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Book Review

The Courage to Stand Alone

Letters From Prison
and Other Writings
By Wei Jingsheng

Edited and translated by
Kristina M. Torfenson
Viking Penguin, 283 pages

Reviewed by Lori Jablons

n China, 1998, it is customary to execute car thieves and cattle rustlers. It is what the Chinese people are used to and probably expect. They are also used to seeing their countrymen imprisoned without fair trial, malnourished, deprived of sleep and human contact for voicing their opinions.

      The aforementioned are the few conditions author Wei Jingsheng was "permitted" to write about to his family and members of the government in The Courage to Stand Alone, a compilation of letters and essays from 1981 to 1993. In a move seen by some as symbolic and by others as progress, late 1997 saw Wei exiled to the United States by China, ending his second prison term for political dissidence.

      China's complete disregard for human rights is known worldwide. Perhaps the popularization of the abuses through the media and celebrity support has cast a shadow of ridiculousness or even unreality on the seriousness of the situation. But the issue of China's treatment of its people is both very real and very serious. One need only look back a mere nine years into China's past to find the Tiananmen Square Massacre, or read yesterday's paper to learn of the brutality of Chinese rule in Tibet.

      As explained in his book, Wei Jingsheng is the eldest child of parents committed to the Chinese Communist Party, and Wei himself grew up with the same political reverence for the party as his mother and father. As a child of the party elite, Wei and his two sisters and brother attended the finest schools and lived in a compound with other high-ranking families who shared the Communist ideology.

      Wei's schooling ended with the beginning of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, at which point Wei became a member of the Red Guard -- and, one could say, his education really began. Traveling across the country to spread Mao's word, Wei saw the conditions in which people toiled; hardly the "worker's paradise" propagandized at every turn. In 1969 he joined the army after the Red Guard had disbanded. He completed his military service in 1973, at which point he was assigned to work as an electrician in the Beijing Zoo.

      Events continued to push Wei closer to the actions which ultimately brought his arrest as a political dissident. By 1976 his disillusionment with the CCP was complete, but he was not actively seeking freedom for himself and his fellows nor fighting the oppression they faced. It wasn't until 1978, at 28 years of age, that Wei found his calling as an activist and writer.

      During the Democracy Wall Movement, the 1978-79 grass-roots pro-democracy movement named for the "big character" posters displayed on a large wall in the Xidan section of Beijing, Wei and young worker-intellectuals like him seized the opportunity to discuss taboo subjects by creating and publicizing these posters. The posters featured courageous political essays and experimental literary works and were displayed at various points around Beijing. For a few months in the winter of 1978-79, a low gray brick wall on Chang'an Boulevard became the focus of the movement, and the wall gave the movement its name.

      Wei didn't visit the Wall until December 4, 1978, a few weeks after the posters began to appear. So inspired by what he saw, Wei wrote "The Fifth Modernization: Democracy" the same night. It was hung on the Democracy Wall, unedited, the following evening. Wei's tract stated that Deng Xiaoping's "Four Modernizations" program of economic reform -- agriculture, industry, science and technology -- could never result in a true transformation without a "Fifth Modernization": democracy.

      Oddly, with everything posted on the Wall, democracy was never mentioned outright. Instead, the status quo was, for the most part, criticized on its own terms. The shortcomings of an oppressive communist rule were spelled out, the conclusion both implicit and obvious. "Our history books tell us that the people are the masters and creators of everything," wrote Wei, "but in reality they are more like faithful servants standing at attention and waiting to be 'led' by leaders who swell like yeasted bread dough."

      The irreverence of the "Fifth Modernization" brought the first-time author immediate notoriety and was the inciting incident for his involvement in other political activities. In 1979, Wei founded Exploration, a journal that published the results of one of the first human rights investigations in China. Qincheng, China's main prison for important political prisoners, was termed a 20th-century Bastille as the horrors of poor food, torture and the use of psychiatric drugs to control the unwieldy were documented.

