"What to do About China"
by Wei Jingsheng

Wei Jingshen

"Fresh from prison, an exiled dissident urges the United States
to pressure his country's reluctant reformers."

as published in "Newsweek" magazine in December 1997

      I never met Deng Xiaopeng. But we had a quarrel that went on for a long time - over a decade. Deng may have had a personal grudge against me, though I never thought of it that way. To me, we had political differences. Unlike the present communist leaders, Deng came from an older generation that had ideals. No matter what terrible things he did - and there's no way you can erase the Tianmen massacre from his record - you knew that he thought he was doing what was right for the Chinese people. I wrote him many letters from prison. I can't prove that he read them, but before his death, anything that pertained to me and my fate had to be personally approved by Deng. So when he died, I felt like I had lost an adversary. I also felt like I had lost an old friend.

      Today, after Deng's market reforms, China is at a critical juncture. The economy is on the verge of a crisis; its leaders really need economic support from the United States. This is the moment when America should be adding more pressure, asking them to change more, to reform more.

      There is a dangerous misconception in America that China is really serious about improving human rights and that the government is embarking on a course to do so. As a result, the United States and other Western countries have dramatically relaxed their pressure on China to try to promote political change. I'm worried that Americans will be duped by President Jiang Zemin. When Jiang got back to China from his recent trip to the United States, he looked so smug on Chinese television that he seemed like a thief who had stolen a wallet from President Clinton's nose. It gave everyone the impression that he can make the United States do whatever he wants.

      Chinese leaders are not so amenable to reason as they are to pressure. And the United States has tremendous influence on China's policies. Before they arrested me the second time, in 1994, officials said to me very frankly, "Wei, could you please try not to mess up the U.S.-China trade relationship?" Clinton shouldn't schedule his planned trip to Beijing until there is more progress on human rights in China, such as the release of many more political prisoners.

      But the greatest pressure for change in China will come from the Chinese people. And things could move very quickly. It's impossible to predict a timetable; nobody predicted the disintegration of the former Soviet Union. Still, there is a high probability that in 1998 or 1999, some major changes could occur. And it may not be as civilized as the unrest in 1989. The Tiannmien massacre had an extremely negative impact on the psychology of the ordinary Chinese people. They sacrificed their trust in the government once, but they may not be willing to do so again; peaceful change may be very difficult to achieve. But this is still what we strive for.

      You may not see the Chinese people out in the streets, demanding freedom. But in any society, most individuals don't pay attention to human rights until they run into obstacles that prevent them from achieving their goals. As contradictions between the party and the people become more intense, human rights will become as important in China as they are in the United States. Even some of my prison guards sympathized with me. Their bosses couldn't control them. Sometimes those who were guarding me would share the food meant for their own families. After all, they are human. They go home and suffer the same injustices as everyone else in Chinese society.

      It's entirely possible that someday there could be elections and democracy in China. In the meantime, we must work hard to free other political prisoners and to support their families and the struggles of Chinese workers and peasants. I don't aspire to power; I hope some other leader will come along, somebody better than me. I am not alone. China has 1.2 billion people, many of whom are more capable than I. That's why although a lot of people praise me, I don't let it go to my head - because I have many colleagues in the democracy movement who have struggled along with me. When I was young, I had many heroes. I don't worship anybody anymore. I only want to go back to China, no matter how infinitesimal the probability may be. I have learned over the years that the most important thing is to follow your own path. And I will continue to do so.

Back to Democracy in China Page