Too Hot to Handle

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It wasn’t until the Beijing massacre in June 1989 that I really began to understand what democracy means.

At school we learned about the birth of democracy in ancient Athens; as a teenager I read about Stalin’s show trials; as an adult I saw repressive regimes in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union at first hand. Reporting on the political scene in Britain during the later stages of the Cold War, I heard the words ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ liberally bandied about; yet they remained for me essentially political slogans.

China was a different matter. I had got to know something of the country in the six years before the 1989 Tiananmen Square sit-in. So the leadership’s decision to call in the army, and the subsequent random shooting of hundreds – perhaps thousands – of civilians, I found particularly shocking.

What drove the lesson home for me, however, was the extraordinary testament of one political prisoner, Wei Jingsheng, a pioneer of China’s democracy movement. The letters and essays he wrote between 1981 and 1993 during his first, long spell in jail were published in 1997 as The Courage to Stand Alone. The book received rave reviews in the West, but Wei was not around to hear the plaudits. He was back in jail.

The letters do not merely prescribe what a democratic China should look like. They convey, in a way no political treatise ever could, what it feels like to live under a regime that has total and arbitrary power over its citizens. The reader shares the impotence of the prisoner silenced for thinking aloud, banished to the outer darkness for challenging the legitimacy of the rulers.

Like Primo Levi, the poet of Auschwitz, Wei reminds us that the human spirit can survive even the most degrading attempts to crush it. He shows, furthermore, that sometimes a single, determined spirit can defeat an entire state. As he writes in a preface: ‘Your having this book before you proves the weakness of any powerful dic

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About the contributor

Christian Tyler is a former Financial Times journalist and the author of Wild West China: The Taming of Xinjiang.

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