The Democracy Wall movement began in late 1978 when protestors began attaching "big character posters" to a stretch of wall in Beijing west of the Forbidden City. The dissident Wei Jingsheng was an important leader in what became known as the "Beijing Spring" demonstration of 1979. Today, in the place where Democracy Wall once stood is a Pizza Hut.

The Democracy Wall itself was a kind of anti-government, pro-democracy bulletin board. People put up poems, essays, mimeographed articles. Huge crowds showed up. They had lively discussions about what they read. One of the last posters to appear on Democracy Wall read: "if you close the people's mouth's and let them say only nice things, it keeps the bile inside."

Deng eventually ordered the wall torn down. Participants were brutally suppressed. For putting a poster on Democracy Wall, the activist Betty Zhang was confined to a bed-size room, beaten with an electric prod, and had bone marrow removed from her spine. After spending six years in prison she was released and was then prohibited from getting married and required to get an abortion when she got pregnant.

Websites and Sources: Amnesty International amnesty.org ; Human Rights Watch hrw.org ; Chinese Government Position on Human Rights China.org ; United States State Department Report www.state.gov ; Wikipedia List of Chinese Dissidents Wikipedia

Wei Jingsheng

Wei Jingsheng, considered by many to be the "father" of China's democracy movement, was nominated for the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize and is compared by many people to Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov in the Soviet Union. He was an important leader in the Democracy Wall Movement during the "Beijing Spring" demonstration of 1979. He spent 15 years in jail for the “heinous”crime of putting up a wall poster.

Wei was born in 1950 to a loyal, mid-level Communist Party cadres. As a young man he was enthusiast supporter of the teachings of Mao. Instead of attending high school, he became a self described "fanatic Maoist" and joined the Red Guard. He served in red army and worked in the Beijing Zoo. In 1996 he received the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. In 1995 he was awarded the Olaf Palme Award. Outside of intellectual circles in China, Wei is not all that well known in China. Among those who offered to help Wei while he was in prison were two former U.S. Attorney Generals, a French justice minister, the former chairman of the Bar of England and Singapore's former solicitor general.

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Wei Jingsheng, born in 1950, was in many ways typical of his generation. Growing up in the “new China,” he was well instructed in Marxism and Mao Zedong Thought. During the Cultural Revolution Wei, like many young Chinese, took advantage of the chaotic times to travel widely around the country. Like many of his generation, he was “sent down” to the countryside during the later part of the Cultural Revolution. After doing some time as a soldier in the People’s Liberation Army, Wei returned to Beijing, where he was working as an electrician in the Beijing Zoo in the late 1970s. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

“Wei Jingsheng was particularly active in the Democracy Wall movement of 1978-1979. Like other activists, he wrote posters expressing his ideas and pasted them onto the “Democracy Wall” on a street corner in Beijing. The poster calling for China to pursue a “Fifth Modernization” was written in response to the Communist Party’s emphasis on building the “Four Modernizations” (i.e., agriculture, national defense, industry, and science/technology). In an unusual gesture, Wei signed the poster with his name and address. His activities — including this poster, co.editing an unofficial magazine, and another poster in which he suggested that Deng Xiaoping was becoming a new dictator — earned Wei Jingsheng serious attention from the authorities. He was arrested in 1979, charged with passing “military secrets” to a foreigner, and sentenced to 15 years in prison. Released in 1993, Wei was arrested after six months and sentenced to another 14 years on charges of “counter-revolution.” He was released in 1997 and exiled to the United States.

Wei Jingsheng and the Democracy Wall Movement

20111103-Wikicommons Wei Jingsheng 20thanni Tiananmen Massacre.jpg
in 2009

Wei Jingsheng, considered by many to be the "father" of China's democracy movement, attached an essay at 2:00am on December 5, 1978 that called for the "Fifth Modernization," meaning that democracy should be added to the "four modernizations" (industry, agriculture, technology and national defense) outlined a few months earlier by Deng.

"What is true democracy: it means the right of the people to choose their own representatives to work according to their will and in their interests,” Wei wrote. "Only this can be called democracy...Furthermore, the people must also have the power to replace their representatives anytime so their representatives cannot go on deceiving them in the name of the people. This is the kind of democracy enjoyed by people in European and American countries."

