Freed Chinese dissident says regime's jails hold 'several thousand' political prisoners Wei says his release is 'a small victory' in major battle for democracy

November 22, 1997|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

NEW YORK -- With a clear head and voice, Wei Jingsheng, who spent almost all of the past 19 years in Chinese prisons, said yesterday that his recent release was "only a small victory" in a much larger battle for democracy in the world's most populous nation.

"I have waited decades for this chance to exercise my right to free speech, but the Chinese people have been waiting for centuries," Wei, China's most renowned dissident, said here in his first public remarks since arriving in the United States on Sunday.

Wei said he hopes to return to China -- and, in fact, never intended to leave until the Chinese government told him he could receive medical treatment only overseas.

Wei, 47, was first imprisoned in 1979, after he put up wall posters in Beijing calling on Deng Xiaoping, the late paramount leader who was then consolidating his control over the Chinese Communist Party, to open up the country to democracy.

After serving 14 1/2 years of a 15-year sentence for subversive activity, Wei was released in the fall of 1993, when China was trying unsuccessfully to have Beijing declared the host city for the 2000 summer Olympics.

But he was rearrested six months later and confined until Sunday, when the Chinese regime let him fly to the United States.

Even after resting for four days in a Detroit hospital, Wei said he was still tired and weak from prison and from his trip to America. Yet he made it clear that he plans to keep working for greater freedom in China.

"Right now there are several thousand political prisoners still suffering in Chinese Communist Party jails," he said. "Our conscience as human beings will not allow us to forget them, not even for a single moment."

He also took direct aim at the Chinese Communist Party, challenging the regime's claim to be the embodiment of Chinese nationalism and patriotism.

"Loving China is not the same thing as loving the Chinese Communist Party," Wei said. "The Chinese Communist Party asks the Chinese people to love it and asks people to equate this with patriotism, but these are two separate things."

Until recently a resident of the Nanpu New Life Salt Works, a labor camp, Wei is the toast of New York. Xiao Qiang, the director of the Human Rights in China organization, introduced Wei at the news conference as "our hero."

New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who only last month refused even to meet with Chinese President Jiang Zemin when he was in New York, will give the dissident a warm official welcome Tuesday. Wei will also visit the White House early next month.

Although he suffers from high blood pressure and several other medical ailments, Wei appeared to be in relatively good health. He answered questions for more than 45 minutes before finally pleading fatigue.

Wei said he has no clear plans for what he will do in the United States, but that he intends to "participate in all sorts of democracy activities."

In the same sweeping language that has characterized his writings, Wei appealed to the West not to forget about repression in China or to make excuses for it.

"Generations of martyrs sacrificed themselves in order to obtain democracy in Europe, North America and many other places in the world," he said. "But people should not be satisfied with this."

As he seeks to establish himself in America, Wei can help support himself with royalties from a collection of his prison writings, published in America last year.

Pub Date: 11/22/97

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