19 July 1997
Chinese dissidents:Human wrongs
THE COURAGE TO STAND ALONE.
By Wei Jingsheng.
Viking; 320 pages; £16.99 and $23.95.
By Rae Yang.
University of California Press; 285 pages; £20.95 and $27.50.
THE GREAT WALL AND THE EMPTY FORTRESS.
By Andrew Nathan and Robert Ross.
Norton; 268 pages; $27.50 and £22
WHY is Wei Jingsheng, the most famous political prisoner in China, so little known outside China? In large part because so many well-meaning people think that human rights are improving there and that, given time, China will treat both its own people and foreign countries much better. If only it were that simple.
As Rae Yang, an earlier victim, notes, unjust governments and poisonous spiders kill people but they also cure illness. "The spiders I ate made my head cooler and my eyes brighter. Because of them, I cherish freedom and value human dignity." It is a complicated thought for westerners, even if they suspend their disbelief in the curative qualities of deadly spiders, but a painfully clear one to Chinese.
Mr Wei has not only spent much of the past 17 years without freedom in China’s laogai, he has been held in solitary confinement and repeatedly tortured. But he has retained his human dignity. Though he writes with neither the passion of Alexander Solzhenitsyn nor the erudition of Vaclav Havel, his prison letters relentlessly and wittily puncture the arguments used by Chinese leaders to persuade themselves and the outside world that human rights in China do not matter.
China still locks up and executes more political prisoners than any other country. As Mr Wei notes, human rights will remain neglected as long as China is ruled by a party that does not see the difference between rule of law and rule by law.
Miss Yang’s compelling drama comes from the story of how she willingly submitted herself to "rural re-education" and still remained mentally fit enough to recount the process of re-re-education. Where Mr Wei illuminates the politics of official ruthlessness, Miss Yang elucidates how people stay sane. Both were enthusiastic Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution, but both eventually came to see the irreparable evil at the heart of the system. Miss Yang left China, while Mr Wei stayed and still fights for a different China he knows he himself will never see.
Andrew Nathan, a professor at Columbia University who has written an astute foreword to the collection of Wei Jingsheng’s letters, is also the co-author, with Robert Ross, of a book sympathetic to China’s search for international security. It buys the argument that China is gradually getting better at respecting human rights.
Mr Nathan and Mr Ross do not prettify China’s human-rights record but they seem sympathetic to the idea that poor countries treat their own people more harshly than rich ones do. The experience of India notwithstanding, they argue that China’s under-developed political system is merely part of a wider problem of under-development that is gradually easing. They oppose a strong western line against China’s nasty policies and claim that once China has grown richer it will become a better international citizen. To Mr Wei and Miss Yang that might seem a pious hope.
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