Talking with Wei Jingsheng

Speaking to a small group in London this January, nearly two months after he was expelled from China, the Chinese dissident Wei Jingsheng told his somewhat startled listeners, “The earliest human rights movement in the world was the ‘People’s Charter’ movement in England. Now I have come to the founding place of this ‘People’s Charter’….” Few people in Britain under fifty know their own history, so Wei’s mention of the events of 1837 and after rang only a faint bell with most of his listeners. It was typical of him to know about the charter. During his eighteen years in prison he managed to read a great deal of history.

Wei also made it a point while in London to call on Chris Patten, the last governor of Hong Kong, who enraged Beijing for five years with what he called “modest political reforms.” Wei told me, “I wanted to meet the only foreigner who has ever tried to bring democracy to the Chinese people.”

Seeing him again on January 12, I was immediately struck by how Chinese he is. He smokes constantly and rolls his trouser legs over his knees to be comfortable, even when taking tea in a smart hotel. He is said to be unwell, admits that he tires easily, and has lost most of his teeth. But after eighteen years in Chinese prisons and labor camps, where he was tortured and confined in freezing cells, he looks ten years younger than his real age of forty-seven; his face is rosy, his skin is smooth.

During his long sentence, which was briefly interrupted in 1993 when the Chinese were trying to win enough foreign friends to be awarded the Olympics in the year 2000, Wei argued continuously with his jailers. One of them asked him how he maintained his optimism “in conditions such as these.” Wei says he replied that after one has devoted oneself to a cause “there is no way torture can change what you think inside yourself.”

A prison guard told Wei that “once Western leaders want to do business with Chinese leaders they have to make friends with them. When the Westerners have got their orders they won’t mention human rights and democracy. They make a deal and you become the victim…. You can’t trust any of them.” Wei is learning more about this every day. When he left London and arrived in Paris on January 13, only the junior minister for cooperation, Charles Josselin, would meet with him; nor would any member of the government—and this was during the same days that senior ministers were celebrating the centennial of Emile Zola’s J’accuse. He observed, “This is what happens when countries in the West adopt China’s values. The real reason they didn’t see me is that the French have simply become the allies of the Chinese Communists.”

Much the same thing had happened in London. Prime Minister Tony Blair was away and Foreign Secretary Robin Cook “had a full appointment book.” Wei was…

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