China hints at harsh dealing with dissident leader

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The Independent Online
CHINA'S ROUND-UP of dissidents this week, including Xu Wen li, one of the most famous opposition figures still living in the country, has come within less than a month of its much publicised decision to sign a United Nations convention on civil and political rights.

In a letter signed by 191 pro-democracy campaigners, supporters of nine dissidents detained this week accused the authorities of "hypocrisy" for holding members of the Chinese Democratic Party, which has been trying to register itself as a legal organisation. The UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which China signed, guarantees freedom of assembly and speech. The subsequent arrests of 11 Democratic Party leaders - two were quickly released - suggests that the authorities are not prepared to fulfil its requirements. Although there was much fanfare about the signing of the document, China is not yet subject to the international monitoring stipulated in the UN convention.

The arrests prompted two student leaders of the 1989 Tiananmen Square democracy movement to begin a 48-hour hunger strike yesterday. They are demanding the release of Mr Xu and two other party leaders, Qin Yongmin and Wang Youcai.

Seventeen other activists said they would join an organised fast. The tactic of hunger strikes was widely used during the 1989 protests. Its revival and the attempts to seek recognition for a opposition political party suggest a new mood of defiance among the dissident community.

Mr Xu, 55, is a veteran of the China 1978-79 Democracy Wall movement, which marks the brief era when public criticism of the regime was tolerated. However, the spirit of tolerance was limited and Mr Xu spent a decade in jail for his participation. He now chairs cells of the new party in Peking and the nearby city of Tianjin.

Yesterday, the government indicated that it intended to deal harshly with him. A Foreign Ministry statement said he was "suspected of activities which have harmed national security and his acts have violated relevant criminal codes of the People's Republic of China". The death penalty can be invoked for breaches of national security.

The ministry also took strong exception to criticism of the arrests by the United States. "This is an internal matter and other nations should not interfere," it said. James Rubin, the US State Department spokesman had described Mr Xu's arrest as as a "serious step in the wrong direction". He said the dissident was "peacefully exercising fundamental freedoms guaranteed by international human rights instruments".

Yesterday came the first acknowledgement by the Chinese authorities that the arrests had been made. The government appears to be taking the threat posed by this party seriously. Although small in number, the party seems to have members throughout the country and an organisational ability which was thought to have been largely destroyed by the 1989 crackdown.

In an interview published in Hong Kong on Tuesday, Li Peng, the former premier held largely responsible for the post-Tiananmen Square purge, said China had no need of Western-style democracy.

Mr Li is now the chairman of the National People's Congress. In a clear reference to the Democratic Party, he said the authorities would not tolerate the existence of an organisation advocating the creation of a multi-party system and undermining the Communist Party.