'At Least I Have Been of Some Use': Wei Jingsheng

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Wei Jingsheng (L) testifies at a U.S. House of Representatives hearing, while a man wearing a shirt depicting the Tiananmen Square protests looks on, in Washington, DC, June 3, 2013.
Wei Jingsheng (L) testifies at a U.S. House of Representatives hearing, while a man wearing a shirt depicting the Tiananmen Square protests looks on, in Washington, DC, June 3, 2013.

Many young people today don't even know what June 4, 1989 refers to. A lot of middle-aged and older people have heard of it, but they don't know what actually happened. Nobody really knows much about the Tiananmen Square massacre, because most of them daren't discuss it, owing to government pressure.

So I would like to set the record straight, by telling everyone the story. Someone said that modern people don't like to listen to reason; all they want are stories, preferably on a screen, life as entertainment; it doesn't even matter if they're not true.

Well, I'm afraid I can't deliver that, and it's not just because there are no moving pictures on a screen to look at: it's also because my story will be a true one.

In academic language, the proper way to refer to June 4 is "June 4, 1989, when Deng Xiaoping ushered in a tragedy by ordering the army to slaughter his own people."

Overseas, the phrases "1989 pro-democracy movement," or "June 4th democracy protests" are more current; foreigners typically describe the demonstrations as the "Tiananmen Square pro-democracy movement," or "the Tiananmen Square massacre." But of course, the movement took place not just on Tiananmen Square in Beijing, but across the whole country, including in Tibet and Xinjiang.

The [ruling] Chinese Communist Party's description is uglier. To start with, they styled the incident "counterrevolutionary riots." Later, they decided that wasn't quite right, and started referring instead to the "June 4 incident," or the "turmoil." Later, they decided that didn't sound so good either, and started using the phrase "disturbances." The guilt felt by the government shows through on paper.

I received the longest sentence of all those linked to the 1989 democracy movement, and was assumed to be a leading figure. I did 10 years of time, out of a 15-year sentence. People call it squatting in jail, because prisoners are required to squat down whenever they are addressed by a prison guard. But I never did, because I always maintained my innocence, and always said I had done nothing wrong.

When I was in Qinghai Prison, I was allowed to purchase a sheep every autumn, on the orders of [late former premier] Hu Yaobang, to supplement the prison diet. Autumn was the slaughtering season for sheep, and there was never any meat on sale during the winter months. In fall 1988, they released Kuai Dafu and Han Aijing, and I was the only person in the cell left to buy a sheep.

A young prison guard took me to one side and told me not to bother buying a sheep that year, because I'd be getting out on Oct. 1 and going home.

"What crap is that?" I said. "Deng's still alive."

"Well, we were told to prepare for your release by higher up," he said. "They could act at any time."

When Oct. 1 had come and gone, I asked him what was happening about that.

"Oct. 1 has come and gone," I said.

"Just wait awhile longer," I was told. "You'll be home by the New Year."

At New Year, I asked him again, and he said, less sure of himself now, that maybe I'd be home by Chinese New Year.

"The bosses told us to get ready to release you, but I don't know when it'll be," he said.

I didn't ask again.

Not long after that, I heard that there was a disturbance in the political atmosphere in Beijing. Then Hu Yaobang died, and the students started taking to the streets of Beijing, only to be joined by millions of ordinary citizens who had been supporting them, day in, day out. Then there was the occupation of Tiananmen Square, the hunger-strikes and sit-ins, and the movement of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) into the capital. I watched them open fire and massacre people on television.

Later, I saw Liu Xiaobo on TV saying he hadn't seen any dead bodies, and thought that we Chinese were a lily-livered bunch. When I saw Liu Xiaobo after that, he told me that he hadn't had the courage to tell the truth: he was truly frightened, so I forgave him. It was a matter of life and death, after all, and the cruel ones to blame here were
the Chinese Communist Party. Most of the foreigners were lily-livered, too, and they would appear on our screens looking so tough, because their governments weren't as cruel as ours.

They were going to let me out in 1993, six months before the application to stage the 2000 Olympics. I didn't find out until later that Deng Xiaoping had canceled the order for my release because he was displeased by all of the calls from prominent cultural figures including Fang Lizhi and Xu Liangying for my release, and the release of all political prisoners.

Sources very close to the leadership told me that Deng did actually want to release me early, because he didn't want to be subjected to a barrage of criticism from the rest of the world every day while I rotted in jail. But it was those open letters that got him really riled up, so he hesitated, and changed his mind. It seemed that all those letters had the opposite effect to that which was intended.

They also prompted a second fierce internal debate within the party about me. The first time was in 1979, when there was a big fight over whether or not to shut down the Democracy Wall and put me on trial. The fact that I escaped execution and my life was saved actually set a precedent that is still followed: prisoners of conscience aren't given the death penalty.

The second debate was the direct cause of Hu Yaobang's death and the split within the ranks of the party, and later, of the massive democracy protests that followed. You could say that I was used twice as a scapegoat, but I am glad to have been used that way. At least when you look at it that way, I have been of some use, rather than being a hapless piece of waste matter excreted by the system.

While I was watching the television footage of the students kneeling in front of the Great Hall of the People, the prison guards were saying: "Wei, it would be better if you were there: these students are still wet behind the ears. They're no match for those old guys."

But it didn't seem to me at the time as if I could have done anything to change the situation.

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

Wei Jingsheng is a U.S.-based veteran of the 1979 Democracy Wall movement, who has served a total of 18 years in Chinese prisons for "counterrevolutionary" activities.

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