After a seven-hour trial in 1979, Wei was convicted of "counterrevolutionary" activities and leaking information about China's war with Vietnam to a reporter and sentenced to 15 years in prison, where he lost teeth from malnutrition, endured abuse by criminal inmates, and was harassed with constant noise and light kept on in his cell all night. While in prison his family and girlfriend heard nothing from him. There were rumors that he died or developed schizophrenia. In the end he became one of China’s most famous dissidents. See Dissidents, Government

Deng Xiaoping is believed to have been the one who ordered Wei arrested and the Democracy Wall torn down after Wei wrote a editorial stating that Marxist countries were "without exception undemocratic and even anti-democratic autocracies." He later wrote that "the people must maintain vigilance against Deng Xiaoping's metamorphosis into a dictator."

Wei write to letters to Deng. In 1987, he wrote, "Your problem is that you have too much ambition, too little talent and you're narrow-minded." On Wei, Deng once said, "Didn't we arrest Wei Jingsheng? We arrested him and haven't let him go, yet China's image has not suffered."

“The Fifth Modernization: Democracy" by Wei Jingsheng

Wei Jingsheng wrote in “The Fifth Modernization: Democracy" (1978): “Newspapers and television no longer assail us with deafening praise for the dictatorship of the proletariat and class struggle. This is in part because these were once the magical incantations of the now.overthrown Gang of Four. But more importantly, it’s because the masses have grown absolutely sick of hearing these worn.out phrases and will never be duped by them again. After the arrest of the Gang of Four, the people eagerly hoped that Vice Chairman Deng Xiaoping, the possible “restorer of capitalism,” would rise up again like a magnificent banner. [Source: “Sources of Chinese Tradition: From 1600 Through the Twentieth Century”, compiled by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Richard Lufrano, 2nd ed., vol. 2 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 497-500]

“Finally he did regain his position in the central leadership. How excited the people felt! How inspired they were! But alas, the old political system so despised by the people remains unchanged, and the democracy and freedom they longed for has not even been mentioned. But now there are people warning us that Marxist.Leninist.Mao Zedong Thought is the foundation of all things, even speech, that Chairman Mao was the “great savior” of the people and that the phrase “without the Communist Party, there would be no new China” actually means “without Chairman Mao, there would be no new China.” If anyone denies this point, the official notices make it clear that they’ll come to no good end. There are even “certain people” who try to tell us that the Chinese people need a dictator and if he is more dictatorial than the emperors of old, it only proves his greatness. The Chinese people don’t need democracy, they say, for unless it is a “democracy under centralized leadership,” it isn’t worth a cent. Whether you believe this or not is up to you, but there are plenty of recently vacated prison cells waiting for you if you don’t.

right“But now there are those who’ve offered us a way out: if you take the Four Modernizations as your guiding principle, forge ahead with stability and unity, and bravely serve the revolution like a faithful old ox, you will reach paradise — the glory of communism and the Four Modernizations. Those kindhearted “certain people” have also told us that if we find this confusing, we should undertake a serious and thorough study of Marxist.Leninist.Mao Zedong Thought! If you’re confused, it’s because you don’t understand it, and the fact that you don’t understand only goes to show just how profound a theory it is! Don’t be disobedient or the leadership of your work unit will be uncompromising! And so on and so on.

“I urge everyone to stop believing such political swindlers. When we all know that we are being tricked, why don’t we trust ourselves instead? The Cultural Revolution has tempered us and we are no longer so ignorant. Let us investigate for ourselves what should be done! … What is true democracy? Only when the people themselves choose representatives to manage affairs in accordance with their will and interests can we speak of democracy.

“Furthermore, the people must have the power to replace these representatives at any time in order to prevent them from abusing their powers to oppress the people. Is this possible? The citizens of Europe and the United States enjoy just this kind of democracy and could run people like Nixon, de Gaulle, and Tanaka out of office when they wished and can even reinstate them if they want to, for no one can interfere with their democratic rights. In China, however, if a person so much as comments on the now.deceased “Great Helmsman” or “Great Man peerless in history” Mao Zedong, the mighty prison gates and all kinds of unimaginable misfortunes await him. If we compare the socialist system of “democratic centralism” with the “exploiting class democracy” of capitalism, the difference is as clear as night and day.

