Exiled Chinese dissident Wei Jingsheng has rubbed shoulders with past presidents, including the late George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, during his two decades in the US, but these days prefers not to venture into the capital.

Wei, who is often called the father of China’s modern democracy movement, sat down for a lengthy interview at his home in a Maryland suburb south of Washington, on the eve of a landmark anniversary.

On December 5, 1978 he posted The Fifth Modernisation on a wall in Beijing, an essay in which he said Deng Xiaoping’s reforms did not go far enough, and called for democracy to be a goal for China.

Wei still welcomes visitors the Chinese way – by offering them a cigarette, then lights one for himself before unleashing harsh criticism of the “one-party dictatorship” in power in Beijing.

It’s a familiar battle cry: for four decades, Wei has railed against state oppression of the Chinese people’s democratic aspirations.

That battle cost him 18 years of his life, spent in a series of prison cells. In 1997, after international pressure – including a plea from then US president Bill Clinton – Wei was released, ostensibly on medical grounds, and put on a plane to the US.

Now 68, Wei is hooked on Gauloises – strong French cigarettes that are hard to find in the US – but is otherwise in good shape. He runs his namesake foundation from his home, battling for human rights in China.

Deng is considered the architect of China’s opening up to the world, a reform process guided by his “Four Modernisations” – the development of industry, agriculture, science and technology, and national defence.

But Wei, whose essay landed him in prison, says Deng gets too much credit.

“I should correct a popular saying, both inside China and internationally, which claims that Deng Xiaoping is responsible for the opening up and the reform,” Wei said, speaking in Mandarin.

“This reform only went halfway, economically but not politically,” he said.

“Now, in the Xi Jinping era, politically it is going even further backwards,” he added, referring to China’s ongoing offensive against rights activists.

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In the post-Mao era, which began in the late 1970s, China’s opening up was prompted by a broad popular movement, supported not just by Deng but by other senior Communist Party leaders.

In the end, Wei said, “communist China is a mix between a one-party dictatorship and capitalism.”

“When they suppress the people, it’s more severe than anywhere else.”

Sipping black tea from China’s southeastern Fujian province, Wei did not hold back in his biting criticism of those who have followed Deng to the heights of power in Beijing.

An electrician by trade – he once worked at Beijing Zoo – Wei accused former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin of exploiting cheap labour at home and high prices in the West to reap huge profits that he shared with Western creditors.

“During the Mao Zedong years, China was a poor socialist country. Now China is a poor capitalist country. Overall, the average Chinese did not get the benefit,” Wei said.

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As for current Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who has a clear path to staying in power longer than the habitual 10 years, now that the ruling party plans to abolish term limits, Wei did not mince words.

“Xi Jinping doesn’t just want to become emperor after 2023,” when his first 10 years in office will end, he said. “He wants to be the emperor now.”

The Chinese government, Wei repeatedly said, “never follows the rules”.

On the walls of his home, perched above a tributary of the Potomac River, are huge photographs of him with Clinton and the senior Bush.

But Wei, the winner of multiple human rights awards including the Sakharov prize, said he doesn’t venture into Washington too often any more.

“The American government and European governments are concerned over my safety,” he said, without further explanation.

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