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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.”

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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 able to talk for half an hour with Derek Fatchett, the junior minister who works on Chinese affairs. He told Fatchett that if Cook, during his visit to Beijing, scheduled for January 19, didn’t urge China to permit free trade unions he would betray Labour Party principles. “He turned red,” he told me. “He wasn’t expecting me to say that.”

Fatchett assured Wei that at the UN Human Rights Commission’s next meeting in Geneva in March Britain’s policy of urging China to respect human rights—like Washington’s—will not change. Wei plans to be in Geneva during the meeting, where his presence is sure to enrage Beijing’s diplomats. As we drove past the Chinese embassy in Portland Place I said to Wei, “That’s your embassy.” He burst out laughing. “I don’t know whose it is. It’s certainly not mine.”

Wei told Fatchett that the West plays into the hands of the Communists when it keeps secret any specific demands it makes concerning human rights. “The Communists don’t want to improve human rights and they know that if everything is conducted secretly they can never be held accountable. That way neither the interests of the Chinese nor those of Western peoples are being looked after. Western diplomats never dare say what happened in private because it would reveal how much they give away to get a little from Beijing.”

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The reason that China can ignore human rights and deny any democracy to its people, Wei said, is that big businessmen in the West have been gaining greater influence over their own governments, and they want what Beijing wants.

“Both the big businessmen and the Communists want a stable environment in which certain people can make a lot of money. It’s a kind of collusion. Ordinary Chinese now see how corrupt Western governments are, how little concerned they are for genuine human rights and democracy. So people are less and less interested in changing their own political structure because they think that no matter what style of government comes to power it will be corrupt. Chinese think it’s not worth shedding blood for political change because not much changes.”

The irony, Wei said, is that “we Chinese never believed our own government’s statements that the Western regimes are dominated by big capitalists—but now we see it’s true. Look what happens when a Western journalist is thrown out of China. His government remains silent or it may speak to Chinese officials in private.*

“They say that Chinese only yield to quiet diplomacy. Sometimes that’s true. But now the Communists have raised this principle to the standard of all diplomacy. Furthermore, the Chinese government can criticize the West and its governments all it likes, but the Chinese reject any criticism directed at them as interference in their own sovereignty. Therefore Beijing is exercising increasing influence in the West and Western people don’t understand how much their own governments are being corrupted by Chinese practices—which benefit big businessmen.

“Western diplomats say they have been assured by Chinese leaders that they will increase human rights. But that means they have entrusted the Chinese people to leaders who have absolutely no interest in human rights.”

Western businessmen, Wei said, should be aware that China is in an economic crisis. “It’s not something that may happen later. It’s happening now. Huge numbers of unemployed, strikes, and economic disappointment: they may lead to great violence inside China. By helping authoritarian governments like China with military and economic assistance, by helping them to get over their crises without demanding political change, the West is also helping to prop up authoritarian governments all over the world.”

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Wei is an intent listener and a keen arguer. We disagreed about Hong Kong and Tibet. He said that “the one country, two systems” formula for Hong Kong is a Chinese sham. In his view Chinese control will soon be tightened there, just as it was in Tibet in 1951, when China also promised considerable internal autonomy. As someone who lived in Hong Kong for five years of British rule and then during the first six months of Chinese sovereignty, I myself saw that much had changed. But I still believed that Hong Kong’s press was far more free than the press across the border and its court system much more fair. And while most Hong Kong papers avoided criticizing Beijing—this has been true since 1995—they did not shrink from attacking the local government of Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa. While Chinese look down on Tibetans, whom they regard as culturally backward, the Communists admire the successful Hong Kong Chinese and need them. Wei smiled. “Just wait a year or two. They don’t care about economics that much. If they see Hong Kong as an enemy place, they’ll smash it.”

This pessimism about Hong Kong, based on Wei’s knowledge of modern Tibetan history, conflicts with his ultimately optimistic view of the China-Tibet relationship. “China and Tibet are moving towards final unification or federation. All this talk about two countries doesn’t make any sense.”

Before his arrest in 1979 Wei lived for some time with a Tibetan woman, the daughter of a high military official in the Communist administration, who had been raised in Beijing. (When I met her in Washington a few years ago, I noticed that she, like Wei, speaks with a distinct Beijing accent.) While he was in prison Wei wrote a long letter to Deng Xiaoping criticizing China’s mistreatment of Tibet. But like virtually all democratic Chinese, he does not support Tibetan independence. “Tibet and China have always been close. I agree with the Dalai Lama; China should manage Tibet’s defense and foreign affairs, and internally give it a lot of autonomy. It could be a kind of federation.”

The Dalai Lama, I told Wei, was willing to accept a degree of Chinese management of Tibetan affairs because this seemed to him realistic in view of the vast differences in power between the two nations. Like most Tibetans, the Dalai Lama insists that Tibet had always been an independent country which at times drew close to one or the other of its two big neighbors, China and India, often to play one off against the other. I asked Wei to name a single point of cultural identity—language, dress, marriage and funeral customs, food, or religion—between China and Tibet. He argued that while Britain, Germany, and France were different in many ways, they found it increasingly practical to collaborate closely on legal, financial, and economic matters. But no one, I said, was using violence to enforce such unity. That, he replied, was China’s big mistake, and some day the Sino-Tibetan relationship would be based on mutual trust. Such a day, we agreed, was far off. So also, it seemed, was the day when Wei and people like him would be allowed to make their case for democracy to the Chinese themselves.


  1. This certainly has been true in my case since I was informed in Beijing in September 1991 that I could not return to China.—J.M.