Living in Truth

Wei Jingsheng
Wei Jingsheng; drawing by David Levine

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…

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