A passport to hope follows years of despair
JASPER BECKER in Beijing
Five days ago, wardens of the Nanpu New Life labour camp on the saltmarshes near Tangshan came for Wei.
They took his photo and told him to fill in an application form for a passport.
'He knew what that meant but he had no idea where he was going, except it might be America, or when,' said his chain-smoking brother, Wei Xiaotao.
On Saturday at 5.30 pm, the wardens came again and told him to pack.
Two hours later, Mr Wei took final leave of the camps in which he had spent 18 years and was driven through falling snow to Beijing's capital airport.
The authorities had brought his immediate family to a nearby guesthouse. His 79-year-old father, Wei Zilin, brother Wei Xiaotao, and sister Wei Lingling and her daughter Xia Fan waited in three rooms.
At 5.30 am, Mr Wei was delivered there and the family was allowed to have breakfast together, but could only speak under police supervision.
'He looked fat, like he had been eating a lot,' said Wei Lingling. 'But we could see he was very sick.' She said he suffered terrible pain in his spinal column and had difficulty sitting up, he was not sleeping and was taking a lot of painkillers and relying on oxygen bottles for his breathing.
'He was very happy, thinking that in America he could get treatment. They can examine him at last and find out what is wrong,' his brother said.
Even in the last few days, Mr Wei complained of being attacked by other prisoners.
'He said they were very rough, pulling and shoving him,' Wei Xiaotao said.
Groups of foreign reporters were held back by police before Mr Wei was driven directly on to the apron in an official car accompanied by Chinese officials.
He was not told where he was going until half an hour before the plane, a scheduled Northwest Airline flight for Detroit, was ready to board.
An American Embassy official accompanied Mr Wei into the plane at 10.10 am. At 10.35 it took off.
'I never thought it would happen so quickly,' said his sister. After nearly two decades, everyone felt great relief.
'He will have a free life now. He is not young any more,' she added.
'If he had stayed in prison there would have been no hope.' She and her brother sat on a sofa, dazed after a sleepless night, in the same Qijiayuan diplomatic compound where 19 years ago, Wei Jingsheng had broken the rules and talked to foreign journalists.
Even now his family were guarded in what they said.
'I think he will come back. He is a Chinese citizen,' said his brother fiddling with his mobile phone. 'I can't say when.'