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 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.”‘

But when he sees fresh injustices, Wei’s calm gives way to an immediate sympathy for the victims and sometimes to stinging satirical comment on Communistofficials, no matter how high their positions. When he learns of the 1989 massacre in Beijing, he writes to Deng Xiaoping (Letter, June 15, 1989) that “you have fallen to even lower depths than the Gang of Four” and have manufactured “seditious lies” about what happened. “I’ve long known that you are precisely the kind of idiot to do something foolish like this, just as you’ve long known that I am precisely the kind of idiot who will remain stubborn to the end and take blows with his head up.” Wei’s reference to himself here as an “idiot” may be only partly ironic. Any reader of these letters might wonder what Wei expects to achieve by heaping abuse on the very people who hold life-and-death power over him, and Wei himself is obviously aware that his stubborn character is not only his source of strength but a main cause of his plight.

Wei is a careful observer of the life of his own mind, and writes frankly about his weaknesses. In a letter to his family (November 1, 1981), he writes:

Right now my mind feels a bit rusty and my reactions to things are slow. I’m completely cut off in here and feel so out of touch that I have a hard time assessing things people tell me…. I’m unsure and hesitant and have trouble understanding things.

Despite these handicaps, Wei sometimes produces remarkably astute insights into contemporary Chinese life. In a letter to his family of January 29, 1986, for example, he notes that the paintings of his younger sister betray an unfortunate “tendency toward hoping for quick success and instant profit.” Wei believes such motives afflict “the entire artistic community,” and he thus identifies a problem that few perceived in 1986 but that, in the late 1990s, has come to dominate and to distort all of Chinese political, economic, and cultural life. Wei’s advice to his younger sister in 1986 might be appropriately addressed to the entire nation today:

Inspiration is not a servant that “comes when you beckon, and leaves when you command.” You have to pay a price for it. Those who don’t pay in full end up mediocre.

In 1986 Wei also writes about a general deterioration in public morality that is leading his fellow citizens into cynical reliance on the most selfish elements in human nature. Here again he perceives a danger to China that is much more obvious today than it was at the time he wrote:

Who will emerge to rebuild the country and restore China in the beginning of the next century? The rest of this century can only be left to decay and provide more fertile soil for growth in the next century. (Letter to family, May 20, 1986)

Wei seems even to have had premonitions of the student demonstrations of 1986 and the Tiananmen movement of 1989:

Looking at China’s overall situation, the setbacks of 1984-85 are no more than “tremors”—the main quake is still to come. There may be big problems in the near future. (Letter to family, May 20, 1986)

One wonders how Wei, alone in his cell, could possibly reach such a judgment. The People’s Daily, his only newspaper, does not print much truth, and carries nothing about trends in popular unrest. It seems he must have drawn his conclusions indirectly, from his imagination of what the popular response would necessarily be to the tone of the leadership’s voice—which the People’s Daily certainly does carry:

One of the reasons for [the] great intensity [of the coming conflict] will be that those old men who are drunk on their false sense of power and on the flattery of boot-licking foreigners have completely lost their senses. They look at everything through filtered lenses, seeing only what they want to, totally ignoring anything else, and stubbornly sticking to their ways.

In 1989, the democracy movement that erupted first in Beijing and then in hundreds of Chinese cities caught many Chinese intellectuals by surprise. Wei was cheered by it, and later angry at its repression, but he was not surprised.

At times Wei’s spirit flags, and he muses over whether to retreat from his persistent concern for the world. In a letter to Deng Xiaoping and Chen Yun of November 9, 1983, he recalls how seven years earlier, during the final days of Mao, he had grown disgusted with all politics and politicians:

In fact, I was a bit disillusioned with the world in general. Although I wasn’t yet considering becoming a monk, I had thought of remaining simply an ordinary citizen, or maybe a detached hermit or self-content sage.

But in the end he finds it impossible to give up. Two years later, in 1978, he was plunging enthusiastically into the Democracy Wall movement:

After all, even if you have only the slightest sense of justice, when you come across something that you absolutely cannot tolerate, then you must get involved…. [Not to do so] is an irresponsible act of cowardice both to oneself and to society. (Letter to Deng Xiaoping and Chen Yun, November 9, 1983)

During his seventh year in prison, after a variety of efforts to use his time productively have come to nothing, he again ponders withdrawal:

…Now that my health is so bad, I’ve been feeling really frustrated. If they feel they don’t need more people to participate and want simply to rely on their own old ideas to carry out the reforms, then so be it! Why bother putting my two cents in and annoying people? Anyway, when they slip up, I won’t be responsible. I’ll just suffer a bit more along with everybody else and no more. From now on I’m going to take after those smarter folks, and even if I can’t learn to brown-nose, at least I can keep my mouth shut and pay less attention to others and more to myself. (Letter to family, May 20, 1986)

But again the fire that burns in him will not let him rest. He continues through the next few years to analyze China’s problems and, quixotically, to offer advice to the rulers. He writes to Deng Xiaoping (July 1987), expounding upon the harm that Deng’s political doublespeak causes; to his sister (April 10, 1988), suggesting how to use icebergs to supplement the fresh water supply of the city of Qingdao; to Premier Li Peng (May 4, 1989), advising him to accept popular demands for democracy; to Deng Xiaoping (June 15, 1989), warning that his obdurate repression risks leading China into chaos; to President Jiang Zemin (September 5, 1990), giving advice on trade policy; to Jiang Zemin and Li Peng together (June 15, 1991), presenting a detailed analysis of the fallacies in the Chinese government’s position on human rights; and to Deng Xiaoping (October 5, 1992), arguing for more tolerant policies toward Tibet.

