WHICH OF US would risk years in prison to win the right to vote? How many of us would speak out against the government if it meant a lifetime of persecution? Or put our lives on the line to replace dictatorship with democracy?
In a country where half the adults can't even be bothered to vote, perhaps such questions are better left unexplored. But this much is certain: Of the 100 million Americans who will head to the polls today, and of the nearly 100 million who won't, not one will have sacrificed as much for democracy as Wang Dan, the young Chinese dissident sentenced last week to spend the next 11 years of his life in a communist dungeon.
Wang is 27 years old. He has been struggling to promote democracy in his homeland since he was a teen-ager at Beijing University. In 1988, he co-founded a campus "democracy salon" and used his own money to publish an underground pro-freedom journal. In 1989, at Tiananmen Square, he led student marches to protest Communist Party repression and censorship. He was a key figure in the vast prodemocracy outpouring that surged across China that spring -- and when the People's Liberation Army crushed the demonstrations in a bloody June 4 massacre, Wang became the party's most-wanted fugitive.
Caught almost immediately, he was sentenced to four years in prison. He spent one-third of his sentence locked in solitary confinement. Upon his release, he promptly resumed writing and speaking out. Like his mentor, the great dissident Wei Jingsheng (who last week was awarded the European Parliament's Sakharov Prize for freedom of thought, and who has been in Chinese prisons almost continuously since 1979), Wang is fearless. That is why the brutes who rule China persecute him so viciously.
In May 1995, Wang circulated a petition urging the Chinese regime to be more tolerant of dissent. The government responded by re-arresting him. For 17 months, he was held in secret detention. Last month, the Communists charged him with "plotting to subvert the government," a capital offense. He was tried six days ago in a four-hour show trial at the No. 1 Intermediate People's Court in Beijing. As evidence of Wang's treason, the court cited "seditious" passages from his writings, such as this one from an article published in Hong Kong in September 1994:
"The present problem is not whether we should press for democracy, but what the consequences of a policy that denies democracy will entail. . . . Extremely stagnant politics have made China a place ridden with hidden lava. If democratic reforms are not instituted to reduce the pressure, the volcano may erupt anywhere."
For writing words like these, Wang is now to be locked up for another 11 years. When his new sentence is completed, he will be 38. He will have spent half his life behind bars. Such is the nature of justice in China, the greatest concentration camp in human history.
What the government of Jiang Zemin did to Wang last week was monstrous and inhumane. What the government of Bill Clinton did by way of reply was grotesque and amoral. Washington formally condemned the verdict -- then instantly drained its condemnation of meaning by declaring that Secretary of State Warren Christopher's upcoming trip to China would go forward as scheduled. The purpose of Christopher's trip: to arrange a pair of summit meetings between Presidents Jiang and Clinton. Thus, in the space of a single afternoon, the world's most powerful dictatorship sent Wang Dan to the gulag for the crime of advocating democracy, and the world's most powerful democracy yawned and looked the other way.
Empty words and a supine posture are what China has come to expect from the United States.
When Secretary Christopher last visited China, in March 1994, he announced that human rights would be high on his agenda. In response, Beijing's dictators openly arrested more than a dozen prodemocracy activists, including Wei Jingsheng, and ordered Christopher to drop the issue. He dropped it. Two months later, President Clinton caved even further. He decided to "delink human rights from the annual extension of Most Favored Nation trading status for China." This from the man who had, on the campaign trail two years earlier, slammed his predecessor for "continuing to coddle China."
Do we care?
When heroes like Wei and Wang are chained in cells, rotting away their lives for daring to dream of freedom, do we care? When one-fourth of the world's population lives under Communist tyranny, and our own government will do nothing to give them hope, do we care? On this Election Day, do we regard the right to vote and to choose our leaders so cheaply that the sacrifice and courage of China's persecuted democrats doesn't even draw our notice?
One day the world will honor Wang Dan and Wei Jingsheng as the Andrei Sakharov and Mahatma Gandhi of their people's freedom. And it will look back at the Americans of our day and wonder how it was that we who lived in the oldest democracy on earth scarcely lifted a finger to help them in their hour of need.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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