Crackdown on dissident demonstrates Beijing's weakness

April 06, 1994|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Beijing Bureau of The Sun

BEIJING -- China's threat to pin new charges on its best-known dissident, Wei Jingsheng, is a sign of strength and of weakness.

With it, the Beijing regime sharply defies U.S. pressure to improve its human rights record and just as graphically demonstrates its lack of confidence in its control.

Mr. Wei, 44, who was freed in September after 14 1/2 years in jail, has been detained twice in the last month in an apparent effort to stifle his lobbying for democracy. His whereabouts have not been known since he was picked up Friday by police.

The move to investigate him for unspecified new crimes was disclosed yesterday in a two-paragraph announcement by the state news agency.

"Wei is being interrogated and placed under surveillance by the Beijing Public Security Department in accordance with the law because he violated the law on many occasions and is suspected of having committed new crimes," it said.

In China, such strong statements against dissidents usually indicate that a rigged trial and conviction will follow.

However, some foreign analysts speculated yesterday that the official statement leaves China some wiggle room. As such, it may be aimed at testing the Clinton administration's resolve.

Over the last several months, Mr. Wei has become an international symbol of China's human rights abuses, drawing particular attention in Washington.

The threat to jail him again makes it much harder for the Clinton administration to argue that China's human rights record has improved enough to warrant renewal of its most-favored-nation (MFN) trade status in June.

In many ways, Mr. Wei's fate and the course of the Sino-American struggle over the profitable trade status seem inextricably bound. He may end up as hostage to the dispute.

The U.S. Embassy continued yesterday to try to find out more about Mr. Wei's status, with little success.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Mike McCurry said, "The United States very much regrets that China has taken this step."

He also said that U.S. diplomats in Beijing "expressed our concern" to Chinese officials.

"The only thing he has done is to express opinions about conditions that exist within China," Mr. McCurry said.

The risk that the Beijing regime is taking by threatening to jail Mr. Wei again -- that of losing its badly needed MFN trade standing -- gives a strong indication of how much it fears just one man.

But the broader background to this singular fear is the high level of public discontent over rapidly rising inflation and other economic imbalances -- much the same sort of mass discontent that set the stage for the Tiananmen Square protests five years ago.

Mr. Wei, a former electrician, was first jailed for his activities during an early pro-democracy movement here, the "Democracy Wall Movement." His writings were said to have personally angered Chinese senior leader Deng Xiaoping.

Paroled six months early, Mr. Wei emerged unrepentant last fall and quickly resumed his fight for political pluralism. He met frequently with foreign reporters and published critical political essays abroad.

Defying police pressure to halt his calls for democracy, Mr. Wei stirred other Beijing dissidents and labor activists to actions that prompted a security crackdown just before last month's visit by U.S. Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher.

Basically, the threat to jail Mr. Wei is aimed at silencing Beijing's relatively small number of activists. But even that may backfire.

At least one young man was not too scared to attempt to lay a wreath in Tiananmen Square yesterday, according to a wire service report.

Hundreds of pro-democracy protesters were killed near the square in the army crackdown on the 1989 protests, and yesterday was the Qing Ming holiday, the traditional time for honoring the dead.

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