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Wei Jingsheng Fights for Chinese Democracy

by Julia Sommer, Public Affairs
posted October 28, 1998

Wei JingshengWei Jingsheng, one of China's prominent dissidents, is spending fall semester at Berkeley as a Senior Research Fellow at the Human Rights Center. His office is at the Graduate School of Journalism, near co-host and China expert Dean Orville Schell.

"Wei Jingsheng is one of the most singular and lucid democratic voices of his generation in China," says Schell. "Having him at Berkeley will give him a chance to work on a book about his prison years and China's future. It should be unique in the canon of dissident literature."

Wei (pronounced "Way") will discuss "Reforms, Rights, and the Rule of Law in China" Nov. 17 at 7:30 p.m. in Boalt Hall's Booth Auditorium.

"Like Andrei Sakharov, Wei Jingsheng has always remained the conscience of the struggle for human rights and democracy in China," says Eric Stover, director of the Human Rights Center. "Even when he was in prison, he still managed to get his letters published. This is a wonderful opportunity to learn first-hand from someone who's been in the struggle as long as he has and kept his resolve."

Wei Jingsheng was expelled from his homeland last year, after spending most of his adult life in prison for criticizing the Communist regime and agitating for democracy. At 48, he's enjoying his first year of freedom -- eating what and when he likes, going where he likes, saying, reading, and writing what he likes.

Wei describes his long periods in solitary confinement in his recently published collection of prison letters, "The Courage to Stand Alone." The book is banned in China.

In 1993 Wei was released from prison while China sought to host the 2000 Olympic Games. He immediately began meeting with activists, journalists, and U.S. State Department officials and writing for foreign and domestic publications on the need for political reform in China.

In 1994 he was arrested, convicted of counterrevolution, and sentenced to another 14 years in prison.

Shortly after the Sino-U.S. Summit in November 1997, Wei was released on medical parole and went into exile in the U.S. Aside from six months of freedom in 1993-94, he has been a prisoner from age 29 to 47.

Since his release, Wei has continued to work for democratic reform in China. He has met with President Clinton and high-level officials in Washington, London, and Paris and advocated for a U.N. resolution condemning China's human rights record.

Wei hasn't found time to study English formally, but "I'm starting to pick it up," he says. In an interview translated by two graduate students, Wei said he has five aims:

• to report to Western countries on the "true situation in China";

• to foster cooperation between international human rights organizations, including non-governmental organizations, and expatriate Chinese democratic organizations;

• to unify the Chinese people, including those in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Tibet, and the Han in north China, to oppose the Chinese communist dictatorship;

• to influence Westerners to support the Chinese democracy movement and pressure their governments to oppose the Chinese dictatorship; and

• to unify the various expatriate Chinese democracy organizations.

"In the last few months, I've been having the greatest success toward my last goal," he said.

In September Wei held his first official meeting with representatives from expatriate Chinese democracy organizations in Niagara, Canada.

Wei has strong views on how the Chinese Communist Party controls and bullies Western media and China scholars.

"Sinologists in America are more fearful of the Chinese Communist Party than the Chinese are," he said. "I'd like to help Americans protect their own freedom of speech. The U.S. is selling out its own interests and principles when it comes to Sino-U.S. relations.

"The democracy movement is maturing in China -- it's no longer just an intellectual movement," said Wei.

He predicts that change from within the Communist Party, combined with an uprising by workers, will eventually bring democracy to his homeland.

Of his new home in Berkeley, Wei said, "the conditions are excellent, the campus is beautiful, the weather is wonderful."

He has fond hopes of passing the California driving test.


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