Diplomacy: Dissident fears Cook puts business before ethics

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The Independent Online
Wei Jingsheng, China's leading dissident until his departure for the United States last year, had hoped for a meeting with Robin Cook during his visit to London this week. But the Foreign Secretary was too busy - at least until he is safely back from China. Steve Crawshaw talked to a man who is looking for more signs of change from Western leaders.

"Of course I want to return to China. The government would not let me do so now. But I think that change will come soon. People in China feel that they have had enough."

Wei Jingsheng is more optimistic than many about the prospects for change in China. Some argue that most Chinese people are now more interested in business and making ends meet than in politics. But he insists that "90 per cent" seek change. "Everybody is adversely affected by politics - even millionaires."

The 47-year-old Mr Wei - a guest in this country of Amnesty International - has been known as China's Nelson Mandela. Like Mr Mandela, he seemed destined to spend almost his entire life in jail. He was jailed in 1979 for criticising the then Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping - and released in 1993 just a few months before his full 15-year sentence was up. After just two years at liberty, he was again in 1995 jailed for 14 years on charges of subversion.

He suffered both physical and mental torture. But his worst moments were worrying about his family. "I knew that my family and friends could be in trouble by association. I worried about that an awful lot."

In November last year he was freed on "medical parole". He suffers from high blood pressure and a heart condition. His release came just a few weeks after a meeting between the Chinese President Jiang Zemin and President Bill Clinton in Washington. US officials had made it clear a return visit by Mr Clinton would be difficult if Mr Wei was still in jail.

Mr Wei had requested a meeting with Robin Cook, but Mr Cook's office said it was not possible to fit this in. Mr Cook is due to visit Peking later this month, and is hoping for high-level meetings with Chinese government leaders. A meeting with Mr Wei would have jeopardised those meetings, though British officials insist that the time factor (the meeting was originally requested before Christmas) was the only reason a meeting cannot take place now. Mr Wei was scathing about what he sees as the West's continued failure to press China hard on human rights. He linked the non-meeting with Mr Cook to politics. "Because of business, they want to keep a distance from me. I think it's a pity."

Foreign Office minister Derek Fatchett will meet Mr Wei on Monday; a meeting with Mr Cook is likely to take place at a later date. Mr Wei called for a strong stance by Mr Cook when he goes to Peking this month: "Western countries talk about the democratic movement. But in real terms they don't give it enough support."

Mr Wei, a former electrician at Peking Zoo, was arrested in 1979 for "counter-revolutionary propaganda and incitement", a reference to his advocacy of peaceful political change. He was denounced by Deng Xiaoping, and responded by writing an article entitled "Democracy or new Autocracy?" which directly criticised Deng himself, and was pasted up on Peking's Democracy Wall. Mr Wei argued that all China's economic progress would be meaningless without democracy and human rights.

It is a view that he still holds strongly today: "The economic crisis has some impact in China. It has an impact on people's livelihoods. But more important is the political aspect. People said you don't need human rights and democracy - that you can be prosperous without a democratic system. But democracy and human rights ensure stability."