Wei Jingsheng: What Tiananmen taught Hong Kong and the CCP

The doyen of China’s democracy movement on how the world has changed since his release from prison two decades ago.

Wei Jingsheng 魏京生 is the most prominent figure that emerged from the Democracy Wall Movement in Beijing in 1978–1979. His essay “The Fifth Modernization,” first published on 5 December 1978, pointed out that among the “Four Modernizations,” the then signature policy of the new Chinese leadership under Deng Xiaoping, the most important one – democratization of the political system – was missing. A year later, in 1979, Wei was sentenced to 15 years in prison for allegedly divulging military secrets to foreign journalists and engaging in counterrevolutionary activities. He spent long periods of time in solitary confinement and was subjected to various forms of torture. Chinese authorities released him in autumn 1993, six months before the end of his sentence, in the hope that this gesture would help to win China’s bid to host the Olympic Games in 2000. When the bid was rejected, Wei was rearrested and sentenced to 14 more years in prison. After international pressure, he was finally allowed to leave the country three years later.

Wei now lives in the US, where he founded the Wei Jingsheng Foundation. He contributes commentaries and analyses for the Voice of America and his own website. Wei has been awarded the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought and other other human rights awards. He visited Prague several times to meet with President Václav Havel.

The following interview with Olga Lomová is part of a longer discussion conducted last year during his visit at Charles University in Prague.

When you first came to Prague after they released you from prison after 17 years and deported you from the PRC, it was 1999. Have you noticed any changes in Czech politics between then and now?

I have the impression that in Eastern Europe the situation has been oscillating. Back then the Communist Party was generally loathed. It was when the president here was [Václav] Havel. But later on, here and in other Eastern European countries, a period began when everyone wanted to buy Chinese goods. They weren’t quite good enough for Western European markets, but OK for the East. At the time, many Eastern European politicians began pretending that Communism wasn’t so bad after all, and they tried to please the Chinese leadership at any cost. In reality, efforts to please China were also ongoing in Western European countries and in the United States, and the Czech Republic, a small country, probably didn’t have much choice and went with the general flow.

Today things are turning around. In the United States a battle is being waged against the CCP, one that is starting in Western Europe as well. My overall impression is that politicians really like to change their positions and really like to forget about some things. But ordinary people have better memories. As we Chinese people say, ordinary people have conscience, unlike politicians. I think that every nation has a conscience. And good writers express it very well, and those who express the conscience of the nation in their work, those are exceptional writers. I’ve noticed that in every country people don’t like politicians. When people talk about me as a politician, I object immediately, I just say I write books.

Since your release you have been living for 20 years in the United States. Over the past two years US policy towards the PRC has undergone a dramatic transformation. What do you think about it? How do you view the American government’s stance towards Beijing?

American citizens in reality have long known that the Communist Party is bad and that in negotiations America cannot be an equal partner with Communist China. But American capitalists, so that they can take advantage of cheap Chinese labor, have bought many politicians.

Twenty years ago, I tried to convince the Americans this isn’t the way you do things because you quickly get in trouble. They didn’t believe me. Twenty years later, more and more Americans are discovering that the Communist regime tricked them, and even American capitalists discovered the Chinese Communist regime tricked them. Now the atmosphere in America is beginning to change. This has taken the CCP by surprise, because for 20 years they had believed that the Americans could be easily fooled. They considered Americans to be obedient kittens that do whatever they’re told. But all of a sudden, these kittens turned into aggressive tigers. The Chinese regime doesn’t know what to do now. The Communists suddenly found out that not only the American president and American politicians, but all of America, politicians on the left and right, oppose the current type of relations with China. Everybody thinks it has to change.

American politicians ask me: “We are applying such great pressure. How come the CCP doesn’t want to change?” And I respond: because many Communist officials have made a ton of money as part of unorthodox capitalist relationships. Even more importantly, many low and mid-level cadres stopped at nothing for their ill-gotten money. Many have blood on their hands. If China changed its current lawlessness and introduced rule of law, these people could be punished. Even if the highest leaders wanted to yield to the Americans, lower-level officials would not approve. Because they are afraid of punishment, these officials will resist to the bitter end, until the entire country collapses. They won’t give up before then. They won’t give in like they did in the former USSR and Eastern Europe. If you look at what happened in those countries, and in the Czech Republic and perhaps Taiwan, after changes in the political system, the former leaders returned home and became ordinary people. But most Communist officials in China would probably go to prison or they would be lynched by a riled-up mob. That has a long tradition in Chinese history. When someone was the victim of a great injustice or their family had been destroyed, their relatives murdered, they would take justice into their own hands and kill the perpetrator. In China such things still happen. Some people are waiting for the right opportunity to exact revenge, maybe 10, 20 years. And then they will kill an official and his entire family and turn themselves in to the police.

That’s the law of history: when someone uses illicit, illegal methods against people, the people will act the same and get revenge using illegal methods. Therefore, I think that the Chinese Communists of today envy the Soviet and Czechoslovak politicians of the past who could return home as ordinary people.

Some politicians, like Czech president Zeman, claim that China is well governed.

Good point. Many Western experts are beginning to think about a dictatorial system being more efficient and functional than democracy, and economic performance in such systems being better than in Western democracies. This strange trend began about 10 years ago, and today many academics and politicians in the West are talking about the retreat of democracy on a global scale. And I say to them that the global retreat of democracy is not a reality but an ideology.

