Chapter Nine

Golden Voice

The grey winter was deepening, and the romantic flush had died away from the cheeks of the young democratic activists. Several posters had gone up on the Democracy Wall criticising the Enlightenment Society from Guizhou as `petty bourgeois intellectuals'. A Central Circular had been the rounds of local Party organisations, warning that this Democracy business should be kept within reasonable bounds. Rabble-rousing would not be tolerated, and criticism of the old Chairman, Mao Zedong, must not go too far. The faint-hearted enthusiasts dropped out of the movement within days, leaving the field to a harder core of poets on the one hand, working for freedom of speech and individual liberties, and an even smaller number of the most determined social critics, who were prepared to test the Party's promise of political freedoms to the limit.

A few days later, on December 5, an essay-length poster appeared on the Democracy Wall which set a new standard both in style and in content. It was signed with a pen-name, Jin Sheng (Golden Voice), which could have stood for an individual or, in the common Chinese writing custom, for an editorial group. It was a brilliant poliic against the failures, deceptions and broken promises of Maoism, and against the entrenched powers that still held sway in China. Its author was witty, incisive, obviously well-read, and sprinkled with literary allusions so beloved of the Chinese.

It was also the first poster to question whether Deng Xiaoping was really as interested in the development of true Democracy as many poster-writers had happily assumed, and it uncompromisingly argued for Democracy as the pre-requisite, not the ultimate fruit, of social development. It was titled 'Democracy - the Fifth Modernisation'.

It had been common to see readers making notes from the posters they appreciated at the Wall, propping their pads on a knee or a tree. By the time I saw this poster, the morning after it had been pasted up, the space in front of it was jammed with a slow-moving throng of readers, many of them copying down the entire poster, word for word. As fingers quickly stiffened in the chill air, they would hand the task over to a friend and jam hands back in their armpits to revive them. It was clear that many were not just excited, but deeply moved.

'Democracy - The Fifth Modernisation' has since been published widely, in many languages, in anthologies of the writings of those times. This is not the place to reproduce it, tempting though it would be to do so in its entirety, for the essay, even in translation, is well worth reading by anyone who cares about Democratic ideals, or about the Chinese people. It is also a pleasure for those who enjoy rhetoric for its own sake.

It began by reminding the Chinese people of what they had hoped for with the return to power of Deng Xiaoping - the dream being held up before them of the Four Modernisations to bring universal bounty by the year 2,000. It recalled the old Chinese proverbs, `Painting a picture of a cake, in order to satisfy hunger', and `Looking at plums to ease the thirst'. It pointed to the Communist Party leadership's promises and campaigns of the past, and of the vast efforts of the masses expended in pursuit of Party dreams.

`Thirty years passed like one day, and left us this lesson: the people are like the monkey grasping at the moon's reflection in a pool. Do they not realise there is nothing there?' People in power enforced the fiction.

`The people do not want Democracy, they want collective leadership. Believe this or not, as you choose - the point will be proven in prison... Go on, old yellow ox, continue the revolution. You will reach your heaven in the end'.

It traced the hollowness of Party claims that the people were already masters of their own destiny.

`Chinese worker, simply ask yourselves this: other than the meagre monthly salary to keep you from starving, whose masters are you.. what do you own? To spell it out is pitiful. Others are you masters. Even marriage is not an exception. In a socialist society, the workers are supposed to enjoy the fruits of their labour. But what do you get? Nothing but enough salary to support your power to produce...

`Is this the road to Socialism, as in the vision of Marx? Of course not... It is a feudal monarchical system disguised in the cloak of socialism.

It further compared the social system developed under China's Communist Party to the systems of Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany. It asked where the enormous labours of the working people had gone, and pointed to the relative luxuries of life enjoyed by the Party elite. Without Democracy, the `lords' would always be able to act `fearing neither law nor Heaven'.

`What the Lords are concerned about is not Democracy, but rather how to find excuses to thwart the people's democratic rights'...

`If we do not have this Fifth Modernisation, then the other Four Modernisations are no more than a new lie... Do not believe in the "unity and stability" called for by the despots... They have cheated the people of their most precious rights for thousands of years...

`The enemies of Democracy always tell the people that Democracy will develop of its own accord, so there is no need to waste your strength struggling for it. But as facts show, do not socialist governments use their mandarins to turn history upside down? In fact, every little advance towards Democracy has been paid for by the blood of martyrs and of tyrants. Each stage has to fight against the forces of reaction...

`There will be more blood spilt, there will be more sacrifices, we may encounter more intrigues against us - but the banner of Democracy will no more be misused by the demons and freaks of reaction!'

This last paragraph was more accurate than the author himself, at that time, fully realised.

It's a cold, leaden evening. The office staff have departed for the weekend, and I've spent a dull afternoon filing an obligatory story on the alphabetization of the Chinese language. Looking out my window onto the leafless trees of Chang An Boulevard, my neck is jabbed by a piercing blast of cold wind from the leaky window-frame, and I don't look forward to trudging through the cold and dust of the Democracy Wall routine, yet again, in hopes of dredging the odd gem of enlightenment from between the thickening wads of personal grievance posters that are beginning to swamp it. The phone rings, and I hope it might be an invitation to dinner. An unfamiliar Chinese voice asks for me, using my Chinese name, Du Weici. Adrenaline begins to move, but I am cautious.

`What do you want?'

`I'd like to talk over some things with you'.

`Who are you?'

`A friend. Can we meet somewhere?'

`How did you get my phone number?'

There is still no published telephone directory in Beijing. Most numbers are considered to be state secrets.

`Someone gave me your namecard. Can you meet me now?'

I remember the dozen or so namecards that had been taken from me so eagerly at that first sensational rally at the Democracy Wall, and guess that this might be one of the activists from there. It could also be a black marketeer, someone wanting personal favours, or even, in the present climate, a police trap. But the adrenaline has got me by now.

`OK, I'll come in my car. Where shall I pick you up?'

The voice suggests the gateway to the Friendship Guest House, in the north-west suburbs of Beijing, far across the city. I nominate the soonest I can be there, describe my car, and quickly hang up. We assume all our phone calls are monitored at random, but even if the Public Security are interested, it will take them some time to organise themselves. I feel somewhat naked, and worried that my still-limited conversational Chinese will let me down. I phone the best linguists I can trust, but they are not home. I set off with a friend whose Chinese is only marginally better than my own.

There are forces moving out there, under that evening pall of winter coal-smoke, that have been dormant for many years. The known rules are being broken, and there has been no reaction from the powers. When the forces do clash, some people will be in between, will be crushed. It has always been the way, here. Sometimes, foreigners are made an example. As I drive through Beijing's gloomy dusk, to meet a total stranger, in the capsule of my comfortable, imported car, I wonder what risk I am taking.

