Disssident: Victim of Deng's wrath

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The Independent Online
It is almost exactly 19 years since Wei Jingsheng emerged as an unlikely proponent of political change in China. When the "big character posters" started to appear in Peking at the end of 1978 in the short-lived "Democracy Wall" movement, the contributions from Wei were among the most outspoken. "We want no more gods and emperors, no more saviours of any kind," he wrote. "Democracy, freedom and happiness are the only goals of modernisation."

Wei launched a magazine to advocate what he called the "Fifth Modernisation" - democracy - a blunt rebuke to the Four Modernisations of Deng Xiaoping, the architect of China's ambitious reform programme. The young firebrand did not mince his words: "The people must have the power to replace their representatives at any time so that these representatives cannot go on deceiving others in the name of the people," he wrote.

For a few months, Deng tolerated the Democracy Wall activists as a useful weapon against the diehard Maoists who had brought China to near ruin in the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution. But Deng's subsequent crackdown on freedom of expression was just as sudden as the brief flowering of dissent. As the posters were torn down, Wei's final appeal pitched him against the most powerful man in China.

"The people must maintain vigilance against Deng Xiaoping's metamorphosis into an autocrat," he wrote. In March 1979 he was arrested and sentenced to 15 years in jail for "counter-revolutionary" activities. Deng was said to have insisted there should be no leniency.

Neither Wei's family background nor his personal experiences before 1978 fully explain the source for his unwavering belief in Western democratic values and his stubborn refusal not to bow before the cruel might of the Chinese system.

Wei was born in 1950, into a family of Mao loyalists in the central Anhui province. He belonged to the generation whose education was wrecked by the Cultural Revolution, playing his part first as a Red Guard, then as one of the radical youths sent to work in the countryside. Finally he joined the People's Liberation Army. In 1973 he was demobilised and worked as an electrician at Peking Zoo.

When he was first released in 1993, Wei found that China had changed enormously and most Chinese were more interested in business than politics. The government tried to win over the country's most single-minded dissident, but Wei continued to call, via the foreign media, for political reform and human rights.

His decision to meet John Shattuck, a senior US government human rights official, brought his new-found freedom to an end. Soon after the meeting in April 1994 Wei was detained, and the following year he was sentenced to 14 years jail for conspiring to subvert the government.

Wei always said he did not want to be sent into exile and the present Chinese government has no intention of ever letting Wei return.