Who's Afraid of Wei Jinghsheng?
Broadcaster: SBS Australia
This week Dateline meets one of China's most famous democracy activists, Wei Jingsheng.
Mr Wei was actually one of the key case studies in Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's thesis in 1980 on human rights in China.
Have Your Say: Is Wei Jingsheng right to urge Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to do more to promote democracy in China?
Video: The Life of a Video Journalist
Mr Wei was jailed for 18 years for writing an article that criticised the then-Premier Deng Xiao Ping. Now, he is a leading figure in China’s democracy movement and has hit the campaign trail in the months before the Beijing Games.
David O’Shea joins Mr Wei on the road in London, as he spruiks his message to sympathetic (and not so sympathetic) audiences.
Along the way, Mr Wei is introduced to British politicians who are happy to meet with him, but only in private. He also speaks to Chinese students, some of whom applaud him, but others heckle. He says they were ordered to do so by the Chinese embassy.
They say they don't agree with his message. “He was just misleading us, misleading foreign countries to get them to overturn the Chinese government,” one student says.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's interest in China goes back to his university days where he was polishing his Mandarin skills and in 1980, writing his honours thesis on the ordeals of human rights activist Wei Jingsheng. Wei Jingsheng is now based in the US but is still at the coal face, pushing for human rights in China. David O'Shea caught up with him recently in London for his views on China and on Kevin Rudd.
REPORTER: David O'Shea
Wei Jingsheng has learned to catch up on sleep whenever he can. The world’s most prominent Chinese dissident has a punishing schedule urging anyone who will listen to support the democracy movement in China. And with the days ticking away before the Olympic Games, he is cranking up the pace.
WEI JINGSHENG, HUMAN RIGHTS ACTIVIST (Translation): I’d like to say this to every politician. It won’t affect China alone. If there’s turmoil in China, every country’s interests will be harmed.
London is the latest leg of his tireless campaign, a series of meetings with local activists, university students, and politicians. Now with his interpreter and human rights group, Amnesty International’s China campaign manager, he is off to the British foreign office.
KRISTYAN BENEDICT, AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL: The work we are doing with China at the moment especially with the UK Government is getting them to acknowledge that there is an increasing crackdown on human rights activists in China and always increases once you get to June 4 - and to speak more publicly about that crackdown.
REPORTER: What do you hope to achieve when you go to meetings like this?
WEI JINGSHENG (Translation): I hope that British politicians urge the Chinese Government to carry out reforms, particularly political reforms. China at present is at crossroads. So if no reforms take place soon, China may fall into even greater turmoil.
When the Mandarin-speaking Kevin Rudd became Prime Minister of Australia, Wei Jingsheng sat up and took notice.
WEI JINGSHENG (Translation): Many Chinese expect him to care more about human rights in China. He himself lives in a free country. He runs a democratic system and knows it very well. Ordinary Chinese people feel Kevin Rudd should promote democracy in China. Compared to other Western politicians, he should play a bigger role.
Wei Jingsheng once had impeccable communist party credentials. He was born into a high-ranking military official family and brought up in prestigious party schools. He was even a red guard in his youth. But he became disillusioned and in the 1970s, started an underground magazine and began posting articles on what became known as "democracy wall" in downtown Beijing. He pushed the boundaries harder than anyone else but seemed to get away with it for a while until he posted a very critical essay about the then Premier Deng Xiao Ping.
Three days later, on 29 March 1979, he was arrested and then put on a show trial. He spent the next 15 years in prison. Wei was released as China made its bid for the 2000 Olympic Games but when the honour was bestowed on Sydney, the Chinese authorities locked him up again. President Clinton intervened and cut a deal to get him released after three years and deported to the US where he now lives.
REPORTER: The Chinese leadership of course just dismiss you as a stooge of the CIA? What do you say to that?
WEI JINGSHENG (Translation): If it was true, the CIA would have a high-profile agent. I have nothing to do with the CIA.
Shortly after his release from prison, Mr Wei met Mr Rudd in 1999. He says the then opposition parliamentarian showed him his university thesis, which focuses on him and outlines his key role in the early democracy movement. It is a highly detailed dissertation which conveys Rudd’s clear admiration for his strength, courage and commitment. Mr Wei is now calling on Rudd, the Prime Minister, to resurrect his university idealism and use his influence to push Beijing to reform.
WEI JINGSHENG (Translation): But as far as I can see, particularly during the election and since he was elected, he hasn’t done much. I’m not disappointed in him yet. But he hasn’t done anything over a long period. We may need to urge him to do something. We should give him some new information. I’m thinking of visiting Australia later when I’m not too busy. I’d like to talk to him in person.