At the rendezvous, I drive into the circle of powerful lights on the apron of the Friendship Guest House gateway. As usual, the young soldier on duty moves forward to ask me what country I am from, and what is my business. The security man inside the glassed guard-house looks up from his newspaper. But I am not seeking entry, and make a U-turn on the apron, hoping my unseen contact will have had time to recognise the car as I had described it over the phone. The security man goes back to his newspaper, and I drive slowly out of the circle of light, heading back down the avenue, the way I had come. Odd behaviour, but foreigners are expected to be odd. A few metres further, and a figure emerges from behind one of the trees on the opposite side of the road, waving the arm of a heavily-padded overcoat. I cruise on a little way, do another sudden U-turn, and creep back to the point at which I'd seen him. Before the car has fully stopped, a tall figure comes out of the shadows and climbs into the back seat of the car. As a precaution, I have locked both front doors from the inside. We move off immediately, wondering what the young soldier stamping his cold feet in the brightly-lit gateway has made of the antics of this strange foreign driver.

`Where shall we go? Do you want to come to my place to talk? There are some people who might notice you.'

The man in the back seat has taken off his quilted hat, revealing a short, military-style crew-cut over a strong- boned, intelligent face, around thirty years old. He has an air of confidence which I do not share in this uncertain situation.

`Come to our place. We can talk there, it's quite safe. I'll show you the way'.

This is unprecedented. I look at my companion and raise my eyebrows. We shrug, and follow his directions. After a while, the car bumps off the main road, through a gap in some trees, and through a covered passage into the large courtyard of a four-storey Russian-style building of the fifties. I'm still muttering about Security as me directs me to nose the car in between a parked jeep and some piles of rubble, near a staircase entry. We pull up our collars, pull down our hats, and hurry behind him up the dim-lit stairs, avoiding the ramshackle kitchens and chicken-coops installed on the landings. He identifies himself with `It's me', at a flimsy wooden door, and takes us inside. The room is crowded with wooden cabinets, a couple of book-cases, a few chairs, and single bed along one wall. Three more young men rise to greet us. Our guide sends one outside to mind the door. Through a doorway I see two young women in the next room, watching television. We are sat down on the bed, and I pull out my notebook and tape recorder. They agree I can record, and begin to speak.

I had hardly had time to ask why he had brought us here, when our host launched straight into the subject.

`We are democratic activists. All of us are deeply concerned about the future of our country. The recent history of our country has been clouded, hidden from everybody, from us Chinese as well as from foreigners.

`I have seen many beggars, many people starved to death. The three years of drought, following the Great Leap Forward in 1958, saw twenty million people die. The biggest proportion were in my home province of Anhui - three million starved to death there. Later, during a year of living there in the villages, a saw some abandoned villages where every inhabitant had died. Ten years later, in 1968 and 1969, still no-one live there. I asked why no- one had returned to this fine village, this beautiful village, surrounded by fields. At that time, many of our generation were beginning to question these things, to question Marxism. We also wanted to study outside of Marxism. We had few resources. To understand the real situation in our own country was difficult'.

His friend chimed in, `They didn't want us to know'.

The conversation from then on often referred to `Them', (tamen) without further description. `They' were the Party and its servants.

`It was very difficult for Chinese then living in the cities to know how bad things were in the country.. now many of us comrades are trying to clarify these things'.

I interrupted, `Sorry, I still don't know your names..'

The leader hesitated a moment, then said,`My name.. its the pen-name I used to sign what I have written - Jin Sheng.'

This crew-cut young man was the author of 'Democracy - the Fifth Modernisation'.

`I am Lu Lin,' said his associate, a slighter, younger- looking man. He wrote down the characters for `road' (lu) and `forest' (lin).

`Golden Voice' and `Forest Road' - two romantic pen-names in the old tradition if ever I heard them. It was compounded when I met another of their associates, Yang Guang (`Sunshine'). In fact, the men had chosen pen-names very close to their real names, taking advantage of the fact that most Chinese spoken words can be written in several quite different ideograph characters, according to their meaning. Lu Lin and Yang Guang were real names, but with changed written characters. Jin Sheng soon dropped the pseudonym, and signed his later writings with the real name by which the world would later hear of him: Wei Jingsheng.

We talked for an hour. Wei did most of the talking, and he was a fast talker, making no concessions to the limits of my fluency in Chinese. Occasionally I would lose the thread, but kept prompting him as best I could to keep going, knowing that later I could go over the tape with better linguists than myself.

Wei told how, after considering things for many years, he and his friends had concluded that China's greatest probli was goanliao juyi. Most simply translated as `Bureaucratism', the word really refers to the Chinese `mandarin' system, involving not merely the complex and conservative obstructions we naturally associate with bureaucracy, but also a system of feudal patronage and personal loyalties, binding the whole into an malignant and impenetrable mass.

`All the organs of power in this social system have been alienated to the hands of a minority. Others have no legal rights. And if there are different opinions within that minority, you can't drag them out. Nobody there has his own views.'

Lu Lin chipped in, `Those who may have different opinions don't dare to speak, and if you do speak, you get squashed.'

`What do you think of the chances of the Four Modernisations, now being talked about?', I asked.

`We very much hope they can be achieved, but, looking at realities, we can't achieve them,' said Wei. `You can see what I have written on my wallposter. Naturally the Four Modernisations are very good, they will raise the living standards of the people. Naturally, that would be a very good result. But the main restraint on the development of our nation's capacity to produce is the social system itself.'

Lu came in again. `The people's spirit at present just can't be aroused. The workers just plod along where they are told, like cattle. If you wanted them to take initiative, they couldn't do it. At this pace, we will not have made much progress by the year 2,000. It is not possible to have achieved the Four Modernisations.'

`But there are still 20 years to go...' I suggested.

Lu scoffed. `No good.. not even forty years would be enough! The people won't do it!

`This call to catch up with America and Britain was first raised twenty years ago, in the Great Leap Forward.' Wei said.

`Production figures were raised.. At the time the effort was great, and many people felt the result would be good, but when things came to their conclusion, most people were worse off than before. With the history of policies like these, we reckon that unless both the policies and the whole system are changed, the result will also be the same as before. The effort will be wasted.

`Just empty talk!', added Lu, who seemed apt to be more sweeping in his remarks.

Wei took him up. `Yes, it is a lot of empty talk, and it's not just a minority of us who think so. The great majority of workers feel the same. None believe this kind of thing. Workers can't be bothered organising themselves any more.'

`But most don't dare to speak out', said Lu, `because the Cultural Revolution has left a deep impression.. if you spoke out then, you could be executed.'

This was the point I had been waiting to raise with them.

`Why is it that you now dare to speak out?'

Lu answered first, with some bravado. `We are not afraid, because we rely on the spirit of the people. We don't care for our living standards, our families, for money. With the spirit of the Chinese people, we are not afraid.'

At the time I doubted inwardly that this outspoken Lu Lin would stand by his heroic posture if really tested. As it happens, when the time came, Lu Lin did stand firm, without fear.

Wei Jingsheng, again, answered more thoughtfully. `The reason most people don't speak up on these matters is that most of the ordinary people don't understand these problis very clearly. Why don't they see them clearly? Because although all have their points of view, they have no way to exchange their points of view, so they have no means to put them in order. Thus they have only rather cloudy opinions.

