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 the likely sentence was death. We expected that Ken Saro-Wiwa would be found guilty, and feared that he would receive a terrible sentence, perhaps life imprisonment, and remain in prison for many years. We thought it unlikely that he would be executed. But dictatorships aren’t playing by the old cold war rules: Ken Saro-Wiwa was executed—immediately, a couple of days after the court’s verdict. And the shock of Ken Saro-Wiwa’s murder by the Nigerian state gives an extra intensity to our concern for Wei Jingsheng. We know now that we must move more quickly in the new, post-1989 world, and speak as loudly as we can.

One final point. The history of response to the human rights and democracy movements in China has, I think, a special inflection. For a long time almost all influential foreign scholarship and thinking about China started from the assumption that China was an essentially collectivist society with no indigenous tradition of individual rights. Hence, Sinologists argued, we shouldn’t expect a real movement for democracy and for individual rights as these are understood in the West to emerge in China. This double-standard thinking about China reflects the general decline of universalist moral and political standards—of Enlightenment values—in the past generation. There is an increasing reluctance to apply a single standard of political justice, of freedom, and of individual rights and of democracy. The usual justifications for this reluctance are that it is “colonialist” (the label used by people on the left) or “Euro-centric” (the label used both by multiculturalist academics and by businessmen, who talk admiringly of authoritarian “Confucian cultures”) to expect or to want non-European peoples to have “our” values. My own view is that it is precisely the reluctance to apply these standards—as if “we” in the European and the neo-European countries need them, but the Chinese and the peoples of Africa don’t—that is colonialist and condescending.


Those of us who are active in the human rights movement have understood that it is our duty to hold to a universal standard of individual rights and democracy, and not be talked into thinking that some cultures and societies don’t need these as much as we Westerners do. And, as far as I know, Sinologists of high repute no longer hold such views. For the recent history of the democracy movement in China has shown that notions of the individual and of democratic freedoms like ours do have Chinese roots. (Certainly more than the doctrines of Marxist-Leninism.) Nevertheless, as the heroism of activists like Wei Jingsheng have shamed foreign China experts into abandoning their view that these are uniquely “Western” standards, “Western” ideas, the Chinese government continues, very conveniently, to invoke its own, lethal version of the double standard. Being a government, a dictatorship, it can draw the unpleasant conclusion—and enforce it—that those Chinese citizens active in pressing for democracy and individual rights have to be sponsored from abroad, and are traitors. Actual charges of spying often go with charges of treason, and such charges have been made against Wei Jingsheng.

So, beyond the human dimensions of this case, the moral greatness of Wei Jingsheng the individual, the injustice of his continued suffering at the hands of his government, and the importance of what he has written, all of which more than justifies our passionate concern for him, and our demand that the Clinton administration and other governments take steps to secure his freedom—beyond all this, there is the fact that Wei is the living proof that human rights and democracy are not foreign importations. They are Chinese ideas. It is our privilege to support them.

This Issue

February 15, 1996