On Wei Jingsheng

The following remarks were made at the PEN press conference in December 1995 at which Robert Stone read the above statement.

I have been in China only two times, neither of them recent. The first time was in the early 1970s, at the end of the Cultural Revolution, when relatively few foreigners made their way there. And I went again for about a month at the beginning of the 1980s. Before that second trip, I already knew something about Wei Jingsheng. He was in the early years of his longest period of imprisonment, following his arrest in 1978 for writing his essay “The Fifth Modernization—Democracy” and posting it on the Democracy Wall in Beijing, and I’d promised myself that when I went to China I would bring his name up with every official I met—including those who were, officially, not officials, like the President of Chinese PEN. Each time that I mentioned his name, the answer, without exception, was: “I don’t know what person you’re talking about.” And I would repeat his name, and write it out in English, saying, “I’m sure I’m mispronouncing it, but still…” And I’d be told, “I’m sorry. You have been misinformed. I definitely never heard of anyone with that name.” This, as I said, was in the early 1980s. I tell the story to give you an idea of the kind of wall that Chinese officials erect to fend off our efforts to contact writers and human rights activists there who are being persecuted and to draw attention to their plight.

Such efforts always encounter many obstacles. Perhaps there are even more obstacles now, since the end of the cold war. Understandably, people are relieved to be no longer obliged to think in terms of a perennial “us” versus “them,” the mostly imperfect democracies under American leadership versus dictatorships of the Soviet stripe. But in that not-to-be-regretted bipolar world, where some—but hardly all—of the greatest abuses were occurring in Communist countries, it was easier to mobilize people and governments on behalf of human rights violations than it is now. And quite a few dictatorships did show themselves responsive to such pressure.

This is less the case now than a few years ago. As economic rivalries have replaced the old competition of political systems, governments are less rather than more willing to take on the human rights agenda. Thus our own government has for some time decoupled trade agreements and correction of human rights violations, and, apparently intimidated by the vehemence of the Chinese rulers and concerned about sustaining lucrative economic ties, has failed to take a strong stand on Wei Jingsheng’s behalf. And dictatorships round the world have been emboldened by the new post-ideological primacy of export considerations. People at PEN have had a devastating experience in this last month, after working hard on appeals to bring pressure on the Nigerian government not to do its worst to the eminent Nigerian writer, Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was brought to trial on trumped-up charges for which…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.