THE COURAGE TO STAND ALONE
MAY 14, 1997
Letters written over nearly two decades in a Chinese prison offer some remarkable insights into the mind of one of China's leading political dissidents Wei Jingsheng. Charles Krause reports.
JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, letters from a Chinese prison. Charles Krause reports.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Those letters written over nearly two decades offer some remarkable insights into the mind of one of China's leading political dissidents Wei Jingsheng. Now published in book form in the United States, the letters have caused a sensation. Indeed, at the New York Public Library last night it was standing-room-only to hear those letters read aloud.
Wei Jingsheng, perhaps China's most famous political dissident, has spent all but six months of his last seventeen years in prison. Born in 1950, Wei was a red guard in Mao Tse Tung's cultural revolution. Then he was a soldier and an electrician at the Beijing Zoo. It wasn't until 1978 that he emerged as a leader of the democracy wall movement, a precursor to 1989's pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square.
Wei was first arrested in the late 70's for conducting counter-revolutionary propaganda, then sentenced to 15 years in prison in 1979. He was finally granted his freedom in 1993. The decision was widely interpreted as an attempt by the Chinese government to improve its image in the West. Beijing was then bidding for the Olympics in the year 2000.
Ultimately the bid was unsuccessful, as was Wei's ability to conformed China's undemocratic political system. Within six months after his release Wei was again detained and again sentenced to another 14 years in jail, where he remains. According to news reports, Wei, now 46, is in poor health and receiving little or no medical care from prison authorities. Meanwhile, his prison letters and essays, written over two decades, have become a literary sensation, called probably the most impressive dissenting document to emerge from China since the Communist Revolution in 1949.
Translated into English, they've now been published in the United States under the title "Courage to Stand Alone." Last night musician Peter Gabriel read one of the letters to Chinese Communist leaders Jiang Zemin and Li Peng, dated, June 15, 1991.
PETER GABRIEL, Musician: "Human rights, themselves, have objective standards that cannot be modified legislation and cannot be changed by the will of any government. Like objective existence and objective laws, they are objective truths. That was why Rousseau called them 'natural rights.' These natural rights are not protected by heaven, as your boot-licking, hack propagandists try to argue, but are rights with which every person is born. They are things that we fight for as a matter of course, and we don't need to be taught by hostile countries and hostile forces to do so.
They are the natural laws and the rights of life, just like eating or having sex. In other words, they are instinctive, and that is why they're called natural. It is abominable sophistry to try and argue that people can do without food because there are some people who have nothing to eat, or that people can do without sex because there are widows and bachelors around. It is similarly abominable to argue that people do not need human rights because they are able to adapt to an animal-like existence, although there is no such thing as objective human rights standards, simply because dictatorial slave societies still exist."
ROSE STYRON, Author: I'm going to read something that's a little lighter and a little more personal that Wei has written to his siblings. "Dear Ling-Ling, Ta-Ta, and Chan-Chan, Hello. I received your letter, as well as the books and tape recorder. I'm very happy. But in my excessive happiness, I regret only that you didn't also mail along a few cassettes so that I could enjoy some music.
There is no radio or television here, and it's been a long time since I've heard any music. Aside from the cry of the wind and the cooing of the rabbits when they're in heat, there aren't any other sounds to enjoy. If you send an English tape, definitely include the study material to go with it. I've never studied English before, and I don't have any textbooks or dictionaries handy, so I'll have to wait for you to send me everything I need. Send the plug and a microphone for this tape recorder along, as well, and another adapter. I'll be able to listen to music, as well as study English, and it will be a lot cheaper than using batteries. But don't send along any serious political music.
I'd prefer some relaxing classical favorites like Schubert, Mozart, or Strauss. I don't know why but I like western classic music, all kinds of modern styles, and even folk songs and opera from all over. But I can't take that self-proclaimed serious stuff."
GEORGE BLACK. Lawyers Comm. For Human Rights: I'm going to read a very short extract from a letter, one of the many that Wei Jingsheng has addressed over the years to Deng Xiaoping. He seemed to be caught in a kind of mutual antagonism. I think it was mutual. I think both men were equally obsessed with each other. This is a letter talking about his own family and talking about Deng's family and then talking about the metaphorical family of China as Deng's larger family. "Dear Deng Xiaoping," "I've written to you so many times that I'm totally beginning to get on your nerves, and you're wondering why can't this guy just sit in prison quietly? This appears to be a real problem, but it's not entirely my fault. I'm very capable of staying quiet, but if people don't allow me to be, then I can also be very unquiet.
This makes me quite different from most people in our country. When we are living in times of relative peace and tranquility, we are the quietest people on earth. But if we are oppressed beyond reason, then, as the history books show, we can be the most unquiet and the most imbued with revolutionary zeal of all peoples. My endless letters and my constant badgering are in the tradition of when officials oppress, the people rebel. It's time to make a fresh start. Your family's internal and external affairs are facing all kinds of problems. And they're all due to your old style patriarchal manner. You ask of others things that you refuse to do yourself. You prohibit others from interfering in your internal affairs, but you persist in having the absolute authority to interfere in the affairs of the ordinary people.
In other words, you meddle in their human rights. I don't think for a moment contemporary society will accept such behavior quietly. Furthermore, when people censor, denounce, or advise you, or even curtail their relations with you, they are doing so out of concern for your family. They've yet to resort to legal or more forceful means to do so. What personal internal affairs of yours are they actually interfering in? I wish you good health. I hope that you will go on living so that one day we can finally meet.
Up until now I haven't had the chance to greet my dear old friend and have a heart-to-heart chat with him. Please don't disappoint me. An old person like yourself should really take an early retirement and let the younger generation look after things. Look after yourself. Wei Jingsheng."