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  • The Courage to Stand Alone: Letters from Prison and Other Writings
  • Wei-chin Lee (bio)
Wei Jingsheng . The Courage to Stand Alone: Letters from Prison and Other Writings. Edited and translated by Kristina M. Torgeson. New York: Viking, 1997. xxxiv, 283 pp. Hardcover, ISBN0-670-87249-0.

Wei Jingsheng could have lived happily ever after with his family in China. Instead he spent many years in solitary confinement. When he could have escaped into hiding, he chose to defend himself, even though he had little chance for freedom. His tribulations began when, during the 1978-1979 Democracy Wall movement, he boldly declared that the fifth modernization—democracy—is the precondition for all government-launched modernizations (i.e., in agriculture, science, industry, and the military). Even more provocatively, he warned that people should be vigilant lest Deng Xiaoping resume Mao's dictatorial style. For his "counterrevolutionary" writings, as well as an accusation of espionage for leaking military information on the Sino-Vietnamese war to foreign reporters, the twenty-nine-year-old Wei was slapped with a fifteen-year jail sentence.

Wei Jingsheng is one of the best-known dissidents in China, renowned for his vehement fight for the promotion of democracy and his persistent stand against human rights abuses. Suspecting that his parole six months before the completion of his sentence was merely a tactic by China to enhance its bid to host the 2000 Olympics, he demanded the return of all his prison writings.

This book is a collection of representative writings during his incarceration in four compounds: Banbuqiao (1979-1981), Beijing's largest detention center; Beijing Prison No. 1 (1981-1984); the Tanggemu labor reform camp in a remote region of Qinghai (1984-1989); and Nanpu New Life Salt Works prison in Hebei (1989-1993). From these prisons, he addressed his younger brother and sisters, prison officials, and Chinese political authorities and leaders, including Deng Xiaoping, Hu Yaobang, Li Peng, and Jiang Zemin, although these leaders probably never realized or would have cared that they were Wei Jingsheng's pen pals. The letters include requests for tape recorders for learning English, pleas for medical attention, and brief descriptions of Wei's scientific inventions, rabbit breeding in Qinghai, treatment in a strict-regime brigade (yanguandui), confrontation with jail trusties, comments on Party policies and constitutional revision, and his advice to the leadership on sundry matters. Even his communications with siblings, which were not permitted to touch on politics, contain between-the-lines political critiques in what are ostensibly discussions of art, culture, and family matters. These writings not only put together the pieces of Wei Jingsheng's political beliefs and thinking, but also present a moving record of his personal history.

Kristina Torgeson, the editor, must be commended for her skillful interweaving of these letters with occasionally brief remarks informing readers of the flow [End Page 550] of events. Most of Wei's letters are translated in full, particularly those addressed to family members and prison authorities. While it was necessary to excerpt from some of the longer letters due to space limitations, those desiring to read the full text can consult the original correspondence contained in the special collections of the C. V. Starr East Asian Library at Columbia University.

Since Wei was still in jail when the book was published, several supplementary sections are included to help readers understand Wei's struggle. Andrew Nathan's short, but eloquent, foreword and Sophia Woodman's essay tracing Wei's lifelong battle for democracy provide the historical context necessary to appreciate Wei's uneasy choice and the courage he has displayed. Liu Qing, a former political prisoner and current Chairman of Human Rights in China, wrote the preface, which draws upon Liu's own prison experiences and his memory of Wei. Appendixes contain Wei's famous big-character poster essay, "The Fifth Modernization: Democracy"; the transcript of his defense during his 1979 trial; and an autobiographical essay written before his arrest in 1979.

The autobiographical essay recounts Wei's transformation from a Maoist fanatic to a political dissident. His travels as a Red Guard to various places in China to "exchange revolutionary experiences" and "light revolutionary fires," his...


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