“Will the country sink into chaos and anarchy if the people attain democracy? On the contrary, have not the scandals exposed in the newspapers recently shown that it is precisely due to an absence of democracy that dictators, large and small, have caused chaos and anarchy? The maintenance of democratic order is an internal problem that the people themselves must solve. It is not something that the privileged overlords need concern themselves with. Besides they are not really concerned with democracy for the people but use it as a pretext to deny the people their democratic rights. Of course, internal problems cannot be solved overnight but must be constantly addressed during the development process. Mistakes and shortcomings are inevitable, but these are for us to worry about and are infinitely preferable to facing abusive overlords against whom we have no means of redress. Those who worry that democracy will lead to anarchy and chaos are just like those who worried that without an emperor China would fall into chaos following the overthrow of the Qing dynasty. Their recommendation was Patiently suffer oppression! Without the weight of oppression, the roofs of your homes might fly off! With all due respect, let me say to such people: We want to be the masters of our own destiny. We need no gods or emperors and we don’t believe in saviors of any kind. We want to be masters of our universe, not the modernizing tools of dictators with personal ambitions. We want the modernization of people’s lives. Democracy, freedom, and happiness for all are our sole objectives in carrying out modernization. Without this fifth modernization, all others are nothing more than a new promise.

“Comrades, I appeal to you: Let us rally under the banner of democracy. Do not be fooled again by dictators who talk of “stability and unity.” Fascist totalitarianism can bring us nothing but disaster. Harbor no more illusions; democracy is our only hope. Abandon our democratic rights and we shackle ourselves again. Let us have confidence in our own strength! We are the creators of human history. Banish all self-proclaimed leaders and teachers, for they have already cheated the people of their most valuable rights for decades.

“I firmly believe that production will flourish even more when controlled by the people themselves because the workers will be producing for their own benefit. Life will improve because the workers’ interests will be the primary goal. Society will be more rational because all power will be exercised by the people as a whole through democratic means.

“I don’t believe that all of this will be handed to the people effortlessly by some great savior. I also refuse to believe that China will abandon this goal because of the many difficulties it will surely encounter along the way. As long as people clearly identify their goal and realistically assess the obstacles before them, then surely they will trample any praying mantis that might try to bar their way. If the Chinese people want modernization, they must first put democracy into practice and modernize China’s social system. Democracy is not merely an inevitable stage of social development, as Lenin claimed. In addition to being the result of productive forces and productive relations that have developed to a certain stage, democracy is also the very condition that allows for such development to reach beyond this stage. Without this condition society will become stagnant and economic growth will face insurmountable obstacles.

“Therefore, as history tells us, a democratic social system is the premise and precondition for all development, or what we can also call modernization. Without this premise and precondition not only will further progress be impossible but it will be very difficult to maintain the development we have already achieved. Does democracy come about naturally when society reaches a certain stage? Absolutely not. An enormous price is paid for every tiny victory, so much so that even coming to a recognition of this fact requires sacrifices. The enemies of democracy have always deceived their people by saying that just as democracy is inevitable, so it is also doomed, and therefore it is not worth wasting energy fighting for.

“But let us look at the real history, not that fabricated by the hired hacks of the “socialist government”! Every small twig of true and worthy democracy is stained with the blood of martyrs and tyrants, and every step taken toward democracy has been fiercely attacked by the reactionary forces. The fact that democracy has been able to surmount such obstacles proves that it is precious to the people and that it embodies all their aspirations. Thus the democratic trend cannot be stopped. The Chinese people have never feared anything; they need only recognize the direction to be taken and the forces of tyranny will no longer be invincible.

We Jingsheng's Arrest and Imprisonment

Wei was imprisoned in a 4½-x-9-foot cell with light that was on 24 hours day. He was not allowed to read or write. No one, not even the guards, were allowed to speak to him. After two years, a sympathetic guard or another prisoner smuggled Wei a ballpoint pen on his meal tray. Guards searched his cell for the pen and were unable to find it (he hid it by dangling it on string in the hollow metal rods of his bed). When he was moved to a new cell he managed to sneak the pen with him.

