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Jingsheng on Internet Freedom and the Future of China

Famed Chinese Dissident Wei Jingsheng who spent 18 years in prison, recently sat down with Advancing Human Rights Chairman, Robert L. Bernstein, and Executive Director, David Keyes, to speak about human rights, China and the power of the Internet to transform society.

Mr. Wei began his career as a dissident when, as a member of Mao’s Red Guard, he discovered the role his government played in the widespread famines that claimed upwards of 20 million lives. This led him to question the efficacy of one party rule. In Communist China, where dissent amounted to treason, Mr. Wei had no venue to express his opinions until early December of 1978. Fellow activists had recently created the “Democracy Wall” in a small Beijing alley where those who disagreed with China’s rulers could anonymously air their grievances in the form of posters and painted characters. It was on the “Democracy Wall” where Mr. Wei first posted his manifesto, Fifth Modernization, proclaiming that if China truly wished to modernize, democracy and freedom must be essential elements.

What separated Mr. Wei from other dissidents, however, was his refusal to be anonymous. He was arrested in March 1979 and sentenced to 15 years in prison. Because he remained an adamant supporter of democracy and human rights, Mr. Wei was in and out of prison until 1997 when he was granted asylum by the United States for medical reasons.

Though China’s democracy movement has faced its fair share of setbacks since the 1980s, Mr. Wei ardently believes in its power, saying “The Chinese people want to rebel. The government always says it wants engage in political reform but the people are ready for revolution.” According to Mr. Wei, the desire for freedom and self-determination is widespread in China, transcending traditional class lines.

Mr. Wei has credited the Internet as playing a large role in the movement for political change, “because there is no free speech in China aside from the Internet,” he said. “It has played a huge role in opening China up.” In the past ten years the number of Chinese Internet users has skyrocketed. According to the World Bank, in 2000 less than 2% of the population was online; by 2011 that number had ballooned to almost 40%. Despite an official ban on the social networking giant, there are estimated to be tens of millions in China using proxies to access Facebook and Twitter.  Instead of democracy walls, dissenters now speak out on virtual walls.

The Internet has also become the ire of would-be crooked officials. Scandals that formerly would never see the light of day are exposed in a matter of hours. According to Mr. Wei, the Chinese people have enthusiastically welcomed online news sources and are “even utilizing the Internet to punish corrupt officials.”

The key, as Mr. Wei sees it, to an effective and peaceful democratic movement is freedom of speech. Without the ability to express one’s opinions, conflict is the only option, “If there is no free speech, war will be the only solution. If there is free speech, people can fight on the Internet with words and speech, they won’t need to carry weapons.”

For those in the international community who support freedom in China, Mr. Wei advised, “If you want to advance human rights, do not be afraid to offend people.”  Some groups are successful precisely because “they aren’t afraid to offend.”

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