Nelson Mandela’s Captive Audience: Silly Men, Sharp Knives

Nine months before Nelson Mandela was released from prison in South Africa, the Chinese police cracked down on demonstrators in Tiananmen Square, and in August 1989 I was sent to Hebei Prison for incitement to overthrow state power. My cellmates, like so many Chinese people at the time, were pessimistic about China’s future. “Why do you persist?” they would ask me. “Democracy and freedom are good, but there is not much hope for them in China.” The prison guards would tell me, “We have guarded many political prisoners before. The smarter ones have been promoted by the Communists to ranks as high as ‘political consultant’; the ones who persisted in defiance never ended well.”

Yet, on Feb. 11, 1990, we read newspaper reports and saw television news reports about Mr. Mandela getting out of jail. (We were sometimes allowed to watch state television and read the state newspaper.) He had never lowered his noble head in front of his enemy, and eventually his enemy had retreated.

“This guy is just as ‘silly’ as I am,” I told the guards, “but he reached his goal. What do you smart ones think?” They looked at each other and said, “Indeed, there are all kind of birds in the big woods!” But they didn’t discuss the prospect of “political consultant” with me anymore. Instead, they would often discuss the differences between South Africa and China.

An old Chinese maxim notes that a knife must be ground to be sharpened. Mr. Mandela’s experience demonstrated that it is important to bear life’s setbacks, and maintain unbending confidence in eventual success.

Wei Jingsheng, a democracy activist who was in jail in China from 1979 to 1993 and now lives in Washington.