On Nov. 16, 1997, Wei Jingsheng was banished from China. Since his arrival in the United States the next day, China's best-known democracy leader and human-rights activist has worked tirelessly and traveled extensively to advance the cause of democracy in China.
Most of his adult life--18 years--has been spent in prison. Wei, 48, was an electrician at the Beijing Zoo when he first raised the idea of democracy during the 1978-79 Democracy Wall Movement in Beijing. The movement was the first spontaneous public discussion of politics in communist China and Wei, a former Red Guard, wrote that Deng Xiaoping's economic reform program, labeled "The Four Modernizations" would not transform Chinese society unless it was accompanied by "the Fifth Modernization: Democracy."
The essay infuriated Chinese leaders, especially Deng. Wei was arrested soon after for "counterrevolutionary activities" and sentenced to his first prison term of 15 years. Even as his health deteriorated, undermined by harsh prison conditions and solitary confinement, Wei remained defiant, writing critical letters to government and prison officials. In 1993, Wei was abruptly paroled six months before serving his full sentence, just as Beijing was seeking to host the 2000 Olympic games. He refused to sign his parole unless prison authorities returned all the unmailed letters in his file. Then Wei went right back to high-profile work for the democracy movement.
His freedom was short-lived. Wei "disappeared" in 1994; his whereabouts were unknown for more than a year, until his family learned that he was under arrest. Finally, in December 1995, he was tried in Beijing on charges of subversion and sentenced to another 14-year prison term. It was during this time that letters from his first imprisonment were compiled into a book, "The Courage to Stand Alone." Proceeds from its sale were held in trust in the West for Wei, who received the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 1996 and the Olaf Palme Award in 1995.
His exile to America began in a Detroit hospital where he received a checkup. He moved on to New York, where he has been a visiting scholar at the Center for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University. Later this month, he will go to UC Berkeley, to begin a second book. In conversation, Wei appears smart and well read. He smiles easily. When he saw the seating arrangement for a meeting last week with Times editors and writers, he quipped that it looked just like his trial--and laughed.
Wei is at once direct and indirect. He is forthright in his opinions, then slips into piquant metaphor to make his points. But he has the naivete of the truly committed. He is openly critical of President Bill Clinton, who has not answered any of his letters since the two met last year. Asked if Clinton is misguided in his China policy, "It is polite to say the policy is incorrect. But I can say he has no policy." When Clinton goes to Beijing this week, Wei says the president should state clearly his desire to see democracy.
Wei, who is single, has learned little English except for "no problem," "good luck" and "see you later." He still wears clothes brought from China by his friends. A heavy smoker, he likes to remind Californians, "smoking is a right, too."
Question: President Clinton recently asserted that with China, "choosing isolation over engagement would not make the world safer, but would make it more dangerous." Would you agree?
Answer: That logic is completely the opposite of the truth. Take a neighbor who beats his wife. If many neighbors try to isolate him, he may conclude that they are isolating him because he beats his wife. So he will stop. Clinton says not to isolate China, but in doing so he is only encouraging the dictatorship.
Q: One of the great domestic pressures on the Clinton administration comes from those who believe more trade and business builds democracy in China. Can you comment on this theory?
A: The theory is nonsense. I would ask individuals who purport this: Was it trade accommodation that brought democracy to America? There was no connection at all. During the 1930s, what was needed with Hitler was to open business and ties? The same then with the Japanese? What did commercial ties bring? Certainly not democracy. Before the United States, Switzerland had democracy and Switzerland was the poorest of countries. There are number of other historical examples.
Q: What works best with China, carrots or sticks?
A: Ways are available in any culture or time to punish people. For anyone who does bad things, people and societies have ways to push them to reconsider the consequences of what they have done. . . . What the Clinton administration must be convinced of is that China is a wolf, not a lamb. By giving the wolf more meat, it will not change its ways.
Q: What steps should the U.S. take to get other countries not to feed the wolf?
A: When I saw President Clinton, [National Security Advisor] Sandy Berger put the same problem to me. In the face of economic sanctions from other countries, what would China do? What choice does it have but to change? But now China goes to Europe with a list of goods to buy and it needs money. Where will that money come from? The United States. The American government does not control what U.S. companies or Chinese companies do. But China does manipulate and control that trade. Money from that trade will be used for contracts with European countries. European countries, in the face of a few million dollars, will reverse their whole human-rights policy [toward China].
So the U.S. deposits money in China. China uses the money to buy European goods and splits the Western alliance. The United States then has no choice but to buckle under in its policy.
Q: With today's modern technology how are you keeping in touch China?
A: The Chinese are not very afraid of these new technologies. They have ways to listen in on what is being said. Everyone knows that the Chinese are still paying attention to these new means of communication. Furthermore they are also looking for ways to put pressure on external messages coming into China. The dictatorship has many ways to try to overcome technological developments.
The primary ways that we stay in contact are still the most fundamental . . . we must spend a lot of time and money. But there are means which we are trying to come up with that are less costly. For example, since there are large numbers of people working on the democratic movement inside of China and outside, what we simply do is find two people whose phone numbers are not necessarily well known to communists and then allow them to talk on the behalf of the others.