`If, in your countries, nobody could converse, nobody dared to come and exchange their views, to speak their own minds, then you (foreigners), too, would be in the same boat. Most people's views include a lot of discontent, but discontent is not enough. One must also understand the realities. So we aim to do this kind of work. Naturally there is some danger in doing it. We few people, now undertaking this kind of work, know there are difficulties, but we are prepared to put ourselves to the test. For instance, our own rights, our own security, the conduct of our own lives, are all put at risk. It is worth it if, in the future, all the people of the country can achieve a better life..

`Many people outside the country will probably think that this is a lot of nonsense, that we don't have any strong movement behind us, that we are mere common citizens, making a noise, but with nothing in our heads. Do they think that?'

Wei stopped, regarding me with a friendly skepticism, and I could not deny that many foreigners, including some reporters in Beijing, were inclined to write off the democratic movement just as he described it.

`There may be some who will think that this is somehow a part of the Communist Party's own work, its own tactics', I said.

Wei acknowledged that, as the movement grew, there would indeed be people getting involved in it who had backing from the Party centre or its security organs. Some would try to sabotage it by the crude tactics of writing obscenities on posters, or stirring up trouble while posters were being pasted up. Others, he said, would put up posters of their own attempting to influence the movement into conformity with Party policy. He spoke with some disgust of the way in which the three rallies in Tian An Men Square had degenerated, as an example of this. There were about ten people trying to organise it, he said, and even between those few there were serious disagreements on the direction the movement should take. Some wanted to attack the Party line, others wanted to support it. His own group had decided that the future course was not to hold public rallies, but to publish magazines, and try to reach the foreign press as well. Hence the phone call to me.

`If we didn't follow this line, it would be very dangerous. At first, we few just bumped into each other. But chance meetings are a very dangerous method to grow. We have a telephone downstairs. Someone watches that telephone, and if you make too many phone calls they come and question you. It's very possible crooks can ring up, and if I go to meet them, I'll be grabbed.'

I thought again of the chance I had taken in accepting Wei's own invitation that very night, and of my car, with its identifiable foreign press registration plate, sitting at that moment in the courtyard of the building below.

`We foreign journalists are all the official guests of the Foreign Ministry,' I reminded Wei. `It is probable that our telephones are recorded. Its likely that today, when you called me, someone was listening.'

He smiled, apparently unconcerned.

`It's very possible. But now, with Deng Xiaoping's policy of encouraging friendly relations with all foreign countries, the police are cautious not to exceed the limits. These are good times for us. Three years ago, we would have had no hope of such meetings. Our only request is that you foreign reporters publish about us in your papers and so on. But not our personal details or our address.. that kind of thing. If you do report these things, They will immediately know, and that will increase the danger for us. You can trust us.. the three of us would be beaten to death without betraying you, so you will get no trouble from us....

`If They discover our relationship, they can clap a mask on us as `spies sold out to capitalism'. We all chuckled nervously, though I was not enjoying this part of the discussion.

`Although this kind of coming and going between us has nothing to do with spying, They can easily say that it does. And although the ordinary people might not believe it, They still have the power to send us to Labour Reform, or even to execute us.. even secretly execute us without trial.. They can do it all. They have all the power they want. No matter what They do, They always have a reason, no-one can do a thing.. '

Lu Lin had been to answer the door, muttering something to someone through a crack, without opening the door fully to reveal the foreign visitors. Now he came back into the conversation.

`Our Human Rights, and your Human Rights, don't have the same meaning. When you talk of human rights, you talk of freedom of speech, freedom of opportunity, all kinds of freedom of action. We don't have that at all - we can only hope for some tiny rights of political equality.

`You can elect Human Rights leaders.. if you want such a person, you can choose him. We are not like that. Whom we can choose is decided from above. Whether the people like him or not doesn't matter. The leaders are the leaders. If you don't obey them.. poof! They'll take you away! That's it! We have no right of choice.'

`What will your strategy be, then?,' I asked, wondering why, faced with this, they still bothered to try.

`In general, our aim is genuine elections', said Wei. `The government may indulge in some empty talk on the subject, but, for real Democracy, we must rely on our own strength.

`First, we must get the whole Chinese people to understand the question. When they understand it, we can put some pressure on the government. Then more and more people will rise up to take part in the work. It must be done through legal struggle, that is, in accordance with the laws. We don't plan to get involved in secret conspiracy, or in secret organisations. We don't want to work the way the Communist Party itself did in the past, before it gained power. We plan to work openly, with the support of all the people.'

We talked more - about the problis of the peasants, about Chairman Mao, about the influence on isolated Chinese minds of the flood of foreign films then being shown on Chinese television. Wei recalled a recent American movie, expertly dubbed into Chinese, which related the story of a young American who became a millionaire by the time he was twenty-four years old. That had been a cause of much debate in China, he said, and many articles and essays had been written on the subject of `opportunity'.

Wei considered it very valuable for organisations like my employers, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, to continue their Chinese-language information and cultural broadcasts into China. All sources of alternative information were of great value to young people in evaluating their own country.

Meanwhile, my mind kept running back to my car parked in the dim courtyard below, and in my mind's eye a scenario unfolded in which a busybody old caretaker snooped about, called a local policeman, who took notes, and who in turn called the Foreign Ministry to advise that one of their guests was engaging in espionage. I wasn't engaging in espionage, of course, and there was no law or regulation to prevent me being right where I was. But, as Wei Jingsheng had just finished reminding me, `They' could do and say as they pleased.

When my tape ran out, we left, ducking our faces again from curious passers-by on the staircase. No-one had interfered with the car, and I drove home. Wei had given me the telephone number at his workplace, but, knowing the unwelcome attention that calls from foreigners would bring on him there, I said I must leave it to him to contact me when he wished to talk more.

The next time we met, a week or so later, Wei brought Yang Guang with him, and I picked them up in the car. On their own, they could not enter the Qi Jia Yuan compound, where I lived, without registering their names with the police at the gate and answering some stiff questions on the reasons for their visit. But the protocol seemed to run that if Chinese visitors entered and left the compound in the car of one of the foreign residents, they would not be stopped or questioned. Wei and Yang came up with me to the apartment, Wei, in particular, earning some hard looks from the lift attendants in his rough, dusty worker's clothes and heavy suede working boots. We talked more, as, again, I telephoned in vain around my linguist friends for some support.

We went over some of the same ground again - how many of those now active in the Democracy movement had been shocked out of their blind acceptance of the Party line when their careers as Red Guards took them out into the real peasant hinterland. We talked about the universities, where a growing number of foreign students were now sharing rooms, and some confidences, with Chinese student room-mates. Wei, of the `lost generation' who had grown up when the universities were all closed down, was inclined to dismiss the Chinese university students as aspiring members of the elite.

`They are all thoroughly trained and indoctrinated before they are allowed to talk to foreigners. They know what they can say and what they can't say, and they have to report on their conversations. No-one interferes while you talk to them, but after you have gone, They will come and squeeze them for information.

