In September 1993, several days before the International Olympic Committee was to vote on Beijing's bid for hosting the 2000 Summer Games, China released its most prominent dissident, Wei Jingsheng, who had been imprisoned in 1979 for "counterrevolutionary activities."
We met Mr. Wei in a hotel and asked him, "If you had the opportunity to meet President Clinton today, what would you say to him?"
He replied, "I would tell President Clinton to keep up the pressure on China over human rights. If you want to have a dialogue with a communist government, you have got to exert pressure. Otherwise, they will never talk with you."
Wei's blunt criticism of the Chinese government landed him in jail again soon after Beijing lost its Olympics bid to Sydney, Australia. He was sentenced in 1994 to 14 years in prison on charges of subversion.
Four years later, as an exiled dissident, Wei had the opportunity to deliver the same message to Mr. Clinton in person. In a recent White House meeting, Wei cautioned Clinton not to be deceived by Chinese promises and said he hoped the US would continue to press China to release more political prisoners. The meeting, which ignited strong protest from Beijing, was the highest honor ever bestowed on a Chinese dissident, and it marked the high point of what other dissidents call the "Wei Jingsheng media whirlwind."
Wei's appeal for continued US pressure on China is supported by many dissidents here. They believe China's leaders are only willing to engage in dialogue over human-rights conditions when facing pressure from Western nations, whose business interests have become an important source of investment and technology for Beijing's modernization drive.
History has proven that international sanctions work. Since the crackdown in Tiananmen Square in 1989, economic sanctions by the West have forced Beijing to make a series of concessions, the most significant of which was to sign the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. By linking human rights with most-favored-nation trade status, the US managed to pressure China into releasing several prominent dissidents, such as Wang Juntao, an intellectual branded by the government as one of the "black hands" behind the 1989 student democracy movement.
Yet, Wei's recent meeting with Clinton took place at a time when advocacy of human rights is being replaced by the pursuit of economic and national security interests. The Chinese Communist government, while consolidating its position at home through economic reforms, has effectively used "the economic card" to influence Western governments into downplaying their support for democratization in China. This year France dropped its sponsorship of a strong UN resolution criticizing China in exchange for the prospect of selling more Airbus planes. And pro-China lobbying in the US by large corporations hoping to take advantage of the country's booming economy has weakened congressional support for human-rights activists.
The Clinton administration's new policy of constructive partnership with China dictates that human rights will take a back seat. Before the Sino-US summit next year, besides negotiating the release of a few more dissidents, there likely will be no major breakthroughs in the administration's human-rights efforts. Unless there is another dramatic incident like the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, the US may not take the lead in vehemently criticizing China's human-rights abuses or take such drastic steps as economic sanctions.
Wei's advice, while heard, may go unheeded. The high-profile White House meeting isn't likely to produce any substantial changes in current US-China policy. What it might do is appease human-rights groups critical of the US engagement policy with China. And for Wei Jingshen, it was an opportunity to thank the American government and people for his freedom.
Wei has said his ambition is to be a professional political activist. He also has indicated that he wants to take a role in the democracy movement outside China.
After all the media fanfare is over, a tough job awaits him. At present, the overseas Chinese democracy campaign is having a hard time maintaining its momentum. The dissident community has broken into various factions as a result of personality differences. With dwindling international support, many organizations are struggling to survive with limited resources. Whether Wei has the charisma and leadership ability to unite the different factions and use the media attention to revive the overseas democracy movement remains to be seen.
One thing is certain: Any progress toward establishing democratic institutions in China won't come easily. The Chinese government continues to suppress dissenting views. Dissidents such as Wang Dan and Chen Zimin are still locked up or under house arrest. The final responsibility for bringing democratic change to China lies with the Chinese themselves, both in and outside the country. They should be prepared for another "Long March" toward freedom.
* S. Chen is a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. W. Huang is a writer for a Chicago-based health care organization.