Wei Jingsheng Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Political Education of a Chinese Dissident: Conversation with Wei Jingsheng, Human Rights Activist; 11/18/98 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Political Activism

What was your most important contribution to the democracy movement?

The biggest problem facing China's democracy movement is how to unite people in order to form an official opposition party. This is the only way we will be strong. If everyone cannot unite into an official opposition party, instead just proclaiming a bunch of empty, meaningless declarations, there's no purpose. The majority of Chinese already understand why we need democracy. In terms of protests, every year there are still thousands of struggles and demonstrations. So, the most crucial task is to get all the activists and demonstrators united into one common effort, because this is the only way we'll succeed.

Your essay and wall poster on the fifth modernization, how was it so simple and yet so powerful in its impact?

The most important reason, as I talked about last night in my talk,3 is what are the communists afraid of? Wei Jingsheng They're most afraid of the people beginning to understand. The biggest threat to the Communist Party is if the people know their rights and understand their own power. By "The Four Modernizations," the communists meant, "You people, listen to us, we'll give you this modernization and that modernization," etc. But the meaning of what I said was, "That is not right -- you should listen to the people's concerns. This is the only way China will modernize." And so the communists hate me.

What were the origins of your understanding of democracy? Was it your lifelong education?

Actually, Chinese demands for democracy didn't begin just yesterday. Chinese started demanding democracy almost a hundred years ago. Democratic thought influenced a lot of Chinese. Slowly, it's become popular and now, everyone wants democracy. So it's been a gradual process. However, I was different from previous democracy activists in one sense: since the 1950s, they were asking for democracy under communism. Yet, I feel that, if we're already under communist rule, where is the democracy? So this is where I mainly differed with them.

And what gave you the courage to do what you did when you did it, in putting up the documents on the Democracy Wall?

It's not easy for me to specify one reason. If you want to speak the truth, you will definitely pay a price. It's the same everywhere, but speaking out under communism comes with an especially heavy price. Many people have tried to speak out in China, and the price they've paid is even greater than I -- they lost their lives.

So the individual can make a difference in the making of history. Is that your philosophy?

I think there are few opportunities for one person to really influence history. The opportunity is very rare. I think that even if you become a president, you won't necessarily be able to change history. But if you give people a new, important way of thinking, this thought itself can change the world. And if you want people to heed your thought and believe in it, you should practice it yourself. Also your character, personality, and ability are central to people's belief and trust. A liar will never win anyone's trust.

What then are the essential characteristics of a good political leader?

People seem to have a lot of demands of leaders, but realistically, most leaders cannot accomplish all the demands. But I think each leader should examine the conditions of each request. Under certain conditions, a good leader may not act as well as under other circumstances. This may not be the same in each case, however.

So by its very nature the leadership of a communist country is a failed leadership by your definition?

Yes, the Communist Party is a failed leadership. This is not because of the personalities or characteristics of its leaders, but because the system of ideology it imposes inherently oppresses and stifles people. So, it is a failed system.

Next page: Political Prisoner

3. Public Lecture at Boalt Hall, UC Berkeley School of Law, on November 17, 1998.
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