He turned the conversation back to his fellow-activists.

`We are not just a few people with nothing better to do. We are all workers, going to work every day. We use our nights to do this.. we go without sleep all night. We want foreigners to understand that'.

`We also want to know about foreign countries - what is your own social system really like? How do things work in Australia? In Hong Kong?'

He asked my help in meeting more foreigners, to expand the exchange of knowledge. Knowing the grave dangers for any Chinese who kept up unauthorised relations with foreign diplomats, I did not suggest any of the Gynaecologists to him, though I would in the normal course of things be sharing with them what Wei was saying to me, in exchange for items they might have gleaned elsewhere. I was also concerned that Wei, so cavalier in his readiness to take risks, could easily find himself betrayed if he spoke to journalists who could not be trusted to protect his confidences. In the end, the only person I could recommend to Wei was Francis Deron, of Agence France-Press, who was an ardent sinologist, a fluent linguist, and a person of great discretion. It seems extraordinary now, but in 1978 Deron and myself were the only accredited Western journalists in China with formal Chinese language training, though some others had picked up a little since their arrival.

Wei Jingsheng and Yang Guang also displayed a great thirst for foreign newspapers and periodicals, but as they could read only Chinese, there was little I could offer them.

Finally, Wei asked if I could help him obtain a Chinese- character typewriter, to use in the production of their magazine, 'Tan Suo' (Explorations) which had now gone into its second issue. This I saw as a very serious mistake on his part, and I warned him, in Chinese as strong as I could muster, that it would be very dangerous for Wei and for 'Explorations' if I were to help him in that way. Nothing could suit the enemies of Wei's ideas better than to be able to label his group as `puppets of foreign powers and foreign money'. All I could do, all I would ever do, was to buy a subscription to 'Explorations' itself, and I warned Wei not to ask more than that of other foreigners, for his own sake.

Wei seemed disinclined to listen to this. For all his trenchant criticisms of the Party and its leaders, he seemed sure that Deng Xiaoping had issued a New Covenant that would protect Wei and others like him.

`Now that Deng Xiaoping has come back to centre stage, things are much better. Before, we had even less freedom. In the past, if I had come here, the people in the lift would certainly report me, and as I left there would be a car waiting to pick me up. It's better now, it's not like that now!'

Much had happened by the time of our next meeting.

Deng Xiaoping's wei qi beans were clicking down with great speed through that December and January. About the time I first met Wei Jingsheng, a Party circular from the Beijing Municipal Government had told officials to warn those under them against the Democracy Wall, saying that it was being made use of by hostile forces. It named the Soviet official newsagency, Tass, and said some western reportage was also deliberately exaggerating the events in order to promote rumours of disunity among China's Party leadership. This disingenuous document was a warning both to and against foreigners, and there were incidents at the Wall in the succeeding days in which western observers who happened to be wearing fur hats faced hostile groups of youths muttering `Tass, Tass'. Discretion was the better part of valour for a foreigner in those circumstances.

But the Wall movement could not be suppressed without agreement from the national party centre, i.e. Deng Xiaoping. One reason he would not agree became evident a few days later, with the stunning announcement on December 16th that China and the United States had agreed on a formula of mutual recognition, which would permit the resumption of full diplomatic relations after a break of thirty years. The negotiations had been in progress, or regress as China's political climate varied, since President Richard Nixon's visit in 1972. It was Premier Hua Guofeng who made the announcement on China's behalf, but within hours it was also announced that Deng Xiaoping would be paying an official visit to the United States within a few weeks, in January. This would be the first visit of any senior government figure of the Peoples Republic to the United States.

Americans diplomats in Beijing also cheerfully let it be known that, while there had been some steady progress in the negotiations for a number of months, all remaining obstacles were swept away in a mere three days after Deng Xiaoping himself decided to sit down at the bargaining table.

Visiting American press during that time were writing somewhat hysterically about `Democracy comes to China', taking rather too literally Deng's earlier remarks about the Wall. Deng was being hailed in the United States as the architect of a miraculously democratic China such as Americans had dreamed of for decades, so it was obvious that Deng himself was not keen to do anything which could stamp him as a suppressor of Democracy, right on the eve of his historic visit to the USA.

Through late December and early January, the Democracy Movement spread rapidly to many other large cities of China. Official media continued to ignore the phenomenon, on the whole, but by word of mouth and from reading the foreign coverage re- printed in the Reference News the word got around. `Democracy Walls' sprang up in Shanghai, Tianjin, Guangzhou and numerous other places, and officials, who would have loved to crack down on the unbounded cheek these displayed, were obliged to hold their fire.

But something else was building up in China at the same time. Through December, the official media carried an escalating series of reports of Vietnamese `violations' of China's southern border - for long a source of friction. At Christmas, we heard that at least three divisions of Vietnamese troops had attacked the forces of China's ally, Pol Pot, in Kampuchea, in a full- scale invasion. The Chinese foreign ministry began issuing formal diplomatic protest notes to Vietnam, the wording of which drifted closer and closer to being an ultimatum, without ever specifying what China's precise retaliation might be.

In early January, the Vietnamese divisions took Phnom Penh. Half the Khmer Rouge government arrived in Beijing as refugees, and the other half retreated into the jungles, armed with loud declarations of moral support from Beijing for a `fight to the death'. China reported more and more serious skirmishing along its own border with Vietnam.

There were also a series of announcements of great internal importance in China, concerning changes of direction in economic and social policies which promised something closer to a western style society. Rights and properties taken from China's professional and business classes over the years were to be returned to them on a wide scale. At the same time, January was a very trying month for Beijing's civil authorities, as tens of thousands of aggrieved individuals from every part of China, seeking personal redress, flooded into the capital to petition Deng Xiaoping directly. Deng did not allow them to be removed or treated roughly, as they were useful, living proof of everything he had been criticising about the economic and social policies of the previous twenty years. But neither, of course, could Deng nor the principal leadership deal individually with their complaints.

As the date for Deng's departure to the United States grew closer, tension mounted in the areas of Beijing where the petitioners gathered, and at the Democracy Wall, where many of them had pasted up long personal histories and appeals. One Sunday, a Beijing woman with a grievance of her own organised several hundred of the petitioners into a march to the gate of Zhong Nan Hai, the leadership's residential compound. Foreign photographers' pictures of this miserable throng, crying out for justice, some crippled and in rags of poverty, made front pages around the world, especially in the United States. From Deng Xiaoping's point of view, this was most unfortunate timing, as it graphically undercut so much that had been done to create a benevolent, progressive image of contemporary China.

Within days there was an angry meeting of activists at the Democracy Wall, claiming to have got wind of a top-level decision to crack down against freedom of expression in the streets and on the walls. In a few more days, the young woman who had organised that peasant march, Fu Yuehua, was arrested on charges of breaching the peace. The suspicions that had been growing in the minds of many of the activists focused in an enraged sense of betrayal. More meetings at Democracy Wall protested against the arrest, and supporters pasted a giant slogan, demanding Fu Yuehua's release, right across the head of Tian An Men Square. In huge characters, one to each yellow poster page, it straddled the foot of the Gate of Heavenly Peace itself, the very symbol of Beijing, from which Chairman Mao had declared the Peoples Republic and reviewed the million-strong Red Guard rallies. There was more tension, and anger on both sides, but still no general crackdown.

