No. 14 Yu ZHANG: Case No. 33 (1979): Wei Jingsheng, Imprisoned for Warning about Deng

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From Wang Shiwei to Liu Xiaobo: Prisoners of Literary Inquisition under Communist Rule in China

Wei JingshengWei Jingsheng (May 20, 1950 – ), a dissident and social activist, was arrested in 1978 after posting an essay on Democracy Wall warning of Deng Xiaoping’s dictatorial tendencies, and was eventually sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment for “counterrevolutionary crimes”.

“The Fifth Modernization”

Wei Jingsheng was born in Beijing, the eldest son of two CPC officials. When the Cultural Revolution broke out in 1966, Wei, still a middle school student, joined the Red Guards under the Capital Red Guards Joint Action Committee, and traveled around the country.

In 1968, Wei’s parents sent him to his ancestral village in Jinzhai County, Anhui Province, to engage in farming work. He joined the PLA in 1969, and after his enlistment period expired, he was demobilized to Beijing and assigned work as an electrician at the Beijing Zoo.

In November 1978, people began putting up big-character posters on a wall in Xidan calling for democracy, freedom and human rights, later known as Democracy Wall Movement. On December 5, Wei Jingsheng put up his own poster calling for “The Fifth Modernization”:

At present, newspapers, magazines and radio broadcasts no longer barrage us with propaganda for the dictatorship of the proletariat and class struggle. On the one hand, this is because such propaganda was the magic weapon of the deposed Gang of Four; but more importantly, on the other hand, it is because the masses are tired of listening to it. Therefore, it is no longer effective in deceiving the people.

The law of history is that the new cannot come in until the old is gone. Since the old has gone, people are naturally waiting to see what will come. Heaven never disappoints, and the waiting has been rewarded with a great promise called the Four Modernizations.

… Regrettably, the old political system that everyone loathes has not changed, and the democracy and freedom people have been hoping for is not even mentioned; the people’s living conditions have not really changed…

Do the people have democracy now? No. Don’t the people want to be the masters of their own destiny? Of course they do. That is why the CPC defeated the KMT. But after their victory, what happened to their promises? As the slogan of the people’s democratic dictatorship was changed to the dictatorship of the proletariat, the “democracy” implemented among a tiny minority of the population was eliminated and replaced by the Great Leader’s personal dictatorship… If we want modernization in economics, science, the military, etc., we must first of all modernize our people and our society…

What is democracy? Handing the power to all of the laborers is “genuine democracy”…

What is genuine democracy? Only when people select representatives to manage their affairs in accordance with their will and interests can we talk about democracy. Moreover, people must have the power to change those representatives whenever they want to, to prevent those representatives running roughshod over the people in their name. Is this possible?

The people in Europe and North America are enjoying this kind of democracy, which allowed them to unseat Nixon, de Gaulle, Tanaka and others at will. If necessary, they can also allow these leaders to take power again, and no one can interfere with their democratic power… We want to control our own destiny, to have neither gods nor Caesars, to believe in no supreme saviours, but to become the masters of our country. We do not want to be the modernized tools for an autocratic ruler to enlarge his ambition, but for our people to live a modernized life. The people’s democracy, freedom and happiness are the only objectives for us to implement modernization. Without this fifth modernization, any other modernization is just a new promise.

… Why must human history move toward development – otherwise known as modernization? It is because humanity needs the practical results that a prosperous society brings; it is because the social consequence of these practical results is freedom, which provides the optimal conditions for people to achieve their chief objective, the pursuit of happiness. Democracy is the most effective currently-known method for attaining freedom. Is it not then completely obvious why democracy has become the goal of human struggle in modern times?

