Wei Jinsheng, author, The Courage to Stand Alone
This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.
JEFF MARTIN: This is Common Ground, a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. In this edition of Common Ground, a prominent Chinese dissident talks about the high stakes involves in his actions.
WEI JINSHENG: [via a translator] Given the environment at the time, we were all very clear what the consequence of our actions would be: it would be immediate execution for our activities.
MARTIN: And then later in the program a report from the West Bank, where ordinary Palestinians feel pressured not only by the presence of the Israeli Army, but also from their own Palestinian National Authority.
HAMMAD ABU-HARTHEH: Well at the beginning the Palestinian Authority came with a mentality of a revolution, that you only, when you arrest people the only way of making them talk about what they have done is by using force.
MARTIN: Common Ground is produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Jeff Martin.
This month a prominent Chinese dissident marks the one-year anniversary of his exile from China. Mary Gray Davidson recently spoke with Wei Jinsheng about the human rights struggle in his homeland and his life in exile.
[sound of large crowd singing Chinese music
MARY GRAY DAVIDSON: Spring of 1989. Thousands of students and other Chinese citizens gather in an around Tiannamen Square in support of a more democratic China.
[sound of students chanting and speaking over bullhorns]
DAVIDSON: On June 3, 1989, government troops moved into Tiannamen Square, putting an end to seven weeks of peaceful protest.
[sounds of shouting and gunfire]
DAVIDSON: 1989 was not the first pro-democracy to take place in China since the Communists took power nearly a half-century ago. Just a decade before the events in Tiannamen Square, there was another flowering of free expression. It came to be known as the Democracy Wall Movement and people began to publish magazines and post on walls around the city their hopes and fears about the new China following the death of Mao Tze Dong. One of the leaders of that movement was a man named Wei Jinsheng, my guest today. Many of the students in Tiannamen Square considered Wei their hero and inspiration. In a poster he hung on Democracy Wall in 1979 Wei argued that democracy was not the result of progress; it was a precondition for progress. This period of free expression was short-lived though and Wei was arrested and sentenced to 15 years in prison. He was paroled in 1993 but sentenced to another 14 years in prison for continuing his political activities. In November of 1997 Wei Jinsheng was released from prison and exiled from China, seeking medical treatment abroad. He’s been in the United States ever since. I spoke to Wei Jinsheng about the upcoming anniversary of his release. I began by asking him if in 1979 he really thought China was the road to democracy.
WEI JINSHENG: [via a translator] I knew at the time that what I was doing could be successful. I also knew that it would not be successful solely because of what I did. It would be successful because the Chinese people would want it to be successful. And at the time, not only myself but all of my collaborators on the magazine Exploration had the discussion where we determined that we, in order to see the success of the Chinese people, were willing to sacrifice ourselves and were willing to face whatever would come as a result of our actions. Because given the environment at the time, we were all very clear what the consequence of our actions would be: it would be immediate execution for our activities. Even if you look at it from the point of view that we were not executed you could say that what we did had an effect an China and did contribute a little bit of change.
DAVIDSON: How did that feel, during that period of the Democracy Wall Movement, of seeing all those things that had not been said in public before, plastered around the city?
JINSHENG: [via a translator] It proves to me that the Chinese people are full of hope. I don’t accept the idea that the Chinese people are reserved to fate or don’t have hope in their futures.
DAVIDSON: It’s been a year now since you were taken from your prison cell and flown to the United States. What has this first year away from prison, your country, your family, been like for you?
JINSHENG: [via a translator] Everybody wants to spent their days with your family, with your relatives, and with your friends. So this is what is in everybody’s personal interest. But sometimes circumstances dictate that individuals who do not, are not able to do this are doing it for a larger question. A sacrifice of your personal interests for a larger good. In this I have been able to find some belief that I am serving out this time for a purpose.
DAVIDSON: This last year has been your first opportunity to live in a Western-style democracy. Is it as you had imagined a democracy would be like?
JINSHENG: [via a translator] The environment of a democratic is very much what I imagined it would be. It is natural because democracy very much suits man’s personality. So in this I have found that it’s very similar to what I thought. And it’s also reinforced my idea of why we were committed to bringing democracy to China in the first place. And of course it has given me the opportunity to see the not-so-good things about democratic and open society. And it has allowed me to spend some time considering, if in the future we are able to create democracy, how would we avoid these type of problems.
DAVIDSON: What types of problems would you cite?
JINSHENG: [via a translator] This is something I’m often discussing with Western politicians and Western academics. One problem for example is why are Western politicians so consumed with short-term thinking? Why are they thinking of immediate problems that are in their best interests but that have long-term repercussions? And this may be related to the election process, where in the United States the President is given four years and what happens outside of his four years tenure, it does not seem to be such an overriding idea.