. . . The telephone is the quickest way. The primary way is through personal travel--people who are there to do business coming and going, bringing information in and out.
Q: Do you have more impact on the democracy movement now that you are outside of China?
A: You could say it is even bigger. For example, inside of China it is easier to have direct contact with the Chinese people, but if you try to broadcast or distribute your thoughts to a large number of people it is quite difficult. Outside of the country . . . although it is more difficult to have these direct contacts, I can feel quite free in speaking what I want and having my thoughts and words be broadcast to a large audience . . . on Radio Free Asia, VOA, BBC and Radio France Internationale. They seem to find me regularly for interviews. They know that Chinese listeners like to receive this type of broadcast.
Q: If the Asian economic crisis hit China, would Beijing be forced to make some changes like Indonesia?
A: I am not wishing to see China have a severe economic crisis, because I believe it would simply lead to disaster for the Chinese people and not bring much to the Chinese democratic movement. But we don't want to see Western governments running to China to support the Chinese communist dictatorship and solidify their rule. I think Westerners, particularly Americans, have a deficiency in that they believe they have a better understanding of a foreign country's problems than even that country's own inhabitants.
Inside China, many Chinese believe fully that much of the problems they face are a direct result of the Chinese Communist Party, so in order to resolve the problems, they must see an end to that system and the creation of democratic system. But Westerners, they see the exact opposite--the need to go into China and stabilize the authority of the Chinese Communist Party and that will bring about the resolution of all the other problems. In this regard, the two have directly opposite perspectives.
Q: China is trying to assume a leadership role by promising not to devalue the yuan. Is it ready to take a leadership role?
A: I don't think this is any sense of responsibility. They simply don't dare devalue. They face two very difficult choices: If they are to devalue, then this is simply not an economic problem. It will quickly become a political problem and Communists will very quickly have to leave the stage because it would indicate the economy itself is close to collapse and would show the Communist Party is about to collapse.
If they do not devalue, the economic consequences are equally serious. The economy is not able to compete. Factories are, one by one, going to have to shut their doors, and in the end it may result in the same thing. So what they are doing now is that they will choose a more slow exit. And yet Americans believe they are taking a responsible position in not devaluing. This is a foolish concept.
Q: You mentioned that in the seven months you have been in the United States, you have been disappointed many times. What did you mean?
A: Certain individuals would guarantee that they would do something, that they would commit efforts to doing something, and I misunderstood their motivation or authority. In the end they did the exact opposite of what they told me.
Q: Does this include the president--because you did meet with Bill Clinton?
A: It's true that I have seen him before, but I have also been deceived by him. I don't think you can always simply judge someone on their surface. I was always hopeful there were reasons for what he was doing. I am still waiting for some explanation for what he has done.
Q: Did he make any specific promise?
A: Very many, not just one. First that he would want to maintain very close contacts with me personally. That he was quite sure we would be able to continue to have a very close cooperative relationship. He said if I felt that he was making mistakes with his policy, that he would welcome letters just like the one in my book written to him [from prison]. He said this is a democratic country, in a democratic country, people are not so afraid of criticism. Perhaps it was only the last sentence that he was correct. But at least with my criticism of President Clinton he doesn't have the option like Deng Xiaoping had of putting me into prison.
Q: What was your reaction when you learned Deng Xiaoping was dead?
A: My reactions were quite complicated. On one side you can say it was as if an elderly gentlemen that you often had contact with had passed away. You should have these feelings of remorse and mourning. On the second side was one more of regret--that with such a worthy opponent I should have had an opportunity to really sit and talk to him face to face. Third, the concern was that, after he died, certain forces inside the government would be unleashed against me personally. But this fear in the end was not necessarily well founded.
Q: Whom do you consider your foe now?
A: No one like this exists. They are really not my opponents. Deng Xiaoping had a certain pragmatism to him but I don't think these existing leaders have such a sense of reality. Perhaps the only one who comes close to his intelligence is [Premier] Zhu Rongji. Perhaps you can say the only one who also has ability to do as many bad things as Deng Xiaoping is Zhu Rongji. I hope he is able to do positive things, but sometimes what we hope does not have enough influence on those individuals.
Q: Apart from your own experience of what Deng Xiaoping did to you, how would you judge what he did for China?
A: I'll be honest. I was never really totally concerned with how he was toward me personally. Because for the most part, the considerations that went into the way he treated me came out of his concerns for the one-party dictatorship of the Chinese Communist Party. To be honest, in personal terms, his family and my family have quite a number of common friends. So I didn't look at this as a purely personal decision. But I don't know if he looked at it this way.
Q: Deng Xiaoping is credited with major changes in China. Were those good?
A: He did do certain good things but compared to the bad things, the good things are just incomparably small.
Q: Do you think you'll be able to return to China?
A: I am always optimistic. That's why I am not spending the time to study English.
I am also very patient. I've already waited 20 years. I don't see why I would not be able to wait 20 more.