BEIJING — WEI JINGSHENG, the most famous imprisoned democracy activist in China, was freed Sept. 14 in an apparent scramble by Beijing to boost its bid to host the 2000 Olympics.
After years of resisting international clamor for the dissident's freedom, Chinese authorities released Mr. Wei on probation from a prison near Tangshan, east of Beijing, with only six months left of his 15-year prison term, according to the New China News Agency.
The freeing of Wei, the most prominent symbol of political dissent in the brutal Chinese gulag and author of a daring treatise on Chinese democracy, is the latest in a series of moves by China to appease international criticism over human rights.
Since the beginning of this year, several well-known political dissidents have been freed, while others were allowed to travel abroad. Among those freed was Xu Wenli, a contemporary of Wei who was also involved in the Democracy Wall movement in the late 1970s.
The decision to free Wei came 10 days before Olympic officials are due to vote on the site for the 2000 Summer Olympics. Beijing is believed to be in a tight race with frontrunning Sydney.
``This looks like a transparent, last-ditch effort to score some points for its bid and boost China's standing internationally,'' says a Western diplomat in Beijing who tracks human rights issues.
At press time, Wei had yet to return to his father's house in Beijing where dozens of journalists waited for him. The official announcement said Wei, who was convicted in 1979 for selling information about China's 1979 war with Vietnam to a foreigner, was released for observing prison regulations and was given a farewell lunch by jail officials. The official television news showed footage of Wei's release.
Wei was quoted by the news agency as telling prison workers he felt ``very happy and healthy,'' although human rights organizations had reported that he had lost his hair and teeth and suffered mental instability. He served his jail term in solitary confinement. Denying reports of mistreatment, Chinese officials released a video of him touring Tangshan museums and shops with his prison guards earlier this year.
It was unclear where Wei will live since his father, Wei Zhilin, a retired government bureaucrat, cut off contacts after his son was imprisoned. The dissident's mother died before he went to jail, and his father and step-mother ``care little about Wei,'' a neighbor told the Monitor. Wei has a brother and sister in Beijing who have told friends that he can live with them.
A Beijing activist who had campaigned with Wei before his arrest, predicted that Wei will not be allowed to live freely in Beijing and suggested he may be forced to live in another city.
Chinese authorities have admitted in the press that Wei has not retracted his democratic views. A former Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution, a soldier in the Chinese Army, and an electrician in the Beijing park system, Wei came to prominence for urging democratic reform during the political ferment in the late 1970s.
His articles, published in a magazine called ``Exploration'' and later posted on a wall in central Beijing that became known as the Democracy Wall, called for a more open system and sought to redress political injustices left over from the Cultural Revolution, a 10-year government leftist campaign that ended in 1976. An opponent of Marxism, Wei earned the wrath of the Communist leadership by launching a bitter attack on Deng Xiaoping, whom he accused of ``metamorphosing into a dictator.''
He was best known for an article called ``The Fifth Modernization,'' a sarcastic call for democracy to be added to the four officially sponsored modernizations of industry, agriculture, science, and defense. ``People should have democracy. If they ask for it, they are asking for something they rightfully own. Anyone refusing to give them democracy is a shameless bandit no better than a capitalist who robs workers of their money earned with their sweat and blood,'' Wei wrote. ``Are not the people justified in seizing power from those overlords?''
His trial ended a brief period of political liberalization which directly challenged supreme leader Deng Xiaoping and shocked the West by showing that Mr. Deng, while an economic reformer, would not tolerate political dissent.