…The victory of democracy struggling against autocracy inevitably brings optimal conditions and maximun speed to social development; on this point, American history provides the most distinctive and most powerful evidence…

Is the struggle for democracy the goal of the Chinese people? The Cultural Revolution was the people’s first display of their power, and all reactionary forces trembled before it. Because the people had not yet recognized their direction, and democratic forces were not in the mainstream, most struggles were smothered as the dictatorial tyrant bought people over, lured them astray, sowed dissension, spread defamatory rumors and imposed violent suppression. Because the people blindly worshipped leaders who were dictators and careerists, they unknowingly once again became the tools and victims of tyrants and potential tyrants.

Today, 12 years later, the people have finally realized their goal, recognized a direction for their struggle and realized their true leader – the banner of democracy. Xidan Democracy Wall has become their first battleground in the struggle against reactionary forces. The struggle will surely succeed – this has become a cliché, and “the people will surely be liberated” is a slogan that has gained new significance. There will still be bloodshed and sacrifice, and we will encounter even more insidious plotting. But the banner of democracy will not be obscured by the reactionary forces. Let us unite under this great and true banner and march toward modernization of the social system for the people’s tranquility and happiness, and for the people’s rights and liberties!

15-year sentence for warning about Deng

Wei Jingsheng established and edited Exploration Magazine in January 1979 and published a series of articles. On January 9, Fu Yuehua, a member of the newly-established China Human Rights Alliance, was arrested for organizing a protest by petitioners, marking the beginning of the government’s suppression of the Democracy Wall Movement. On March 25, Wei Jingsheng posted his essay “Do We Want Democracy or a New Dictatorship?”, warning that Deng Xiaoping might degenerate into a dictator:

No individual political leader should have the people’s unconditional trust. If the policies he implements are beneficial to the people, and if he leads the people on a path to peace and prosperity, we should trust him, but what we trust is his policies and his path. If the policies he implements violate the people’s interests, or if the path he takes is dictatorial and against the people, then the people should oppose him. Likewise, what the people are opposing are his policies that violate the people’s interests and encroach on the people’s lawful rights, and his path that is against the people. According to the principles of democracy, any authority should bow to the opposition of the people.

Four days later, the CPC’s Beijing municipal committee issued a notice to “safeguard public order in the capital”:

Any slogans, posters, big-character posters, handbills, publications, albums, records or photographs that oppose socialism, oppose the dictatorship of the proletariat, oppose the CPC leadership, oppose Marxism or Mao Zedong Thought, reveal state secrets or violate the Constitution or law are hereby banned.

The Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau also issued six notices prohibiting “assemblies or protests that obstruct traffic”, “assaults on Party, government or military organs, enterprises or institutions”, “confusing the public with rumors and inciting disturbances”, “intercepting vehicles or riding public transportation without a fare”, “posting or writing slogans, posters, big-character posters, handbills” and so on. The authorities then arrested Wei Jingsheng and the China Human Rights Alliance’s external liaison officer, Chen Lü.

On April 8, 1979, the CPC Central Committee circulated a Public Security Ministry’s document, “Report Requesting Instructions on the Handling of Seven Organizations Controlled and Dominated by Villains in Beijing, Shanghai and Other Localities”, which affirmed that among the 87 spontaneous organizations established throughout China since October 1978, “a tiny minority of organizations are controlled by counterrevolutionaries and reprobates”, including Exploration Magazine and the China Human Rights Alliance in Beijing. They were to be dealt with by attacking the ringleaders and breaking up the organizations.

On October 6 that year, Wei Jingsheng went on trial in the Beijing Municipal Intermediate People’s Court and presented a powerful self-defense:

I believe that the charges in the indictment by the Beijing Municipal Procuratorate Branch do not stand. I published my magazine and wrote big- character posters in accordance with Article 45 of the Constitution: “Citizens enjoy freedom of speech, correspondence, the press, assemble, association, procession, demonstration and the freedom to strike, and have the right to speak out freely, air their views fully, hold great debate and write big-character posters”. Ourgoal of publishing our magazine was to explore China, and to send China down the path towards prosperity and strength. We believe that it is only through free, unfettered and factually-based inquiries that this goal can be achieved. We cannot accept the assertion by the Public Security Bureau and the Procuratorate that the actions we performed in accordance with the above principles are counterrevolutionary.

