'A handful of pennies'

Wei Jingsheng



The earliest human rights movement in the world was the Magna Carta movement in England. I have come to the founding place of this people’s charter, London.

But the situation in the world is very different from what it was at that time. Human rights have already been accepted globally as a standard of conduct. Under democratic systems, safeguards have been established in more and more countries. Even autocratic states, even countries where slavery is practised, have had to pay lip service to the acceptance and respect of human rights principles. This attitude creates favourable conditions for those who fight for human rights, freedom and democracy and it gives the people who suffer persecution growing encouragement to fight for the rights which belong to them.

Many journalists have asked me: What has fundamentally sustained you through these 18 years of imprisonment in the People’s Republic of China, in conditions difficult for outsiders to imagine? In fact, I am myself surprised. How is it possible for anyone to endure such physical and mental torture? I am just the same as other people: so how could I have endured it?

Even the guards were surprised. They asked: ‘How can you maintain such an optimistic attitude towards life? This really stretches belief, you are really bizarre?’ I think there are many reasons for my endurance, but here is the overriding reason. In 1995, after I had been re-arrested, I was chatting casually with a guard, and he asked me a question that reminded me of what gave me strength.

The guard said: ‘Old Wei, you’ve been involved in the democratic movement for so many years. Have you ever come across any pro-democracy activist who had regrets and wished to turn over a new leaf and go back to the Party? In other words, is it possible for those engaged on that road really to recognise their own mistakes?’ At that moment, I answered spontaneously: ‘To turn back is just impossible?’

He was amazed and asked: ‘Why?’ I thought for a while and said: ‘Because we cannot lie to ourselves. Once you have understood that you have dedicated yourself to a just cause, mental and physical torture can make you say that you were wrong, but there is no way torture can change what you think inside yourself. Truth is truth. Once you understand this, nothing can erase it from your heart. This is something that no torture can extract from you.’

The guard thought for a few moments, but could not think of any argument.I suddenly realised that my determination to help others was the great cause which had been helping me to withstand physical and mental suffering and helped me maintain my optimism and strength. Once I realised this point, I became aware that I could not shake off my life-long responsibility to other people.This gave me the power to overcome difficulties. This was the power of truth. No other power could take this away from people’s hearts.

However, there is another power pitted against it. As another guard told me: ‘Old Wei, you really have to think carefully. What is most valuable? It is money. Don’t believe what the westerners say. If they want to do business, they have to make friends with Chinese leaders. Once they have got their orders, they will not mention human rights and democracy. They make a deal, and you become the victim. I think you have to think about yourself. You can’t trust either of them.’

I have no qualms about sacrificing myself for democracy or human rights: in fact, this is what I hope to do. I am concerned that unscrupulous business people and governments will sacrifice the cause of Chinese human rights and democracy. The PRC has long spread the rumor that ‘whatever is said in the west is spread by a small group of capitalists, but does not represent the views of the people.’ In the past, I did not believe these rumours, and the Chinese people didn’t either.

What now causes me pain is that China has used the market as a bait to attract western democracies. Under these policies, China and western businessmen are conspiring to ignore the Chinese people’s fight for human rights and democracy. This is gradually putting some truth into the PRC’s view. If western democratic societies suggest, through their own actions, that they are not genuinely democratic, then why should the Chinese people shed their blood to fight for democracy?

Is there any hope for the liberation of humanity? I believe there is hope. I think the views of people in western democracies are not being fully expressed by their governments. So I decided to come to western countries to see for myself, to see with my own eyes that the people of democratic societies will not give up their principles and responsibilities towards mankind because of a handful of pennies.

I am confident I will see this.

Press briefing at Amnesty International, 8 January.