TOPICS > Politics

One Life

May 28, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight essayist Roger Rosenblatt has some thoughts about the value of one life.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: The story of Chinese dissident Wei Jingsheng is a lesson in sublime pigheadedness. In December, 1978, Wei created a wall poster in China that demanded, of all ridiculous things, democracy of China’s leaders.

Deng Xiaoping, who used the word “democracy” to win power over his rivals after Mao, had, of course, no interest in the idea of democracy once in power. He ordered the arrest of Wei Jingsheng and sentenced him to 15 years. In prison Wei’s health caved but pigheaded that he is, he continued to write about freedom, and he became to Deng’s irritation a cause celebre. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. The government decided to release him on September 14, 1993, and Wei, actually believing that he was free and acting according to his nature, again published his democratic essays. The government, responding according to its nature, clapped in jail again, and there he sits today, still writing away, as if he is allowed to.

The book of his writings, just published, is called “The Courage to Stand Alone.” The book is the product of one voice in a prison cell very far away, and it calls out to the world of freer thoughts, specifically to us. Explicitly, it argues that human rights is the essential standard of government. Implicitly, it argues that capitalism and dictatorship isn’t the same thing as capitalism and democracy. The latter strives to complement a free market with a free people. The former uses a free market to reinforce a repressive regime. So here we have it again–late in the 20th century, with Russian Communism given the bum’s rush at last, and democracy looking like a better idea all the time to the nations of the world, in the world’s largest nation, one small stubborn voice still speaks the obvious.

Wei Jingsheng stands alone in a distinguished line of political prisoners, and unless China begins to believe its own rhetoric, he is likely to stew in prison forever. To the cruel absurdity of his state, he adds the absurdity of thinking that works can alter circumstances, evidently having concluded that it is better to express democratic ideals from behind bars than to capitulate to a false freedom.

Emerson once asked Thoreau, who was jailed for his beliefs, “Why are you in here?”. Thoreau replied, “Why are you out there?”. The implication–we’ve heard it for hundreds of years–is that the person locked up for seeking freedom is freer than the ones outside who do not. The philosopher, Boekeus, knew this, as did Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela, and Andre Sakharov, and on, and on. Pig heads, every one. If Wei kept his mouth shut, he would be breathing fresh air today. Those who do not care about the integrity of one lone man want him to do exactly that. It makes it easier to get on with business–the inconvenience of human rights removed.

Oddly, Wei writes of the courage to stand alone, but he doesn’t think that standing alone is all that wonderful. To the contrary; in one of his letters he writes that the person who claims not to need society, in fact, relies on it for his very existence. Thus, he calls out to others whom he needs.

The question he poses is: Do we need him? And that is not for Wei to answer. He waits in prison and is like the philosophical riddle one used to ponder in high school. If you could prophet from the death of a single person in China, would you will that death? China was so far away, after all, and it was merely one life.

I’m Roger Rosenblatt.