THE COURAGE TO STAND ALONE: LETTERS FROM PRISON AND OTHER WRITINGS
By Wei Jingsheng
Viking, 283 pp., $23.95
We watched from the upper floor of the double-decker bus as a tightly packed line, several hundred Chinese men and women, walked in silent defiance. Their protest last October snarled traffic at a key intersection in Hong Kong.
They were protesting a long prison sentence for another Chinese dissident, a man named Wang Xizhe who had called on Chinese President Jiang Zemin to resign. They were ordinary people, committing an act of courage, walking slowly and deliberately in front of a building where their names and faces were almost certainly being recorded.
My wife and I were living in Hong Kong, and both our view from the bus and Hong Kong's imminent return to Chinese sovereignty came frequently to mind as I read "The Courage to Stand Alone," a collection of letters by Wei Jingsheng, who has been imprisoned for years and is considered the leading Chinese dissident.
At the heart of Wei's writing lies "The Fifth Modernization," an essay he wrote in 1978. Posted on Beijing's short lived Democracy Wall, it snubbed paramount leader Deng Xiaoping and his Four Modernizations - agriculture, industry, science, and defense - launched to repair an economy virtually destroyed by Mao Zedong.
Wei (pronounced "Way") accused Deng of ignoring the most important modernization: democracy. Without it, he warned, Deng would become another dictator.
In 1979, he was sentenced to 15 years in prison and subjected to unusually harsh treatment, perhaps as an example to other dissidents. Tapped for release six months early in 1993, Wei did not walk out of prison without a fight. China was bidding for the 2000 Olympics; the world was watching; and Wei insisted that authorities release letters he had written there before he would agree to his own release from prison.
China lost the Olympics. Wei was resentenced. No more words have emerged. So the letters in this volume may be the final record of a man who became the catalyst for China's dissidents.
His words chronicle the tedium of prison life, such as in a request to watch television and receive more letters from his family. They discuss the dangers of prison life, notably Wei's deteriorating health and unanswered pleas for medical attention. We see, in these letters, a formidable intellect coupled to an almost boyish charm. At several points, especially early in his prison term, Wei lectures his sisters, instructing one to tell another to "study hard and to overcome her bad habit of always paying too much attention to the past and the future instead of seizing the present."
In 1982, he wrote a 5,000 word analysis of Beijing's draft constitution, chiding the authorities for calling themselves socialists. "True socialists seek guarantees only for the interests of the people, not for the privileges of their own beliefs."
Political prisoners in China are supposed to write about their efforts to reform, but to China's leaders, Wei must have seemed like death by a thousand cuts. He is relentless in lecturing, arguing, discussing politics. His tone is never one of a zealot but a student: eager to exchange ideas, saddened at the irrationality of repression, disdainful of those in power. One feels a sense of awe reading these letters - occasionally monotonous, often eloquent, always articulate.
Wei's words bring us face to face with the the soul of a living patriot, someone who speaks the truth with passion and precision despite knowing that it will bring physical harm and perhaps not bear fruit in his lifetime.
* Lynde McCormick is the Monitor's business page editor.