The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) led by Mao Tse-Tung take control of China in January 1949. The CCP begins a program of moderated reform and receives widespread popular support internally and growing international recognition as China's legitimate government. China's high inflation is curbed, the economy is restored, and many war-damaged industrial plants and infrastructure facilities are rebuilt. More background.
Born on 20 May 1950 in Beijing, into a family of loyal Communist Party members with connections to many of the top party leaders. His father holds a high-ranking job in the Foreign Ministry. Wei is the eldest of four children. He is educated in elite Communist Party schools and grows up to be a committed Maoist.
1950 - International support for the CCP government begins to falter in October when China becomes involved in the Korean War in response to a North Korean request for aid. At the same time, Tibet is invaded, bringing to an end almost 40 years of Tibetan self-rule.
1951 - China's policies of moderation are replaced by a campaign against "enemies of the state" that will affect millions. Foreigners and Christian missionaries are branded as spies. Landlords and wealthy peasants are stripped of their land. Intellectuals, scientists, professionals, artists and writers are forced into "self-criticism" and public confessions of their failings in relation to communist ideals.
Incompetent and politically unreliable public officials are purged. Corrupt businessmen and industrialists are removed from the system. The bourgeoisie are held in suspicion. Reports suggest that from one to three million are executed during the campaign.
1953 - China's "transition to socialism" officially begins with the introduction of the first five-year plan. Emphasis is placed on the development of heavy industry, centralised planning, and the build-up of defence capability, following the model pioneered by the Soviet Union. At the same time, the pace of the collectivisation of the agricultural sector is hastened and banking, industry and trade are nationalised.
1954 - The First National People's Congress, equivalent to the Chinese parliament, adopts a new constitution and formally elects Mao as chairman (president) of the People's Republic.
1958 - Mao launches the 'Great Leap Forward' to accelerate the development of all sectors of the economy at once. Breaking with the development theories practiced in the Soviet Union and applied to China during the first five year plan, the Great Leap Forward seeks to simultaneously develop industry and agriculture by employing surplus rural labour on either vast infrastructure projects or for small-scale, farm-based industries - the so-called "backyard furnaces."
However, it soon becomes apparent that the Great Leap Forward is an ill-considered failure. Rather than boosting production, the Great Leap Forward brings shortages of food and raw materials and the demoralisation and exhaustion of the workforce. The situation is exacerbated by poor harvests caused by bad weather and by Mao's refusal to hear of failures.
Widespread famine results, especially in rural areas. It is estimated that from 1958 to 1961, 14 to 20 million more people die of starvation than in similar years of poor harvests. The number of reported births is about 23 million less than under normal circumstances.
1959 - In April the fallout of the Great Leap Forward sees Mao resign as chairman of the People's Republic, although he remains chairman of the CCP. "Moderates", including State President Liu Shaoqi and Party General Secretary Deng Xiaoping, subsequently take over direction of the republic and begin to restore the economy.
1965 - Mao, who has by now regained control of the CCP, begins a purge of the party that will develop into the 'Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution' of 1966-76. Mao believes that the integrity of the CCP and its gains need to be defended against the emergence of a new elite of bureaucrats by a process of continuous revolution. Among those to be stripped of their party posts is Deng Xiaoping.
1966 - Millions of school and university students are organised into the 'Red Guards' to publicly criticise those in the party who are considered by Mao and his supporters to be "'left' in form but 'right' in essence."
Fresh out of junior middle school, the 16-year-old Wei joins the Red Guards as an enthusiastic supporter of the Cultural Revolution. He leaves Beijing and travels throughout north and northwest China, seeing for himself the effects of communism and the Cultural Revolution on the people.
His experiences mark the beginning of his reassessment of the communist system. "I was waking from a dream," he later writes, "But I was waking in darkness."
In October the 'Quotations from Chairman Mao' (The Little Red Book) is published. Instilled with revolutionary fervour and guided by 'The Little Red Book', the Red Guards create havoc within the party and widespread social chaos.
Schools, colleges and universities are closed. Virtually all engineers, managers, scientists, technicians, and other professionals are "criticised," demoted or "sent down" to the countryside to "participate in labour." Many are jailed. Management of factories is placed in the hands of ill-equipped revolutionary committees. As a result, the country experiences a 14% decline in industrial production in 1967.
China's traditional respect for learning and the experience of age is turned on its head. Many cultural artefacts are damaged or destroyed. Cultural expression is severely curtailed. Religious practices are suppressed.
The CCP and government crumbles under the weight of "self-criticism", denunciations and forced confessions. Opposing political factions create their own Red Guards. Thousands die when the factions enter into open armed conflict.
