Five years ago, 17 years of imprisonment for political dissent finally came to an end for Wei Jingsheng (
The US expected an influential Chinese democratic thinker. But Wei is not highly educated, speaks no English and tends to be uncompromising -- and unrealistic. He has had problems with the US government, with money and with life in general, and the Americans have lost patience with him.
Wei is still wielding the same sword with which he used to fight the Chinese dictatorship, but on the streets of the US, a land completely foreign to him. He has looked around and concluded that the enemy is no longer just the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and this has caused him to lose direction.
Like so many others who have been imprisoned for long periods of time, Wei looks much younger than his 52 years.
A lost expression often passes over his face when he becomes inattentive. In TV studios or during seminars, this look often appears when it's no longer his turn to speak. He may give the speaker a lost look and sometimes his gaze seems to be suspended in time and space, giving the impres-sion that he is not listening to the other speakers.
As soon as it is his turn to speak, however, the words trip off his tongue like cogs clicking into a chain and he speaks with utter fluency. During his most recent visit to Taiwan, he had a full schedule, including interviews with the media, visits with politicians and television appearances. At each occasion, he had to speak constantly, offering his opinions about anything and everything.
He has developed a habit that he may not even be aware of -- whoever he meets, he says what that person wants to hear.
Having dinner with the TSU, he spoke appreciatively of former president Lee Teng-hui (
This kind of life, always being prepared to have something to say, began in November 1997 when Wei was released from prison to go to the US for medical treatment and became the most important leader in the overseas- Chinese democracy movement.
In his hotel room, he sits down and immediately lights a cigarette, and says: "I spent so many years in prison. It was very quiet, almost no one spoke to me. Now that I'm out, it's very noisy."
Five years later, opportunities for him to air his views in the US have diminished. When he first arrived, he met with then US president Bill Clinton and the eyes of the media focused on him, while universities targeted him for recruitment. He accepted a research offer from Columbia University and was given an office and an apartment.
Three years later, however, the university had come to the view that, "Over the past three years, Wei Jingsheng has made no contributions to academic research at Columbia," and he was asked to leave.
"Wei Jingsheng's suggestions for dealing with China are unrealistic," said Andrew Nathan, professor of political science at Columbia. "Columbia University supported him financially in the hope that he would produce reports and books, share his experience of initiating the democracy movement in China, but he is unwilling to put pen to paper, and doesn't socialize with either students or teachers. He has contributed nothing to the university."
The blows kept coming. Many members of the overseas-Chinese democracy movement felt that Wei was stubborn and unrealistic (eg, in his call for the US to break off all economic and trade relations with China, and his opposition to the establishment of a democratic party in China). Added to this was the limited resources of the democracy movement, its internecine strife and his abandonment by many of his friends.
Wei is a chain smoker. Before lighting a new cigarette, he puts it under his nose for a deep whiff. He says it's a habit he acquired during his prison years. Before each interrogation, other inmates would remind him to bring back cigarette butts: "You'd bring them back and it would be like New Year's. Everyone would take a whiff and savor the smell before smoking."
I point out that the younger generation of democracy activists feel that he is unwilling to compromise and that his ideas are unrealistic. He replies, "That's utterly wrong! Why compromise when you're right? Those youngsters in `The First Tiananmen Generation' listen to everything I say. They basically feel that my opinions are their own opinions. I'm their leader, or at least their spiritual leader. Most of the moder-ates have a background of cozying up to the communists."
I'm taken aback as he names a few names and continues: "I feel strongly that the Chinese themselves are the ones really looking down on the Chinese people. Even if a foreigner hates me, he still accords me the deepest respect, knowing how exalted my position is, almost a saint. How could he not respect me? But Chinese people, they think, `You're nothing special, you're just another Chinese like me, only a bit famous.' Look at the Tibetans, they all praise the Dalai Lama, and when he shines, all the people of Tibet shine. We Chinese, we just want to trample on our own. I occupy such a high position that if you want to walk all over me, in the end it will be you who loses face."
Sitting on the sofa, feet bare and legs crossed, his current position is chairman of the "Overseas Liaison Conference of the Chinese Democracy Movement" (中國民主運動海外聯席會議), which he says has a couple of thousand members outside China. The deputy secretary-general of a democratic alliance has rushed from Japan just to accompany Wei on his visit to Taiwan and help arrange his schedule. During our conversation, the aide often gets up to clear the table for Wei. When all the matches are used up, he readily obliges when Wei says "Get me some matches."