On January 28th, the day before that year's Chinese New Year holiday, Deng Xiaoping took off for the United States, dragging behind him, comet-like, a huge train of excited Chinese officials and media representatives. But as Deng's progress across the United States got daily saturation cover in the Chinese media, whether wearing a cowboy hat or being flattered by John Denver, the mood at Democracy Wall was increasingly pessimistic. The euphoria had gone with the arrest of Fu Yuehua, and the climate now was one of disappointment and some anxiety.

I was out of Beijing for parts of February and March, on a filming expedition which had taken months of planning and could not be postponed. Each time I returned to Beijing, I would catch up with developments at the Wall as best I could. More editions of 'Explorations' were published, and I learned that Wei Jingsheng had managed to make contact with some other foreign journalists.

On March 17th, as I was standing on the platform of a railway station at Suzhou, in East China, the station loudspeakers announced a Chinese `counter-attack in self-defence' against Vietnam, in which Chinese troops had crossed the border. For the next few days, with an almost total lack of information of any kind about the fighting from the Chinese side, I could report only China's repeated insistence that this was a brief punitive raid which would be over within days, that China did not seek an inch of Vietnamese territory, and China's denials that the invasion had anything to do with Vietnam's overthrow of China's ally, the Khmer Rouge regime of Kampuchea.

I had returned to Beijing as soon as possible, but would have to leave for the prearranged film work in two or three weeks time. The timing was close, but by juggling schedules I was able to hang on in Beijing until China's Foreign Minister, Huang Hua, called a press conference at the Foreign Ministry to announce that all Chinese troops had been withdrawn from Vietnam.

A week or so prior to this, I had received a call in the early afternoon from Wei Jingsheng. I had told him he should call in the evenings, as it was better not to have the Chinese office staff listening to conversations that took place in Chinese. He said something important had happened and he wanted to talk to me. Could I pick him up outside the Minzu (`Nationalities') Hotel? I left to meet him, thinking it highly probable that this time, in the present climate, someone had been listening to the phone. With such a public rendezvous, trouble was possible. On the way down Chang An to the Minzu I passed the Democracy Wall, now taking on a somewhat shabby appearance from the layer upon layer of crudely lettered papers pasted along its length.

Wei was standing under the tree directly beside the Hotel driveway, in full view of anyone watching from the security post at the door. I drove off quickly as he climbed into the front seat, and detoured for some time through small lanes to see whether we might be being followed. We weren't. I couldn't take him to my own office at that time, as the local staff would then be bound to get involved, one way or another. Eventually we drove to the house of another friend, and I called one of my colleagues to come and help make sure I did not miss anything.

Wei had telephoned me immediately following a conversation with another correspondent, which had gone seriously wrong, he felt. They had been talking about the war situation, and Wei had told the correspondent a few things that he knew. He said that he had asked the correspondent not to publish the information, because if it came back to China, Wei himself could get into trouble, and the other Chinese who had told Wei these things could also get into trouble. Did we know this correspondent? He had seemed to become very unfriendly, and the interview had ended badly.

The correspondent Wei had met was Ian Mackenzie, a large, bearded Scot who was bureau chief of Reuters in Beijing. Reuters had been taking something of a hiding from their main rival, Agence France-Press, in their coverage of the Democracy Movement, since neither of their two corespondents then in Beijing, though experienced reporters, could speak any Chinese at all. They therefore had no unsupervised sources whatsoever, and had to rely for their coverage on dragging their very competent, but orthodox and often reluctant, office interpreter down to the wall during his limited working hours. With so much of the real activity going on at night and on Sundays, it was a real handicap. Ian Mackenzie's initial reaction to this situation was a common professional error - he sought to downplay the importance of the story.

`They're just a bunch of kids', he said angrily to another correspondent at one stage.

The story just wouldn't go away, however, and Reuters had to struggle on as best they could with it, while Agence France-Press kept scooping them. Ian Mackenzie was delighted, then when Bill Kwo turned up in Beijing. Bill, whose Chinese name is Guo Li, is a short, round, mercurial character in his forties with an exotic and complex personal history divided almost equally between London and Beijing. He had come to Beijing at this stage as the representative of the world's major international television newsagency, Visnews, of which Reuters is a part owner. On Visnews behalf, he was negotiating television news exchange agreements with the Chinese Central Television organisation, but he also showed enthusiastic interest in the Democracy Movement, and had brought an 8mm movie camera with him hoping to shoot some stories of his own while he was there. He was all too ready to act as interpreter for Mackenzie in any contact with activists. It was in Bill Kwo's room at the Minzu Hotel that the interview with Wei Jingsheng took place. It was the contents of this interview that were later to be a significant source of evidence against Wei in his subsequent trial for treason.

In mid-March, after his return from the United States, and with the punitive invasion of Vietnam under way, it appears that Deng Xiaoping now found it expedient to make some concessions to those in the national hierarchy who were itching to clamp down on the public Democracy movement. The news got around quickly in Beijing. Some reports had Deng agreeing to some arrests, but some signs of reluctance.

`If we go down the old track of suppressing unorthodox opinions and rejecting criticisms, we will lose the trust and support of the masses', he was reported as telling a meeting of officials.

`So, in my view, we should let the people put up a few wallposters. Pick up a few proven trouble-makers in this Human Rights movement, but let the others do as they please'.

Wei Jingsheng seems by this time to have given up his earlier hope that the Democracy Movement could continue indefinitely on its present programme of agitation. In a conversation, recalled in the book 'Coming Alive - China after Mao', by one of the most active of the Gynaecologists, the British diplomat Roger Garside, Wei Jingsheng had acknowledged that collision was inevitable, `because we want to go further than those Party leaders who have called for Democracy and liberation of thinking'.

Garside then asked him why, knowing the punishment in store, he and his colleagues persisted.

`Because I know that Democracy is the future of China, and if I speak out, now, there is a possibility that I can hasten the day when the Chinese people can enjoy Democracy. Two years ago it was pointless for us to speak or write as we do now, for we would have been arrested as soon as the words were out of our mouths. Now, through our posters and our journal, we can make our voice heard'.

As the stories of Deng Xiaoping's compromise circulated, Wei Jingsheng's group brought out a special edition of 'Explorations' in which Wei, in a signed editorial, lambasted Deng for betraying Democracy and free speech. It was an emotional and provocative essay, and one is bound to wonder whether, under Wei Jingsheng's invariably calm demeanour, he was not, in fact, actively seeking a kind of martyrdom.

