The United States Congress, December 10, 2018
I want to congratulate Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur for receiving the Human Rights and Freedom Defender Award from the Wei Jingsheng Foundation. This is a very significant time to receive such an award, since we are now commemorating the 40th anniversary of the posting on the Democracy Wall in Beijing of Wei’s path-breaking essay famously entitled The Fifth Modernization.
He raised the democracy issue in the immediate aftermath of Mao’s death and the new reform opening under Deng Xiaoping – pointing out the danger of pursuing the other 4 modernizations (agriculture, industry, national defense, and science and technology) without democracy.
Without the 5th modernization, Wei said, all the others are merely another promise – and worse, because as LXB said much later, if China rose as a dictatorship, without democracy, it would be a disaster for China and for future of liberal democracy in the world.
The 5th Modernization is a prescient, powerful call for democracy and a statement about why it’s the only way people can pursue the first goal of happiness, which is freedom.
He appealed to people not to believe the promises of modernization without freedom and democracy. We should not believe “such political swindlers anymore,” he said. We are being deceived.
Communist ideology has said that “A cake in the picture can appease hunger” and ‘Watching the plums can quench the thirst.” These are lies, Wei said.
He spoke directly to the people of China, saying that for 30 years people were like “monkeys reaching out for the moon and feeling only emptiness.” We should implicitly believe ourselves, not the swindlers, be practical, and seek truth from facts. We should not trust the autocrats’ talk about ‘stability and unity.’ Fascist totalitarianism can only bring us disaster. We have been tempered by the horrors of the Cultural Revolution and must not be ignorant any longer. Let us find out for ourselves what should be done.”
Wei called for modernization not just of the social system but of the people as well. This can only be done, he said, if the Chinese people first practice democracy and, by so doing, modernize China’s social system. If the people don’t practice democracy, he said, the society will become stagnant.
Here Wei was brilliantly anticipating the Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen’s idea that democracy has a constructive value, meaning that through democratic participation, people “learn from one another” and become more experienced citizens who can help society form its values and priorities. Democracy, in other words, is not just a set of institutions or a finished product, but a process by which people express their dignity as human beings, defend their interests, and mature as citizens and members of a political community. That’s why, as Wei said, “a democratic social system is the major premise or the prerequisite for all developments – or modernizations.”
In 1978, twelve years after the Cultural Revolution, Wei said that “the people have finally learned where their goal lies. They have a real leader, and this leader is the democratic banner, which has now taken on new significance. Xidan Democracy Wall – this was the long brick wall on Xidan Street where he posted The Fifth Modernization, has become the first battlefield in the people’s fight against reactionaries. The struggle will be victorious if we unite under this great and real banner.”
The struggle reached a climax with the Tiananmen massacre on June 4, 1989. But the battle is not over. As we approach the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre, let us unite internationally and show solidarity for the people in China who are defending their rights. As a friend in China, a writer and an intellectual, wrote to me last week: “We will continue to labor for the coming transition in Greater China.”
The coming transition: that’s a hopeful goal. Our friends in China have not given up, and nor should we. Our goal should be to support them, because in so doing we support our own future and the prospect for a more democratic and peaceful world.