DAVIDSON: Does it disturb you when you see such phenomenon here as voter apathy, when a majority of people don’t participate in elections here? One of our rights.
JINSHENG: [via a translator] I don’t see this as being a tremendous problem. In fact, I feel that this is somewhat of a normal occurrence. In a society where overall ideas are in great conflict an individual would look heavily upon his one, or her one, vote. And take it much more seriously. In a society where the most serious of contradictions are resolved and the analysis of problems are very much alike then it lessens the importance of an individual’s vote. And their decision to go and vote or not to go and vote is not sees as an important one. And what I think is the greatest advantage to democracy is that it tends to bring the greatest differences of opinion to a more consensus approach. And what this does is avoid great splits in the overall population. And for a society this is a great thing.
DAVIDSON: It’s been said that sometimes a dictatorship can more effectively silence a dissident, the opposition, by sending them into exile like they did you, than leaving them in prison where they are a cause for the international human rights community. Do you feel that’s true and do you feel that you had more impact on the Chinese government sitting alone in a prison cell than you do know free, but in exile?
JINSHENG: [via a translator] I don’t believe that the Communists hold the idea that by exiling all of the dissidents it is a good thing. I think they are smarter than that. The Communists know their own origins, where they able to, from the point of view of overseas exile, organize and effectively begin to coalesce around certain ideas. And from this they have drawn their lessons. Of course there are individuals who, after being exiled will see their influence diminish. I think this is the question of what type of individual you’re talking about. There are examples such as Mandela, who became someone that was a focus of the world’s attention because he spent all of his time in the prisons. But there are individuals such as Havel, who was exiled and became the attention of the world. So there are both sides of the story. But I am struck by the number of people who after they leave their country no longer pay attention to the plight of their fellow countrymen. These type of individuals are the ones who become quickly forgotten by their fellow countrymen.
DAVIDSON: Mr. Wei, the world has seen such incredible changes in the last decade with the fall of communism in the Soviet Union. And in fact dissidents not unlike yourself, Vlacev Havel, as you mentioned, became leader of his country after spending time in prison and in exile; Nelson Mandela became leader of post-apartheid South Africa. Do you think such change is possible in China? And when would that happen? And also, do you have any aspiration to go back and be a leader in China?
JINSHENG: [via a translator] I am convinced that the China of the future will see a change very similar to the ones that the rest of the world has experienced. What I am most hopeful for is that after this change takes place China will look to a much more vigorous and youthful leader and I will be able to go and rest for a little while. Every doctor that I have spoken to has said, “Whatever you do, you must get some rest.” And it scares them, I think, to see me consider to go back and become a president or other such leader. And sometimes doctors can make sense.
DAVIDSON: I don’t know though. Nelson Mandela is not a young man.
[both Gray-Davidson and Wei Jinsheng laugh]
JINSHENG: [via a translator] That is true but I feel that if Mandela were younger he would have a greater influence inside of South Africa. I believe that if I were called upon by my Chinese to do such things I could persevere and serve as Mandela or Mr. Havel have.
DAVIDSON: One final question then. You have given your life to this struggle for human rights and democracy. And in my opinion paid a large price personally. But has the struggle been worth it.
JINSHENG: [via a translator] It is of course worth my efforts. If you were witness to such severe poverty, where Chinese were subjected to having to eat children; if you felt that you could accomplish anything to see a change in their condition, anyone would be doing it. Well, let me put it to you this way: in 1979 when we were putting out these ideas that every Chinese had the rights of every other person in the rest of the world, the people who agreed with me were quite small. Presently I think that most Chinese, if not all Chinese, feel that they have these rights and should have these rights. If you look at this then I think that you have to conclude that we have been successful to a very great degree. And so for this the price to pay has been very small. It’s like buying a skyscraper with a dollar. [laughing] But of course we’ve only made a down payment on the foundation of that tower. We’re still building the rest of it. [laughing]
DAVIDSON: Wei Jinsheng says he has always maintained that democracy should be achieved through peaceful means. But he’s afraid a growing number of people in China are rejecting nonviolence, in part because they don’t feel they have international support for their cause. So, although most Chinese don’t want to see a violent revolution, says Wei Jinsheng, they are now wavering over the most effective means of achieving democracy in China. For Common Ground, I’m Mary Gray Davidson.
MARTIN: We’ll pause for a break now, and when we return, a report from the West Bank, where in spite of decades of violence, there is still hope for peace.
RAED: It’s not a one-day struggle between us and them. And it’s a very long struggle. I do hope that we can live together.
MARTIN: Printed transcripts of Common Ground and audio cassettes of this program are available. Listen at the end of the broadcast for details on ordering. Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that conducts varied programs and activities meant to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs.
