On 5 December 1978, Wei Jingsheng, an electrician at the Beijing Zoo, posted an essay to a brick wall on Xidan Street called "The Fifth Modernization," which stated:
"Democracy is our only choice.... If we want to modernize our economy, sciences, military and other areas, then we must first modernize our people and our society.... Without democracy, society will become stagnant and economic growth will face insurmountable obstacles."
Wei's rare, public appeal for democracy struck a chord with the Chinese people, who were exhausted by the failures of communism and the Cultural Revolution. The brick wall on Xidan Street was soon filled with other criticisms of the regime and became known as the "Democracy Wall." However, the "Beijing Spring" was short lived. Wei was arrested on 29 March 1979 and imprisoned for fourteen-and-a-half years. He was released in September 1993, only to be detained again in February 1994 for engaging in political activities. He was deported to the United States in 1997 when the international community succeeded in pressuring China for his release. Having lived in exile for nearly fifteen years, Wei discussed his views of China with the Journal's Rebecca Chao. (1)
Journal of International Affairs: Has China become more democratic or more authoritarian over the last few decades?
Wei Jingsheng: It seems that there is a new trend in Western thought that China is more democratic than before. Many Western politicians, scholars and members of the media think that China has become more free and more open. But I believe that democracy is first and foremost a type of political system. China has not changed its political system, so how can one say that China is becoming more or less democratic? This line of thinking is actually misleading and only makes people more tolerant of China's authoritarian political system.
Journal: How has China's burgeoning economy and its strengthening diplomatic relations with the West affected its internal political dynamics?
Wei: I believe that China's tremendous economic growth has severely weakened the West's ability to put pressure on China. Western capitalists in the United States and in Europe have profited tremendously from China's export-oriented economy, so it is now in the interest of big business to speak well of the Communist Party. All politicians need campaign funds, so big business uses its wealth to lobby politicians for policies that cater to its interests, which are also China's interests, such as policies to maintain the status quo on human rights and labor rights. It has become more obvious that big business is controlling politics, which even the average American citizen is angry about.
Journal: With China's tough stance on dissent, how can the Chinese people have their independence day?
Wei: Let me start by comparing mainland China and Taiwan. I visited Taiwan on several occasions to speak with Taiwanese government officials. They told me that the best situation for mainland China is to undergo a gradual and peaceful political change like Taiwan. Theoretically, I agree with the possibility of peaceful change but mainland China and Taiwan are fundamentally different.
The Kuomintang Party ruled Taiwan under an authoritarian political system. But the Kuomintang was, in the words of Chien Foo, hypocritical. (2) The Kuomintang wanted Taiwan to be democratic and even admitted that authoritarianism is an illegitimate political system.
Many people in Taiwan do not understand that communist China believes its authoritarian system is legitimate and wants to maintain one-party rule to control the country and its people. The Communist Party may use democratic language as a cover, just as Mao Zedong once spoke of "democratic dictatorship."
I do not think Taiwan's path to democracy, including the participation of multiple political parties and a peaceful transition, is likely in China. …