Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Xu Wenli speaks out

Leading Chinese dissident talks about his recent release from prison and what it means for prospects for democracy in China

Newsweek Web, January 27, 2003

Leading Chinese dissident Xu Wenli has gone to prison twice for the cause of democracy: once for 12 years for his involvement in the 1978-79 Democracy Wall movement, when he edited a political journal, and again in 1998 for founding a pro-democracy opposition party. His plight was well-documented, and he became a cause celebre for human rights and democracy activists around the world.

On December 24, the Chinese government released him early, citing medical reasons (Xu suffers from hepatitis B), and put him on a plane with his wife to the United States. Though on its face a major concession, many see his release as merely a token gesture, and question whether there has been any real change on human rights in China.

NEWSWEEK's Jonathan Adams spoke to Xu recently about his release, and what it means for the prospects for democracy in China.

NEWSWEEK: Why do you think the Chinese government decided to release you now?

Xu Wenli: I think it's the relationship between the U.S. and China. America needs to have support from the Chinese government on terrorism, and China needs America's support for money, managers and experience. So the Chinese government can take credit for releasing someone like me. They're playing cards with the human rights issue with America; release one or two people, but arrest 10 or 20 more. That doesn't add up to any improvement.

The Chinese dissident community here in the U.S. has a reputation for being divided over how best to achieve democracy and respect for human rights in China. How has the U.S. community received you?

That's one of the reasons that the Chinese government wanted to release me, because with my release the conflict may worsen within the dissident community. It's quite normal that there's disagreement between the dissidents. There's a limitation on money and support. So for people to try to fight for a tiny bit of support, that's understandable. So after my release I have three points: one, I don't want to criticize others. Second, if others criticize me I will not respond. And third, I don't want to be the leader of the dissident community.

What were the prison conditions like?

I was in a prison within a prison, basically a special area. There were seven policemen and three criminal prisoners. They lived with me and they also watched me. And there were eight cameras. Around the windows there was a metal fence and around the metal fence there was sheet metal that went all around, so I couldn't see the scenery, and which also prevented people from seeing me. They actually put sheet metal on their windows as well, whoever could see down in the yard. It was intensively monitored.

When I heard my wife tell me that she hadn't known where I was held and if I was alive or dead, and had taken my daughter everywhere in Beijing to look for me. The police were not friendly back then, it was in 1981. They refused to tell my wife and daughter where I was held for about a year and a half. Their attitude was really harsh. When my wife described that to me, it was the toughest time to experience.

One argument the Chinese government and others have made is that economic modernization must come before democratization, that it's too dangerous to have both at the same time. How do you respond to that?

I think that political reform should be done carefully, because of China's lack of a democratic tradition. The Chinese people have little understanding of how to express their rights and how that works. But that shouldn't be the reason why the Chinese government refuses to have democratic political reform.

The Chinese one-party rule is not a party rule, it's a personal rule. Mao decided to have the Cultural Revolution. Deng Xiaoping decided to have the Tiananmen massacre in 1989. And Jiang Zemin decided not to fully retire, but to keep his power in the military. So the Chinese government is not much different from the last 5,000 years of the Chinese emperors. Even though the living situation for Chinese people has changed, there's a lot of unhappiness. And that unhappiness has to do with not having political rights.

Do you think another Tiananmen Square massacre could happen today?

I don't think there's much chance for another massacre today, because after 1989, both sides were wounded. The students today are such different people than the 1989 students. Today's students are more practical. They don't have as much desire for democracy. A lot of young students don't like politics and they're sick of it. But there are always some students out there who want Chinese society to become democratic.

There is a girl named Liu Di, a student at a Beijing university. She criticized the Chinese government online. She's been arrested, but not sentenced yet. There are about 700 well-known Chinese scholars asking for her release online.

If you had to say how long it will take for China to become democratic, what would you guess?

I think in 20 to 30 years, that shouldn't be a problem.

What was the first thing you did when you got off the plane in New York?

I went to Ground Zero. I wanted to pay my respects to the people who were lost. And I also thought, there's a place you can go to pay your respects in New York, but there's no place you can do that in China for the students who died in 1989.

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