Later Wei was allowed to write a monthly letter to his two sisters and brother. He was forbidden to write about the negatives he experienced’sleep depravation, beatings, malnutrition, rotting teeth, heart pain and other health problems. Guards sometimes took Wei's pen. When that happened other prisoners took apart pens, often stolen from guards, and smuggled them to Wei.

While Wei was in jail his girlfriend married someone else. After Wei was taken off of death row he wrote his family: "I learned to look on death as something as inevitable as life itself. Sometimes I think if I died it would be good for me and better for you. Waiting for death, stuck between life and death, is much worse than dying right away."

Wei Jingsheng's Brief Release from Return to Prison

leftIn September 1993, Wei was released on parole after serving 14½ years of a 15 year sentence shortly before the vote on who would get to host the 2000 Olympics. Without missing a beat he renewed his attacks on the Chinese government and encouraged the international community to deny Beijing the opportunity to host the Olympics.In an essay on the Op-Ed page of the New York Times he wrote: “the present leaders were the most outspoken group of men, shouting their support of human rights and democracy before they ascended to power. But their subsequent dictatorship made clear that they had no intention of making good on promises they once made to the masses."

Six months after he was released, and after Beijing's lost its bid for the Olympics, Wei was imprisoned again on April 1994 by seven carloads of plainclothes police while driving from Beijing to the nearby city of Tianjin. Authorities confiscated his papers but couldn't find his computer disks.

Wei was imprisoned again. H's family did no know his whereabouts for more than a year. In a secret 5½ hour trial in December, 1995 he was sentenced to 14 years for publishing pro-democracy essays, raising money for China's democracy movement and "continuing to plot for overthrow of the Government." At the time he was 44.

Wei was placed in solitary confinement in freezing cell with two glass walls so he could be monitored and restricted from writing. According to a the German news weekly he was kept 90 miles from Beijing in a labor camp holding 10,000 prisoners who worked under horrible conditions in a salt mine that earned the government $415 million in 35 years. Suffering from heart problems, arthritis and high blood pressure, he had had difficulty eating because he lost many of teeth in pervious jail term.

Wei Jingsheng in the United States

Wei was released to the United States in November 1997. The release was partly attributed to concern by United States President Clinton about his health and welfare and the fact that President Jiang Zemin was soon going to visit the United States. After a brief stay at a Detroit hospital, Wei moved to New York, where became a visiting scholar at the Center for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University

In 1997 Wei's book The Courage to Stand Alone: Letters from Prison and Other Writings (Viking) was published in the United States. It was made mainly of letters transcribed by Tong Yi, a young woman who spent 2½ years in a labor camp, and was sometimes beaten, before being allowed to leave Japan. The book was assembled without Wei's knowledge by his relatives in China and admirers in the West.

Describing a meeting with Wei in the United States, Nancy Yoshihara wrote in the Los Angeles Times, "Wei appears smart and well read. He smiles easily” and “is at once direct and indirect. he is forthright in his opinions, then slips into piquant metaphor to make his points...He still wears clothes brought from China by his friends. A heavy smoker, he likes to remind Californians “smoking is a right, too.”"

Fang Lizhi

Dr. Fang Lizhi, an astrophysicist and former vice president of the National Science and Technical University in Hefe, was involved in the Tiananmen Square demonstrations and allowed to leave China in 1990. One of China's most famous dissidents, he is best known for speeches that inspired student protesters throughout the 1980s. A towering figure in China's human rights movement, he was a key figure in the Tiananmen square demonstrations and fled to the United States after China's 1989 military crackdown. Once China's leading astrophysicist, Fang and his wife hid in the U.S. Embassy for 13 months after the crackdown. In exile, he was a physics professor at the University of Arizona, in Tucson, where he taught since 1992. He died at the age of 76 in April 2012. [Source: The Guardian, April 7, 2012]

Some have called Fang the "father" of the Tiananmen student movement. His friend and fellow US-based exiled dissident Wang Dan wrote on Facebook and Twitter: "I hope the Chinese people will never forget that there was once a thinker like Fang Lizhi. He inspired the '89 generation, and awoke in the people their yearning for human rights and democracy," Wang wrote. "One day, China will be proud to once have had Fang Lizhi. "Fang is my spiritual teacher.