Mr Wei is now the chairman of the Overseas Chinese Democracy Coalition in Washington DC. He spends his life lobbying policy makers and politicians for support. But Mr Wei admits to a second agenda.
WEI JINGSHENG (Translation): We have another important job, to undermine the Communist foreign policies. The Chinese Government wants to rope Western countries in, so we need to destroy their plans. These are our two tasks in foreign affairs.
Many times on this trip I hear people say China’s rapid development has lifted millions out of poverty and improving human rights will follow. Mr Wei scoffs at the idea that the economy should come first.
WEI JINGSHENG (Translation): Human rights are basic human needs. Even if one is hungry and poor, one still needs human rights - that’s human nature. It has no direct connection with the economy.
REPORTER: Shouldn’t we just be patient and let things happen on their own?
WEI JINGSHENG (Translation): The Chinese people have given the Government 60 years and after 60 years, the country is still a mess. So time isn’t the solution. The key question is whether there’s a free press and whether there’s a responsible legal system. Without such a legal system, reforms can only be marginal, unreliable and unsubstantial.
Amnesty International have brought Mr Wei to London for a series of events to commemorate the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre where hundreds of pro-democracy activists and students were killed. They wanted to re-create the iconic scene of that time when a lone protester with a shopping bag faces off a Chinese tank. Mr Wei was to have played the part of the protestor but he didn’t make it in time and they had to get a stand in. But he did make it to the main memorial event across town a few days later which was closely monitored from the Chinese embassy over the road.
MAN (Translation): Are you Wei Jingsheng?
WEI JINGSHENG (Translation): Yes.
MAN (Translation): You’ve suffered a lot.
WEI JINGSHENG (Translation): Nice to meet you. I look much better now. I’ve almost recovered.
MAN (Translation): You looked terrible when you were released.
WEI JINGSHENG (Translation): My face was swollen.
MAN (Translation): Your teeth were all missing.
WEI JINGSHENG (Translation): Yes, all my teeth fell out.
ANNOUNCER: He suffered torture, brutal physical and psychological abuse including solitary confinement and physical attack. He has been awarded the Olaf Palmer Peace Prize in 1995, the Sakarov Freedom of Thought Award in 1996 and he is a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize. Please welcome him to the stage.
WEI JINGSHENG (Translation): Since the Communist Party came to power, thousands of people have been killed and thousands of people have been imprisoned.
The brutal crackdown in Tiananmen Square 19 years ago was a pivotal event in modern Chinese history – and a memory the Chinese Government tries very hard to suppress.
WEI JINGSHENG (Translation): Some people say that was all in the past. But I want to tell you that it’s all still happening today.
Considering how hard the embassy is trying to put good spin on the Olympic Games, they would not have been pleased to hear Mr Wei’s call to arms here today.
WEI JINGSHENG (Translation): Let's work together. Thank you.
Mr Wei believes that while the Chinese do not honour their promise to improve the human rights record, a precondition for holding the Games. Then world leaders like Kevin Rudd should reverse their decision to attend the opening ceremony.
WEI JINGSHENG (Translation): His action contradicts the Western value system. It also contradicts Mr Rudd’s own ideal when he was young. His decision is unreasonable from his personal point of view. And it’s unreasonable from a social perspective. It may be reasonable for business purposes only. I think his decision is wrong. The Beijing Olympics are like the Berlin Olympics in 1936, offering support to the Nazis and to dictatorship. And they will bring with them political consequences. The Chinese Government is using the Olympics as a political event to whitewash itself.
Much was made of Prime Minister Rudd’s raising of human rights in Beijing recently where he used a 7th century word to describe his relationship with China - Zheng You – the true friend who dares to disagree. Most analysts thought it was a brave move, Mr Wei believes the opposite.
WEI JINGSHENG (Translation): You can’t be a friend of Communism and the Chinese people. The Chinese Government draws a clear line between the two. The Chinese people also draw a clear line. I think he must be under great pressure from big corporations. He wanted to be a friend of China. He also wanted to tell Western people that he cared about human rights. So he put forward this puzzling and odd concept. I don’t like it myself. The Chinese people found it odd. Even the Chinese Government found it odd.
KRISTYAN BENEDICT: Can we reschedule? Great, sorry. We need to also talk about the French minister for human rights. Apparently they want to meet Mr Wei, right?
ALICE HUTCHINSON, AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL: I was just thinking he has such a busy program, they are both losing their voices. I'm shattered. Yes, I am not surprised.
Another day, another meeting. Mr Wei is being briefed by his minders about foreign office minister, Lord Malloch Brown.
