Free Wei

Bush should invite this Chinese dissident to the White House.


When I first had reason to write about China's most famous dissident, Wei Jingsheng, the year was 1987. I had just arrived in Hong Kong, to work at The Asian Wall Street Journal. Mr. Wei was midway through a 15-year prison sentence in China and had already spent years in solitary confinement. There was no way to be sure he was even still alive.But whatever his fate, there was huge truth in the message for which Mr. Wei had risked his life and gone to jail. Back in 1978, during a brief spell of open protest in Beijing, Mr. Wei had written and posted on a wall an essay entitled "The Fifth Modernization--Democracy." In it, he argued that China's authorities could crusade all they wanted to for progress in technology and such--the so-called four modernizations of that particular era of Communist Party sloganeering. But, Mr. Wei argued, without "the fifth modernization," meaning democracy, China could never be a truly modern nation."People should have democracy. If they ask for democracy, they are only asking for something they rightfully own," wrote Mr. Wei.It was a universal message, and one powerful enough so that right up to this moment it continues to scare the daylights out of China's despots. Back then, especially given the wave of democratic movements sweeping Asia, from the Philippines to South Korea to Taiwan--leading to the 1989 uprising centered in China's own Tiananmen Square--Mr. Wei's stand summed up the implications of the human need for freedom so eloquently that the Asian Journal began a tradition of reprinting his essay on the first publishing day of each new year.
In 1993, as part of a failed bid to look modern enough to host the millennial Olympic Games,
China released Mr. Wei from prison. The authorities rejailed him in 1995. And in 1997, after he had served a total of more than 17 years in prison, they finally kicked him out of the country. Since then, he has been living in exile in the U.S.So it was that last week I had the chance to meet the 50-year-old Mr. Wei, along with two other Chinese activists, for dinner in Washington. On the way to the restaurant, he told me that back in 1988, when we had been wondering if he was still alive, his brother had gotten news to him in prison that the Asian Journal was making a yearly tradition of reprinting his essay. It moved him greatly to know that his words had not been forgotten. "I was so excited that for a couple of nights I couldn't sleep," Mr. Wei said.This was news I commend to the new Bush administration as emblematic of what really goes on behind the bamboo curtain. There are times when defending the cause of democracy for China can feel like lobbing signals into deep space. The Chinese people, whatever they might privately desire, are not free to respond. Politically, the country itself remains a vast prison. You can wonder if the spirit that produced a Wei Jingsheng, or in 1989 had millions of Chinese demonstrating in the streets for their democratic rights, is even still alive.You can wonder all the more because China's most outspoken dissidents tend not to fare well. Inside their country, they end up silenced because they are jailed or even shot. When they manage to get world attention, as did the practitioners of the persecuted Falun Gong movement who recently burned themselves to death in Tiananmen Square, China's authorities try to discredit them as crazy. Outside China, many political exiles end up quarreling with each other, ill-equipped for life in foreign lands, powerless to sway high-level politics, out of fashion these days in Washington's inner circles.
Mr. Wei, when he first got to the
U.S., was hailed as a hero, welcomed to the White House, then quickly discarded by the Clinton administration as a headache. He has alienated plenty of former supporters, including assorted American experts on China, and Chinese members of the dissident diaspora, who found him easier to admire when he was in jail. "I need someone to have a good argument with," he explained last week. Here, he finds the discourse too tame. "People living under democracy don't take it very seriously, because they have it already," he says.He finds various ways to offend. In politically correct America, he smokes (as do many ex-prisoners). He likes to drive fast. He speaks very little English. He fears conspiracies against him at every turn. He favors policies that clearly won't come to pass, recommending at times that America simply cut off China's rulers until the Chinese people get their freedom.But for all that, Mr. Wei's basic message remains one of the most important things that the free world needs to understand about what stymies China's development and makes its government a threat to its own people, and a potential threat to the rest of us. Without democracy, Mr. Wei still argues, reform "can only go so far." This was the roadblock, he says, that produced the 1989 showdown in Tiananmen Square; this is still the obstacle to China's becoming a modern nation. What Americans need to know, he says, is that "those people who have no freedom love freedom."

Next month, China's point man for foreign policy, Vice Premier Qian Qichen, will visit Washington. Doubtless there will be many high matters for him to discuss with the new administration. But there is no message Mr. Qian can bring about China that is more important than what Mr. Wei--whatever his private upheavals--has to say about that "fifth modernization--democracy." There are rewards down the line to keeping faith with our own deepest principles. It could send a useful signal to some of our real potential allies in this modern age, meaning the people of China, not their rulers, if Secretary of State Colin Powell, or maybe even President Bush himself, were to meet first with Mr. Wei.
Ms. Rosett is a member of The Wall Street Journal's editorial board. Her column appears Thursdays on and in The Wall Street Journal Europe as "Letter From America."

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