BEIJING -- China's most famous political prisoner until his release from jail less than three months ago, Wei Jingsheng has quickly assumed the role of senior leader of the Chinese dissident movement.
When he first came home in September after 14 and a half years in prison, the 43-year-old Mr. Wei claimed to have little understanding of contemporary Chinese politics. If so, he has caught on fast.
He now has a small office, a secretary and a computer. Hong Kong and Taiwan newspapers are publishing some of the many letters he wrote to China's leaders from prison. A U.S. book deal may be in the works.
And Mr. Wei spends his days conferring with a largely underground network of Chinese human-rights activists on how best to carry on their still very uphill struggle for more democracy and freedom in China.
In the meantime, money isn't a problem. The Gleitsman Foundation, a U.S.-based human rights group, awarded him a $50,000 prize this year, money he says he's sharing with other dissidents here.
"It isn't an issue of whether I want to do this or not," he says when asked why he's taking such risks after so many years in jail. "I have to do it. A lot of people trust me and put their hopes on me and other democracy activists. So it's my responsibility."
Typical of his new role was advising a group of nine dissidents who boldly got together last month to sign a "peace charter" calling for nonviolent political change in China.
Mr. Wei told them to hold off. "Now isn't a good time to attack the Chinese government straight in the face," he recalls saying.
"It thinks it's very strong right now because a lot of foreign governments are bowing to it. So it feels it can do anything to suppress democracy and human rights."
The dissidents proceeded anyway. Sure enough, two were immediately taken into police custody, where they apparently remain. A third is believed to have been detained early last week.
For Mr. Wei, some degree of protection from similar treatment may come from his long-standing high profile in the Western media. Authorities could re-arrest him at any moment, but at the risk of considerable international reaction.
Since his release from prison, he has maintained this status as a frequent and favored lunch guest of Beijing-based Western journalists. He's been in an elevator for the first time. He's tackled his first Big Mac.
At a high-priced Italian restaurant in one of Beijing's finer hotels, where he has lunched three times already, he jokes he might eat his way through the entire menu in less than a year -- as he consumes a plate of osso buco (a veal stew) with soup, two glasses of red wine, a double espresso and a half-dozen Marlboros.
'I've always been free'
Such pleasures don't impress him. He calls being out of jail "more convenient" than being imprisoned. "I think in the bottom of my heart that I've always been free all the time," he says. "Prison was only confinement of my body. Physical comfort doesn't matter."
His jail years -- including a long stint in a labor camp in China's desolate, northwest Qinghai region -- took all but 12 of his teeth and left him with lingering health problems. Prison officials took steps to improve his appearance before setting him free, including giving him a set of false teeth.
Mr. Wei was jailed in 1979 for his leading role in the "Democracy Wall" protests, the first dissident movement after the Cultural Revolution. The protests were encouraged and then crushed by China's patriarch, Deng Xiaoping, who had just come to power.
An electrician who edited a dissident journal, Mr. Wei put up posters saying China needed more democracy to modernize effectively. But his real crime appears to have been angering Mr. Deng, in part by calling him a "new autocrat." He was convicted of passing state secrets to a foreigner, a charge he has always denied.
Mr. Wei was paroled from prison six months before the end of his 15-year sentence and 10 days before the International Olympic Committee's vote on Beijing's bid to stage the 2000 Olympics. His release, long sought by international human rights groups, was seen as a cynical, but failed ploy to influence that vote.
No ill will
He says he bears no ill will toward Mr. Deng, who is rumored to have only reluctantly approved his parole.
These days, most foreign analysts predict there will be few changes on the surface here in the immediate wake of the much-anticipated death of the 89-year-old Mr. Deng. But Mr. Wei disagrees.
He fears the Chinese Communist Party isn't capable of sorting out its power struggles over Mr. Deng's successor and is dangerously unprepared to handle what will be a volatile situation. "I hope Deng lives another couple years," he says. "He's the only one who can stabilize the internal conflicts within the government."
China walks a tightrope, Mr. Wei says, despite its current economic boom. The government doesn't have enough money and imagination to reform its huge, bankrupt state enterprises without layoffs of millions of urban workers. Sporadic rioting is increasing among rural peasants, who are falling further behind urbanites. Corruption is rampant, destroying the last of the party's credibility.
More favor democracy
"The contradictions are getting bigger and more intense," Mr. Wei says. "There's a lot more support now for the democracy movement than even during the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. More people know about democracy and freedom. People are struggling, and some are starting to fight back. There's more and more pressure on the government."
At the same time, he says, China's diplomatic and economic recovery in the international arena since the massacre of the Tiananmen protesters means that the government now is in an even stronger position to resist external pressures for internal change.
Chinese Communist Party boss Jiang Zemin stood up to President Clinton in their meeting last month in Seattle, particularly on the issue of China's human-rights abuses. German Chancellor Helmut Kohl visited here just before then, giving short shrift to human rights and full attention to $4 billion worth of new Sino-German contracts.
The United States is trying to appease, not criticize, China -- allowing China to almost turn on its head the Sino-American dispute over its favorable trade status with the U.S.
The crux of that dispute doesn't seem so much any more what China might do to improve its human rights record and thereby retain its "most-favored-nation" status with the U.S. Instead, the question has become what will China do to help Mr. Clinton save political face when he inevitably must extend that standing for another year next June.
"International pressure on China is lessening right now, putting the government here in a very strong position," Mr. Wei says. "Clinton is under pressure from American business to not enact trade sanctions, even it means ignoring the values of American voters. This is to the disadvantage of those of us working for democracy.
"There's a lot of power stacked against us, and we can only rely on ourselves."
Dark times ahead?
As all these forces collide here, what's brewing for even China's near future is not exactly clear, Mr. Wei admits. But his view of the likely possibilities is a decidedly dark one.
He fears China and America will cut secret deals in high-level meetings, thereby further isolating Chinese dissidents. He fears party leaders can't adapt fast enough to the demands of more Chinese for more freedoms. He fears a government emboldened by its international successes will try to tighten the lid on the mounting internal pressures.
"I don't know what's going to happen, particularly after Deng dies," Mr. Wei says. "But I do know it's not going to be quiet. Something big could happen. And when it happens, it's going to be a lot bigger than 1989 because the reasons that led up to [the Tiananmen protests] still exist, and they are even more intense now."