At this point our genial hosts, the Foreign Ministry Information Department, suddenly arranged what the resident correspondents had been requesting in vain for over a month - a visit to the war zone at the Vietnamese border. Not quite to the war zone, as it transpired, but to a prisoner-of-war camp in Yunnan province, where we were to be shown Vietnamese military and civilian prisoners in varying degrees of penitence. While the majority of the seasoned resident reporters were thus drowsing through endless briefings in a tropical barracks, thousands of kilometres from Beijing, the authorities announced a set of severe guidelines to `clarify' the freedoms of speech, assembly, and poster-writing. This revived one of the old faithful slogans of the past: the `Four Principles' - a meaningless title, since they all traced back to a single principle at root, thus:

1. Keep to the Socialist Road.

2. Uphold the Dictatorship of the Proletariat.

3. Uphold the Leadership of the Communist Party of China.

4.Uphold Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought.

The regulations had a preamble which encouraged `emancipating the mind' and `seeking truth from facts', but the sting to it was a complete prohibition on any slogans, wallposters, books, journals, photographs or any other materials which did not fully support the `Four Principles'. At a stroke, any fundamental public criticism of China's social system became a criminal act.

Two days later, on March 30th, I was in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province, following a long train ride up from the POW camp with a tired and irritable group of colleagues. In the evening, as usual, I turned on my short-wave radio for the world news. Radio Australia, all bias aside, was universally recognised as providing the quickest and most thorough international news service for the Asian region. On that evening bulletin I heard a three-line report, quoting newsagencies in Beijing, to the effect that Wei Jingsheng, and several others, had been arrested.

Five days later, Ren Wanding, the mild, studious leader of a group calling itself the Human Rights Alliance, was arrested at the Democracy Wall itself, in the act of putting up a poster criticising the new regulations. By a great irony, this was the third anniversary of the Tian An Men Incident, the day those thousands of Beijing citizens had defied the regime of their time to place their flowery tributes to Zhou Enlai in the square. A foreign press photographer, who had been tipped off that the arrest was imminent, was manhandled by police as he photographed Ren Wanding being led away. To many, it seemed the end of the Democracy Movement.

There's no law against poetry, yet. Someone has put up a poster on the Democracy Wall, advertising a mass poetry- reading to be held this Sunday afternoon beside the Yuyuantan, the `Jade Spring Pool', in Beijing's west. Well away from Xidan, it is convenient for cyclists coming from the south-western districts, where most of the theatrical units are based, and from the north-western district, from the colleges and universities. I drift in with my tape- recorder, and find a hundred or so young people gathered in a thin grove of conifers, where a low mound presents an outdoor stage. Several young men are working away at a battery-operated public address system they have drawn out of a kitbag - prodding it with pliers, hanging metal loudspeaker horns in a tree. It's too early in spring for any new growth on the ground, and the powdery dust rises slowly, like a low evening mist, as people move around. Some sit on the few patches of pine-needles, under the trees, or on their khaki book-satchels. Couples have brought a child or two.

Music erupts suddenly from the metal horns, falters, crackles, then stabilises. It's a synthetic disco arrangement of 'The Laughing Cavalier', a cassette from Hong Kong. It's harsh, but it's a statement of sorts. Young poets file across the stage, some shy, some histrionic and declamatory. There are love poems.. young women in the crowd blush and nudge each other. Declarations of fervent patriotism are received in silence. A tall, thin man of thirty recites a cycle of small poems on alienation, wispy little beard moving up and down with the point of his chin. An old man on the fringe suddenly launches into a traditional verse- ballad, accompanying himself with rhythmic wooden clappers. Among these earnest young descendants of the mandarins, he revives the poor man's art of social protest through satire, China's blues.

Plainclothes police agents are in the crowd. The activists know who they are, and avoid eye-contact, denying the enemy. Agents make a show of photographing any Chinese who speaks to a foreigner. The afternoon chills, as the sun moves below the smog-line, and the poets leave the stage. People queue to buy copies of their magazines. Suddenly, there are new focuses of attention. Dotted through the crowd, people open their satchels and begin a hasty distribution of pamphlets demanding an end to government intimidation of democratic activists. Papers are jammed into coat pockets and people disperse quickly, pretending the police are not amongst them.

There were about thirty arrests that April, all based on the new regulations, and often, in Chinese fashion, applying them retrospectively to actions committed before the regulations were promulgated. Such is Chinese law: it is not a mutual treaty between the rulers and the ruled, equally binding on each, but a unilateral statement of the attitude, general or detailed, of the rulers. Communist party legislators call this `responding to the indignant demands of the masses'. Throughout the history of the Peoples Republic, thousands upon thousands of Chinese have been prosecuted for actions which became `crimes' only many years after they had been committed.

Another of the many wei qi counters that had been laid that year was the beginning of a general discussion of the Rule of Law. Certain powerful figures in Beijing were arguing strongly that a true Rule of Law must be created in China, if China were to become a modern state, and if the Party were to retain the loyalty of the masses. In the wei qi game, even mere public discussion of this would further detract from the authority of the mantle of Mao Zedong, currently worn by the Party's number one office holder, Hua Guofeng. One of the side-effects of this line of thinking was the extraordinary way the trial of Wei Jingsheng was conducted.

Nothing more was heard of Wei Jingsheng for almost six months following his arrest. The Democracy Wall kept going, although it became increasingly difficult to locate the interesting political comment among the voluminous personal grievances that plastered it. There were periodic calls for the release of Wei, of Ren Wanding, and others who had been arrested.

In June, the National Peoples Congress met for its annual plenary session. This, too, differed from the previous decades, in that the Chinese media were encouraged to report discussions taking place on various issues, not simply the `unanimous' adoption of resolutions proposed by the bosses. The idea was to show a kind of representative government at work. One such reported debate was on the abolition of the right to put up wallposters.

A professor of physics was quoted defending the practice, though suggesting that people attacked in wallposters should have right of redress through laws of libel. A rural cadre was quoted at length giving the view that `suggestion boxes' at people's work units were a more than adequate substitute. By definition, those appointed to the NPC are integrated with the existing political system, and cannot speak for the politically alienated who are represented by the Democracy movement. However, this report indicated that Deng's policy of allowing the posters to continue, but pouncing on the outspoken, was still in force.

Steps towards restoring confidence in the rule of law were also proposed at this NPC meeting, one of them being the restoration of `open, public trials'. A new Criminal Code was adopted, supposedly aimed at the various kinds of delinquency which had been coming to light in the preceding months. Very soon, the Chinese public were treated to two televised reports of major criminal court cases - a large-scale embezzler, and a local rapist-murderer. In the case of the murderer, the camera followed the man to the courtroom where his final appeal for cliency was rejected, then to his immediate delivery, in clanking chains, to the execution ground, where a soldier held a pistol to the condemned man's head.

Of particular importance to the democratic activists was that while China's law officials denied that there was such a thing as a `political crime' in China, the crime of `counter- revolutionary activity' was prominent in the new Criminal Code, right at the top. It was second in criminal importance only to treason, and in a more serious category than rape or murder.

In October, Wei Jingsheng was finally brought to trial. The charges were extremely serious: `Selling State Secrets to Foreigners', and `Engaging in Counter-revolutionary Agitation.' Wei's trial was also to be an `open' one, with a public gallery admitted by tickets. No foreign press were permitted to attend, and none of Wei's former colleagues on 'Explorations'. The American Embassy in Beijing submitted a request to send an observer, but it was refused. The trial was set for the morning of October 16th.

