28 March 2004

Wei Jingsheng's Epiphany

If the world of intellectuals can be divided, as Isaiah Berlin once argued, between foxes, who know many things, and hedgehogs, who know one big thing, Wei [Jingsheng] is clearly a hedgehog. The one conviction he guards like a precious jewel, and about which he is lucid, always serious, and willing to stake his life, he had already expressed clearly in his 1978 manifesto on the Democracy Wall in Beijing. It goes to the heart of the Chinese problem. "History," he wrote, "shows that there must be a limit to the amount of trust conferred upon any individual. Anyone seeking the unconditional trust of the people is a person of unbridled ambition. The important thing is to select the right sort of person to put one's trust in, and even more important is how such a person is to be supervised in carrying out the will of the majority. We can trust only those representatives who are supervised by us and responsible to us. Such representatives should be chosen by us and not thrust upon us."

Wei Jingsheng was twenty-nine when he wrote that. Memories of Mao worship and its millions upon millions of victims, humiliated, maimed, and tortured to death, were still raw. The statement is as simple as it is true. And Wei has stuck to it. He is often accused of being out of touch with developments in China, of not recognizing the changes that economic reforms, carried out while he was in prison, have brought. But if one believes, as Wei does, that only political change which guarantees the right to criticize and to vote will do, such reforms are beside the point, for they fail to address the main problem. He argues, simply, bluntly, doggedly, at times megalomaniacally, that without democracy--not "socialist" democracy or "people's" democracy--the Chinese cycle of violence, followed by tyranny, will never be broken.

The way a former Maoist fanatic arrived at this conclusion has been described by Wei himself, as well as by his perhaps too admiring biographer, the German journalist Jürgen Kremb. That he was once a fanatic is clear from his own account: He had wrecked "bourgeois" homes, dragged out "rightists" for public interrogations, and spouted devotional Maoist maxims ever since he was a child, when his father made him learn a new page of Mao's writings every day. Wei was among the first wave of middle school students to become a Red Guard but also, it seems, among the first to have doubts. Some of the stages of Wei's intellectual journey from total belief in communism to total disbelief have taken on an almost mythical status. Most poignant, perhaps, is Wei's glimpse of the naked girl.

To make it easier for the young to spread revolutionary terror all over China, Red Guards were allowed to travel by train free of charge. Wei hopped on a train sometime in 1966, bound for the northwest. When the train pulled into the city of Lanzhou, he was shocked to see children swarming outside the window begging for food. A middle-aged man, sharing his compartment, said they were probably children of landlords, "rightists," and other "bad elements," and deserved to starve.

The barren northwestern landscape became more desolate by the mile after the train left Lanzhou. It stopped at a windswept little station so insignificant that it did not even have a platform. Again, the crying and whimpering of beggars drew Wei's attention. He leaned out of the window. One girl, of about seventeen, her face covered in soot and her long hair caked with dirt, raised her arms, begging for something to eat. She appeared to be dressed in a filthy rag. The middle-aged man sniggered and said girls like that would do anything you fancied for a few crumbs of food. Suddenly Wei pulled back from the window in shock. What looked like a rag was nothing of the kind. The girl was covered in nothing but her own matted hair. Wei was overcome by a wave of disgust--with the obscene, sniggering man, the starving, naked girl, the stench of urine and excrement, the simmering violence among the Red Guards, and the bony arms outside clawing the ground for scraps of food. And he asked himself: Was this the "fruit" of socialism?

There were more shocks to challenge the official version of reality in China. On a trip to the far west, he saw families living in holes in the ground, sharing one warm garment against the freezing winds; he met "rightist" intellectuals there who had been banished in 1957 to do hard labor without a chance of ever going home. In the early 1970s, Wei met his first girlfriend, Ping Ni, the daughter of a high-ranking Tibetan Communist living in Beijing. Her family story was enough to drive away any illusions he might still have had.

Ping's father was a staunch Maoist, even during the bloody suppression of the Tibetan revolt in 1959. But someone had to be blamed for the escape to India in that year of the Dalai Lama and a hundred thousand followers. So one night in the spring of 1960, when Ping Ni was six years old, there was a knock on the door. Her father was taken away to spend the next twenty years in prison. Six years later, the Red Guards came for her mother, who, in full sight of her daughter, slit her veins with a razor. With blood spurting from her wrists, she was dragged downstairs by the teenage revolutionaries and bundled into a truck. Ping Ni's last sight of her mother was of her legs kicking before the door was slammed and the truck drove off into the dark.

Wei came to the dangerous, and for him almost fatal, conclusion that "a foremost characteristic of the Communist Party is lying, very effective lying, lying all the time and about everything. It is not easy for ordinary folks to see through this. As the youngest of the [Red Guard] leadership, I saw it clearly, all the cruelties, which totally destroyed my previously conceived impressions of the Communist Party."

This in itself did not make him an original thinker. Many intelligent Chinese had reached similar conclusions. More unusual was his view that communism was absolutely incompatible with democracy, and there was nothing to gain from making concessions to the Party. This is what drove him to the Democracy Wall.
SOURCE: Bad Elements: Chinese Rebels from Los Angeles to Beijing, by Ian Buruma (Vintage, 2001), pp. 96-98

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