November 17, 1997
China released its foremost political dissident, Wei Jingsheng, following nearly 18 continous years of imprisonment. Following a background report, Margaret Warner discusses Mr. Wei's release with two China experts.
MARGARET WARNER: After spending most of the last 18 years in jail Wei Jingsheng, China's most prominent dissident, was released from prison over the weekend. Though Beijing has been under intensive international pressure to release Wei, the Chinese government cited only medical grounds for doing so. Chinese authorities put Wei Jingsheng on a non-stop flight to Detroit yesterday. The 47-year-old dissident, who suffered from heart disease, hypertension, and other ailments while in prison, was admitted to Detroit's Henry Ford Hospital upon arrival. At a press conference this afternoon doctors reported on Wei's health.
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
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DR. THOMAS ROYER, Henry Ford Hospital: At this time we are treating Mr. Wei for hypertension, which was a condition that he had in the past and certainly was present when he arrived, and we are doing that as we speak. In addition, we are continuing an array of tests which are continuing to look at other medical conditions hopefully to rule them out, rather than to rule them in. These include cardiac conditions, as well as some arthritic conditions, and those are the main two areas that we are pursuing at this time.
MARGARET WARNER: Once a soldier in the Chinese Army, Wei was an electrician at the Beijing Zoo when he wrote an essay in 1979 urging democracy for China. His outspokenness earned him more than 14 years in prison. Chinese officials released him in 1993 during Beijing's campaign to be named host of the year 2000 Olympic games. Ignoring warnings to lay low, Wei continued writing and speaking out on political issues. In March 1994, he met in Beijing with the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights, John Shattuck. Wei was arrested the following week and jailed again.
Throughout his years in prison, including long stints of solitary confinement and what he said was physical and psychological abuse, Wei wrote letters of protest to Chinese leaders challenging and ridiculing them. Some of the letters were translated and published in a book this year entitled "The Courage to Stand Alone." Though President Clinton urged Wei's release during Chinese President Jiang Zemin's state visit last month, Clinton officials were restrained in applauding Beijing's decision to do so.
SAMUEL BERGER, National Security Adviser: (Yesterday) China sent a note today--a very happy development--and that is the release of Wei Jingsheng, probably the most political dissident in China. It's a very happy day, I think.
MARGARET WARNER: Wei had earlier refused to accept exile as a condition for release, but this weekend his family told CNN Wei signed a document that stated if he returned to China, he would be imprisoned again.
MARGARET WARNER: Joining us now are Merle Goldman, a professor of Chinese history at Boston University and author of several books on Chinese intellectuals, and Kenneth Lieberthal, a China scholar and professor of political science at the University of Michigan. Merle Goldman, what makes Wei Jingsheng the country's most prominent political dissident?
MERLE GOLDMAN, Boston University: Well, in part, he's been made that symbol by the government, itself. He has served longer than any other human rights activist. He was put in prison not because he wanted democracy so much but because he had criticized Deng Xiaoping, because he said he would turn into a dictator if the Leninist system continued. So he was the first one to directly criticize the Leninist system and to criticize the leadership. And for that he had received 15 years in prison. He was out briefly in order--as the announcement said--to get the Olympics--and then he was back again in prison and sentenced again to another 14 years. Still, he continued to speak out. He never moderated his call for democracy, and I think that's what makes him such a hero.
MARGARET WARNER: Prof. Liberthal, what would you add to that, and why was the Chinese authority so fixated on him?
KENNETH LIEBERTHAL, University of Michigan: Well, I think, in fact, it wasn't that Chinese authorities were so fixated as the international human rights community was fixated on him, and they were fixated on him for just the reasons Prof. Goldman just named. He's a man of indomitable courage. His writings are insightful and are eloquent. He's a man who believes passionately in the cause of multiparty democracy in China, with free elections, and so he became a symbol for the international community of the repression of democracy activists in China. He's much better known in the international community, indeed, than he is in China, itself, one of the ironies of his condition.
MARGARET WARNER: But then why was the Chinese government so reluctant to release him?
KENNETH LIEBERTHAL: I think they were reluctant to release him in part because he refused to go abroad and they did not want to have him inside of China. They also were reluctant to release him, I think, in part because they don't want to be seen as bowing to international pressure concerning how they govern themselves. And the third reason--final reason why they were reluctant was because he had directly criticized Deng Xiaoping. It was more than a little reason to believe that Deng personally insisted that Wei be incarcerated and not be let out, and so it's not surprising that his final release came only after Deng died earlier this year.
MARGARET WARNER: Prof. Goldman, why do you think the Chinese government decided to release him now?
MERLE GOLDMAN: Well, I think, in part, it's because this government wants to be part of the modern world. They want to be part of the international community. It's very important to them. It's very like--it's unlike Mao Tse Dung, when Mao didn't care what the rest of the world thought of China or himself, they really care, and they know that the price for being part of that modern world is to have a good relationship or at least a constructive relationship with the United States and since Wei became such an important figure in that relationship, I think in part this was to improve or continue to improve that relationship in the United States. And it does prove that engagement does succeed.
MARGARET WARNER: Prof. Lieberthal, do you agree with that assessment about why?