The People's Liberation Army (PLA) becomes the only brake on a full-scale descent into anarchy.
Meanwhile, Wei returns to Beijing and joins the 'United Action Committee' (UAC), a radical Red Guards group opposed to other Red Guards sponsored by Mao's wife, Jiang Qing.
1967 - Early in the year the UAC is banned. Wei is detained until 22 April.
1968 - The militant phase of the Cultural Revolution comes to an end towards the middle of the year when Mao reassesses the usefulness of revolutionary violence. Many of the leaders of the Red Guards are arrested, universities are reopened, skilled workers are returned to the positions from which they were previously removed, and foreign companies are allowed to invest in selected projects.
Fearing that he too may be arrested, Wei flees in his family's ancestral village in Anhui Province in central China. During the year he spends there he will hear stories of the famine caused by the Great Leap Forward.
1969 - The Cultural Revolution is further curtailed in April at the First Plenum of the CCP's Ninth National Party Congress, where Mao is confirmed as the supreme leader and his supporters are appointed to the senior party posts. The Mao acolyte, Lin Biao, becomes vice chairman of the CCP and is named as Mao's successor.
However, while the rebuilding of the CCP begins, the ramifications of the militant phase of the Cultural Revolution continue to be felt, with the party splitting into two main factions, the "radicals" led by Mao's wife, Jiang Qing, and the moderates led by Premier Zhou Enlai. The ageing Mao takes the role as elder statesman and intermediary between the two forces.
The Red Guards, meanwhile, are withdrawn from the political equation, with millions being forced to resettle in remote parts of the country, where they will remain until the 1980s.
Wei avoids this fate, using his family connections to join the PLA.
1971 - The tension between the radical and moderate factions comes to a head in September when Lin Biao stages an abortive coup d'état against Mao. His subsequent death in a plane crash as he attempts to flee the country marks the beginning of the end for the radicals and the ascension of the moderates.
1973 - The moderates' policies of modernisation are formally adopted by the CCP at the First Plenum of the 10th National Party Congress held in August. The year is also marked by the rehabilitation of Deng Xiaoping, who is reinstated as a vice premier. Deng's position is further solidified in January 1975 when he is appointed as a vice chairman of the CCP and as a member of the Political Bureau and its Standing Committee, the apex of power in China.
Meanwhile, Wei leaves the PLA and returns to Beijing, where he works as an electrician at the Beijing Zoo. Through his friendship with Ping Ni, the daughter of a former high-ranking Tibetan official who was later arrested and imprisoned by the Chinese, Win develops an interest in Tibetan history and culture.
1976 - The final showdown between the radicals and moderates occurs following the death of Zhou Enlai in January. On 5 April, at a spontaneous mass demonstration held in Tiananmen Square in Beijing to memorialise Zhou, Mao's closest associates are openly criticised. The authorities forcibly suppress the demonstration, which is considered to be vote of support for Deng.
When Mao responds by blaming Deng for the demonstration and ordering that he be dismissed from all his public posts, the radicals appear to be on the ascendancy. However, in June the government announces that the increasingly ailing Mao will no longer receive foreign visitors. The radicals' days are now numbered. Mao dies of a heart attack in Beijing on 9 September. In October the Gang of Four are arrested.
1977 - At the First Plenum of the 11th National Party Congress held in August the Cultural Revolution is formally brought to an end and blame for its excesses are attributed entirely to Mao's wife, Jiang Qing, and her three principal radical associates (the so-called 'Gang of Four').
Deng is exonerated from responsibility for the events at Tiananmen Square of the previous year and reappointed to all his posts. He gradually begins to assert his authority over the party, fostering an atmosphere of political openness and encouraging criticism of Cultural Revolution policies as a way to finally overcome the remaining radicals in the party. By 1978 Mao himself is beginning to be attacked.
1978 - In the closing months of the year, political activists begin to place anonymous posters criticising the government on a section of wall near Tiananmen Square in Beijing, the so-called 'Democracy Wall'.
Inspired by the new climate of openness, Wei writes his essay 'The Fifth Modernisation: Democracy and Other Issues' in one night. A friend posts it on the Democracy Wall early on the morning of 5 December.
The essay argues that Deng's economic reform program, known as 'The Four Modernisations', will not result in a real transformation of Chinese society without a fifth modernisation - democracy.
"People should have democracy," the essay states. "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. ...
"We want to be masters of our own destiny. We need no gods or emperors. We do not believe in the existence of any saviour. We want to be masters of the world and not instruments used by autocrats to carry out their wild ambitions. We want a modern lifestyle and democracy for the people. Freedom and happiness are our sole objectives in accomplishing modernisation. Without this fifth modernisation all others are merely another promise. ...