(Wei was unusually well informed about Tibet because of his engagement in the late 1970s to a young Tibetan woman whose father, once head of the Tibetan Communist Party, was arrested after the Tibetan rising of 1959 and imprisoned for eighteen years. After Wei’s own imprisonment, he reluctantly wrote to his family asking them to persuade his fiancée to end their engagement, for her sake.)

In September 1993, as the Chinese leaders were looking for ways to strengthen their bid to host the Olympic Games in 2000, Wei Jingsheng was suddenly released on parole after having served fourteen and a half years of his fifteen-year sentence. The man who had gone to prison in the full bloom of youth came out with a frail middle-aged body and only twelve teeth. But his political faith and his dedication to human rights and democracy had not changed in the slightest. They had only matured. To those he talked with, he insisted on making the same case that he had argued in his prison letters. Before long he was arrested again.

Wei Jingsheng’s prison letters naturally invite comparison with those of Václav Havel, and several critics have already noted that Wei falls short of Havel in philosophical refinement. If we were to compare the two (and must we? Havel himself, a strong supporter of Wei, shows no interest in doing so), it is important to look at the cultural setting from which Wei emerged. By 1960, when Wei was ten years old, Mao Zedong’s government had completed a thorough purge of the Chinese cultural world. Books and periodicals published before 1949 had been converted to paper pulp or burned, and not long thereafter all bookstores carried only the Marxist classics and the “precious books” of Mao. For three decades, all but a few of the Chinese people were cut off not only from what was happening in the outside world but from the entire cultural legacy of the West and from most of China’s humanistic tradition as well. When we consider this background, and the fact that the Cultural Revolution ended Wei’s schooling at junior high school, and that he later went to work as an electrician, it is amazing that he grasps Chinese and Western thought as well as he does. His letters reveal a sophistication in literary and other cultural matters that compares favorably with that of some Chinese specialists today.

Viewed another way, however, it can seem fitting and even fortunate that Wei Jingsheng has never been a member of China’s intellectual elite. Whereas, with the exception of Poland’s, all of the dissident movements in the Soviet Union and Communist Eastern Europe were largely elite enterprises in which ordinary people took only a small part, it seems right that in China an electrician should emerge as a dissident leader. Most of the participants at Democracy Wall in 1978-1979 were workers, peasants, and soldiers. Here I do not mean the mindless models of the “worker-peasant-soldier” that Mao Zedong asked everyone to emulate, but a generation of modestly educated working people whose rebellious spirit and appetite for social criticism were the unintended but persisting consequences of Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

Like Wei, many in this generation began as ardent Maoists, infatuated with the idealistic visions of communism that Mao had promised. Later they felt betrayed and deeply indignant when they found that the “People’s Communes” were in fact mired in poverty and riddled with old-fashioned corruption and political bullying. Many concluded that China needed a new revolution. Wei writes (Letter to Deng Xiaoping and Chen Yun, November 9, 1983) that the suffering of the people “made a deep impression on me that was virtually engrained in my flesh and bones.” This, in the end, he felt to be a good thing:

…Whatever the turmoil may have cost my generation in formal schooling, we made up for in mental experience. Those chaotic years forced people to abandon the superstitions and prejudices that had dominated their minds for so long and made them begin to scrutinize their own attitudes and beliefs. (Autobiographical essay, 1979)

Wei’s background has led him to approach democracy with views that are somewhat different from those of elite Chinese intellectuals and overseas dissidents. Many in the elite have advocated that China borrow models of representative government from the West, while Wei Jingsheng, even in his youthful enthusiasm in 1978, saw “many complex and concrete problems involved in putting this general policy into practice” (Letter to Deng Xiaoping and Chen Yun, November 9, 1983). Wei felt that China must develop its own democratic forms, and that the key to doing this was to start among ordinary people. While elite democrats have sometimes advised against “too much” popular participation “too fast,” saying that haste could lead to “ruffian government,” Wei Jingsheng holds that

Any reforms toward the development of democracy and socialism will be defective and abortive without the strong backing of the people…. Without the stimulus of a strong grassroots movement backed by popular sentiment (what is also called “public opinion”), the temptation toward dictatorship is irresistible. (Letter to Deng Xiaoping and Chen Yun, November 9, 1983)

In his concept of “the people,” Wei differs not only from China’s elite democrats but from the Marxist intellectuals one generation his senior. Wei does not think in terms of “the masses” but puts strong emphasis on the moral autonomy of individuals. His fellow dissident Liu Qing writes that:

Wei Jingsheng’s letters contain little of the traditional blind devotion and self-denigration…. In one of his letters, he urges his brother and his sisters not to heed propaganda in the newspaper calling for “self-sacrifice,” exhorting them instead to sacrifice themselves for their own “interests, convictions, and aspirations.”

