The Choices Program Wenli Xu
Xu Wenli is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. One of China’s most recognized pro-democracy advocates, Mr. Xu spent 16 years in prison for his activities as a dissident. He was a leader in the Democracy Wall movement from 1979 to 1981, edited the samizdat-style journal April Fifth Forum, and played a major role in establishing the Beijing-Tianjin branch of the China Democracy Party. Mr. Xu’s health suffered while in prison. In reaction to his declining condition, international human rights groups, the US ambassador to China, and Western officials called for his release. The Chinese government finally relented and released him on medical grounds in December 2002. He and his wife left China immediately for the United States to be reunited with their daughter, Xu Jin, who lives in Rhode Island. Mr. Xu has published a number of books, including most recently A Theoretical Inquiry into the Rational Structure of Human Society (Hong Kong: Greenfield Book Store, December 2008, available in Chinese and English), which recounts his experiences in jail and his thoughts on democracy.
Wenli’s videos are used in this Choices Program curriculum unit:
China on the World Stage: Weighing the U.S. Response
Xu Wenli and the China Democracy Party
Xu Wenli spent 16 years in a Chinese prison for his activities as a dissident. He was a leader in the Democracy Wall movement from 1979 to 1981 and helped establish the China Democracy Party in 1998. Mr. Xu’s health suffered while in prison. In reaction to his declining condition, international human rights groups, the U.S. ambassador to China, and Western officials called for his release. The Chinese government released him on medical grounds in December 2002.
In the videos below, he describes his imprisonment and his beliefs. There are also suggestions and questions that teachers may adapt for use in their classrooms.
Begin the class by writing the question “What is a political prisoner?” in the center of the blackboard or on a large piece of paper. Give students 5 minutes to approach the board and write whatever comes to mind, including statements, words, names of famous political prisoners, and questions. Instruct the class to do the exercise in silence. Encourage students to add to each other’s postings as well as write their own independent postings.
Viewing Xu Wenli
Have students answer the following questions while watching the videos
- What values and beliefs are expressed in the clips? List as many as you can.
- What was Xu Wenli imprisoned for?
Why were you exiled from China?
You were imprisoned two times by the Chinese government. What were you accused of doing?
After you were released from prison the first time, you continued with political activities. Did you fear being sent back to prison?
In 1998, you helped form the China Democracy Party (CDP). What does the CDP hope to achieve?
Why do you think democracy and human rights are so important?
Should the international community pressure China’s government to improve its human rights practices?
Why is it important for high school students to understand what is happening in China?
Questions for discussion
- Was Xu Wenli a political prisoner? Explain.
- What was the most surprising or interesting thing in the videos?
- What perspectives or points of view are not included in the videos?
- According to Xu Wenli, what role should the international community play with respect to human rights practices in China? Do you agree? Why or why not?
- Have there ever been political prisoners in your country? Consider the present as well as points in history. Who is or has been imprisoned as a political prisoner? Why were they imprisoned? How do people today view them? For example, do people view them as heroes? As traitors? As something else?
- What conditions allows governments to hold political prisoners?
- Are there ever circumstances where holding political prisoners can be justified?
Students explore the history of U.S. relations with China and consider the implications of China’s economic growth, societal transformation, and increasing international role.
Xu Wenli is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University.