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 Prisoner

You were in prison for almost twenty years. Being a political prisoner and surviving is a complex process. Wei Jingsheng at Tenggemu laogai [reform-through-labor prison camp], Qinghua province, 1985 What enabled you to survive that ordeal?

Well, the most important part of my survival was believing in myself. No matter what you're doing, if you believe in yourself, then each hardship won't seem so major. People who doubt themselves or are unsure of themselves will be easily defeated by other people.

And in part this was a gift of your parents, correct?

Probably yes; there is a little bit of a relation there. Even though I only went to school for a short amount of time, Wei and his sister Shanshan at Tenggemu laogai, 1985 I met many teachers who influenced me greatly while I was there.

And how did they make the greatest impact on you?

Some of the teachers -- I don't even remember which courses they taught -- but I remember that they all had one thing in common: they cared deeply about other people. They not only cared about their students, they also cared about other people. Their concern for people made a big impact on me. So, the work I do now is primarily about caring for all people.

At some point in your life you must have stopped being afraid of what your oppressors could do to you, you ceased being afraid of death. Is that correct, and when did it happen?

Everyone may be afraid of death. Wei Jingsheng No one is an exception. But at some point, you have to make a choice. Sometimes you have to choose either to live, but not like a person, without value or bones, like a traitor, cheating one's friends. But what meaning is there in that kind of life? Sometimes you have to make the choice: I would rather die than cheat my friends or live without meaning. People sometimes need to make this kind of choice.

Was writing in prison very important for your survival?

My biggest motivation in writing those letters was because I discovered that the communist leaders, Deng Xiaoping, Zhao Ziyang, Hu Yaobang, and many others were willing to listen to me and were willing to hear the truth in what I was saying. So why not use this opportunity to do a little more for my people? That was my main motivation.

And as you wrote these letters you never forgot Mark Twain? Because of the humor.

Yes, just a little bit.

What did you do in your daily routine that helped you survive political imprisonment?

During the time that I was in solitary confinement, the hardest thing was not thinking about one thing for a long time. In solitary confinement, if you just think about one thing, you'll think about it for several days and slowly, you'll start to have problems. So I developed my own kind of survival method to fight this tendency, constantly inventing scientific creations, writing books, or singing within my heart. Because they wouldn't let you sing out loud, I tried to just sing and make up songs in my heart. These activities are very effective in helping people keep their spirits up. After being in prison for over ten years, I've discovered since being out that, unfortunately, a lot of the inventions I thought of were already invented by other people. So, I'm a little late.

Did you study and learn new things in prison?

In prison it wasn't possible to really study any new things because they strictly controlled reading books or newspapers, and there was little exposure to outside news. But I always tried to study all kinds of new things.

Next page: China and the Future of Democracy

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