Prague, 15 October 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Wei Jingsheng, who is sometimes called the father of China's democracy movement, has been living in the West for almost a year now, since his release from a Chinese jail. But he continues to work for democracy in his homeland.
Speaking yesterday to the Forum 2000 conference hosted by Czech President Vaclav Havel at Prague Castle, Wei rejected the argument that human rights are just a western notion.
He specifically criticized the argument advanced by some in Asia who say the concept of human rights is incompatible with what they call "Asian values". Wei told the conference that human rights are "universal", and must be enjoyed by all.
Wei is engaged in organizing a series of ambitious projects designed to help the pro-democracy movement in China.
His spokesman, Gilbert Jonas, told RFE/RL in Prague that Wei, who now lives in the United States, is working on three projects. One involves supporting Chinese trade unionists who have indicated their readiness to organize a free union movement independent of the Chinese Communist Party. The support is in the form of training.
A second project is to create political forums for artists, writers, performers and other culturally-active people in China working for increased democratization. Jonas says the purpose of that is to put like-minded people into contact with one another so that they can be mutually supportive. He says the government in the past has largely been able to count on such individuals being isolated from one another.
The third project involves joint action with international rights groups active in legal affairs. The aim is to financially support pro-democracy lawyers in China so that they are able to work full time on cases involving human rights violations.
Wei spent a total of about 18 years in Chinese jails. He told RFE/RL that he does not see the human rights situation in China as having improved since his departure a year ago.
"The Communist Party has done nothing concrete to improve the human rights situation in China, it has not changed any laws for the better. The pattern of violations is the same as it was 10 years ago."
He said his information is that in the last six months, the Chinese authorities have jailed between 50 and 60 people for expressing critical opinions, and that police are using harsher methods to suppress any street protests by ordinary workers and farmers.
And since he went into exile a year ago, the economies of South East Asia have plunged into recession, slowing China's own economic growth and causing a rise in joblessness. Wei believes that if the situation continues to worsen, the Chinese government will have to become more heavy handed to crush widening dissent, or will have to make so many concessions that they will cease to be communist.
Wei says he does not oppose Western business participation in China, provided that those involved make a serious effort to understand just what is happening in terms of human rights violations. But he says:
"The problem is that the western politicians stress the issue of human rights in China when talking to their own people. But when they come to China, nobody hears words about the situation there".
He says that if there is trouble in China, it will dwarf in economic terms the problems seen so far in Russia, and in political terms the conflict in Kosovo -- and its impact on the rest of the world will be correspondingly greater.
Wei came to prominence as a dissident in the late 1970's when he posted an essay on Beijing's democracy wall calling for increased democracy. He said that China could not fully modernize without political liberalization.