ALICE HUTCHINSON: I'm hopeful that it would be quite a hopeful meeting. Mark Malloch Brown is a fairly sympathetic human rights minister. He is interested in actually understanding the issues and seeing what the UK can do about it and I think it will be a quite friendly meeting but how far he will be able to push his colleagues and other parts of government to do the things we want him to do is the challenge he faces, I think.
REPORTER: What are you hoping to get out of this meeting? Is it the same as the others? Pushing the same idea or is there a different approach to this meeting?
WEI JINGSHENG (Translation): I hope something will come out of it. The British Government should work with the EU and do something. If Britain, France and other EU countries want to do something about human rights, it’s the perfect time to do it. It’s the time to take some action.
As we leave the café and Mr Wei heads off to his meeting, I’m stopped by police and questioned on suspicion of involvement in terrorism.
REPORTER: I'm just filming them.
POLICE: We believe in professional filming.
REPORTER: I just wanted to get the shot of them walking in, that’s all.
POLICE: You just wanted to get the shot of them walking in?
REPORTER: I didn't know until about 10 minutes ago what we were doing. Like I said, you don't know from one minute to the next. News reporting - you follow the news.
POLICE: If you had the press pass, it would have helped as well.
It's also difficult to get Dateline’s camera into any of the meetings Mr Wei has with British politicians, not even to get the shot of them shaking hands. He really is a political hot potato. Mr Wei says they have too much to lose in offending China by being seen meeting him.
WEI JINGSHENG (Translation): They have a similar dilemma to Kevin Rudd. They have to meet the needs of big corporations and they can’t offend their people.
REPORTER: When you met Kevin Rudd, it was also in secret?
WEI JINGSHENG (Translation): Not when he was an MP, but I don’t know now. Back then, he didn’t need to worry too much. But now he has to consider what we just talked about. If he stresses human rights, he’ll upset Australian capitalists. If he doesn’t, he’ll upset the Australian people. I haven’t been in contact with him in this regard. Last time I was in Australia, he was rather cool towards me.
Today it is off to Cambridge University for a speech to overseas Chinese students. He begins with the disturbing trend of rising nationalism in China, which he says is supported by the Government.
WEI JINGSHENG (Translation): This extreme nationalism has some characteristics in common with Nazism. For example, it displays exclusionism, discriminates against dissidents and promotes violence. Like all fanatics, once they get into frenzy, they can’t hear any other voice. How far will this fanatical patriotism go? We’re worried. Many people inside the Communist Party are worried.
He then went on to talk about organ harvesting.
WEI JINGSHENG (Translation): In China, prisoners’ organs are forcibly removed. This has been extended to ordinary people. People are kidnapped off the street and killed for their organs. It’s a business for profit.
But when he criticised Premier Wen Jiabao and the Chinese military for getting to the recent earthquake zone too late, it was too much for some in the audience.
STUDENT: My question is whether he really knows at what exact time the Chinese troops arrived in the earthquake region.
At this point, Mr Wei got confused and contradicted himself losing the attention of many in the audience. But at the end, he still got quite an applause although mostly from the non-Chinese.
REPORTER: Any comment on that?
STUDENT 2: Very profound and very enlightening.
Then I see the student who asked the question about his facts.
REPORTER: What did you think?
STUDENT: A bit disappointing.
STUDENT: You can see from my question – it is not well evidenced - the detail is about himself not what is happening there.
REPORTER: Any comment on what you just heard?
STUDENT 3: Nonsense.
REPORTER: Nonsense, really? Can you tell me why?
STUDENT 3: Sorry I have no time.
REPORTER: I will walk with you.
STUDENT 3: He was just misleading us, misleading the foreign countries, the foreign media to get them to overturn the Chinese Government.
Other students agreed that he didn’t answer their questions. But Mr Wei dismisses the criticism.
WEI JINGSHENG (Translation): It shows that those young people have long been deceived. It will take them a long time to be able to see the truth. They’ve been brainwashed by Communism.
And he alleges there were embassy officials sitting at the back of the theatre.
REPORTER: How do you know the embassy sent people?
WEI JINGSHENG (Translation): The students told me. I think those students were actually quite friendly. They’ve taken in a lot of what I said. But under surveillance by embassy officials, they could only say what they said. Without the embassy officials, those young men would take me for a beer. They have more questions to ask.
REPORTER: Do you think you will ever get to go back to China?
WEI JINGSHENG (Translation): The Chinese Communist Government may not allow me to go back to China. But the Communist Government may soon be overthrown. So I’ll be able to go back soon. My hope is sooner rather than later.
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WEI JINGSHENG FOUNDATION