Wei Jingsheng

Chinese democracy activist and dissident

Wei Jingsheng (Chinese: 魏京生) (born 20 May 1950) is a Chinese human rights activist and dissident. He is most prominent for having authored the essay "The Fifth Modernization", which was posted on the Democracy Wall in Beijing in 1978. As punishment for writing his manifesto, Wei was arrested and convicted of "counter-revolutionary" activities, and he was detained as a political prisoner from 1979 to 1993. Briefly released in 1993, Wei continued to engage in his dissident activities by speaking to visiting journalists, and as punishment, he was imprisoned again from 1994 to 1997, making it a total of 18 years he has spent in various prisons. He was deported to the United States of America on 16 November 1997, on medical parole. Still a Chinese citizen, in 1998 Wei established the Wei Jingsheng Foundation in New York City (now based in Washington, D.C.) whose stated aim is to work to improve human rights and advocate democratization in China.

Wei Jingsheng in 2013


  • Human rights are shared by all people of the world and if some people still suffer without them, then nobody has them at all. Particularly in China, which is such an influential country and such a world power today. If there's a problem and human rights don't develop in China, there could be serious issues that develop in China that will effect the whole world.
  • When I was living in China, people don't have anything to eat. There's people living in such poverty that it's impossible not to develop human rights in China. When I was in China many years ago, I saw many people starving to death. I saw people standing at train stations, not wearing any clothes, begging for money. Seeing people who had such terrible lives made a real impression on me—it was simple. At that time, I decided my life's present course, supporting human rights.
  • If there were normal relationships between the two partners, there would be no problem. But China is a dysfunctional country. Consequently, I am not happy with the attitude of Western European countries that have moved away from the issue of human rights in exchange for trade, especially in the last 10 years.

Interview (2020)


"Wei Jingsheng: What Tiananmen taught Hong Kong and the CCP"

  • My overall impression is that politicians really like to change their positions and really like to forget about some things. But ordinary people have better memories. As we Chinese people say, ordinary people have conscience, unlike politicians. I think that every nation has a conscience. And good writers express it very well, and those who express the conscience of the nation in their work, those are exceptional writers. I’ve noticed that in every country people don’t like politicians. When people talk about me as a politician, I object immediately, I just say I write books.
  • Many Western experts are beginning to think about a dictatorial system being more efficient and functional than democracy, and economic performance in such systems being better than in Western democracies. This strange trend began about 10 years ago, and today many academics and politicians in the West are talking about the retreat of democracy on a global scale. And I say to them that the global retreat of democracy is not a reality but an ideology. This says something about the intellectual degradation of these Western scholars. It’s the result of a simple fact: they get money from people who have made lots of money in China thanks to the regime in place there. Then, these businesspeople pay entities who spread these ideas.
  • When I talk with American politicians, and they ask me if they should begin talking about human rights again, I reply: if you want to talk then do it, I don’t care. What I care about is how to force China into changing its stance towards the law. If you use a trade war to force the Chinese Communist regime to observe its own laws, naturally you will also protect human rights as well. The law protects the rights of every individual. If we are going to talk only about human rights, and we aren’t going to talk about rule of law, ordinary Chinese people will have the feeling that you’re talking about something irrelevant to them. If you talk about establishing a system based on the rule of law, Chinese people will understand immediately. Only when true rule of law has been established throughout society will the rights of every person be taken into account, and that is something that an ordinary Chinese person will understand.
  • People in Hong Kong learned their lesson from the protests in Beijing in 1989 and understand that they cannot expect any help or the Communist Party to play a positive role, that they must rely only on themselves and must be prepared to sacrifice everything to achieve their objective of maintaining the rule of law so that the rights of all individuals are protected.

Interview with the Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley (1998)


"Conversations with History: Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley"


  • The most important thing I learned from my parents is how to conduct myself. Maybe this expression does not exist in English. Chinese are very focused on this "conduct" concept, or what you call "creating oneself," according to Western thought. This is very important. My parents taught me that in order to conduct oneself well, the most important thing is to be responsible toward your friends. If you are not responsible, then you should not make friends. My mother's motto was that the people's interests are more important than anything else. Even if you have great friends, you should not put your friends' interests above the people's or betray people.
  • I wasn't an especially rebellious child, but I can say I gave my parents a lot of trouble at times. Because I had a lot of guts and was always taking risks, I either got hurt or sometimes broke other people's things and caused problems. I always sparked a lot of trouble.
  • If you really want to write well, the most important thing is allowing people to believe you. If you want people to believe you, you have to say things exactly the way you think them. You shouldn't deceive people. This is the only way you can gain people's trust. But, I think the hardest thing in the world is to be able to tell the truth. In China, if you tell the truth, you can go to prison. In America, while you won't necessarily go to prison for telling the truth, you might sometimes lose your job. The situation is just as difficult.

Political Activism

  • The biggest problem facing China's democracy movement is how to unite people in order to form an official opposition party. This is the only way we will be strong. If everyone cannot unite into an official opposition party, instead just proclaiming a bunch of empty, meaningless declarations, there's no purpose. The majority of Chinese already understand why we need democracy. In terms of protests, every year there are still thousands of struggles and demonstrations. So, the most crucial task is to get all the activists and demonstrators united into one common effort, because this is the only way we'll succeed.
  • Actually, Chinese demands for democracy didn't begin just yesterday. Chinese started demanding democracy almost a hundred years ago. Democratic thought influenced a lot of Chinese. Slowly, it's become popular and now, everyone wants democracy. So it's been a gradual process. However, I was different from previous democracy activists in one sense: since the 1950s, they were asking for democracy under communism. Yet, I feel that, if we're already under communist rule, where is the democracy? So this is where I mainly differed with them.
  • If you want to speak the truth, you will definitely pay a price. It's the same everywhere, but speaking out under communism comes with an especially heavy price. Many people have tried to speak out in China, and the price they've paid is even greater than I -- they lost their lives.
  • I think there are few opportunities for one person to really influence history. The opportunity is very rare. I think that even if you become a president, you won't necessarily be able to change history. But if you give people a new, important way of thinking, this thought itself can change the world. And if you want people to heed your thought and believe in it, you should practice it yourself. Also your character, personality, and ability are central to people's belief and trust. A liar will never win anyone's trust.
  • People seem to have a lot of demands of leaders, but realistically, most leaders cannot accomplish all the demands. But I think each leader should examine the conditions of each request. Under certain conditions, a good leader may not act as well as under other circumstances. This may not be the same in each case, however.