There's nothing grand about the entrance to the Beijing Intermediate Court. A plain wrought-iron gate opens onto a short concrete driveway to the entrance porch of what could be any one of thirty fifteen-story buildings thrown up in 1977 along Nan San Men street - `Three South Gates'. This wall of grey concrete towers stands where used to be the great red Ming city wall and moat of the Imperial Capital. The anonymous tower holding the Intermediate Court is on ground where the Boxer rebels laid siege to the Foreign Legations of Beijing during those famous fifty-five days in 1900. Today we are standing about, hoping for scraps, uncertain what opportunities may come up. Fifty or so Chinese, mainly young activists, are waiting too. There is little conversation, and the morning is grey. I climb on a heap of building rubble to take some film shots. Someone from the invited trial audience comes out of the building. He is besieged with questioners, but, under the eye of guards, doesn't want to talk to foreign reporters. A car comes through the gate and is mobbed by photographers, on the chance Wei Jingsheng might be inside it. The court adjourns, and the audience stream out. Some push hastily through the crowd and hurry off, others give a few guarded remarks. Wei defended himself strongly, we are told.

A closed jeep is preparing to leave the grounds of the court building. At that moment a crowd of thirty schoolchildren issue from a laneway and mill about noisily, excited by the unexpected display of foreigners in their neighbourhood. The jeep noses out slowly through the crowd, and we jostle and peer inside, trying to make out if Wei is there. We can see nothing. A ten year-old boy from the school runs along beside the jeep, shouting hoarsely, `Where's the criminal? Where's the criminal?' The trial has not yet finished, but Xinhua has already referred to `the counter-revolutionary, Wei Jingsheng'.

By late afternoon, Wei Jingsheng had been found guilty of both charges and sentenced to fifteen years labour reform, with a further three years `deprivation of political rights' - kind of parole system. Chinese official media ran hot with `spontaneous' approval from people who had been in the courtroom. A Communist Youth League activist, whose parents had given him the name Weidong (`serve Mao'), described Wei Jingsheng as `the scum of Chinese youth'.

Xinhua announced that two of Wei Jingsheng's former colleagues on Tan Suo, who had been arrested with him, had `confessed everything with a good attitude' and given evidence against Wei. They were released scot-free. One of these was none other than Yang Guang, who had sat with Wei in my apartment, talking with such heat about the need for change. Yang, it later appeared, had given in to pressure from his family. Yang Guang's father was an American-educated engineer of that generation who had returned eagerly to help with the construction of a New China in 1949, only to find themselves abused, mistrusted and banned from applying their professions in a series of hostile political campaigns. That class, by now nearing the ends of their working lives, were just beginning to regain hope for the role they could play in the new liberalised economy. One can only guess, at this stage, what pressures were put on Yang to recant and betray his friend, but he was only behaving within a time-honoured tradition of Chinese politics. Whatever the background, I could be sure that nothing that had passed between Wei Jingsheng and myself was a secret any more - which is why I have re-produced parts of our conversations freely here, at a time when Wei himself is behind bars.

The prosecution's trump card was what they described as a transcript of the conversation between Wei Jingsheng and Ian Mackenzie, that day in the Minzu Hotel, after which Wei had contacted me in some alarm. Based on this `transcript', they claimed that Wei had asked Mackenzie for several hundred dollars, in return for information about China's military involvement in Vietnam - numbers of troops, casualties, and names of various commanders. Ian Mackenzie happened to be on leave in London at the time of the trial. In what many colleagues considered a dubious exercise of standard journalistic ethics, Mackenzie went public and broadcast an interview, heard in China via the BBC World Service, in which he said that Wei had indeed tried to sell him information, and that he, Mackenzie, had refused both that offer and any further contact. This statement was broadcast before Wei's appeal period was up. It is unlikely to have affected the outcome, which in any case had been determined long before the trial every occurred. But it fell far short of the journalist's normally accepted responsibility to protect sources who have spoken to him in confidence. Ian Mackenzie later returned to a very cool reception from many colleagues in Beijing, as a result of this.

Having spoken separately to Wei Jingsheng, to Ian Mackenzie, and to the interpreter Bill Kwo after this event, I believe that it was a very unfortunate misunderstanding. I believe Wei did, foolishly, ask for monetary assistance, as he had earlier asked me to help him procure a typewriter. Wei did pass on what he later described in court as `hearsay' information about the Chinese military, but this was actually information which had already been published by other foreign correspondents, and which Mackenzie was simply asking Wei to confirm. Wei did not in any way see this as a transaction, one thing for the other, and was rightly alarmed when Mackenzie took it that way.

The other nasty aspect of this incident was the suspicion over how the Public Security Bureau obtained a transcript of the conversation. Some of the Democracy activists were inclined to believe that Wei Jingsheng had been betrayed by Ian Mackenzie or by Bill Kwo handing over a tape of the conversation. There was a poster put up, bitterly criticising the untrustworthiness of foreign reporters - no doubt a document of some satisfaction to the authorities. My own belief is that Bill Kwo's hotel room was bugged, possibly for reasons quite unrelated to Wei Jingsheng, and that the conversation was picked up that way. For my own part, I would never have allowed a person running risks like Wei Jingsheng to visit me in a hotel room, as we all knew places like the Minzu were bugged, not constantly, but as a matter of routine check-ups on what foreign visitors were up to.

It gave me no satisfaction that the unheeded warnings I had heaped on Wei Jingsheng, concerning the risks of his foreign contacts, had proven horribly prophetic.

There was a further sensational aspect to this case when the April 5th Forum, the broadest umbrella-group of Democracy Wall activists, began pasting up large sections of their own transcripts of the very trial itself. Someone sympathetic to the Democracy Movement had smuggled a tape recorder into the court- room. For some reason, police made arrests when the Forum tried to distribute printed copies of this, claiming that it was a `secret' document unless released by the Court itself, but they made no attempt to remove those sections of the transcript which were pasted up on the Democracy Wall itself.

Early in the transcript, police records of their inter- rogation of Wei Jingsheng revealed he had told them that I was the first foreign journalist with whom he made contact. Since the Foreign Ministry had shown themselves to have remained entirely friendly towards Ian Mackenzie, whom their own courts had accused of being involved in a spying operation, it was unlikely that I would find myself in any trouble over my own contacts with Wei. It was also clear that Wei was not attempting to defend himself with denials of fact, but with explanations of his actions.

Almost the whole of Wei Jingsheng's address in his own defence was pasted up in transcript on the wall. It has been published elsewhere, and is available to those interested in the detail. On the charge of selling state secrets, his defence was to deny that what he had revealed was intended to be, nor could be, either useful to the enemy or injurious to China. More fundamentally, he pointed out that under Chinese rules, no-one could be certain just what should be considered as a State Secret at any given time. He reminded the court that, under the Gang of Four, simply to be seen in any unauthorised conversation whatsoever with a foreigner could be enough to earn a charge of spying. The arguments were accurate, but also specious, since Wei knew as well as anybody that the legal definition of a state secret in China is `any information at all which has not been specifically cleared for publication'. Finally, Wei admitted that he had `made a mistake' in talking about military matter to Mackenzie.

