Mao died in 1976 and bequeathed a bankrupt nation to his successor, Deng Xiaoping (Teng Hsiao-p’ing). Deng sought to pull China out of its economic disaster by reforms called the “Four Modernizations”—of agriculture, industry, science, and defense. He also somewhat relaxed intellectual controls in 1978 by allowing a Democracy Wall in the capital city Beijing (Peking), where citizens could air their grievances.
Deng was surprised by the extent and bitterness of the complaints and stunned by an article posted by a young man named Wei Jingsheng entitled “The Fifth Modernization: Democracy.” Wei (born 1950) was the son of committed communist parents and had lived a privileged life in Beijing.
His travels during the Cultural Revolution exposed him to the horrors and inequities of a regime that condemned millions to death by man-made famines and that denied justice to ordinary people. His article argued that the Four Modernizations were not enough without a fifth—democracy. For this he was arrested, convicted of “counter-revolution” in a show trial, and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor.
He became China’s most famous political prisoner. Wei Jingsheng was released in 1993, one-and-a-half years short of serving his full term—not because the regime had come to accept international standards of human rights but because it wanted to host the 2000 Olympics in Beijing. He was rearrested and sentenced to another long jail term in 1994 for speaking out for human rights, but was released in 1997 and exiled to the United States.
Countless other Chinese were tortured, imprisoned, and killed for seeking religious freedom or for other perceived offenses against the Communist Party. One was Harry Wu (born 1937), who began to suffer severe persecution as a college student. After becoming a U.S. citizen, Wu worked to expose the Chinese government practice of imprisoning political dissenters in brutal labor camps and selling their products and the organs of the prisoners to the United States and other nations.
Two world-famous victims were intellectual leaders Fang Lizhi (Fang Li-tzu, born 1936) and Liu Binyan (Liu Ping-yen, born 1925). Fang was China’s leading astrophysicist and vice president of the prestigious Chinese University of Science and Technology.
For supporting students’ demands for genuine elections, for advocating democracy and intellectual freedom, and for demanding that Wei Jingsheng be released, he was dismissed from his positions in 1987 and expelled from the CCP. When President George H. W. Bush invited Fang and his wife to a state dinner that he hosted during a visit to China in 1989, the Chinese leaders sent police to prevent them from attending.
Liu Binyan was a famous literary figure and also an investigative reporter for the newspaper the People’s Daily. For exposing the massive abuses of power by the CCP, he was dismissed from the party. Their fame protected Fang and Liu from arrest, but both were exiled—to Great Britain and the United States, respectively.
Among the four, Wei, Fang, and Liu began as committed communists and later became determined opponents of communism. Wei and Wu suffered long and harsh imprisonment. Millions of other Chinese, named and unnamed, continued to suffer the denial of their human rights.