In Box

Epiphanies: Wei Jingsheng

An unlikely dissident, imprisoned for almost two decades for his 1978 democratic tract "The Fifth Modernization," looks forward to China's democratic future.

Illustration by Joseph Ciardiello for FP
Illustration by Joseph Ciardiello for FP

When I was very young, I was in the countryside of Gansu. Through the windows of the train I saw a handful of very, very poor 17- to 18-year-old girls. They had no clothes to cover themselves. Before then, my education had told me our country is the greatest in the world — yet I’d never seen anything like this. It was enough of a shock to get me thinking that this country has a problem.

I wrote "The Fifth Modernization" in only one night. I came home from work and just banged out this article. After I posted it on Democracy Wall, I still was unsure about doing it. What I posted was so outspoken that it would’ve been criminal just to look at it. When I posted the article, it was about 4 or 5 in the morning. Then I ate some breakfast and rode my bike back a couple hours later. Whoa, there were a lot of people reading! It seemed like everyone was really interested in it and was happy to read it. So I quickly signed the article with my name and phone number. At my side was an official. He tapped my shoulder and said, "Young man — you’re screwed."

At my trial, when my sentence came back, I was delighted that they didn’t give me the death penalty. I said to myself, "Wow, I got a good deal!" So my mind was at peace. 

Dignity and honor are very important. A lot of people don’t tend to realize this — they usually say, "If I confess and get it over with, they’ll treat me a little better." But what they miss is that as soon as you lower your head, you lose your self-respect.

Thirty years ago, when I wrote "The Fifth Modernization," those who opposed the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] believed in their hearts that something was wrong, but didn’t dare say so aloud. But now, all Chinese people are willing to speak out if they see something. If the CCP had listened to Zhao Ziyang and his proposal for reform, then the CCP might today look like the Kuomintang in Taiwan — a legal party in a democratic system. But the CCP’s use of tanks and guns ultimately crushed not only the protesters and their hopes, but also its own opportunity.

When China becomes democratic, then I’ll retire. But so many of my friends say, "You can’t retire! You have to go back to China." One of my friends told me, "Mr. Wei, you’re tied to the battlewagon of Chinese democracy. So, until you’re dragged to death, you’ve got to be hooked to that wagon!" I really don’t have a choice. I have this responsibility that I can’t push away.

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