If Wei Jingsheng had chosen to abase himself, to repudiate his views publicly, and to submit ask humbly for `re-education' by the Party, he would probably have been sentenced to between three and six years. Instead, he earned the maximum sentence for charges he faced, because he refused to confess and `show a good attitude'. In his defence against the second charge - that of carrying out counter-revolutionary activities - Wei did the almost unthinkable: he turned the charges back against his accusers. Using the language of Marxist poliics, he equated `revolution' with progress, progress with Democracy, and opposition to democratic freedoms with counter-revolution.

`Revolution is the battle of the new against the old.. or is it that anything that opposes current theories of those in power must be destroyed? That might is right? That concept of revolution was one of the most effective instruments used by the Gang of Four over twenty years, to oppress revolutionaries and the people...

`Those who oppose the tide of Democracy are standing for dictatorship... Those who oppose it should be the ones put on the list of counter-revolutionary criminals..

`I distinguish two basic types of socialist system. The first is the Soviet-style dictatorial socialism in which the power is concentrated in the hands of a small number of people. The second is democratic socialism, in which democratic methods are used to distribute power... The hope of the vast majority of the people of our country is the establishment of this type of democratic socialism. The aim of our 'Explorations' magazine was also to search for the path to this type of socialist system... `If criticism of the leadership is to be considered a crime.. this is the same as placing leaders in the ranks of the gods. Must we follow again on the road of the Gang of Four, building another road to a modern superstition?'

Wei's defence might have been a telling one before a jury of liberal thinkers, but, as he had said to me in our first conversation, `It doesn't matter what you say or do, They can do what they like with you'. He was, in effect, baiting the court with his frequent comparisons to `Gang of Four' thinking, and it probably contributed to the harshness of his sentence.

Wei Jingsheng's trial was also reported on television, as a part of the Criminal Code propaganda campaign. The report referred to the compounding offence of his refusal to admit he was wrong, and it showed a brief shot of Wei, in contrast to the usual cowed and obsequious convict's demeanour, standing boldly and proudly before the court in his prison clothes and shaven head, delivering his defence oration with the same calm expression I had always seen him wear. I asked a few ordinary Chinese, not activists by any means, what they thought of Wei and his trial. None of them delivered the expected regurgitation of a safe propaganda line. One conservative working man gave Wei what was close to the highest compliment in that particular man's vocabulary:

`He's really got guts. There should be more like him'.

A few weeks after Wei's conviction, the Beijing Municipality issued a new regulation, officially killing the Democracy Wall. As a token gesture, a new `Democracy Wall' was to be set up in the park of the Altar of the Moon, an awkward place to reach at any time and well off the beaten track. Moreover, persons wishing to put up a poster had to sign their real names, and to register their name, address, and work unit with a warden before they could go ahead. Not surprisingly, the new `Democracy Wall' was a dead duck, and soon ignored.

For a week after the Xidan Democracy Wall was banned, the last posters to be hung there faded slowly in the weather, which was turning again to winter. It had been just a year since those first intoxicating rallies and marches had introduced what many activists, and foreign headline-writers, called the `Beijing Spring'. Many thousands of intensely patriotic young Chinese had been swept up in the idea that they could make their own voices heard above the ceaseless drone of Party propaganda, that they could contribute to the body of thought in their people. Wei Jingsheng, and the others who had been arrested, had sacrificed themselves, knowingly, in a way that few Westerners are ever called to do other than in time of war. What they achieved will also be as debatable as the achievements of people who have died in wars for ill-defined causes or even sheer pride.

In the early, frosty hours of the morning of December 8 1979, a work gang of women in warm quilted overalls came down to clean up the Democracy Wall. With spades and hoses, they scraped away those crowded layers of personal expression - the dreams, the wild notions, the earnest debates, the tales of persecution and torture at the hands of bullies. As a souvenir, I tore off a piece of a wad of posters that had been scraped down, and took it home with me. Looking at it now - a wafer section of ten layers of posters - the only legible complete phrase on that ragged piece of Democracy Wall is the carefully lettered characters, `I do not know..'. A deferential opening to a strong personal attack? A diffident conclusion to a proposal for social reform? The anguish of separation from an arrested loved one? It could have been any of these things, but, in my turn, I do not know.

By the following Spring, flower and lawn beds, protected by little iron fences, had been laid out on that patch of ground, that no-man's-land between Party and people, where those first rallies for socialist Democracy had surged across the dust. Neat signs warned `Please keep off the grass'. On the wall itself, still guarding the bus depot, a symbol of a new China had arisen, in the form of large, floodlit hoardings for commercial advertising.

Gradually, over the following two years, all those activists known to foreigners were picked up and given sentences, though none as long as Wei Jingsheng's fifteen years. The Public Security Bureau is renowned for its patience and its long memory. Such discussions of Democracy as continued were confined to authorised debates in academic institutions, or occasionally in the official press.

Deng Xiaoping's wei qi game had its conclusion, in the fullness of time, in a thorough changing of the guard in all senior posts of the Peoples Republic. With Chairman Hua and his fellow adherents to a conservative orthodoxy disposed of, Deng and the new, businesslike generation of managers could see little need to indulge would-be democrats and social reformers outside their own Party fold.

At the National Peoples Congress session in September, 1980, the Constitution of the Peoples Republic was amended to eliminate the article, inserted by the Gang of Four in 1975, which guaranteed citizens the `Four Big Freedoms' as they were known: the freedoms to paste up posters and to hold public debates, to raise various opinions, and to disagree. The constitution retained references to freedom of speech in other contexts, but the special status of the Big-Character Poster had come to an end. As with the rest of Chinese law, the Constitution is really no more than a manifesto of current policy, as it can be amended at will by the National Peoples Congress and has no greater legal weight than any other law. Never the less, activists and sundry protesters set considerable store by having Constitutional support for their actions, and regretted its passing.

In 1983, Premier Zhao Ziyang announced that China was finally setting up a Ministry of State Security - the equivalent of the USSR's KGB. Confusion and overlap between various arms and levels of the Public Security apparatus up to that point had sometimes left gaps in which careful people could find some latitude. All reports since then have indicated that a prime task of the new Ministry is to exercise a more forthright and thorough control over contacts between Chinese citizens and foreigners working in their country. There is no prospect of an atmosphere like the Beijing Spring returning in the foreseeable future.

Wei Jingsheng was to be in prison until 1994, if he survived. In 1982, I heard of a report from an ex-prisoner at the Beijing No.1 Prison that he was continuing to hold to his views, and would willingly expound on them to anyone visiting his cell. The following year, I read a rumour to the effect that he was being held in solitary confinement, that he was denied writing materials, and that friends who visited him had reported that his mind was beginning to wander.