China tightens its grip on political dissidents

January 08, 1995|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,Beijing Bureau of The Sun

BEIJING -- Her husband sentenced without a court hearing to three years in prison for printing seditious T-shirts, the young woman from the provinces came to the capital to appeal.

Wang Hui spent five days in Beijing, running from one faceless committee to another, only to be rebuffed each time. Depressed and worn out, she returned two weeks ago to her hometown in central China, where she finally got someone's attention: She was tailed on the way home from the airport and disappeared into the nether world of interrogation rooms and prisons run by China's security apparatus.

Ms. Wang is one of the latest victims of a brutal crackdown on China's dissidents. The authorities' six-month wave of arrests, expulsions and detentions has been so thorough that China's modern dissident movement is going through some of the darkest days of its 20-year history.

Government critics put a brave face on their situation, but their network is virtually shattered. And in contrast with earlier times of repression, the dissidents feel they are now without the support of Western countries that once took their side.

Since the summer, when the United States decided that it would not make improved human rights a condition for normal trading links with China, prominent dissidents have been rounded up one after another until virtually none remain.

Labor activists like Ms. Wang's husband, Zhou Guoqiang, are serving time. Student leader Wang Dan is in hiding. The founders of China's modern human rights movement are immobilized: Wei Jingsheng, the leader of the 1978 Democracy Wall movement, is back in confinement a year after being freed from 14 years in prison camps; veteran activist Chen Ziming is under house arrest in Beijing, allowed out only to undergo radiation therapy for cancer.

And most other dissidents of note have been thrown out of the country. Now they live as exiles or slowly fade into irrelevance back home.

A protest that leads to arrest can be as simple as Mr. Zhou's T-shirts, which read "Labor is Sacred" or "Don't Trick Me."

Other people have been arrested for sophisticated attempts to create underground organizations or to incite peasants to oppose corruption.

Even out of prison, dissidents no longer have much effectiveness.

Chen Ziming, a consistent force in China's dissident community since 1976, can be visited in his Beijing apartment only by relatives. Except for his mother, sister and wife, even his relatives must fill out a request form.

Mr. Chen is proof that economic prosperity does not quickly lead to the sort of tolerant society that U.S. policy seeks to promote.

After the 1978 Democracy Wall movement -- which began when dissidents pasted complaints and political analyses on a wall in downtown Beijing -- Mr. Chen decided to work outside the government.

He set up a think tank, a correspondence school and a book company that made him wealthy and allowed him to support democratic causes, such as the 1989 Tiananmen protests, which he supplied with a dozen vehicles.

When the 1989 protests were crushed and Mr. Chen was arrested, his business empire was confiscated. His family lives now in extremely cramped conditions, and relies on savings and his parents' pensions.

"Ziming feels that the dissident force is quite strong overseas but in China it's weak," said Mr. Chen's sister, Chen Zihua.

"That's why he won't go, and that's why the government is monitoring him so tightly."

Life has always been harsh for China's dissidents, but it has rarely been so devoid of hope or support.

As recently as last summer, Mr. Chen, Mr. Wang and Mr. Wei were free, albeit closely watched.

Dozens of other dissidents across the country -- many of them now in prison -- were organizing trade unions and discussion groups.

But their activity coincided with the West's growing fascination with China's economic potential and a conscious decision by the West to play down human rights objections in favor of business ties.

The United States had warned China in 1993, for example, that it could secure normal trading status -- called most-favored-nation status (MFN) -- only if it improved its human rights record.

But China stood firm and released only a few prisoners, such as Mr. Chen.

Despite the limited progress, the Clinton administration renewed China's MFN trading status and said it would drop future demands for improved human rights.

Not all dissidents criticize the U.S. decision. Some say the U.S. policy hurt them because it took away the last leverage that the West had to force concessions on human rights from China.

But others believe that severing normal trading links with China would not in any case have helped the dissidents, but would have harmed China's economic reforms, which in the long run might help create a more pluralistic society.

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