Interviewed July 2010
Wei Jingsheng was a prisoner of conscience in China for more than 18 years. Born in 1950 to parents who were Communist Party members, Wei served in the People’s Liberation Army and worked in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution.
In 1978, he wrote an essay called “The Fifth Modernization: Democracy” and posted it in a place that had come to be called Democracy Wall. Unlike most pro-freedom authors in China during that time, Wei signed his name to “The Fifth Modernization,” which was a direct challenge to the Beijing government’s strategy of instituting economic reforms while continuing to suppress political dissent. Wei was soon arrested on the charge of being “counter-revolutionary” and served more than 18 years in prison, including several years in forced labor camps and eight years on death row.
By the mid-90s, Wei was China’s best-known political prisoner. There was strong international pressure for his release and, in 1997, he was allowed to go overseas for medical treatment. He now lives in the United States and heads the Overseas Chinese Democratic Coalition.
In order to establish a democratic system in one’s own country, the most important thing is not to overthrow the government, but to establish an opposition party.
Even with the Communist Party in power, whenever there is a real opposition party and opposition faction in place, a real opposition party and opposition faction, democracy in this country would begin.
The People’s Republic of China is a country of 1.2 billion people governed by the Chinese Communist Party. Since the death of Mao Tse-Tung in 1976, the Chinese government has modified the Marxist economic system instituted by Mao by instituting limited market-based reforms, but the party has retained its monopoly on power. Freedom of expression, association, peaceful assembly, and religion are severely restricted, and the people of China are denied the right to change their government. The courts are controlled by the Communist Party and do not provide due process of law. Government control extends into every aspect of people’s lives, most notably in the one-child-per-couple program in which unauthorized pregnancies often result in forced abortion and sterilization.
In 1989, a hundred thousand people gathered in a peaceful demonstration in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square to protest human rights violations and demand democratic reforms. The protest lasted several weeks and inspired similar nonviolent demonstrations in other cities throughout China. On June 4, 1989, the People’s Liberation Army converged on the area surrounding the square with hundreds of thousands of troops as well as tanks and other advanced military weapons. Estimates of the death toll ranged from several hundred to several thousand. The army used similar tactics to suppress demonstrations in other cities and subsequently rounded up and imprisoned many thousands of protestors. The government vigorously defended these actions and instituted a campaign to purge from the party and the government those who had sympathized with protestors.
Although the Tiananmen Square massacre put an end to hopes for a speedy transition to democracy, courageous Chinese citizens have continued to risk imprisonment and worse to demand freedom. These human rights activists have included students, workers, lawyers, artists and writers; Tibetan Buddhists and Uyghur Muslims who demand respect for their cultures, traditions, and religious practices; members of the spiritual discipline known as Falun Gong; Catholics who insist that their church is headed by the Pope rather than by government-appointed religious officials; and members of the “house church” movement, representing millions of Protestant Christians who are forced to worship in secret because their churches are not authorized by the government. China’s many prisoners of conscience include members of each of these groups.
In 2010, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to imprisoned Chinese writer Liu Xiaobo. His wife was arrested in order to prevent her from attending the award ceremony, and the government employed a range of coercive techniques to prevent other human rights activists from attending. China’s leading human rights lawyer, Gao Zhisheng, disappeared in early 2009 and is presumed to be in government custody.