Wei Jingsheng is a Chinese human rights and democracy activist known for his involvement in the Chinese democracy movement. He was sentenced to jail twice for a total of more than 18 years due to his democracy activities, including a groundbreaking and well publicized essay he wrote in 1978 entitled “The Fifth Modernization.” He is the author of “Courage to Stand Alone -- letters from Prison and Other Writings,” which compiles his articles written initially on toilet paper in jail. Wei was a recipient of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation’s Truman-Reagan Medal of Freedom in 2000 and he is a winner of numerous other human rights awards, including the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Human Rights Award, the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, the National Endowment for Democracy Award, International Activist Award by the Gleitsman Foundation and the Olof Palme Memorial Prize. Wei has been nominated seven times for the Nobel Peace Prize since 1993.
Wei was born in Beijing, China in 1950. His parents were longtime Chinese Communist Party cadres. He was brought up in the prestigious Party schools and was exposed to the internal dramas of the Beijing party elite. At the beginning of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, the sixteen-year-old Wei left Beijing to explore the country for himself. He traveled throughout north and northwest China, seeing firsthand the true affects that communism had on the Chinese people. It was during this time that he first began to formulate his opinions on the Chinese Communist Party and the future of the Chinese people. By the time the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976, Wei had been “sent down” to the countryside in his ancestral hometown in Anhui Province and also served in the People’s Liberation Army. The ten formative years he spent gaining a better understanding of the Chinese people’s situation left an indelible mark on his thinking.
After moving back to Beijing, Wei took a job as an electrician at the Beijing Zoo. In 1978, a series of workers, intellectuals, and artists posted their thoughts and statements on a piece of wall in Beijing. The place, and the period, became known as The Democracy Wall. At this time, Wei wrote an essay entitled “The Fifth Modernization” which stated that without democracy, China could not truly modernize. His essay caused a sensation—not only because it openly assaulted the “people's democratic dictatorship” propaganda of the Communists, but also because the author dared to sign the essay with both his real name and address. Wei joined a few friends in publishing an underground magazine called “Exploration.” In its last edition, Wei wrote another article, “Democracy or a New Dictatorship?” which identified Deng Xiaoping, then Communist leader of China, as the new dictator. Three days later on March 29, 1979, Wei Jingsheng was arrested. In 1979, Wei was charged with having passed “secret” information concerning the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese war to a foreigner and engaging in “counter-revolution propaganda and agitation.” He was sentenced to 15 years. He spoke in his own defense, and a copy of his statement was smuggled out of the courtroom and distributed in China and to the foreign press. He was first on death row for eight months, and then in solitary confinement for nearly five years. He was kept in two other forced labor camps under strict supervision from both guards and prison handlers until 1993 when he was released. Within six months he was arrested a second time. He was tried again, convicted of “counter-revolution,” and sentenced to another 14 years.
In 1997, after a total of 18 years in prison, Wei was taken from his cell and placed on a plane bound for the United States as a bargain result between then U.S. President Clinton and the Chinese President Jiang ZeMin. Wei maintains that he was not freed, but that his exile is further punishment. Currently residing in Washington D.C., Wei has not been silenced by his forced exile. There are numerous reports of his work outside of China for the Chinese cause. Many of his articles are published in major newspapers including in both English and Chinese. Every week, he gives speeches and commentaries through various radio and TV stations, especially to the Chinese audience via Radio Free Asia, Voice of America, and BBC. His close ties to many congressional members and legislators, as well as governmental officials of many democratic countries, enable him to represent the Chinese democratic force and use his influence to push for human rights and democracy in China.
In 1998, he founded the Overseas Chinese Democracy Coalition (OCDC), which is an umbrella organization for many Oversea Chinese democracy groups in dozens of countries and has served as Chairman since 1998. He is also the president of the Wei Jingsheng Foundation, a non-profit organization registered in New York.