China's Jailer in Chief

`Reformer' Deng Xiaoping holds the key to a true reformer's cell

WEI JINGSHENG has been in solitary confinement for 13 years now - for the crime of speaking his mind.

As Deng Xiaoping revives the liberal economic policies that brought him accolades in the West, it should be remembered that it is he who has always held the key to Mr. Wei's prison cell.

As the most outspoken of the young democracy activists of the time, Wei warned in 1979 that without changes in the system of government to institutionalize democratic accountability and rule by law, Mr. Deng could become another dictator, just as Mao Zedong had before him. "Does Deng Xiaoping want democracy?" Wei wrote in Exploration, the independent magazine he founded. "No, he does not!"

Wei was promptly arrested. Since that day, March 29, 1979, Deng is reported to have personally overseen the conditions of Wei's imprisonment, conditions so harsh that Wei, 42, has lost all his teeth and suffered from bouts of mental illness.

The dangerous ideas Deng is so anxious to keep away from his people - a Chinese source said last year that even the special guards who watch over Wei are forbidden to be alone with him - were formed as Wei traveled around China in the 1960s. The degree of poverty and backwardness he saw led him to question the validity of the Chinese communist orthodoxy in which he had been raised.

At the time of his detention, when the first, hesitant steps toward reform were being taken, even most of Wei's fellow democracy activists felt that his views were too inflammatory, liable to provoke a harsh response from the Communist Party.

Mainstream intellectuals, many of whom had just come back from the "cowsheds" to which they had been banished during the fear-filled years of the Cultural Revolution, ignored his arrest.

So hardly any Chinese voices were raised in his defense, and those few people who could not remain silent as their idealistic friend was put away for 15 years for "counterrevolution" were sent to join Wei in jail.

Ten years later, in 1989, the economic reform program had stalled, and many intellectuals felt the Communist Party had not delivered on its promise of political change, made when Deng came back to power in 1978.

FANG LIZHI, the dissident astrophysicist expelled from the party in 1987, wrote an open letter in January 1989 to Deng calling, politely, for him to show his commitment to political reform by releasing Wei. This initiated a steady stream of similar petitions signed by prominent journalists, writers, scientists, and economists. Suddenly, everyone remembered Wei.

Deng ignored the letters. But 10 days after Beijing university students had begun their demonstrations following the April 15 death of the respected former party General Secretary Hu Yaobang, Deng called their movement "turmoil" and said that the leadership must not be afraid of spilling a little blood to end it.

Deng didn't bend, despite millions of protesters on the streets of Beijing and the rapid spread of protests around the country, and regardless of appeals from moderates in the party.

After the Tiananmen Square massacre of June 1989, people said the military strongman, Yang Shangkun, now president, did it; Li Peng, the premier, did it. The Army did it, the hardliners did it. But on that night Deng once again showed that, as Wei had predicted, he would go to any lengths to protect his own power.

The signs were there all along, for those who had eyes to see. Deng's brand of pragmatism - much misunderstood in the West - has always been of the bloody and retributive variety.

During Deng's decade of reform, whenever the political climate chilled, most Western observers attributed these episodes to "hardliners" or "conservatives." The assumption was that since Deng was in favor of market-oriented reform policies, he must be in favor of a more liberal political line.

Wei reminds us, again, that Deng has never been prepared to tolerate real dissent - suggestions for change are only acceptable if they stay within certain limits, limits decided by the Communist Party and, ultimately, by Deng.

Such an arbitrary, autocratic political system cannot build the kind of stability China needs in order to continue providing for almost a quarter of the world's population.

Wei's clear voice, which echoes still from his prescient writings of the late 1970s, has now been joined by many others in arguing that no real change is possible unless dissenting voices are accepted as part of the political landscape.

All those who are concerned about China's future must not forget Wei.

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