"If you do not fight tyranny, the tyrants will never let you have an ordinary life. You must either surrender to them, or dedicate your life to something greater."
Wei Jingsheng came to symbolize the struggle for human rights and democracy in China, when, after the Cultural Revolution, he was among the first to demand a freer society. In spite of the threat of imprisonment, Wei spoke openly with the Western press, publishing articles demanding reform and comparing the policies of all-powerful Premier Deng with the disastrous Five-Year Plans of Chairman Mao. For his candor he was sentenced to fifteen years in the infamous Chinese laogai (prison labor camps), mostly in solitary confinement where he suffered serious abuse. Though Wei’s health deteriorated, his determination grew ever stronger. On September 14, 1993, days before the International Olympic Committee’s vote on whether China could host the games, Wei was released. Authorities hoped he had learned his lesson, but instead Wei contacted reformers who had been virtually silent since Tiananmen and was pivotal in reviving the democracy movement in China. After his meeting in 1994 with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights John Shattuck, the Chinese government lashed out, once again detaining Wei and holding him incommunicado for more than a year. The regime then subjected their most visible prisoner to a show trial and sentenced him to a second fourteen years in the laogai. That year, Wei was named a Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award Laureate. In 1997 intense international pressure caused Wei to be sent into exile instead. Now based in Washington, he remains a leading voice for democracy, labor and human rights in China.
Living in jail and living in exile are both difficult. But from outside I can be much more help to the democracy movement than when I was shut in.
In exile, my health is cared for; I eat much better. But there are certain things that are much better in prison. For one thing, in prison, few people could disturb my peace of mind. I didn’t have to listen to as much nonsense inside the prison as out here. In prison one’s enemies are clear, and you try to make friends with your enemy, and soon one can win faithful friends from among one’s captors. Outside, in exile, the conditions are exactly the opposite. There are many claiming and clamoring to be friends, but who are actually enemies, who will do things to harm you, and to harm the movement. This can get very complicated.
Some of the nonsense comes from people who, although they have been persecuted by the Communist system for years and years, remain Communism’s greatest defenders. I find that embarrassing and very sad. A second kind of nonsense comes from Western politicians, politicians who live in free democracies. They understand the importance of freedom themselves, they enjoy that freedom, and yet they persist in defending Communist tyranny.
The second time I was in jail, before I was officially given a fourteen-year sentence, some of my jailers said, "What’s the point of you fighting like this? Your so-called friends in the United States are very good friends with our leader. They are in a pact together. You are wasting your time." At the time I refused to believe them. But, now that I am outside, I am forced to believe because I have seen it with my own eyes.
I take strength from ordinary people, in both China and America. Every person wants his or her dignity respected, regardless of where they come from. This provides a continuous source of strength for my work. Democracies respect their citizens more than tyrannies. If you do not fight tyranny, the tyrants will never let you have an ordinary life. You must either surrender to them, or you dedicate your life to something greater. I try to reach people in the democracies, asking them to call upon their governments to see the Chinese Communist government as it really is. I haven’t been successful yet, but at least this work has begun.
It is impossible to balance personal life and commitment to your country when you face such a massive oppressor. Your responsibility has to be with those who suffer. If you do not resist, the oppressors will never permit you to exist. So there is no way to achieve a balance—you simply have to give your life to the larger responsibility.
It is normal to protect oneself first. It is understandable. According to my younger brother and sister, I am an abnormal man. Before you embark on such a path you have to make a decision, you have to make a choice. My father was a leading general, so with my background I could easily enjoy the same privileges as other princelings currently enjoying the life of the rich in China. But I made the choice.
The time was December 1978. To make a decision like this, there is never one reason, there are always several. I was traveling in the countryside and saw the peasants and their living conditions so horrible that if you had any sense of humanity left, you had to feel compassion, sympathy for them. I began traveling when I was sixteen, and from that point on was always on the road. I sought out any opportunity where I could improve other people’s living conditions. In December 1978, Deng Xiaoping gave a famous speech that seemed to crush the beginnings of democracy. The people who were active in democracy were so intimidated by his message and the aftermath of that speech that they began to back off. And at that time, I made the decision to stand up to Deng Xiaoping.
Nineteen ninety-seven was another moment when I had to make a choice. I was still in jail and until then had refused to leave jail before finishing my sentence. Deng Xiaoping had given me the choice: if I admitted I was wrong I could have left at any time. I always refused to do so. In 1997 I learned that the overseas democracy movement was so badly battered that there was very little of it left. I felt that if I did not leave jail to organize the overseas democracy movement, there might not be an overseas democracy movement at all. Since I have been in the West, just a year and a half, I think there have been two small improvements. First, the United States led all the other countries in a resolution condemning China at the United Nations. Secondly, the UN seems to be more unified against cooperating with China.
When I was imprisoned, I felt a sense of solidarity with the suffering of imprisoned peasants whom I had met on my travels. I kept in mind that what I was doing was right, that it would help relieve those who suffered. I believed I would succeed. Those thoughts gave me hope.
In 1997, they beat me, put me in isolation, and took away all reading material. Under such conditions, a mind has no reference point; you become utterly confused. Many of those I knew in prison lost their minds. That was our captors’ goal. Reading material is important, regardless of its content. It becomes a focal point and an effort; a way to give your mind direction. With no point of focus, you lose your mind. This is a very serious form of torture.
People from Beijing have a great sense of humor. Chinese people have always coped with tyranny through humor. They used humor to articulate the absurdity of their experiences. To me, I feel humor is my nature, and my best defense. There is another source of strength, the ability to protect your own dignity. That is very important, and the most difficult. You have to believe that what you are doing is right. If you believe in what you are doing, then all the suffering becomes secondary.
If you cannot prepare yourself for death, then you should not decide to defy the regime, and once you are prepared to die, you don’t really look at your efforts in terms of success or failure. You look at it as a choice of doing the right thing. In my family, you take responsibility for what you do. That influenced me. Once you make the decision, you know there is a price.
Luckily, I come from a family of very stubborn people, so facing danger and facing repression is normal to me. At a crucial moment, some people think of their own survival, and they give up their dignity, their purpose, their ideals. These people seem very weak. But when you think of doing it not only for yourself but for the dignity of others, then you know what you are doing is right. At that point, courage becomes richer. For a month I was sentenced to death and I had great fear. Then I thought to myself, "I will die anyway. Why die as a laughing stock to my enemies?" So I controlled my fear in that moment of crisis, and that moment passed. I held onto my dignity. Some courage is both physical and mental. Some people are simply born with it. Some people when facing danger start shaking, uncontrollably.
One should not look down at people like that because there’s a bodily reaction and some people are just born with physical courage. Ever since I was very young, I had no physical fear—very little physical fear. The two most consistent comments from my grade school report cards were that I was stubborn, and that I had no fear. Of course, Chinese teachers don’t like these two traits in their students.
Nobody is always right. So when you look at anything you always have to maintain a fair mind. When you yourself are wrong, you have to admit to it. Then reconciliation is easier. You have to be honest. I have locked horns with Chinese Communist leaders but none of them has ever questioned what I say. They hate me. They fear me. But they don’t question what I say. Even the policemen in my prison regarded me in this way. Some even asked me for advice because they knew that I would tell them the truth. If you do that consistently, you can go anywhere. It reconciles people. You must demonstrate your trustworthiness. Through all these decades of fighting Communist leaders, there is not a single one who has ever accused me of lying. If you have finally achieved the reputation of fair-mindedness, even your enemy can come to trust you. This allows you to have a balanced life.