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Living in Truth

Here is a country where the skulls of the young come cheap: in 1979, an innocent twenty-nine-year-old named Wei Jingsheng, who did no more than advocate democracy, is shipped to prison for fifteen years, and nobody finds the event especially surprising. In 1995, after a short release followed by a year and a half of extra-legal detention, he gets another sentence, this one of fourteen years. But the total still comes to only about half of the sixty years he will have lived when he is released for the second time. Not bad, many Chinese will say. He is still alive, after all. This attitude among Chinese is not necessarily sarcastic or far-fetched. In May 1977, less than two years before Wei Jingsheng’s first conviction, fifty-five equally innocent young people were secretly executed. Their “crimes” were that they had once criticized Mao Zedong and his ideas. Never mind that Mao had already died and that his top lieutenants, now called the “all evil” Gang of Four, had recently been arrested. The new “wise leader” Hua Guofeng still judged that those fifty-five young freethinkers should each get his or her bullet in the head.

The appalling tale of Wei Jingsheng coincides with the span of Deng Xiaoping’s quarter-century rule of China. On June 15, 1989, while living in the Tanggemu Farm prison camp in remote Qinghai Province, Wei wrote Deng a letter that was never delivered but is now included in the remarkable collection of prison letters and other writings under review. “I wouldn’t be what I am today without you,” Wei wrote. “You can take these words however you like.” In the plainest sense, the words mean that Wei’s life is being wasted in prison because of the personal orders of dictator Deng. In a larger sense, they mean that Wei owes his political fame to Deng as well.

The “Democracy Wall” movement of 1978-1979, during which Wei, who was then working as an electrician, wrote his most eloquent pleas for democracy and human rights, was centered in Beijing and elicited echoes in a dozen or more cities across China. Normally, in the People’s Republic, any such signs of ferment among the people have been quickly stamped out, but this time the movement was allowed unusual freedom of speech, assembly, and publication. When dozens of young people posted arguments for democracy on a wall in Beijing, they were not stopped by the police. Why?Because Deng Xiaoping, in engineering his climb to power, needed backing from some “mass opinion” with which to discredit the Maoist holdovers who were his principal rivals. He gave the young people who wrote on the Democracy Wall his blessing, and they thrived.

But only briefly. In 1979, with his political victory assured, Deng moved to repress theDemocracy Wall movement. He decided to make a conspicuous statement before China and the world by ordering a heavy prison sentence for Wei Jingsheng. At first it seemed strange that Deng would use the courts so unfairly, because he was, at the same time, still carrying on a nationwide campaign to “overturn the unfair verdicts” of the Mao period. But these two moves by Deng each had its separate purpose:overturning the verdicts of Mao was aimed at attracting popular support, and it did so successfully. The point of sentencing Wei was to make it clear that dropping certain Maoist policies did not mean abandoning the authoritarian political system. Wei Jingsheng had called for democracy to replace dictatorship; that would not do.

Deng’s reforms and the emergence of Wei Jingsheng were both direct outgrowths of the strong demands for change that thirty years of Maoist rule had generated in the Chinese public. Wei lost out, and his fate was sealed, when the ever-patient Chinese people, despite their horrendous suffering under Mao, stopped short of demanding the overthrow of the Communist Party and settled for Deng’s compromise: a better life economically and expanded personal freedoms, but no democracy.

In 1979 Wei Jingsheng not only went to prison but fell into near oblivion. The weight of Deng’s prestige put an iron taboo on the very mention of his name in China. He is never mentioned in the press or on television. Nowhere was the prohibition written down, but the entire press and every citizen understood it. In the summer of 1988 a large delegation of Chinese writers, during a visit to Paris, was stunned when a French woman in the audience assembled before them proposed that everyone stand for a moment out of respect for Wei Jingsheng. The writers—including some of China’s brightest minds—were transfixed for several embarrassing seconds. (Finally one, who had already lived a few years in the United States, gathered her wits sufficiently to propose a salute to “all people in every country who have struggled for ideals.” Then the writers could stand up.) Down to the present day, the name Wei Jingsheng is probably better known to foreigners than to mainland Chinese. At the Tiananmen demonstrations in 1989, many student activists had only a vague notion of who Wei was—or even took him to be, as the government said, a criminal.

After Wei’s first arrest, between 1979 and 1993, well over half his time was spent in solitary confinement at four different prisons. He was denied contact not only with people but with just about everything else in this world, including the sunlight and the air outside his cell. He was not allowed to receive any information. Every few years he could have a monitored visit with family members, but he was forbidden to discuss social or political topics with them. All books and periodicals except the official People’s Daily were off-limits.