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “As China’s Communist Party and government pursued economic reform and opened to the outside world in the 1980s, market forces and a decreased level of Party concern with the control of cultural activities led to a more lively intellectual atmosphere. Some intellectuals pushed the envelope, perhaps enjoying the increased level of freedom to the utmost, perhaps purposely trying to push the boundaries of acceptable speech and publication. One of those to push to the point where he discovered, through personal experience, just where the new limits on freedom of expression lay, was the astrophysicist Fang Lizhi (1936-2012). [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

Fang Lizhi's Life

Fang Lizhi

The son of a postal clerk in Hangzhou, Fang was admitted to Beijing University in 1952, aged 16, to study theoretical physics and nuclear physics. He became one of China's pioneer researchers in laser theory. He burst into political prominence during pro-democracy student demonstrations of 1986-8 when he became China's most outspoken and eloquent proponent of democratic reform. Authorities alleged his speeches to students at the University of Science and Technology, where he was vice-president, incited unrest. Fang was expelled from the Communist party and sacked from his university post. But he refused to be silenced and received letters of support from across the country almost daily.

“Fang was a member of the faculty and an administrator at Science and Technology University in Hefei (Anhui Province). He was also a member of the Chinese Communist Party. Fang was much in demand as a public speaker in the mid-1980s. His public speeches were not on astrophysics: They dealt mainly with the status of intellectuals, democracy, political and economic reform, and modernization.”

After the 4 June 1989 military crackdown that crushed the seven-week pro-democracy movement, Fang and his wife fled into the US embassy. Fang and his wife had both been named in Chinese warrants that could have carried death sentences upon conviction. American diplomats refused to turn them over to Chinese authorities. China's decision to allow the couple to leave the country a year later eliminated a major obstacle to bettering China-US relations, which had deteriorated badly after the crackdown, which left hundreds and perhaps thousands dead.

"The Social Responsibility of Today’s Intellectuals" by Fang Lizhi

In a November 4, 1985 speech at Beijing University entitled "The Social Responsibility of Today’s Intellectuals", Fang Lizhi said: As intellectuals, we are obligated to work for the improvement of society. Our primary task in this regard is to strive for excellence and creativity in our chosen professions. This requires that we break the bonds of social restraint when necessary. In keeping with Chinese tradition, creativity has not been encouraged over the past three decades. It is a shame that, as a result, China has yet to produce work worthy of consideration for the Nobel Prize. Why is this? We should reflect upon this question and take a good look at ourselves. [Source: “Sources of Chinese Tradition: From 1600 Through the Twentieth Century”, compiled by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Richard Lufrano, 2nd ed., vol. 2 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 516-517]

“One reason for this situation is our social environment. Many of us who have been to foreign countries to study or work agree that we can perform much more efficiently and productively abroad than in China. … Foreigners are no more intelligent than we Chinese are. Why, then, can’t we produce first-rate work? The reasons for our inability to develop to our [full] potential lie within our social system. Therefore all of us, when considering our social responsibility, should dedicate ourselves to the creation of a social environment that allows intellectuals to fully utilize their abilities and encourages productivity in their work. Lately the state has been promoting idealism and discipline. [Its] idea of idealism is simply that we should have a feeling of responsibility toward our society. Of course, our goal should be the improvement of society, but it shouldn’t be some Utopian dream a million years down the road. (Applause.)

“Scientists like myself, who study the universe, cannot see that far into the future. What is much more important is to identify problems that exist now and try to solve them and to identify problems that will beset us in the near future that we might be able to minimize or avoid. What is the real reason we have lost our ideals and discipline? The real reason is that many of our important party leaders have failed to discipline themselves. I will give you an example: There was recently an international symposium on particle accelerators. Both Taiwan and mainland China were represented. In my mind, of course, the participants should be scholars and experts who are directly involved in this kind of work. But in the Chinese delegation of over ten people there was only one from our university. Many of those sent had no qualifications in physics and no familiarity with accelerators. Is this considered “observing discipline”? Among those attending was Beijing vice.mayor Zhang Baifa. I have no idea what he was doing there. (Loud laughter.) If you are talking about discipline, this is an excellent example of what it is not. (Applause.) And this kind of breakdown of discipline is the same thing as corruption. (Loud applause.) In the future, as you learn more about our society, you will find that this sort of corruption is very commonplace. If we are really serious about strengthening discipline, we should start at the top. (Applause.)