Israeli and Palestinian leaders signed the Oslo peace agreement nearly 5 years ago. But as the events of recent months, weeks, and even the past few days have shown, moving that peace process forward is still painfully difficult. Israeli troops continue to occupy large parts of the West Bank; Palestinian terrorists still set off bombs in Israeli cities. And there are growing complaints about abuse of power and corruption in the Palestine National Authority. Reese Erlich found that despite all these problems some Palestinians remain committed to the Peace Process. He reports from Ramallah, the capital of the new Palestinian government.
RAED: This is a stationery shop in Ramallah in the West Bank.
ERLICH: Raed was born in Ramallah, emigrated to the U.S. 8 years ago, and returned to Palestine to open this stationery store two years ago. He asked that his last name not be used. He says that on the whole life is better since the Oslo Accords, because Ramallah and other Palestinian cities are no longer occupied by Israeli troops. But economically conditions are far worse.
RAED: Now you can say that it is much more safer than before. And life here has changed a little bit from earlier days. But I was saying that economical situation here in Ramallah and in the whole West Bank area, it’s deteriorating like anything. That is of course because people are not sure about the peace. They’re not trusting the government of Netanyahu. And I believe they’re hesitant to spend money in this country because they’re not sure about the future.
ERLICH: Raed says many Palestinians initially supported the Oslo peace process, but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies of building new settlements and refusing to turn over more land to the Palestinians have left many people very frustrated.
RAED: People are not very much convinced that the peace. They tried it for 2 or 3 years now and they’ve seen that nothing is improving. Now if you want to go outside Ramallah you will have a lot of Israeli barriers outside. You still feel like if you’re still under occupation. Not much changes has been happening. So people are looking to peace now very much suspicious about it.
[sound of truck traffic]
ERLICH: Ramallah’s main street is bustling with shoppers, passenger cars, and elongated Mercedes that serve as collective taxis. Women wearing Muslim head scarves intermingle with men wearing gold crosses on neck chains. Ramallah is perhaps the most cosmopolitan of the Palestinian cities. It has movie theaters, bars, and night clubs.
[sound of Palestinian pop music in a night club]
ERLICH: And Ramallah even has Palestine’s only 24-hour fast food restaurant. The Antiqua Restaurant features falafels not burgers.
[sound of cash register]
HEH LASHIE: My name is Heh Lashie. I live in Ramallah and I’m married. I’m 21-years old.
ERLICH: Heh Lashie is the cashier at the restaurant. She gives mixed reviews to the new Palestine National Authority. They are slower to get things done and the bureaucracy can be cumbersome. But on the other hand, she no longer fears being stopped by Israeli inside Ramallah.
LASHIE: The good thing for our government is when you go somewhere they stop you at that, they treat you in a good way. It’s like, “Take care,” stuff like this. “Why are you going out at this time? It’s too late. Go back.” You know what I mean. But at Israel people, at their government, they goes, “Go back. Are you armed?” And stuff like this. They think that this land is for Israel people, not Palestinian people.
ERLICH: Lashie hopes that the peace process speeds up. Otherwise extreme nationalists on both sides will dominate the political scene. She strongly criticizes the Palestinian extremists who set off suicide bombs, killing civilians in Israel.
LASHIE: Well, I don’t, like I feel bad, when I heard that, like, 6-7 months ago about what happened in Tel Aviv. And there was a bomb and stuff like this. And no one liked it. But you can’t say this, all the Palestinian hate the Israeli or all the Israeli hate the Palestinian. Of course I hope for peace. Everybody hope for peace.
ERLICH: Hope is one thing; reality is another. Under terms of the Oslo agreement, by now Israel was supposed to have withdrawn from wide sections of the West Bank and Gaza. By March of 1999 the two sides were supposed to have resolved the final status of Palestine. People here expected to have their own state by then. But they say the Netanyahu government has reneged on the Oslo accords and frozen negotiations. They say Netanyahu’s policies have pushed Palestinians further apart, even those on both sides who want peace. Wajih el Ayassa, an official at the Democracy and Worker’s Rights Center in Ramallah, says the two sides had more contact during the Intifadah, the Palestinian uprising that began in 1987.
WAJIH EL AYASSA: My personal experience and even during the Intifadah, where we’ll have all these shots, killing, etc., we used to have many dialogues with the progressive Israelis, mainly Jews, who was believing in two states for two people. And we used to go to their homes and they come to our homes. And sometimes we hide them from the police, the soldiers also, because they don’t want them to be with any, to be in Palestinian homes. But I compare right now, that none of them can come to my home. And I can’t go to their home. Because after peace I think, the Israeli government make the Israelis hit a ??. The division between the two people after Oslo became wider.