KENNETH LIEBERTHAL: Absolutely. I think--to put it in slightly different terms--had President Clinton not welcomed President Jiang to Washington several weeks ago, Wei Jingsheng would still be sitting in a Chinese prison looking at another 12 years of hell in jail, so that this suggests strongly that we can get things that we want from China if we are willing to meet with the Chinese to show that while protecting our own interest, we also recognize their domestic needs, and to develop a constructive relationship. Within that context both sides are able to move some distance toward meeting the highest priorities of the other side, so this is very much a vindication of that basic strategy.
MARGARET WARNER: Well, there is, of course, a great debate within the human rights community over that, but Prof. Goldman, how do you see it?
MERLE GOLDMAN: Well, I tend to agree with this constructive engagement. I must admit that after June 4, 1989, I felt there had to be a period in which we didn't have anything to do with the regime; there had to have been a cooling off period, but I feel since the mid 1990's that the only way to bring about change in China is to deal with China constructively and positively to isolate them, to alienate them. It will not help anybody, won't help China, won't help ourselves, and also I think the example of the former Soviet Union is important. When we were in a period of detente, we got much better response on the Soviet side in terms of human rights activists.
MARGARET WARNER: Okay. Professor Lieberthal, do you think the release of Wei signals any fundamental shift in policy on the part of the Beijing government toward political dissent in general?
KENNETH LIEBERTHAL: No, I don't. I think that this was done largely because President Clinton--when he met with Jiang Zemin earlier--Sandy Berger when he met with his Chinese counterparts--Madeleine Albright when she meet with them--all indicated this was right up at the top of the American agenda, so this was done to help to meet our requirements for the relationship. Having said that, let me say I think the broad drift of developments in China is not toward a multi-party democracy but certainly has been in the direction of greater degrees of freedom for most citizens of China, more choice of job, of lifestyle, of mate choice, and so forth, things that are highly important to people if you actually live there. But I would not confuse that with a general lessening of repression of active democratic dissidents.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you agree with that, Prof. Goldman?
MERLE GOLDMAN: I do. The dissidents are still there. They're silent, they're in prison, and I feel that their situation might improve slightly because they know outside pressure might help them, but they still had very little chance to speak out today--
MARGARET WARNER: Were you surprised that Wei agreed to these terms, that is, to go into exile? The report said that he's been offered this deal before and refused.
MERLE GOLDMAN: Well, I think physically he's in bad shape. He's been beaten up several times in prison, in fact, just a few days ago. I think that if he'd stayed there for another 14 years, as he was sentenced, he would not make it out alive, and this is so important. I think he feels he can work from abroad to try to bring about change in China.
MARGARET WARNER: Prof. Lieberthal, what's your assessment of that point, why he agreed to this, and what kind of influence he will or won't have outside of China?
KENNETH LIEBERTHAL: As to why he agreed to this I think we're going to have to wait until he is out of the hospital and able to talk to the media. I think Merle Goldman's comment that he may have felt that his health had deteriorated to the point where he really had no choice, you know, very possibly is accurate. We just don't know. As far as his influence outside of China we'll have to see, but let me say the record to date is fairly clear. There are other very articulate, very insightful democratic activists from China that have gone into exile in the United States. The general rule is that they have been active and visible for a matter of months, or maybe a year or so when attention is focused on them, and then they begin to have less of an impact. They have less of an impact abroad because the media spotlight moves elsewhere. They have less of an impact in China because they really do not have access to the population of China, and in a sense they're seen as people who have left and, therefore, are less relevant. It's a kind of classic tragedy of the dissident in exile.
MARGARET WARNER: And, Prof. Goldman, do you agree with that, that it's very hard to have influence once you leave?
MERLE GOLDMAN: It is, especially since the dissident community abroad is so factionalized. If they were able to unite in some way and come forth with a common program, they might be able exert more influence, but it is true, and that's one of the reasons he didn't want to go abroad because he knew if he was going to change or help to change China, he had to be home.
MARGARET WARNER: Yes, he told one of his top aides at one point just fairly recently that he didn't want to go into exile for that reason.
MERLE GOLDMAN: That is true, and that is the real tragedy of the situation. But at this point he's alive; he's able to speak out at least in the United States; and that's certainly better than dying in prison.
MARGARET WARNER: Prof. Lieberthal, so if there are other younger, would-be Wei Jingshengs in China, is there any lesson to them in this?
KENNETH LIEBERTHAL: Well, I think--
MARGARET WARNER: Is there any encouragement? How would they be reading this?
KENNETH LIEBERTHAL: I think actually the reality of life in contemporary China is that the younger, restless people overwhelmingly tend to go into business, rather than into political opposition. Wei Jingsheng was in a different era. In his era there were no other outlets, and a courage person like him went into direct opposition. There certainly are people in China who are political activists, but they are relatively few in number at this point because--I think in part because there are so many other avenues available to them. If I were a young dissident in China and wanted to be active against the government, I would not regard this release as particularly encouraging because it comes only after the man spent a total of roughly 17 years in prison. That's hardly a future that one would look forward to, and so I think that it really has limited lessons for activists in China. We should keep in mind that China, itself, is changing in a way that political activism is not the only outlet for restless youths there in the 1990's.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Well, Prof. Lieberthal, Prof. Goldman, thank you both very much.