Wei Jingsheng (Chinese: 魏京生; pinyin: Wèi Jīngshēng; born 20 May 1950, Beijing) is a Chinese human rights activist known for his involvement in the Chinese democracy movement. He is most prominent for having authored the essay, Fifth Modernization, which was posted on the "Democracy Wall" in Beijing in 1978. Due to the manifesto, Wei was arrested and convicted of "counterrevolutionary" activities, and was detained as a political prisoner from 1979–93. Released briefly in 1993, Wei continued with his dissident activities by speaking to visiting journalists, and was imprisoned again from 1994–97, spending a total of 18 years in different prisons. He was deported to the United States on 16 November 1997, on medical parole. Still a Chinese citizen, in 1998 Wei established the Wei Jingsheng Foundation in New York City (now based in Washington D.C.) whose stated aim is to work to improve human rights and democratization in China.
Wei was the oldest of four children, brought up by Chinese Communist Party cadres. In 1966, Wei joined the Red Guards as a 16-year-old student during the Cultural Revolution. He lived in remote rural areas in Northern China and was able to speak with peasant farmers about the widespread famines that had occurred a few years before, during the Great Leap Forward. He uncovered the role that the communist government under Mao Zedong played in causing the famines, and it forced Wei to start questioning the nature of the system he lived under. Wei would later write about this period: "I felt as if I had suddenly awakened from a long dream, but everyone around me was still plunged in darkness." In 1973, he began working as an electrician at the Beijing Zoo.
Wei did not publicly voice his feelings until 1978, when he decided to take part in the newly emerged Democracy Wall movement taking place in Beijing. On 5 December 1978, he posted an essay he authored to the wall, entitled, the Fifth Modernization as a response to Paramount leader Deng Xiaoping's essay, the Four Modernizations. Wei's basic theme in the essay is that democracy should be also be a modernization goal for China along with the other four proposed by Deng (the four being: industry, agriculture, science and technology, and national defense).
Wei signed the essay with his real name and address. The essay immediately caused a stir because of its boldness and because it was not anonymous. It was also the only essay to address Deng Xiaoping by name, and refer to him as a dictator.
Of course, internal problems cannot be solved overnight but must be constantly addressed as part of a long-term process. Mistakes and shortcomings will be inevitable, but these are for us to worry about. This is infinitely better than facing abusive overlords against whom there is no redress. Those who worry that democracy will lead to anarchy and chaos are just like those who, following the overthrow of the Qing dynasty, worried that without an emperor the country would fall into chaos. Their decision was to patiently suffer oppression because they feared that without the weight of oppression, their spines might completely collapse! To such people, I would like to say, with all due respect: We want to be the masters of our own destiny. We need no gods or emperors and we don't believe in saviors of any kind...we do not want to serve as mere tools of dictators with personal ambitions for carrying out modernization. We want to modernize the lives of the people. Democracy, freedom, and happiness for all are our sole objectives.— Wei Jingsheng, excerpt from "Fifth Modernization" essay posted on Democracy Wall (late 1978)
Arrest and imprisonment
Wei was also known for his editorial work in the short-lived magazine Explorations (探索) in 1979. He had also published a letter under his name in March 1979 denouncing the inhuman conditions of the Chinese Qincheng Prison, where the 10th Panchen Lama was imprisoned.
His dissident writings eventually saw him tried and imprisoned. Writes Orville Schell, a writer and academic specializing in China:
On March 25, hearing through the grapevine that a crackdown was imminent, Wei and his colleagues rushed out a special edition of Explorations entitled "Do We Want Democracy or a New Dictatorship?"...
Wei and some thirty other Democracy Wall activists were rounded up [soon after]. That October, Wei Jingsheng was brought to trial and accused of "supplying military intelligence [on China's war with Vietnam] to a foreigner and of openly agitating for the overthrow of the government of the dictatorship of the proletariat and the socialist system in China."...
For his outspoken views Wei was sentenced to a prison term of 15 years.
Wei ultimately spent a total of 18 years in different prisons in China. The letters that he wrote while he was in prison explaining his views were compiled into a book, The Courage to Stand Alone: Letters from Prison and Other Writings. Some of the letters were addressed directly to Deng Xiaoping, others to different family members of Wei. He remained imprisoned until 14 September 1993, when he was released just one week prior to a vote by the International Olympic Committee over whether to award the 2000 Summer Olympics to Beijing or Sydney. Wei continued to speak out, despite the threat of arrest.
On 27 February 1994, Wei met with United States Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights John Shattuck to discuss human rights conditions in China, and also met with journalists. Wei was arrested the following week along with fifteen other democracy and labor activists. Although released shortly afterward and sent into exile in Tianjin, Wei was arrested once more on 1 April 1994 when he tried to return to Beijing. Charged with plotting against the state, he was sentenced to 14 years in prison, but he would only remain in jail until 16 November 1997, when he was released for "medical reasons" and promptly deported to the United States. He was sent to the United States due to international pressure, especially the request by then US President Bill Clinton.
In 1996, Wei Jingsheng was awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. He is a winner of numerous other human rights and democracy awards, including the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award in 1996, the National Endowment for Democracy Award in 1997, the Olof Palme Memorial Prize in 1994, and the International Activist Award by the Gleitsman Foundation in 1993.
In 2008, he was chosen as one of the 15 Champions of World Democracy by the Europe-based magazine A Different View.