ERLICH: Israeli authorities have set up a de facto segregation of the two communities. That division becomes obvious when driving out of Ramallah.
[sound of auto traffic]
ERLICH: About two miles from downtown, at the edge of the Palestinian controlled area, this day Israeli soldiers have set up a roadblock and are checking IDs of everyone entering and leaving town.
[Erlich stops his vehicle at the checkpoint and has a conversation with an Israeli soldier]
ERLICH: Why is there a checkpoint here?
ISRAELI SOLDIER: Orders.
ERLICH: Orders. No reason, huh? Okay.
[Erlich resumes reporting the story]
ERLICH: The Israeli’s feel no obligation to say why they’ve established this or other roadblocks. The Israeli government says checkpoints are necessary for security reasons. Human rights worker Al Ayassa says they are part of a policy of political and economic intimidation.
AYASSA: It was, I think, over 200 days last year, there was an inside, internal closure. Sometimes between the cities. So I am from Bethlehem, so I can’t come to Ramallah, even through the other ways, not through Jerusalem even. This also forces some workers to go to illegally to work in Israel on daily life. Some of the Israeli employers not giving them their rights.
ERLICH: Palestinians admit, however, that not all their problems come from the Israelis. They express shock at Yassar Arafat’s sometimes arbitrary one-man rule, Palestine National Authority corruption, and human rights abuses. A 1997 estimated that one-half of the PNA’s $800 million budget was squandered due to mismanagement or corruption.
[sound of auto traffic]
ERLICH: Store owner Raed says his brother was arbitrarily arrested by the PNA for political activity. He was held for 10 months without charges and then released. When asked about the human rights situation, he chooses his words very carefully.
RAED: In our authority there are good people, there are bad people. And I’m afraid to say that bad people are more. And their influence is more. But I do hope that with the time passing things will improve.
ERLICH: Human rights groups say that in the early years of the PNA police routinely beat political detainees, criminals, and even people arrested in civil disputes. Hammad Abu-Hartheh, head of the Al Haq Law Center Human Rights Group, explains.
HAMMAD ABU-HARTHEH: Well at the beginning the Palestinian Authority came with a mentality of a revolution, that you only, when you arrest people the only way of making them talk about what they have done, whether its criminal or civil or political, is by using force. And also for the Palestinians who lived under the Israeli occupation for 30 years, the only techniques they knew about is torture. Which was conducted against many of those who have joined the Palestinian Authority security branches.
ERLICH: Hartiya notes that Israel is the only country in the world to have legalized torture by sanctioning violent shaking, among other tactics, as part of interrogation. He says conditions for political prisoners in Israeli jails are far worse than in the PNA’s prisons. However, that’s no excuse for Palestinian human rights abuses. Last year, says Hartiya, the PNA held 700 political prisoners; by this summer the number was down to about 30. He and others say that the human rights situation is improving. Ironically, he says, the U.S. and Israel exert the strongest pressure for the PNA to violate human rights by cracking down on opponents of the Oslo Accords.
ABU-HARTHEH: They are the ones who pressure Arafat to take action, and severe action, and sometimes torture, when it comes to the Islamic movement and other left opposition groups. I think that people should expect from the United States, as the biggest power today, by the end of the 20th Century, to support democracy and human rights, before it supports leaders for their own interests. We know that they want someone like Arafat in one person, decision in the hands of one person. I hope they would learn the lesson from Noriega in Panama, when they supported one person; at the end they have to arrest this person.
ERLICH: Wadiya Al Ayassa of the Workers Rights Center, says if the peace process with Israel can move forward, then Palestinians will have more breathing room to establish democratic institutions.
AYASSA: For the whole history of Palestine we never practiced the democracy itself, whether during the, through elections or through freedom of speech or all, or political parties. All this for the last 40 years or 50 years, through the Jordanian time and through the, all the whole occupation time, forbidden. For anybody to practice all of these things. And this is also put barriers, because it takes time for us individually and as a community to understand the democracy and accepting the differences between us.
[sound of busy street]
ERLICH: Back on the streets of Ramallah, ordinary Palestinians expressed conflicting opinions about the peace process. Many are profoundly disappointed with developments so far, but they also haven’t given up hope. Shopkeeper Raed.
RAED: It’s not a one-day struggle between us and them. And it’s a very long struggle. I do hope that we can live together, but it’s really difficult to live with them. But I’d say again, that we hope that we can live together as what you call neighbors and friends.
[sound of Palestinian pop music]
ERLICH: For Common Ground, I’m Reese Erlich, in Ramallah, the West Bank.
Our theme music was created by B.J. Leiderman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.
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