“We Communist Party members should be open to different ways of thinking. We should be open to different cultures and willing to adopt the elements of those cultures that are clearly superior. A great diversity of thought should be allowed in colleges and universities. If all thought is simplistic and narrow-minded, creativity will die. At present, there are certainly some people in power who still insist on dictating to others according to their own narrow principles. They always wave the flag of Marxism when they speak. But what they are spouting is not Marxism. We must not be afraid to speak openly about these things. It is our duty. If we remain silent, we have failed to live up to our responsibility.”

Wei Jingsheng on Fang Lizhi: China's Human Rights Hero

Wei Jingsheng wrote in Global Viewpoint: Professor Fang Lizhi, the Chinese astrophysicist whom many regarded as "China's Sakharov," died at his home in Arizona. For this great Chinese patriot to die in the American desert 22 years after he was forced into exile symbolizes the harsh truth about the ruling Communist regime which Fang often warned the world about. [Source: Global Viewpoint, April 10, 2012]

For those of us whose memories have not been erased by the censorship of getting rich gloriously, Fang was a hero. In the years and months leading up to the Tiananmen demonstrations in 1989, he dared to tell the historical facts — about Mao, the Party, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution — to a new generation.

Although I didn't meet him till later in life, our fates were intertwined through the democracy movement. It was Professor Fang's open letter to Deng Xiaoping on January 6, 1989, that sparked the mass movement that Deng would crush in June. In that letter he called for my release from prison, where I had already served 10 of the 15 years I would ultimately serve for my big character poster calling for "the Fifth Modernization" — democracy.

My gratitude to Fang remains immense. For foreign dignitaries to ask the Chinese government to release me was one thing, and I am of course grateful. But for the person whom Deng Xiaoping hated most to openly offend the dictator required enormous courage. The temper of a dictator is not to bow to any pressure. Such pressure from abroad was easier to resist because intractability could be wrapped in the flag of sovereignty. To Deng, Fang Lizhi was much more dangerous because his voice resonated with the younger generation who were China's future. Deng well understood that Fang offered a decidedly different path to that future — one Deng proved he could not abide on June 4 when he called out the tanks.

From his outpost in exile, Professor Fang did not give up. In 2010, when yet another brutal campaign to repress and intimidate dissidents was launched by the Party leadership, Fang wrote: "This should be a wake-up call to anyone who naively believes the autocratic rulers of China will alter their disregard of human rights just because the country is richer. Regardless of how widely China's leaders have opened its market to the outside world, they have not retreated even half a step from their repressive political creed.

"On the contrary, China's dictators have become even more contemptuous of the value of universal human rights. As the unfortunate history of Japan during the first half of the 20th century illustrates, a power that marries economic strength with human rights violations is a threat to peace."Though the democracy movement has been weakened in China, Fang did not waste his life. Being a tragic hero does not tarnish the true essence of heroism. Just like an old poem says: "Be a hero of the people when alive/ Be a martyr among the spirits when you die;/ Think of ancient general Xiang Yu, who fought to his end."

U.S.-Based Chinese Political Activists

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Chai Ling in the 1990s

Liu Qing was a Democracy Wall activist who was imprisoned from 1979-1989 and 1990-1991. He came to the United States in 1992 and is now chairman of the New York-based Human Rights in China.

Fang's speeches were criticized by the Communist government as "bourgeois liberalism" and the work of "professional hooliganism." Fang once said "men are born with rights” to live, to marry, to think, to receive an education," and that is the only way for China "to transform the feudalistic ideas and gradually approach modern standards in thinking." He also said "Democracy can be achieved only gradually through consistent effort. There is nothing to afraid of. Criticizing government leaders is a symbol of democracy. I hold the view that we may criticize leaders."

Liu Binyan, a dissident writer, exposed official corruption and challenged the government to reform itself in the official party newspaper, the People’s Daily. Known as an insider willing to put is neck on the line for his beliefs, he was expelled from the Communist Party in 1987 and exiled from China to the United States in 1988. In the United States he edited Princeton-based China Focus Newsletter and died in 2005 at the age of 80.

