IF HIS name were Mandela or Sharansky, he would be celebrated in the West. But we are less familiar with the victims of Chinese tyranny.
Wei Jingsheng is the equivalent of Nelson Mandela and Anatoly Sharansky in moral courage and in suffering. Since their release, he has been the most important political prisoner in the world.
This Friday he begins his 13th year in a Chinese prison. Much, perhaps all of that time he has been in solitary confinement. His treatment has been so cruel that he has reportedly deteriorated physically and mentally. But he has not given up the belief that got him in trouble: the belief in democracy.
For a brief period in 1978 and 1979, the Chinese Communist leadership under Deng Xiaoping tolerated some freedom of speech. It was the time of the "democracy wall" in Beijing, where people put up posters expressing their political ideas.
Wei Jingsheng posted an essay calling for democracy. Deng Xiaoping and the government, he wrote, said they wanted to modernize China. But could that be achieved "in a society governed by overlords and worked by professional and amateur slaves? Impossible! . . .
"In the West, the people enjoy the benefits of progress. People in 'socialist countries,' like draft animals, only hope for some grass to eat after work . . .
"At this point, the organs of the proletarian dictatorship interrupt us: 'At least, in our society, we have solved the problem of hunger.' Is that really true? Perhaps it would be better to let 'the dark face of socialism,' i.e. those people who beg at the street corner in the villages and towns, answer this question."
That last passage reflected what Wei had learned during the Cultural Revolution. As a Red Guard in 1966, when he was 16, he took a train trip to northwest China. He was shocked to find crowds of people begging for food in the stations. One woman, smeared with soot and mud, was otherwise naked.
In March 1979, Wei was denounced by Deng Xiaoping. He replied in an essay warning that Deng was becoming a dictator.
Wei was arrested and charged with engaging in "counter-revolutionary propaganda" and passing "military secrets" to a foreign journalist. In October of that year he was convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison.
There have been occasional reports, from former prisoners and others, about the harsh treatment of Wei. His food and conditions were so bad in the first years that all his teeth were said to have fallen out. He was not allowed to speak to anyone, guards or prisoners.
In 1989 a Hong Kong newspaper that reflects the Beijing government line, Ta Kung Pao, ran an article explaining why there had been no leniency toward him. "Wei Jingsheng has refused to reform himself," it said, "and he does not regret his crimes."
Perhaps because of fear he would die, the authorities moved Wei from a remote area to Beijing two years ago. He was reportedly treated in a mental hospital.
But the most recent report, last month, said he had been sent to work in the salt fields in Hebei province. The report said he had started a hunger strike to protest his harsh treatment. Evidently he has lost neither his faith nor his courage.
Deng Xiaoping has mocked the world's inattention to Wei. In 1987 he told officials: "We put Wei Jingsheng behind bars, didn't we? Did that damage China's reputation?"
Deng's view is a challenge to those who care about freedom and human decency. Americans especially, because our government has been such a patsy for the Chinese tyrants. President Bush has repeatedly found reasons to close his eyes to their repression, most recently the need to avoid a Chinese veto of U.N. resolutions on the Persian Gulf.
In the absence of presidential sensitivity, Congress and the public have to act. There is much to do.
Until Wei Jingsheng is free, no high-level Chinese official should be welcome in this country. Unless he is freed, China should lose its most-favored-nation tariff treatment.
Any American group going to China should raise the case of Wei Jingsheng. A Committee to End the Chinese Gulag has just been formed by Americans and Chinese and Russian exiles. Perhaps it can make us in the West understand what we should have understood long ago: that the Chinese people deserve freedom, and suffer from tyranny, as much as the rest of us.