"So let us dedicate all our strength to the struggle for democracy! People can get all they want only through democratic channels. ...
"The struggle will certainly be victorious, though there will still be bloodshed and suffering. Liberation (about which there has been so much talk) will surely be attained. However much we may be covertly plotted against, the democratic banner cannot be obscured by the miasmal mists. Let us unite under this great and real banner and march toward modernisation for the sake of the people's peace, happiness, rights and freedom!"
The essay attracts both worldwide attention and the notice of the Chinese Government, which becomes increasingly suspicious of Wei's developing relationships with foreign journalists based in Beijing.
1979 - In January Wei and a group of other activists begin to publish an underground magazine called 'Exploration' which they pledge will discuss social problems "without any restrictions."
At the same time, the government begins to shut the door on freedom of expression, arresting the activist Fu Yuehua on 18 January. Wei subsequently writes the article 'Is Fu's Detention Legal?', taking the unprecedented step of personally interviewing police officials, and publishes it in 'Exploration'.
In March 'Exploration' publishes Wei's article 'Qincheng: A Twentieth Century Bastille', an investigative piece on the Qincheng jail, China's principal prison for high-ranking political prisoners.
"We must get rid of Qincheng forever," the article states. "We must be permanently rid of all political persecution and imprisonment. At stake are not simply a few unfortunate victims, but rather the basic political and personal rights of an entire people. Do you believe that every individual has the right to express his or her opinion on national policy? If you do, then you must oppose the arrest of those who have expressed their political views. If you do not believe others have the right to express their opinion then how can you argue that you have any rights? After all, your opinion might be absolutely correct, but having the right express it is another matter. ...
"The masses realise now that freedom of speech can only be secured through the abolition of political imprisonment and oppression. People's rights cannot be protected by a dictatorship that strips people of their rights. They can only be secured by the mutual protection of everyone's rights."
Meanwhile, Deng Xiaoping reportedly orders a further crackdown on the Democracy Wall movement, and on 19 March a regulation is issued formally prohibiting "slogans, posters, books, magazines, photographs, and other materials which oppose socialism, the dictatorship of the proletariat, the leadership of the Communist Party, Marxism-Leninism and Mao Tse-Tung thought."
On 26 March 'Exploration' publishes an article by Wei titled 'Do We Want Democracy or New Autocracy?'
"Does Deng Xiaoping want democracy?", the article asks, answering "No he does not."
The essay argues that without democracy, Deng could become a dictator in the mould of Mao, stating, "History tells us that there must be a limit to the trust placed in any one person."
Three days later, on 29 March, Wei is arrested and kept in solitary confinement at the Banbuqiao Detention Centre. He is accused of passing military secrets concerning the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese war to a foreigner and of engaging in "counter-revolutionary propaganda and incitement."
Wei is unable to engage a defence lawyer to represent him at his show trial, which begins on 16 October, so conducts his own defence. "Criticism may not be beautiful or pleasant to hear, nor can it always be completely accurate," he says at the trial. "If one insists on criticism being pleasant to hear and demands its absolute accuracy on pain of punishment, this is as good as forbidding criticism and banning reforms altogether."
The following day he is found guilty as charged, sentenced to 15 years imprisonment and hard labour, and returned to solitary confinement at the Banbuqiao Detention Centre. He is deprived of direct communication with his family and friends. His guards are forbidden to speak to him and he is not even permitted to have a pen.
The severity of the sentence shocks his Chinese associates and his supporters around the world, including the Soviet activist Andrei Sakharov, who sends a telegram to the Chinese premier asking for the sentence to be reviewed.
"I saw my actions as having two possible outcomes," Wei later writes in an article on Deng Xiaoping. "If I lost, I would definitely be killed, but the vast majority of the Democracy Wall activists could escape. There would be opportunities for the democracy movement to stage a comeback. If I won, I'd still be in prison, where I would surely die. But chances were the majority of other Democracy Wall activists would not be arrested immediately. They would have a little time to publicise their work, and the ideas of the democracy movement would be able to spread."
1981 - Wei is transferred to a solitary confinement cell at Beijing No. 1 Prison. He will not be allowed to leave his cell, which has no fresh air or direct sunlight until 1984, though from August 1981 his brother and two sisters are able to visit him every two or three months.
During this period, his health will steadily deteriorate. He loses teeth, develops a heart condition and contracts hepatitis. He will also be constantly pressured to denounce his political beliefs, but refuses to recant.
