Xu Wenli is known by his colleagues in China as the “Godfather of Dissent.” For most of the last 20 years, however, he was known as “001” – his prisoner identification number.
Wenli is one of China’s most prominent political dissidents. As a founder of the Chinese Democratic Party, he dedicated his life to the struggle for democratic freedoms and human rights in China. As a result of his outspoken advocacy, Wenli spent 16 of the last 20 years in prison, suffering torture and solitary confinement.
Wenli’s early life did not predict what his future would hold. As a young man, he rejected the idea of college and instead became a sailor and a railway electrician.
In his early 30s, the direction of his life would change. In 1976, Wenli attended a public mourning of workers for the death of Zhou Enlai. Suspecting a covert protest, police beat the mourners; Wenli witnessed this brutality first hand. “At that moment, I realized that everything I believed was a lie,” Wenli has said of the event.
Two years later, Wenli participated in the Democracy Wall Movement – and helped create a wall in Beijing where people could post pro-democracy messages. He also published a pro-democracy journal April Fifth Forum. In 1981, in response to these actions and his proposals for peaceful reforms, the Chinese authorities staged a midnight raid on Wenli’s home and arrested him. He was tried in secret and received a 15-year sentence.
During his time in prison, Wenli was allowed only sporadic and brief visits with his wife, He Xintong, and his daughter, Xu Jin. Working covertly from his jail cell, Wenli drafted My Self-Defense, a memoir documenting his secret trial and imprisonment.
In retaliation, the Chinese authorities placed Wenli in solitary confinement, where he remained until his release from prison in 1993, having served 12 years of his sentence.
By 1998, Wenli had returned, full swing, to his pro-democracy work, establishing labor unions and other pro-democracy groups and, eventually, the Chinese Democracy Party and the Chinese Human Rights Observer. He was arrested and again sentenced to 13 years for “incitement to overthrow the state.”
Intense international lobbying – led by Wenli’s wife and daughter – persuaded the Chinese authorities to release Wenli on medical grounds; he was diagnosed with Hepatitis B in 1999. Taken straight from his jail cell to the airport, Wenli found his wife on a waiting plane. They flew to the United States and were met by their daughter at the airport.
With the help of Human Rights First and its pro bono lawyers, Wenli and his wife were granted political asylum in the winter of 2003. Wenli’s fellow dissidents remain in prison.
Wenli now continues his pro-democracy work from the U.S., studying ways to bring democracy to China. Democracy is not just a political system, he says, “It’s a way of life, essential as bread, air and water.” In May 2003 Wenli delivered Brown University’s commencement address. In October 2003, Wenli and his daughter Xu Jin were Honorees at Human Rights First’s 25th Annual Human Rights Award Dinner.
As the daughter of a political dissident, Xu Jin was banned from attending university as a young woman in China. On a trip to the United States in 1994, Jin won a scholarship to Bard College and Boston University for her masters in fine arts. While pursuing her studies, she worked as many as four jobs at a time so she could send money to her parents in China. In 1998, Jin, with the help of Human Rights First and its pro bono lawyers, was granted political asylum.
When her father, Xu Wenli, was arrested and imprisoned for the second time, Jin campaigned tirelessly for his release – staging hunger strikes and appealing to prime ministers and presidents. In Washington, D.C., Jin lobbied the U.S. government and met with international diplomats.
On Christmas Eve 2002, the efforts of Jin – and those she organized – culminated in Wenli’s early release from prison. Reunited with her parents for the first time in nearly a decade, Jin works in Providence, Rhode Island as an independent artist and teacher