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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

China Dissident Wei Hails New Freedoms

NEW YORK -- With humor, presence and comments as eloquent as his written words, China's best-known dissident re-entered public life Friday with a clear message: During nearly 18 years in prison, his strong will endured.

"I've waited decades for this chance to exercise my rights to free speech,'' Wei Jingsheng said. "But the Chinese people have been waiting for centuries.''

In an extraordinary news conference in the very physical embodiment of free speech, a public library, Wei met hundreds of reporters and supporters as if he had been doing it all his life. He joked, gestured and reaffirmed his commitment both to his cause and to China, the land he says he still adores.

"I will love my fatherland forever -- whether I'm there or anywhere else,'' Wei said in Chinese. He speaks almost no English. "I certainly plan to go back. In fact, I never intended to leave.''

The Chinese government released Wei from prison Saturday and put him on a plane to Detroit, where he received medical treatment for hypertension and other ailments he developed during prison life. He appeared healthy and rosy-cheeked on Friday, speaking in a powerful, resonant voice and wearing a stylish leather vest over a red plaid shirt. He came to New York for his first chance to add spoken words to the published letters that have been his legacy until now.

"I'm not too clear on the reasons for my release,'' Wei said.

Indeed, while clearly still committed to human rights, Wei was careful not to elaborate on matters prison life kept him from knowing much about, such as questions about Taiwan and Tibet. "Bu qingchu,'' which means unclear, was his frequent response.

He did not discuss his immediate plans. He also deflected a question about the conditions of his imprisonment, saying he planned to write about it -- "and then discuss it with you.''

Early assessments from China watchers were quite positive.

"He's so humane. And so human,'' said Winston Lord, a former U.S. ambassador to China and ex-assistant secretary of state for East Asia.

Patricia Stranahan, director of the Asian Studies Program at the University of Pittsburgh, said Wei's talent lies in his ability to connect with people.

"He is quite eloquent,'' she said. "If he is able to maintain that eloquence, he will become an extraordinary force.''

The 47-year-old former electrician, in his younger years a staunch supporter of the Chinese government, had been imprisoned since 1979 for "counter-revolutionary activities,'' including his outspokenness during Beijing's Democracy Wall movement that year.

He was released briefly in 1993 -- a move widely perceived as an attempt to win Beijing the 2000 Olympics -- but was arrested and imprisoned again a short time later.

This latest release came two weeks after Chinese President Jiang Zemin's visit to the United States.

A collection of Wei's letters, "The Courage to Stand Alone,'' was published in May. The letters documented prison life and outlined his criticisms against the government. But in them, he always reiterated his love for China.