One Chinese dissident freed Thousands in prison: Token human rights pay-off for remaining engaged with China.

November 18, 1997

WEI JINGSHENG is an incorrigible recidivist, beyond rehabilitation. More than any political prisoner since Vlaclav Havel in the former Czechoslovakia, he terrifies an all-powerful regime with words, not weapon. And he won't quit throwing them.

In 1979, when Deng Xiaoping was promoting "four modernizations," Mr. Wei put up an essay on Democracy Wall in Beijing calling for "The Fifth Modernization: Democracy." Neat slogan, easily reproduced. When there were rumors of a crackdown, Mr. Wei put up a wall poster calling Deng a dictator. Nobody gets away with that. Fifteen years in prison for Mr. Wei.

The man wouldn't shut up. When the army mowed down demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in 1989, he wrote to Deng fTC calling him "precisely the idiot to do something foolish like this." They put him in solitary, and guards beat him. Nothing worked. He kept writing to leaders about free elections and freedom of speech as though he believed in them.

When China was campaigning in 1993 for the 2000 Olympic Games, it let Mr. Wei out. What was his gratitude? He met with an American assistant secretary of state for human rights with complaints. The result: Another 14-year prison sentence. What else could they do?

Americans should rejoice that this man who campaigns so valiantly for basic dignities has been freed to come here for medical treatment. He has put his life on the line for his beliefs for 18 years, with no power but language. Letting him out is, of course, a cynical small pay-off for the carefully staged state visit of President Jiang Zemin to this country. As though letting a gifted dissident out to campaign from exile is a reward to President Clinton.

This does nothing to free speech or information inside China or to liberate other prisoners of conscience. Next time China wants something, the pressure will focus on freeing Wang Dan, a leader of the Tiananmen Square students. There are believed to be thousands of political prisoners in China, whose only crime is behavior that would be legal in any country with basic freedoms.

Letting one man out won't stop the pressure for freer speech, travel and political participation, which China's own economic growth provokes. If President Jiang wants to know how to cope with that, he ought to ask Wei Jingsheng, who is going to tell him anyway.

Pub Date: 11/18/97

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