Both Wei Jingsheng and Liu Qing have followed this rule in their own lives, even to a point that might seem needlessly heroic. After the crackdown on the Democracy Wall movement, Wei stayed at home and waited to be arrested. Friends urged him to flee, and some even wanted to head for the mountains to start a guerrilla movement. But Wei thought such an effort would surely fail, and that “even imprisonment or execution was better than watching millions of people fall prey to a hopeless situation” (Letter to Deng Xiaoping and Chen Yun, November 9, 1983). After Wei’s trial, the authorities tried unsuccessfully to suppress his statement of self-defense in court. They arrested a few young people whom they suspected of distributing the statement, but these did not include Liu Qing, who in fact was responsible. At that point Liu Qing saw fit to report himself to the police, not just to save those who had been wrongly accused, but to uphold the principle that to distribute Wei’s statement was no crime. (Subsequently Liu spent ten and a half years in prison, where he survived a suicide attempt as well as brutal force-feedings that ended several hunger strikes.)

The role of Wei Jingsheng’s generation in modern China has yet to be adequately appreciated. Indeed it represents a distinctive phenomenon in the entire history of modern socialism. This generation, stung by what it saw as Mao’s hoax, provided most of the young people whose protests in Tiananmen Square in April 1976 subtly but unmistakably pointed at Mao himself. (Remember that the old man was still alive at the time. Nothing like this could have happened in the Soviet Union while Stalin lived.) Two years later, the same generation directed the Democracy Wall movement and thus had a central part in advancing reform in China. It also had a hand in the demonstrations of 1989, which, although much larger than the Democracy Wall movement, did not have the same intellectual impact or leave behind a similar generation of dedicated activists. (This fact not only underscores the distinctiveness of Wei’s generation but also shows the success of Deng Xiaoping’s policies of repressing democratic activism while also undermining it with an emphasis on money-making.)

We likely have not heard the last of Wei’s generation. Many of its members went to college in the late 1970s and are becoming prominent in Chinese scholarship, journalism, art, and economic enterprise. Some have positions of leadership at the middle levels or higher in the Communist Party, the government, and the military. They are the first group of Chinese intellectuals and officials to have had very close contact with China’s working people. Some of them have been corrupted by power, money, or fame, but many others, like Wei Jingsheng, still have a vivid sense of the sufferings of ordinary people. No prediction about China’s future should be made without taking such people into account.

In January 1995, Wei Jingsheng was sent back to the Nanpu New Life Salt Works, the prison camp whose more “advanced” techniques had worn him down between 1989 and 1993. He remains there today, where he continues to provide the rulers of the Communist Party of China with an opportunity to display, for all the world to see, three elements that lie deep in their character: cruelty, hypocrisy, and petty-mindedness. Both of Wei’s trials were “public,” yet not even his family was allowed to attend. The government’s charges at the second trial were even more absurd than at the first—a fact that might lead us to wonder what it would take to embarrass this government, and shows, in addition, that the human rights of Chinese dissidents are weaker, not stronger, than they were in 1979. Today nearly all of them are in prison or in exile. The only exceptions are a handful of the very elderly, who are under house arrest.

International support for Wei Jingsheng is also weaker today than it was in 1979. The magic of money seems to have gotten the better of the world’s sense of justice. After the Beijing massacre in 1989, Deng Xiaoping reassured his associates who were concerned about Western talk of sanctions, “Don’t worry, China is a big fat piece of meat; they’ll be back.” And indeed, back they came. The Communist rulers, sitting atop a population of 1.2 billion, seem able to soften up any foreign government simply by throwing it a chunk of “meat.”

Inside China, however, the spirit of Wei Jingsheng is not as lonely as it once was. The stability of the Communist regime has always depended to a large degree on keeping the 120 million workers in China’s state-owned enterprises relatively content. Recently tens of millions of these workers have become either unemployed or, because the state enterprises are failing, underpaid. The government has already diverted more than half of the 4 trillion yuan ($500 billion) that are deposited in savings accounts in the People’s Bank of China to be used for emergency aid and salary supplements intended to keep these workers docile. But it has been a losing battle. Worker protests have intensified recently, and there are signs of panic inside the government, for example in a new regulation in some industrial cities to the effect that protesters who gather in groups of five or more will be subject to arrest. Savings banks are reinforcing their security arrangements, and workers may be looking around for their own counterparts of Wei Jingsheng. There is good reason to hope that Wei himself, provided he can stay alive, will not remain in prison this time as long as he did before.

Translated from the Chinese by Perry Link

This Issue

July 17, 1997