could, come about in China as a result of a mere change in the Chinese leadership. In his view, it would be a slow, painful process of growth, starting at the grassroots. But he believed that this process had already begun. The new democratic movement, which began with Democracy Wall, was initially very weak. Then, by 1989, although they were still confused about what it was "almost everyone had come to believe that democracy was essential," he said. The brutal suppression of the 1989 protests disabused the people of any hope that democracy could come about through reforms initiated by the CCP. "Now we are just starting on the third step," Wei said, "when groups representing all kinds of political interests, including different types of ideas, rely on their own work to push forward democratization, rather than waiting to be given it by the rulers." China, Wei concluded, must, in a steady, gradual and sometimes arduous process, find its own type of democracy through the efforts of its own people. [China Rights Forum]

Wei has remained adamant that without democratization, modernization in China cannot be successful over the long term. He has written several articles addressed to foreign investors, arguing that their long-term interests are congruent with those of democratic activists, in that without an independent rule of law, which functions on a basis of equality, their business interests cannot be guaranteed. Dictatorship created chaos and the absence of democratic procedures for resolving disputes were at the root of the upheavals of the reform period, he argued. "I think the so-called turmoil during these 10 or so years is the result of a suppression of democracy and a suppression of human rights," he told the Hong Kong Standard.

Focus of Dissident Movement and U.S. Pressure, Imprisoned Again

Wei's outspokenness helped to give new impetus to the dissident movement in China otherwise preoccupied with commerce. Although he was not personally involved in any of the various initiatives the dissidents launched because his visibility might have jeopardized their existence, he provided inspiration and counsel for many activists as they increasingly focused their efforts on practical measures to protect human rights, such as legal action against rights abuses and protection of workers' rights.


This new wave of activism coincided with continuing pressure on the Chinese government by the United States. In May 1993, President Clinton declared that he would not renew China's MFN status unless clear progress was made on human rights, and the annual review of MFN for China was fast approaching. During a February 1994 visit to China to discuss human rights issues, John Shattuck, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs, met Wei for dinner one evening. Shattuck was visiting China to prepare for the March arrival of Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, and his meeting with Wei outraged the Chinese authorities. It was the first time a Chinese dissident had met with such a high-ranking visiting U.S. diplomat. Even before Shattuck left China, Chinese officials were publicly accusing him of having "broken Chinese law." Six prominent dissidents in Shanghai were hastily rounded up just before Shattuck arrived, to prevent similar meetings there. Wei himself was subsequently detained for 24 hours of "questioning." A few days later, he was forcibly sent out of Beijing on a "voluntary" vacation. As of this writing, he has not regained his freedom. . According to Wei's secretary, Tong Vi, she and Wei were in a car on April 1, driving back to Beijing along the highway from Tianjin, when some seven police cars pulled them over. While

Wei was taken away, Tong Yi was allowed to return to Beijing and reported the news of his detention to the foreign press. Then, several days later, she, too, was detained. Although the authorities insist that Wei is not detained, but is under "residential surveillance" (supposedly a form of house arrest), his family has been told only that he is being held in a "hotel" in the suburbs of Beijing, and members have been denied permission to send him clothing, books, or other personal items. On April 7, his sister, Wei Ling, told Ming Pao she was concerned that her brother was being mistreated and that he had become ill as a result. "They told my father it was necessary for them to give my brother a health check-up," she said. "However, he was in good health before he was arrested."

Foreign Ministry spokesman, Wu Jianmin, told reporters that same day that Wei "has broken the law and must be prosecuted." He described Wei and other dissidents as "outsiders" who are "cut off from the Chinese reality," reported Agence France Presse. Other officials denied the rearrest of Wei had anything to do with human rights. "Human rights is not about releasing criminals and other irrelevant issues," said another Foreign Ministry official, according to the South China Morning Post.

Wei's arrest was part of a larger sweep against dissidents. In fact, almost all the principal



leaders of the latest wave of human rights and labor activism are now in detention. One by one, they are being sentenced to terms of "Reeducation Through Labor," a form of administrative punishment that allows for up to four years in a labor camp without any specific charges being filed or a trial held. Wei himself could face such a sanction or possibly even another prison term. The fact that the Chinese leadership could not bear to permit him his freedom is testament not only to his singular courage but to the fact that Wei has become the symbol of Chinese democracy. "A lot of people have the spirit inside, but they conceal it, since otherwise their very existence, their livelihood, would be threatened," he said at the end of February in one of his last interviews before being detained again. "But they haven't lost it. When the right time comes, it will come out again. Most people wait until others are standing to make their move, very few are willing to stand up first or to stand alone. That's why my friends call me a fool! But I don't have any regrets." [China Rights Forum]
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