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Unorthodox Opinions Are Heard on the Street

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Democracy Wall was located in central Beijing on Xidan street, right next to a busy bus terminal. Before becoming the centerpiece of a political movement, the wall had served as a mundane bulletin board. But in 1979 it emerged as a popular venue for people to meet and discuss ideas. Soon citizens started to use the wall to publish their opinions, however cautiously articulated, in wall posters. Curiosity began to grow over what might appear next. There was a kind of magnetic energy that transformed the place from a transit point to a vital source of information. At first, many of the articles were by government employees. The posters tended to be timid, emphasizing that communism was a desirable and effective form of government, but that it needed to be changed in just a few regards. On the night I posted my essay, The Fifth Modernization, there were almost 300 people around the wall–even though it was in the middle of the night. Deng Xiaoping had recently launched a development campaign called the Four Modernizations. I argued that democracy should be added to the government’s agenda and that without it our society would never achieve the standards of living and levels of production we hoped for. After my article appeared, people began criticizing the party more directly and confidently. Soon new essays appeared emphasizing that all human beings should be able to enjoy certain fundamental freedoms. These manifestos pushed for change in all areas of government. It may have been the first time anyone had acknowledged China’s human rights problems in such a public atmosphere. It was also perhaps the beginning of a real awareness in my country that people are entitled to such rights. The outpouring of outspoken criticism could not have happened at any other time. In the early part of the 1970s, people had yet to realize how flawed the communist system was. Mao’s death left a power vacuum that resulted in a loosening of control by the government. In bidding for power, Deng and rival factions tried to win the people’s favor by allowing a small degree of freedom. These leaders hoped, too, that freedom of speech would result in people criticizing their opponents. At first, I was optimistic. I believed that some people in the party would be open to fair criticism and that we would be allowed to continue to express our views. Within two months after the first genuinely critical essays had appeared, a real democratic opposition began to form. This group’s goal wasn’t merely to tinker with the system, but to declare that, without democracy, China had no future. Because of the controversy surrounding my essay, however, I realized that I would be arrested. This was disheartening, but I still believed that what I had written was right. Even today the party represses the kinds of views we were expressing then. But the ideas that emerged from Democracy Wall remain firmly implanted in the minds of the Chinese people. Ten years later, those ideas blossomed into the Tiananmen movement. But while China’s democrats languish in jail or, like me, have to cope with exile, the ideas expressed in The Fifth Modernization–and in other Democracy Wall postings–cannot be shackled. No weapon can wipe out the truth. Wei Jingsheng, the most influential of the Democracy Wall activists, spent nearly 18 years in jail for challenging the government

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