This says something about the intellectual degradation of these Western scholars. It’s the result of a simple fact: they get money from people who have made lots of money in China thanks to the regime in place there. Then, these businesspeople pay entities who spread these ideas.

I think that money’s influence on European and Western thinking is too great, and that is a fundamental and perhaps even fateful mistake. I assume that, as a part of this democratic political system, you have also noticed this phenomenon. You see how your politicians or experts all of a sudden begin to lie because they are getting money from capitalists making money in China. They are like your president: China is well governed. You should ask him if he would like to mimic the political system in place in China. Would you like to call back the Communist Party, or will you take the Soviet route and cultivate your own Putin? I think that ordinary people in the Czech Republic must stand up to this.

After the permanent granting of most-favored nation status to China in 1997, human rights in China have practically ceased to be addressed in official talks. But the issue of human rights is quickly making its way back to the agenda about relations with the PRC, especially in connection to the situation in Xinjiang. In your opinion, what role should human rights play in diplomatic relations with the PRC?

In the past several decades, the West, especially the US, has used human rights as leverage in negotiations with the Chinese Communist regime. But it was pretty weak leverage. Ordinary Americans consider human rights in China to be at a catastrophic level, and therefore American politicians have put on a show, pretending that human rights are important for them. Chinese politicians said, “Good. We will release some political prisoners to demonstrate that we are improving human rights, and as a reward you will grant some of our demands.”

And thus, Western politicians, in cooperation with the CCP, are cheating their voters to maintain peaceful relations. In the West there are many human rights organizations that deal with human rights in China. Their main task is to convince Western politicians who travel to Beijing to mention human rights in front of Chinese leaders. Of course, the politicians don’t mean it seriously. It’s only a formality. I’ll tell you a joke. When I was released and left for America, the British prime minister went to Beijing with a long list of political prisoners whose release he was demanding. My name was first on the list. So, you see, when Western politicians talk with the Communist Party about human rights, they don’t take it seriously at all. They think about how they can all join forces to fool ordinary people in the West. At the beginning of this century, the Bush administration came to the conclusion that talking about human rights was totally pointless, and stopped talking about them.

When I talk with American politicians, and they ask me if they should begin talking about human rights again, I reply: if you want to talk then do it, I don’t care. What I care about is how to force China into changing its stance towards the law. If you use a trade war to force the Chinese Communist regime to observe its own laws, naturally you will also protect human rights as well. The law protects the rights of every individual. If we are going to talk only about human rights, and we aren’t going to talk about rule of law, ordinary Chinese people will have the feeling that you’re talking about something irrelevant to them. If you talk about establishing a system based on the rule of law, Chinese people will understand immediately. Only when true rule of law has been established throughout society will the rights of every person be taken into account, and that is something that an ordinary Chinese person will understand. American politicians have already realized this. Yes, this is the way we are going to do it. If there was rule of law in China, it would be beneficial for American businesspeople in China, too.

What do you think about Hong Kong today?

Today the whole world is interested in Hong Kong. From the perspective of capitalists doing business in the Far East, Hong Kong is essential for profits. When Hong Kong falls, it will mean the end of their business activities in the region. From the perspective of American politicians, the situation in Hong Kong is a tool for putting greater pressure on China in current conflicts. And from the perspective of the Chinese government, there are major fears that if the Hong Kong example spreads, then what happened after 1989 in Eastern Europe and the USSR will happen in China. For this reason, neither the West, including Western capitalists, nor Beijing wants to back down. They can’t. More important though are the people in Hong Kong. They don’t want to back down either. People in Hong Kong learned their lesson from the protests in Beijing in 1989 and understand that they cannot expect any help or the Communist Party to play a positive role, that they must rely only on themselves and must be prepared to sacrifice everything to achieve their objective of maintaining the rule of law so that the rights of all individuals are protected.

You could say that students in 1989 were still putting their hopes in the CCP and the movement was begging the CCP for reforms. Back then, America, with Bush Sr. as president, didn’t want to endanger the business activities of its companies in China by a conflict with the CCP. They took up a position of secretly helping Deng Xiaoping. Today, this is public knowledge. That is why the massacre on Tiananmen Square could happen. The current situation in America is different. Today’s American government is not willing to secretly help the Chinese government and won’t back down. The most important thing is that the Hong Kong people and youth, having learned their lessons from 1989, definitely will not beg and are not begging the CCP and through their own power they seek to defend their rights.

There are two possible outcomes for these protests. The first: the CCP backs down and allows the restoration of all rights and freedoms that belong to Hong Kong. From a political perspective, for the CCP this is not so advantageous, but from an economic perspective, it is. The second possibility is that they put all their efforts into suppressing the Hong Kong protests by force. But if they suppress them, there will always be a small group who will continue to protest. It’s also possible, and Western observers are saying it as well, that Hong Kong’s significance and special status will be lost. At the same time, Trump and the American government have openly stated that if the problems in Hong Kong are not resolved peacefully then the trade war can’t be resolved either. If that happened, the Chinese economy would collapse, and the CCP would vanish sooner.

Today, when I meet with American politicians, I often hear the question “If the CCP collapses, what will happen to China?” The question I ask is, if today’s Communist leaders were to be replaced by other people, who should they be replaced with to peacefully solve the situation? To sum it up, the way the Hong Kong situation is resolved also influences how China will change.