Wei Jingsheng’s self-defense was recorded by a friend attending the court hearing, and then transcribed and published, leading to the arrest of several people, including Wei’s friend Liu Qing, a convener of April Fifth Forum Magazine.

On October 16, 1979, the court delivered its verdict:

Wei Jingsheng has betrayed the Motherland and has provided China’s military intelligence to foreigners. He has also violated China’s Constitution, has written reactionary articles, has engaged in counterrevolutionary propaganda and incitement and has endangered the basic interests of his country and the people. This constitutes the crime of counterrevolution to a serious degree and under flagrant circumstances. In order to safeguard the socialist system, consolidate the dictatorship of the proletariat, ensure the smooth progress of the modernization of socialism and suppress counterrevolutionary sabotage, and in accordance with the provisions of Article 2, Article 6. 1), Article 10. 2) and 3), Article 16 and Article 17 of the Regulations on the Punishment of Counterrevolutionaries of the People’s Republic of China, Wei Jingsheng is sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment, and 3 years’ deprivation of political rights following the expiration of his imprisonment.

After five years in solitary confinement, Wei Jingsheng was transferred to Tangshan Prison and then to the Qinghai Labor Reform Farm. While in prison, he wrote many letters to Deng Xiaoping and kept the drafts, which were later collected and published.

Re-sentenced and exiled

In 1993, under enormous international pressure, and in hopes of hosting the Olympics, the Chinese government released a batch of famous dissidents, including Wei Jingsheng on September 14. In February 1994, Wei met with John Shattuck, a US State Department official responsible for human rights who was visiting China. The Beijing police detained Wei on remand on April 1. He was formally arrested on November 21, and on December 13 the Beijing Municipal No. 1 Intermediate People’s Court sentenced him to 14 years’ imprisonment for “conspiring to subvert the government”.

China Times Publishing House in Taiwan published Wei Jingsheng’s Letters from Prison in 1997.[1] On November 16 that year, the Chinese government, again vying for the rights to host the Olympics, released Wei on “medical parole” and escorted him directly onto a US-bound aircraft. Wei was elected chairman of the Overseas Joint Conference of the China Democracy Movement in 1998.

Wei Jingshen has won many international awards, including the first “Outstanding Contribution Prize for Democracy of China” presented by the San Francisco-based Chinese Democracy Education Foundation (1986), Sweden’s Olof Palme Prize (1994), the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award (1994), the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought (1996), the National Endowment for Democracy Award (1997) and US PEN Center’s Freedom to Write Award (1998).



  1. Xinhua News Agency, “Beijing Municipal Intermediate Court’s Public Trial of Counterrevolutionary Wei Jingsheng”, 1979.
  2. Wei Jingsheng, “The Fifth Modernization: Democracy and the Rest”, 1984.
  3. Wei Jingsheng, “Do We Want Democracy or a New Dictatorship?”, 1993.
  4. Liu Qing, “Joint Conference: Democracy Wall’s Banner of Resistance”, 1994.
  5. Guo Luoji, “Wei Jingsheng and China’s Democracy Movement”, 1995.
  6. Liu Qing, “Preface to Wei Jingsheng’s Letters from Prison”, 1997.
  7. Ya Yi, “For Humanity’s Most Sacred Right: An Interview with Wei Jingsheng”, 1998.
  8. Wu Fang, “Record of an Interview with Wei Jingsheng”, 1998.
  9. Chen Yan, “The ‘Democracy Wall Movement’ and Its Historical Position”, 2006.
  10. Wu Fang, “20 Years of Vicissitudes Series, No. 4: Wei Jingsheng’s Own Account”, 2009.

[1] TN: Subsequently published in English translation by Penguin in 1998 as The Courage to Stand Alone: Letters from Prison.

Translated by Stacy Mosher

Chinese Original