“[T]he greatest pressure for change in China will come form the Chinese people. It’s impossible to predict a timetable; nobody predicted the disintegration of the former Soviet Union.... Peaceful change may be very difficult to achieve. But this is still what we strive for.”
– Wei Jingsheng


      Following Wei's essay of March 25, 1979, he was arrested. He wrote, "Does Deng Xiaopeng want democracy? No, he does not. He says that the spontaneous struggle for democratic rights is just an excuse to make trouble, that it destroys the normal order and must be suppressed." In doing so, Wei mentioned Deng by name and for that he would be punished.

      Late in the night of March 29, he was visited by some 20 police officers and taken to jail. His trial, on October 16, more than seven months later, afforded none of the Western luxuries of due process or right to counsel, and Wei, who refused to plead guilty to the charges that he "divulged military secrets to a foreigner and conducted counterrevolutionary propaganda and incitement," was convicted and sentenced to spend the next 15 years of his life confined as a political prisoner.

      In literature, commonly the hero's most tragic flaw is his incapability of recognizing his tragic flaw. Wei, by contrast, knows that his "tragic flaw," for lack of a better phrase, is the inability to keep quiet about the things he feels his country should be looking at with an eye toward reformation. Wei writes: "What, then, is happiness? It is nothing less than realization of the full potential of humanity. Full and free development of personal will is the highest goal of humanity." Wei wanted freedom, not just for himself, but for his people, and he was willing to fight back for it.

      After the Tiananmen Square Massacre on June 4, 1989, international awareness for China's political prisoners was heightened. Governments and human rights groups called for Wei's release. In 1993, before the anniversary of his arrest, the Chinese government made a video of Wei partaking of a large meal and visiting a museum. Of course, this was not shown in China, as it was intended to secure Beijing as the site of the 2000 Olympics. (An official, upon Wei's return from his day out, asked what impact the bustling city, new hotels and highways had on Wei's view of democracy. Wei replied, "None whatsoever.")

      Nine days before the International Olympic Committee was to vote on Beijing's bid for the Games, a video of Wei signing his release papers was distributed. He was to be released into probation, and for the next six months, he would be forbidden to express his opinions, talk to the media or set up any kind of business. He would also be deprived of his political rights for the next three years. Yet, with indomitable spirit, days after he was liberated he told journalists that he would continue to demand democracy and respect for human rights and would sue those who originally incarcerated him. He knew he would be jailed again, although his family begged him, for health reasons, to stay out of the limelight.

      On February 27, 1994, Wei had dinner with John Shattuck, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights. During their conversation, Wei told Shattuck that the U.S. should extend Most Favored Nation status to China and put pressure on the country to improve human rights. Wei reasoned that imposing sanctions on China would only hurt his countrymen. The meeting inflamed the Chinese authorities, who accused Shattuck of "having broken Chinese law," then detained Wei for questioning. His detainment lasted until his second trial in December 1995, at which he was sentenced to another 14 years and sent back to his cell at the Nanpu New Life Salt Works. Now Wei was being imprisoned for expressing an opinion in line with Chinese officials.

      Various human rights groups and governments worldwide condemned the Chinese government for Wei's sentence. In 1995 Wei won the Olaf Palm Award and the European Parliament's Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.

      Wei Jingsheng is a witty and gifted writer who is courageous beyond belief. He speaks of how "his head feels like lead" and of how he sometimes rambles in his writings, but his message and sentiments could not be more clearly understood. At certain points in reading, one may have to remind oneself that, yes, this is the reality of modern-day China.

      The Courage to Stand Alone is an important book for its startling chronicle of the reality of life as a political dissident in China and one man's refusal to give in or give up. "Chinese leaders are not so much amenable to reason as they are to pressure," wrote Wei upon his release last year. "But the greatest pressure for change in China will come from the Chinese people. It's impossible to predict a timetable; nobody predicted the disintegration of the former Soviet Union.... Peaceful change may be very difficult to achieve. But this is still what we strive for."

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