China seeks to polish its rights image by dusting off dissident in jail 14 years

March 26, 1993|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Beijing Bureau

BEIJING -- Wei Jingsheng, China's longest-held political dissident, is at the center of a propaganda battle as he enters his 15th and perhaps last year in jail.

The battle for control of foreign public opinion is being waged between Chinese authorities and international human rights activists. It comes at a time when China is trying to win support for its bid to be host of the 2000 Olympics and to gain renewal of its most-favored-nation trade standing with the United States, where the Clinton administration is putting greater emphasis on human rights.

Increasingly sophisticated about casting a better image abroad, China wants the world to believe that Mr. Wei is being treated well in jail as he approaches the 14th anniversary of his arrest this Monday. To send that message, it has released a rare videotape of Mr. Wei walking around, under escort, out of prison and making some observations about what he was seeing.

Foreign human rights groups, however, want the world not to forget the basic fact that China still is imprisoning Mr. Wei and other political and religious dissidents, often under harsh conditions. One of these groups will release a detailed update Monday on the conditions of his imprisonment and those of several other jailed dissidents.

Mr. Wei, 42, was one of the main leaders of Beijing's "Democracy Wall" movement of 1978-1981, the first expression of political dissent here following the end of the Cultural Revolution.

He was sentenced to a 15-year prison term in 1979 for allegedly passing state secrets to a foreigner, but his actual offense appears to have been his writings, which opposed Marxism and which are said to have personally offended China's patriarch, Deng Xiaoping.

Earlier this week China, released to the Cable News Network a nearly half-hour-long videotape showing Mr. Wei on an unusual outing from his prison cell with several guards in the city of Tangshan, about 100 miles east of Beijing.

In the video, which has been not been aired on Chinese TV but was viewed here by a Sun reporter, Mr. Wei frequently smiled and appeared to be in good health.

He was shown talking easily with his guards, receiving treatment from a dentist, eating a large meal, visiting various Tangshan sites, buying small items and sitting in his prison cell with a TV set.

At one point in the video, Mr. Wei verged on criticizing China's leadership by remarking that a recent speech by Communist Party chief Jiang Zemin neglected to talk about the importance of culture. He also said his family is not allowed to send him music tapes or books in English.

After years of saying little about Mr. Wei's case, Chinese officials offered no explanation for suddenly releasing the videotape. However, a Beijing-controlled newspaper in Hong Kong, Wen Wei Po, said yesterday that Mr. Wei's Jan. 13 outing was to prepare him for leaving jail when his sentence ends.

That has fueled speculation here that he might be paroled from jail earlier than the end of his sentence in March of next year -- as part of China's apparent strategy to improve its international reputation.

In the meantime, the videotape also appears to be aimed at influencing, if not pre-empting, anticipated foreign news reports keyed to the anniversary of Mr. Wei's imprisonment.

"It made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end to see a videotape of him after all these years," said Robin Munro, a Hong Kong-based researcher for Asia Watch, the human rights group.

"Of course, if China does release him early, it shouldn't really be much of a trump card," Mr. Munro said.

"After all, how many Brownie points can you get for holding someone 14 years?"

Asia Watch plans to release its own report on Mr. Wei on Monday, research that coincides with the impression given in the Chinese videotape that he is in reasonably good health -- contrary to long-standing rumors that he had become mentally ill in jail.

Mr. Wei is believed to have been held for years in forced labor camps in northwestern China, until the late 1980s when he was moved to a camp near Tangshan.

A year ago, after 13 years of silence regarding Mr. Wei's condition, China released a still photograph of him and said that he still maintained his innocence.

Authorities last fall also took him on a one-day trip to Beijing that was not publicized at the time but that reportedly was intended to show him the changes that have taken place here since his jailing. This trip reportedly did not change his political views.

China recently has granted early prison release to several prominent political activists, including one of Mr. Wei's colleagues from the "Democracy Wall" movement, 45-year-old Wang Xizhe.

Mr. Wang, sentenced in 1981 to 14 years in jail, was paroled Feb. 2. Upon his release, he said he had not changed his beliefs and vowed to take legal action to overturn his original charges.

But other "Democracy Wall" activists remain in jail. These include 49-year-old Xu Wenli, the only other dissident known to have received a 15-year sentence as a result of those protests, as well as several others who were released and then re-arrested after the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.

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