Political Prisoner

  • Well, the most important part of my survival was believing in myself. No matter what you're doing, if you believe in yourself, then each hardship won't seem so major. People who doubt themselves or are unsure of themselves will be easily defeated by other people.
  • No one is an exception. But at some point, you have to make a choice. Sometimes you have to choose either to live, but not like a person, without value or bones, like a traitor, cheating one's friends. But what meaning is there in that kind of life? Sometimes you have to make the choice: I would rather die than cheat my friends or live without meaning. People sometimes need to make this kind of choice.

China and the Future of Democracy

  • What the communists fear most is the Chinese people's understanding where their interests are and where their power lies. Once the people understand this and unite, the government won't be able to oppress them.

The Fifth Modernization (1978) (excerpts)



  • In ancient China, there were such maxims as "A cake in the picture can appease hunger" and "Watching the plums can quench the thirst." These witty and ironic remarks were quite popular in ancient times, but today, after a long and continuous development of history, people should never take such stupid remarks seriously. Yet some people not only believe in them but also carry them out in practice.
  • People should have democracy. When they ask for democracy, they are only demanding what is rightfully theirs. Anyone refusing to give it to them is a shameless bandit no better than a capitalist who robs workers of their money earned with their sweat and blood. Do the people have democracy now? No. Do they want to be masters of their own destiny? Definitely yes. This was the reason for the Communist Party's victory over Kuomintang. But what then happened to the promise of democracy? The slogan "people's democratic dictatorship" was replaced by the dictatorship of the proletariat."
  • What road is this? It is called the "socialist road." According to the definition of the Marxist ancestors, socialism means that the people, or the proletariat, are their own masters. Let me ask the Chinese workers and peasants: With the meager wages you get every month, whose master and what kind of master can you be? Sad to relate, you are "mastered" by somebody else when in the matter of matrimony. Socialism guarantees the producers' rights to the surplus production from their labor over what is needed as a service to the society. But this service is limitless. So are you not getting only that miserable little wage "necessary for maintaining the labor force for production?" Socialism guarantees many rights, such as the right of a citizen to receive educations, to use this ability to the best advantage, and so forth. But none of these rights can be seen in our daily life. What we can see is only "the dictatorship of the proletariat" and "a variation of Russian autocracy" - Chinese socialist autocracy. Is this kind of socialist road what people want? Can it be claimed that autocracy means the people's happiness. Is this the socialist road depicted by Marx and hoped for by the people? Obviously not. Then what is it? Funny as it may sound, it is like the feudal socialism mentioned in the "Manifesto," or a feudal monarchy disguised as socialism.
  • People have tightened their belts for decades since liberation. They have worked as hard as they could and actually produced much wealth. But where has all the wealth gone? Some say that it has gone to fatten some comparatively small autocratic regimes like Vietnam.
  • What is democracy? True democracy means the holding of power by the laboring masses. Are laborers unqualified to hold power? Yugoslavia has taken this road and proved to us that even without dictatorial rulers, big or small, the people can work even better.
  • 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. Only this can be called democracy. Furthermore, the people must also have the power to replace their representatives anytime so that these representatives cannot go on deceiving theirs in the name of the people. This is the kind of democracy enjoyed by people in European and American countries. In accordance with their will, they could run such people as Nixon, de Gaulle, and Tanaka out of office. They can reinstate them if they want, and nobody can interfere with their democratic rights. In China, however, if a person even comments on the already dead Great Helmsman Mao Zedong or the Great Man without peers in history, jail will be ready for him with open door and various unpredictable calamities may befall him. What a vast different will it be if we compare the socialist system of centralized democracy with the system of capitalist "exploiting class!"
  • Let me call on our comrades: Rally under the banner of democracy and do not trust the autocrats' talk about "stability and unity." Fascist totalitarianism can only bring us disaster. l have no more illusion. Democracy is our only hope. Abandon our democratic rights and we will be shackled once again. Let us believe in our own strength! Human history was created by us. Let all self-styled leaders and teachers go. They have for decades cheated the people of their most valuable possession. I firmly believe that production will be faster under the people's own management. Because the laborers will produce for their own benefit, their living conditions will be better. Society will thus be more rational, because under democracy all social authority is exercised by the people with a view to improving their livelihood.
  • Why must human history take the road toward prosperity and modernization? The reason is that people need prosperity so that real goods are available, and so that there is a full opportunity to pursue their first goal of happiness, namely freedom. Democracy means the maximum attainable freedom so far known by human beings. It is quite obvious that democracy has become the goal in contemporary human struggles.
  • However, let us look at the real history and not the history written by the hired scholars of the "socialist government." Every minute portion of democracy of real value was stained with the blood of martyrs and tyrants, and every step forward was met with strong attacks from the reactionary forces. Democracy has been able to surmount all these obstacles because it is highly valued and eagerly sought by the people. Therefore, this torrent is irresistible. Chinese people have never feared anything. As long as the people have a clear orientation, the forces of tyranny are no longer undefeatable.
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