China's leading dissident charged with death offense U.S. effort to persuade Beijing to honor rights is called into question

November 22, 1995|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING -- Wei Jingsheng, the father of China's modern dissident movement, was charged yesterday with trying to overthrow the government, a capital offense.

The 44-year-old former electrician, whose blunt essays criticizing China's rulers drew wrath from the very highest levels, faces at least a decade in prison. He previously has served a 14-year sentence for his actions in the 1978-'79 Democracy Wall movement.

Mr. Wei's arrest is another blow to Western policy-makers who argue that engaging, rather than confronting, China on human rights will make the government more tolerant of differing views.

"This is very sobering for those in the U.S. government who were hopeful that China was developing greater respect for the rule of law," said Richard Dicker, general counsel for Human Rights Watch/Asia. "This violates China's own criminal code and every international standard of human rights."

Glyn Davies, a State Department spokesman, said Washington regretted the arrest and noted that senior U.S. officials, including President Clinton, had raised Mr. Wei's case with senior Chinese officials repeatedly.

"We have maintained consistently that Mr. Wei should not be subject to prosecution for the peaceful expression of his political ideas. We are not aware that Mr. Wei has ever advocated violence," he said.

The arrest may have been timed to come after a series of meetings between China's President Jiang Zemin and other world leaders at an annual summit of leaders of Asian and Pacific countries that just ended in Japan.

It also came after the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded. Mr. Wei was reportedly on the short list and the charges against him might have swung the vote in his favor, further embarrassing China.

The official New China News Agency said Mr. Wei was charged with "activities in attempt to overthrow the Chinese government." Criminal trials in China are usually formalities, so Mr. Wei's arrest means his guilt has been determined, with only the sentence to be meted out.

He has been in custody since April 1, 1994, and held incommunicado, barred from access to a lawyer and visits from his family.

Prisoners often are released early for good behavior, but given Mr. Wei's previous unwillingness to repent, his best chance for an early release might be to accept expulsion from China.

Other dissidents have been used as bargaining chips with Western countries, released early and expelled in exchange for favorable treatment in other areas, such as trade.

The Foreign Affairs Ministry seemed to hint at such a link yesterday during its semi-weekly press conference. Speaking before Mr. Wei's arrest was made public, a spokesman said China was willing to enter a dialogue on human rights with the United States.

During his earlier imprisonment, however, Mr. Wei rejected exile. "I believe that this life of mine is for creating democracy in China," he told a foreign journalist on his last night of freedom in 1994. "I'm not afraid of serving the rest of my life in prison."

For many dissidents, Mr. Wei became a symbol of uncompromising opposition to their government's autocratic rule.

Fang Lizhi, a physics professor and political dissident now at the University of Arizona, said in a telephone interview that Mr. Wei was the first person after the Cultural Revolution to demand that the government reform itself.

"After the Cultural Revolution, when China was talking about the 'four modernizations' -- that is to say economic modernizations -- Wei called for a fifth modernization: democracy," Mr. Fang said.

Arrested in 1979, he was sentenced to 15 years on charges of "counter-revolution" and for revealing state secrets to foreigners.

He spent the next 14 years in solitary confinement, shuffled from one prison or labor camp to the next, until he ended up at a salt mine. He had so infuriated China's top leader, Deng Xiaoping, that his captors reported directly to Mr. Deng's office.

Minus most of his teeth, he was released in the fall of 1993 as China was waging a public relations campaign to land the 2000 Olympics, which eventually were awarded to Australia.

Six months later he was arrested after meeting a U.S. undersecretary of state in Beijing to investigate human rights abuses. He had continued to publish in overseas publications and speak his mind despite repeated warnings that the conditions of his parole forbade him from expressing his views.

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