Harry Wu


In 1995, Chinese-American activist Harry Wu was arrested for espionage, given a 15 year prison sentence and then expelled from China. Wu had entered western China illegally from Kazakhstan to document the horrors at labor camps in Xinjiang Province. Before he was expelled, Wu was kept in a 6-x-6-foot room and watched around the clock by guards who peered through a mirror on his desk and a even spied on him in the bathroom from a peephole.

The son of a Shanghai banker, Wu was imprisoned in 1960 when he was a Chinese citizen for criticizing the Soviet Union. After spending 19 years in Chinese prisons he was released in 1985. In 1985, Wu moved to the United States as a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley. He became a U.S. citizen and created the Laogai Research Foundation, a nonprofit organization financed by the AFL-CIO to educate the public about forced labor in China. In 1995, he went back to China with a hidden video camera in his bag to document the labor camps. He was arrested, detained for two months and convicted of trying to steal state secrets. Sentenced to 15 years in prison, he was instead deported to the United States. He now lives in Virginia. [Source: Larissa Roso, Washington Post, June 27, 2011]

Wu was released in 1995 partly to keep Hillary Clinton from canceling her appearance at U.N. conference of woman’s issues in Beijing. On previous trips to China Wu used a hidden camera to film prisoners standing in vats of toxic chemicals at a Chinese tannery and interview the families of organ transplant recipients who said they received their organs from executed prisoners. On how to survive Chinese interrogation Wu told Time, "Play it like a game. They insist you give them something. You resist then give a little. You get in trouble if you give everything at once or if you refuse to cooperate.

Harry Wu’s Imprisonment in the Mao Era

Wu’s suffered starvation, torture and sickness while he was imprisoned. Larissa Roso wrote in the Washington Post, “Wu said he worked 12 hours a day on farms and in coal mines and steel mills. Food was scarce, and he sometimes ate roots, snakes and frogs. He tried to commit suicide twice, refusing to eat while in solitary confinement. His weight plummeted to 80 pounds. Throughout his imprisonment, he was allowed to write a one-page letter home every month. But he couldn’t say much to his parents and seven siblings. Police usually read the mail and censored any attempt to describe his life. It took him seven years to learn that his mother had died. [Source:Larissa Roso, Washington Post, June 27, 2011]

“I saw many people passing away,” said Wu, “Nobody cried. The brain doesn’t work. China set up the system not only to force people to make the products, to make profit for the government, but also to change people’s minds. Brain change. There is no choice of religion, no choice of political view.”

Every day, twice a day, he was asked three questions: “Who are you? What is this place? Why are you here?” The required answers: “I am a criminal. This is the Laogai. I am here to reform through labor.” “Finally, in 1979, I got a document saying they had rehabilitated me so I could go,” Wu said. “I went back to the university. And I shut up.”

Wu was a geology student in Beijing who never had been involved in political activities when he was arrested in 1960 as a “counterrevolutionary rightist,” he said. He was forced to sign papers without reading them and taken to a labor camp, a chemical factory in Beijing. “I had no choice; I signed it,” Wu recalled. “Until today, I do not know what was in that paper. They told me: “You’re sentenced to life.” “

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Wu with Wei Jingsheng, Rebiya Kadeer and George Bush at the White House in 2008

Harry Wu’s Laogai Museum of Human Rights

The Laogai Museum at Dupont Circle in Washington was set up Harry Wu to showcase human rights abuses in China, particularly the Communist regime’s use of prisons to punish dissenters. It was created by Harry Wu, 74, a human rights activist who spent 19 years in forced labor camps. Among the artifacts, photos, videos, books and government documents on display are a a faded patchwork coat and pants once belonged to an accused counterrevolutionary named Liu Zhuanghuan, who spent a decade at a forced labor camp during China’s brutal Cultural Revolution. His son was confined to the same camp but never allowed to see his father. One exception was made: He was allowed to identify his father’s body and collect his belongings after Zhuanghuan committed suicide in 1973. The camera, a dictionary and the U.S. passport carried Wu when he was arrested in China in 1995 are also on display. [Source: Larissa Roso, Washington Post, June 27, 2011]

The museum first opened on M Street NW in 2008. The new space, which opened in the springof 2011 on 20th Street, cost $1 million to develop, design and construct. Most of the money for the 2,100-square-foot museum came from the Yahoo! Human Rights Fund. Inside, there are 48 profiles of Laogai victims covering the walls. The story of Liu Xiaobo, the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner, is there. His crime: incitement of subversion. Arrested three times, Xiaobo has been sentenced to 11 years in prison.