1984 - Wei is transferred to a labour camp in Qinghai Province on the Tibetan Plateau, a move that will bring some improvement to his prison conditions and health. Though initially kept in solitary confinement be is allowed to move outside his cell and is able to supplement his prison diet. Eventually he is allowed to mix with his fellow prisoners.
1989 - In January Chinese astrophysicist and democracy advocate Fang Lizhi writes an open letter calling on Deng to release Wei. Over 110 prominent intellectuals in China will subsequently lend their names to the call.
Meanwhile, dissatisfaction with the slow pace of political reform develops into a large-scale protest movement, culminating in the Tiananmen Square demonstrations of May and June. Late on 3 June and early on the morning of 4 June military units are brought into Beijing to break up the demonstrations. The brutality of the military action will shock the world and result in the deaths of hundreds of protesters.
"The repression of the 1989 movement," Wei later says, "taught the Chinese people a very bitter lesson: ... that relying on the dictators to gradually move towards democracy was a vain hope."
In the autumn, Wei is transferred from Qinghai Province to a labour camp at Nanpu on the Bo Hai Gulf in the north of China. While not made to work, his health once again suffers. Wei is confined to a special compound and forbidden contact with the other prisoners. He protests the conditions of his imprisonment with repeated hunger strikes, achieving some limited improvements, including access to books, magazines and newspapers, and a colour television set.
Wei also continuously appeals for a review of his case, writing from prison to all the top leaders of the Communist Party and government. Other letters sent by Wei deal with issues such as the future of Tibet, the treatment of political prisoners, the development of China's economy, and human rights. However, he never receives a single response to any of his correspondence.
1991 - On 15 June Wei writes to CCP leaders Jiang Zemin and Li Peng. The letter, titled 'The CCP Holds the Same View As the Nazis on Human Rights', investigates some of the "fallacies" employed by the party to deny true human rights in China.
"Although the safeguarding of human rights and basic freedoms depends on legislation and policy enforcement on the part of sovereign states, human rights themselves have objective standards which cannot be subjected to legislation and cannot be changed by the will of the government," the letter says.
"(Human rights) are common objective standards which apply to all governments and all individuals and no one is entitled to special standards. Like objective existence and objective laws, they are objective truths. That was why Rousseau called them 'natural rights'. ...
"If the people allow the power holders, in the peoples' name, to violate and ignore the rights of some of the people then, at the same time, they are giving the power holders the power to violate the rights of all the people. This is especially so in a society where there are no racial or cultural differences."
1992 - In October Wei writes to Deng Xiaoping 'On the Tibetan Question'.
"There is much to be done to eliminate the evil consequences of the suppression and killings of the last 40 years and to return the China-Tibet relationship to the traditional track of normal development," the letter says.
"The three pressing tasks are as follows: First, mutual hatred and discrimination between the Han people and the Tibetans must be rooted out, especially erroneous ideas in the minds of Han people about the Tibetans. ...
"Secondly, the government should speed up the development of the market economy in Tibet and establish closer economic relations between the heartland areas and the Tibetan market. ...
"Thirdly, the Chinese Government should abolish its policy of detaining Tibetan religious leaders as hostages. Both religious and non-religious Tibetans have a strong aversion to this policy; and this is a clear violation of human rights."
1993 - Wei is released on probation on 14 September, six and a half months before his 15 year sentence is due to end. His early release is a political gesture designed to sway the International Olympic Committee's vote on China's bid to host the 2000 Olympic Games. However, the gesture has no effect and China loses its bid to Sydney, Australia.
Despite warnings from the authorities and his continuing ill-health, Wei resumes his campaign for democracy and human rights, establishing contacts with other Chinese activists and the Western media. He denounces human rights violations in China, and writes articles, including an opinion piece published in 'The New York Times' on 18 November.
"A lot of people have the spirit inside, but they conceal it, since otherwise their very existence, their livelihood, would be threatened," Wei later says. "But they haven't lost it. When the right time comes, it will come out again. Most people wait until others are standing to make their move, very few are willing to stand up first or to stand alone. That's why my friends call me a fool! But I don't have any regrets."
1994 - On 1 April, soon after a meeting with United States assistant secretary of state for human rights and humanitarian affairs, Wei vanishes into police custody. Officials claim that he is under investigation for having committed "new crimes." Once again he is denied contact with his family and friends.
1995 - On 21 November Wei is formally arrested for trying to "overthrow the government." Wei escapes the death penalty that comes with the charge but is sentenced to another 14 years imprisonment and stripped of his political rights for three years.
His conviction is condemned by governments around the world, including the US, Britain, France and Germany. The human rights organisation Amnesty International says his jailing is a mockery of justice and his sentencing an outrage.
