China's rulers have long respected the power of the word. That is why they have historically spared no effort in ruthlessly crushing those who dare speak out.
Chinese efforts at quashing free speech know no peers. In the third century B.C., Qin Shi Huang Di, the "Yellow Emperor" famous for unifying China and beginning the construction of the Great Wall, bequeathed to history the phrase "burn the books and bury the scholars" -- a tribute to his mostly successful attempts to eradicate all possible sources of dissent. As late as the 18th century, during the Qing Dynasty, it wasn't unusual for the descendants of long-dead scholars to be rounded up, interrogated and executed, if it was deemed that the writings of their ancestors had improperly inspired rebellious members of the populace. In the 20th century, Chairman Mao Zedong took the approach one step further, and invited citizens to speak out in criticism of his regime, after which he had them arrested, tortured and humiliated.
China's legacy of repression thus makes what 29-year-old Wei Jingsheng did on the morning of Dec. 5, 1978, all the more amazing. When Wei posted his manifesto "The Fifth Modernization" on the "Democracy Wall" at a busy city intersection not far from Tiananmen Square in Beijing, he wasn't just expressing dangerous criticism of the Chinese Communist Party. He was flaunting his disrespect for millennia of authoritarianism, in the full knowledge that reprisals would likely be swift and devastating.
It is true that he took his action during a moment of relative liberalization. Deng Xiaoping had recently consolidated power after overthrowing Mao's successors, the Gang of Four. He was busily loosening the central government's control over the country, in pursuit of his "Four Modernizations" of the nation's agriculture, industry, national defense and science sectors. There was a sense, especially among China's elite, that a new era had begun.
But Wei, who despite working as an electrician was also the son of two high-placed party members and had been educated at Beijing's best schools, was no dummy. "The Fifth Modernization" called for the institution of full democracy in China, and it made pointed criticisms of both Chairman Mao and Deng Xiaoping. It was a frontal assault on a system that historically did not suffer even the most subtle of critiques gladly. Wei had to know that by signing his name to the manifesto, he was risking execution.
The poster electrified Beijing residents. As Ian Buruma wrote, "The message, expressed in simple, lucid prose, that Chinese should be masters of their own destiny, that they had no more need of gods and emperors, and that the only form of modernization worth having should bring democracy and freedom, was so unusual, so fresh, and so extraordinarily bold after thirty years of leaden propaganda that it packed the emotional force of great poetry or beautiful music. People burst into tears."
"People should have democracy," wrote Wei. "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."
Wei Jingsheng was rewarded for his outburst with a 15-year prison sentence. (He probably received a sentence this "lenient" only because of the international attention his case received, and the fact that Deng Xiaoping had recently met with foreign leaders.) Deng was so successful in "burning the books and burying the scholars" that, as Buruma notes, the young leaders of the Tiananmen movement only 11 years later had virtually no knowledge of their predecessor. They had to find out for themselves what happens to those who dare to speak out in China -- a lesson they learned under the tread of tanks, and that people in the Middle Kingdom still learn every day, whether their tool of choice is an Internet posting or a poster tacked to a wall.
At some point, the dam will crack. "The Fifth Modernization" contains an implicit faith that the Chinese people will eventually demand the full democracy that will lead to true individual freedom. That day is constantly postponed -- the weight of so many millennia of authoritarian rule is a heavy burden to toss off. But all one has to do is read the words of Wei Jingsheng -- who served his sentence and is now one of China's most famous expatriate dissidents -- to realize that no matter how many centuries of censorship press down on the human spirit, the will to liberty cannot be crushed. Listen to the man himself:
"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. I 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."