Wei was born in 1950, not long after the late chairman Mao Zedong (毛澤東) had proclaimed the PRC. Both his parents were intellectuals, fairly high up in government. He was bright and performed well academically, and his parents were intent on furthering his education. However, he graduated from junior high school just as the Cultural Revolution broke out and his education was brought to an abrupt end.
He was working as an electrician at Beijing Zoo when, in 1978, he posted "big character" posters calling for "the fifth moderniza-tion" on what became known as Democracy Wall. He was arrested and thrown in prison. He was released in 1993 only to be arrested again six months later. He didn't regain his freedom until he was sent to the US.
Wei became world famous during his prison years and calls for his release came from all over. When he arrived in the US in 1997, it was as if he was surrounded by a bright glow. Five years on, how-ever, he has run out of resources and has to rely on donations to continue working for the democracy movement -- and stay alive. With money problems, difficulties with fellow activists, problems with the US government and with his golden glow slowly fading, he can see himself in the mirror and realize that he has to find money to live.
Wei's weapon hasn't changed, but his enemy apparently has -- from the CCP to the US government and the capitalists. He senses that they are trying to use money to manipulate him and that he has to fight them. Wielding his sword in an unfamiliar US, and looking about him, he feels lost.
He has been talking a lot, about how the US government is manipulating the Chinese democracy movement, about the difficulties of fundraising, about how he lost all his papers in Australia before coming to Taiwan. He says that "A-Bian is the main suspect," because he does not want Wei to come to Taiwan and stump for an old friend, Shih Ming-te (施明德).
Anyone might be his enemy -- the media, politicians, democracy activists, Americans, Chinese, Taiwanese, old friends, new friends. The CCP sometimes seems the least threatening, because he is at least used to it, even though it, too, has changed almost beyond recognition.
Talking about the many times the CCP has intervened to prevent the Nobel Peace Prize Committee from awarding him the prize, he smiles and mentions a dinner that he hosted in 1993 for a friend who holds an official post. He reports that his friend jokingly told him, "You're a really bad guy, costing the country hundreds of millions of dollars every year." Beijing was buying well-drilling equipment from Sweden every year in order to acquire leverage with the Swedish government.
He is glad that the CCP still sees him as an important enemy. At least it is proof that he is still around, as if he is making sure that a former lover still cares. He then talks in detail about past amorous experiences, remembering each detail clearly.
Before the program starts, Wei finally stops talking and meekly lets a make-up artist work on him.
He says people have introduced him to potential girlfriends over the last few years. "But not one of them worked out," he says. The biggest obstacle is that I am too famous. Second, I am too poor, and third, I don't have a permanent job. Sometimes I leave the country for a few months and I don't find the time to call. Then they say I don't care about them. When I tell them my main concern is the democracy movement, they're done talking. After that, someone implored me to always tell a woman that she is number one, even if it isn't true."
He starts laughing. In his early twenties, he lived together with a woman (illegal in China at the time). Now, when he's old, he doesn't even know how to get along with women.
The Americans hoped for him to become a thinker, learn English and start studying again. "A lot of people in Congress urged me to learn to speak English properly, and I get their point. With better English, I would be able to speak directly, and that would leave me a lot more space. The problem is, though, that it would take at least five or six years for my English to become good enough to start working politically. If I do nothing for five years, it will all be gone."
Wei, who started driving as soon as he arrived in the US, is also famous for speeding. "The main reason I drive fast is because I'm in a hurry. Second, if I drive fast I'll see if there are any troublemakers following me, since no one else is driving that fast. It makes me feel safer. I've been in a couple of traffic accidents, all because I was driving too slow."
Two years ago, his New York driving license was revoked. He continued to drive without a license -- until he got one in Washington, where he now lives.
After completing the interview with Wei, I find myself filled with contradictory feelings. Should we judge someone who was imprisoned for a long time for political dissent by the same standards that we judge people in general? Should we demand that he be modest, that he avoid trying to seem like a monumental personality, when such behavior really would be hypocrisy?
I am also thinking of Shih, whose background is similar to Wei's. Shih was doomed to fail in the recent Kaohsiung mayoral elections. Did he wonder why this society, for which he sacrificed 25 years of his youth, is so heartless?
I don't have the answers, all I can do is put the interview on paper.
Dong Chengyu is a freelance writer based in Taipei.
Translated by Perry Svensson