China's top dissident: free but unseen Jail term is cut short, but police detain him

September 16, 1993|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Beijing Bureau

BEIJING -- Wei Jingsheng is free from jail but not from police custody -- underscoring the limited meaning of freedom in China.

China's most renowned political dissident, Mr. Wei was paroled from prison Tuesday morning, six months before the end of his 15-year jail term. But by late last night, he still had not shown up at his parents' apartment.

Even relatives have not been able to see him or talk with him by phone, his sister, Wei Ling, said yesterday.

She said police told her that they are keeping him at an undisclosed location for "these few days" to prevent him from talking to the horde of foreign reporters who have camped in a courtyard near his parents' apartment for two days.

Officials at the Public Security Ministry said Mr. Wei was free to contact his family and offered no explanation for the situation.

Meanwhile, officials confirmed that another well-known dissident, Zhai Weimin, was released Monday after about 3 1/2 years in jail.

Mr. Zhai, about 25, was a student leader of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 and was arrested in 1990.

The timing of the dissidents' releases apparently relates to the International Olympic Committee vote next Thursday on Beijing's and four other cities' bids to stage the 2000 Olympics. Analysts speculate that more releases of dissidents could come before the vote.

In one sense, the authorities' move to sequester Mr. Wei seems at odds with their apparent goal of generating positive publicity to counter international human rights criticism in time for the Olympics decision.

A one-minute video of Mr. Wei leaving prison Tuesday is being sold to the state TV network for $400. In the video, someone asks him whether he has been beaten, and he jokingly responds, "I haven't up to now."

But many who have followed his case over the years believe that Mr. Wei actually is in a not-so-jocular mood and that officials fear that he might return home with sharply critical remarks about the Beijing regime or even of China's Olympics bid.

Such an attitude is said to have kept Mr. Wei, 43, in solitary confinement for long periods after he was arrested for his appeals for more democracy during the ill- fated 1978-1979 "Democracy Wall" movement in Beijing.

"Our information is that he's still feisty as hell," said Robin Munro of Asia Watch, the human rights group.

"Unless they've really done a number on him, I can't see him cooperating in this ploy."

Mr. Wei's brother, Wei Xiaotao, who visited him in prison in May, added that the famed dissident is not regretful. "If he had been regretful, he would have been released earlier," he said.

Some analysts predict that officials will keep Mr. Wei under wraps until the IOC vote next Thursday.

In any case, Mr. Munro said, he does not believe that China's "transparent ploy" to influence the Olympic decision will work. "My guess is that the IOC will be more embarrassed than impressed," he said.

With China desperately seeking the international respect represented by being chosen as the Olympics venue, saying anything negative about Beijing's bid is viewed here as anti-patriotic or worse.

Even Wang Dan, one of the top student leaders of the Tiananmen protests who was released from jail earlier this year, has kind words for China's bid. Mr. Wang suddenly showed up outside Mr. Wei's home Tuesday in an unsuccessful effort to congratulate the dissident on his release.

"I hope China can host the Olympics," Mr. Wang said. "I think having the Olympics here is helpful to China."

Asked how he felt about the use of prisoners as pawns in exchange for the Olympics, the former student protest leader sighed.

"This is, of course, very sad to release people to get the bid, but this is the present situation of China," he said. "We don't have a choice."

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