Four survivors, including Wu, describe their years in the camps. Visitors also can see an array of forced labor products “clothing, footwear, tea, toys, wine, home goods “sold all over the world. “Are you buying things made in the Laogai?” asks a sign close to a Wal-Mart bag and a Chicago Bulls cap.

According the Laogai Research Foundation, founded by Wu, China has incarcerated more than 40 million people since 1949. Millions died in the labor camp system known as Laogai, which translates to “reform through labor.” The group maintains that 3 million to 5 million people are still imprisoned for political reasons today “a figure rejected by Chinese officials who question Wu’s motives. “I’m not aware of those numbers,” said Wang Baodong, spokesman of the Embassy of China in Washington. “This museum is politically motivated. It’s against China and the Chinese government. He hates the Chinese government.”

Well-Known Chinese Political Activists in the 1990s

20111103-Wikicommons  Wang Juntao Wang Youcai.jpg
Wang Juntao and Wang Youcai

Zhou Guooqiang, a labor activist, was sentenced in 1996 to thee years of reeducation. His sentence was extended for "refusing to reform himself."

Liu Nianchin, a former factory worker and novelist, was sentenced to thee years in prisons in July 1996 for labor activism and a pro-democracy petition. Hu Shigen, a 38-year-old former lecturer at Beijing Language Institute, received a 20-year sentence in December 1996 for allegedly trying to organize a new party. Han Chunsheng, known to some as the counterrevolutionary chicken farmer, was sentenced to eight years in prison in 1996 for writing letters to Voice of America.

In December 1996, Li Hai, a teacher at a medical college, was sentenced to 9 years in prison for putting together a list of people still jail for taking part in the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy demonstrations. In December 1998, Shanghai Computer Engineer Lin Hai went on trial for "inciting the overthrow of state power" for providing 30,000 e-mail addresses to a pro-democracy online magazine.

In January 1999, Zhang Shanuang imprisoned for 10 years for "illegally providing intelligence to hostile foreign organizations" by informing United-States-funded Radio Free Asia of a protest by farmers. After his arrests his wife said, "Everyone knows about the event so how can this be considered a national secret."

Veteran activist Zhu Yufu spent seven year sin prison beginning in 1999 for his attempt to register the opposition China Democratic Party and publishing anti-government articles on the Internet.

In December 1998, Xu Wenli was sentenced to 13 years in prison after a 3½-hour trial for subverting state power by trying to establish an opposition party. Xu had recently established the China Democratic Party. He had early served a 12-year jail tern that ended in 1993. Two other dissidents Wang Youcai and Qin Yongmin were arrested and given sentences of 11 and 12 year respectively after attempting to rein in the China Democratic Party. Wang was freed in December, 2002 and sent to the United States. Qin was jailed until 2010.

Qin Yongmin Released in 2010

In November 2010, Qin Yongmin — co-founder of a would-be Chinese opposition political party — was released from prison after completing a 12-year prison term for endangering state security. According to the South China Morning Post, he was transported to a police station in his home city of Wuhan early in the morning. Officers confiscated his prison writings and warned him not to speak to reporters or meet other dissidents before allowing him to return home, Qin told reporters in a telephone interview. “I tried to tell them it was illegal but they just stole everything I had written,” Qin said. [Source: South China Morning Post, November 29, 2010]

Qin was given one of the harshest sentences among the organisers of the China Democracy Party who were charged with endangering state security after seeking to register the group in 1998. Qin, 57, has a history of political activism dating back three decades, and had already spent a number of years in detention. His punishment underscores the government’s hostility toward political reform, even as the economy continues to develop and Chinese society opens further to outside influences.

Two other co-founders of the China Democracy Party, Wang Youcai and Xu Wenli, were sentenced to lengthy prison terms but exiled to the United States after a few years of confinement following intense diplomatic pressure from Washington.

Image Sources: Taipei TC; Learn to Question; More Less com; China News Digest; AP, Harvard Business School

Text Sources: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu; New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2016

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