He could write letters, but they usually were not mailed. His letters to Party leaders and judicial organs, many of which are included in the collection of his writings under review, were confiscated and kept in a file. (We have them now only because Wei refused to leave prison in 1993 unless he could bring them with him.) Under the regulations Wei was allowed to write one letter per month to his family, but months often passed when his family received no letter. When he got out of prison Wei told the French Sinologist Marie Holzman that “the loneliness, the impression that no one was concerned about me anymore, weighed on me terribly. In 1984 it was difficult for me to speak, since my vocal cords had lost the habit of functioning.”*

Wei entered prison in good health, but within three years began to report illness to his captors:

These past few days my health has taken a sudden turn for the worse: I am vomiting and have diarrhea all at once; I feel dizzy and my chest is tight; my rotting gums have swollen. (Letter to Party Chairman Hu Yaobang, April 12, 1983)

Three months later:

My coronary disease has been getting progressively worse…. It has been extremely bad since the attack last winter, and it continues to flare up often. (Letter to President Li Xiannian, July 1983)

Three more months later:

I haven’t had any appetite for over six months, but I’ve forced myself to put down a few spoonfuls of rice each day…. All my teeth are so loose that I can’t even bite a piece of soft steamed bread; I have to wait until I can soak it in water. (Letter to family, October 22, 1983)

Three years later:

Recently my health has taken a serious turn for the worse. I have chest pains and shortness of breath, and it was clear from the electrocardiogram I was given that my heart rate is too fast. (Letter to the ministers of Justice and Public Security, January 9, 1987)

In the summer of 1989 the authorities, citing “consideration” for Wei’s health, transferred him from Tanggemu Farm in the highlands of Qinghai Province to the Nanpu New Life Salt Works prison in the coastal province of Hebei, where the medical facilities were better. But after three months, he wrote:

I have not taken any medicine, nor has a doctor come to examine me; I eat cold rice and drink unboiled water; I can’t sleep well or take a shower, and my body is so filthy that I’m nearly breaking out in sores. My sinusitis gives me splitting headaches, and my joints are so swollen that I can’t move my legs and feet properly; abdominal pain and diarrhea bother me all day long, my heart gives me trouble every three to five hours…. As you can see, I am no better off than if you sent me back to the Tanggemu Farm in Qinghai. There may not be much oxygen there, but there at least is a bit more humanism…. Perhaps it is precisely for these reasons that [that camp] is not considered as “advanced” as the one here…. (Letter to Deng Xiaoping, November 3, 1989)

Wei’s weakened body needed more sleep, yet many of his letters complain that noise kept him awake. To complain was futile because the noise was deliberately inflicted on him. The Chinese Communists had borrowed from Stalin’s prison system the technique of assigning common criminals to harass political prisoners, and making noise was one of their techniques. Wei writes that these “trusties,” as they are called, “are skilled and efficient as if they were trained psychological warfare experts” (Letter to Hu Yaobang, April 12, 1983). In the 1980s China’s per capita consumption of electricity was only enough to light one 60-watt bulb for about one-half hour per day; yet prison authorities and their trusties found it possible to shine a high-wattage lamp into Wei Jingsheng’s cell all night, night after night. Wei reached the conclusion that China’s leaders had a plan for him to “die of natural causes.”

Wei endured partly by trying as best he could to stay engaged with Chinese life outside the prison. He recalled the years he had spent as a Red Guard in an impoverished village that had lacked water and electric power; he remembered that back then he had dreamed about designing a solar power generator and an improved windmill. Why not spend his time in prison working on these inventions? How could the authorities object? He wrote to his family in Beijing, asking them to send some necessary tools. The tools were sent, but were confiscated at the prison gate. Later Wei received permission to raise rabbits in an adjacent cell; but, poorly fed himself, he found it difficult to nourish rabbits.

The tone of Wei’s letters suggests a person with a gentle and benevolent approach to life, combined with a keen sense of justice and a powerful sympathy for the weak and the dispossessed. People who know him personally confirm these impressions. Liu Qing, who was Wei’s friend and colleague at Democracy Wall, and who served a ten-year sentence parallel to Wei’s first, observes in the preface to this book that Wei’s “wealth of benevolence and sympathy…is another source of [his] courage.” At times Wei’s generosity seems to afford him some insulation from the injustice he suffers. Although he asks repeatedly for medical parole and a reconsideration of his case, he also writes in a letter of July 1983 to China’s President Li Xiannian that “I’ve already banished most of the illegalities that occurred during the process of my arrest, interrogation, and trial from my mind, otherwise there would be no way for me to remain an ‘optimist.”’

  1. *

    Sophia Woodman, “Wei Jingsheng’s Lifelong Battle for Democracy,” in The Courage to Stand Alone, p. 259.

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