Meanwhile, Wei is awarded the Olof Palme Prize for 1994. The prize, which is named after assassinated Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme, is presented annually for an outstanding achievement chosen by the board of the Olof Palme Memorial Fund.
1996 - While still in custody Wei is awarded the European Parliament's Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. The prize seeks "in the spirit of Andrei Sakharov ... to honour individuals or organisations who have devoted themselves to the defence of human rights and fundamental freedoms and the struggle against oppression and injustice."
The same year, Wei also wins the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Human Rights Award.
1997 - Chinese President Jiang Zemin makes a historic trip to America, where he meets with US President Bill Clinton. Soon after, on 16 November, Wei is released from prison and deported to the US, along with Wang Dan, another imprisoned Chinese dissident who was active in the Tiananmen Square democracy movement of 1989. At the time it is reported that Jiang Zemin and Clinton agreed on a deal to secure the releases during their talks. Wei later maintains that he was not freed but sent into exile as a further punishment.
In the US, Wei receives medical treatment at the Detroit Henry Ford Hospital.
On 21 November he holds a press conference at the New York Public Library.
"Those who already enjoy democracy, liberty, and human rights, in particular, should not allow their own personal happiness to lull them into forgetting the many others who are still struggling against tyranny, slavery, and poverty; and all those who are suffering from unimaginable forms of oppression, exploitation, and massacres," he tells the assembled media.
"Dictators can never be satisfied with the power they already hold; the freedoms and prosperity you have gained are not protected by walls of steel. If you look aside when gangsters abuse your neighbours, then your own home will no longer be safe. Only when people join together to defeat all such gangsters will everyone be safe and free."
On 8 December Wei has a private meeting with President Clinton.
1998 - Wei founds the Overseas Chinese Democracy Coalition (OCDC), an umbrella organisation for Chinese democracy groups around the world.
During the year the US-based National Endowment for Democracy presents its Democracy Award jointly to Wei and Wang Dan.
Accepting the award, Wei says, "Many ... facts have shown that the United States Government has not been very active in supporting and assisting the democracy movement of the Chinese people. Instead, there has been help for the communist party.
"For example, in recent years, the United States has assumed a passive and perfunctory attitude towards the resolution condemning China for its violations of human rights at the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva."
Present-day - From his exile in the US Wei continues his campaign to achieve human rights and democracy in China. He serves as chairman of the OCDC and also as president of the Wei Jingsheng Foundation, a non-profit organisation registered in New York.
According to Russell Thirgood, president of Amnesty International Australia, "China continues to commit appalling human rights abuses against its citizens on a massive scale."
"Tens of thousands of innocent people are arrested every year for peacefully exercising their fundamental rights to freedom of expression and freedom of religious beliefs. Hundreds of thousands currently languish in Chinese 'reeducation camps' for such 'crimes'. ...
"Every year, it is estimated nearly 10,000 men, women and children have their most fundamental right - the right to life - violated when they are sentenced to death and executed by China's barbaric criminal justice system. China kills more of its citizens every year through execution than the rest of the world combined. ...
"Human rights are violated at every stage of the judicial process. Police are required to fill quotas, and are rewarded for obtaining 'confessions'. Alarming numbers of people are arrested and detained as a result of these processes. Over the years there have been many reports of miscarriages of justice and people being routinely executed after giving false confessions extracted through torture.
"Prisoners are often denied their legal rights, including their right to a lawyer and the opportunity to prepare a defence. Trials are rushed through and death sentences are often handed down in only a couple of hours. ...
"Despite paying lip-service to the principles of freedom of speech, the Chinese government continues to arrest and detain political activists, defenders of human rights and internet users for nothing more than peacefully expressing their views and opinions. ...
"Their 'crimes' include such peaceful activities as signing an online petition, calling for reform and an end to corruption, communicating with groups abroad, and calling for an independent inquiry into the massacre of peaceful pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
"Many are imprisoned after unfair trials, often on vaguely defined charges relating to 'state secrets' or 'subversion'. Such charges almost always result in prison sentences, ranging from two to 20 years."
Often referred to as the 'Chinese Mandela', Wei has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize at least seven times since 1993. Though he has never won that award he stands as a true icon of peaceful resistance against the suppression of the most basic of all human rights - the right to freedom of speech and thought. His bravery is all the more remarkable in that it is opposed to one of the most powerful and monolithic regimes of the 20th Century.
Speaking in 1997, the US playwright Arthur Miller said, "I believe Wei Jingsheng speaks for all of us in his insistence, at the risk of his life, that truth is not a trivial, dispensable, disposable thing. In our most unheroic of times, a hero has risen again."