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China's dissidents appeal to Clinton

SEVENTY-ONE dissidents in China have signed an open letter urging President Bill Clinton to meet the parents of one of the students killed in the June 1989 Tiananmen Square shootings during his state visit to China.

The petition followed a similar letter signed by 57 dissidents on Friday and also sent to foreign news agencies. This called on Mr Clinton to "state clearly his concern" for human rights in China by meeting Xu Wenli, who was released in 1993 after 12 years in prison. A third petition, signed by 15 dissidents in Zhejiang province, appealed to the United States President to offer wreaths for the victims of June 1989.

But in Washington, state department officials at the weekend made it plain that they did not expect Mr Clinton to meet pro-democracy activists. Stanley Roth, assistant secretary of state, said: "At this point, I don't believe we're going to have dissidents on the schedule." He said that the main concern was "what would happen to [dissident] people if you met with them".

Mr Xu, a veteran activist, dismissed Washington's excuse for not meeting activists. "Whether dissidents receive any sort of punishment for meeting Clinton is not the slightest consideration for us," he said.

Mr Clinton's handling of human rights issues is set to be the most controversial aspect of the nine-day state visit, the first by a US president since the June 1989 killing of hundreds of unarmed demonstrators.

The President's imminent arrival on Thursday has demonstrated that the remnant of China's dissident community can still organise a co-ordinated response.

The letter, from 71 signatories, told Mr Clinton: "After socialising with VIPs, we hope and request you openly visit Ding Zilin and her husband, whose son died on 4 June [1989]."

Ms Ding's son was 17 years old when he was killed as Chinese soldiers broke up the pro-democracy demonstration, and since then she has been the most outspoken campaigner on behalf of the families whose relatives died in the crackdown, compiling a list of some of the victims.

Asked about the petition and the chance of a meeting with Mr Clinton, Ms Ding, 61, said that it was all up to the efforts of individuals. She said her household had already been under tight police surveillance for more than a week.

Mr Xu, 54, said the decision not to meet any dissidents meant that Mr Clinton had "abandoned his responsibilities". But he also said Mr Clinton should come to China and that he could not avoid attending a welcoming ceremony in Tiananmen Square. Mr Xu hoped the US President would follow the gesture made recently by the Italian president, Oscar Luigi Scalfaro. The latter attended a ceremony on Tiananmen Square but said that while walking on the square he had made a silent prayer for the victims of 1989.

Opinions are polarised over the most effective way Mr Clinton could further the human rights cause in China during his visit.

The flurry of petitions from the Chinese mainland and the large number of signatories has put the US administration in a difficult situation. It is virtually impossible to imagine a situation where Peking would agree to a meeting between Mr Clinton and a mainland opposition figure, and an angry Chinese government would no doubt punish any dissident who addressed the President on dissidents' grievances.

There are fears also that such a meeting might jeopardise opportunities for Mr Clinton to take his human rights message to a wider audience. There are hopes that he might do this during the planned live radio phone-in programme in Shanghai, and in public speeches at Peking University and possibly a televised "town-hall meeting".

The spectacle of a US president directly addressing the Chinese people and engaging with an audience - in a way which the Chinese leadership itself never dares to do - could have a greater impact than meeting one dissident and infuriating Peking in the process.

Mr Roth said: "One has to draw a very clear distinction between the rather narrow issue of meeting the dissidents and the question of speaking one's mind on human rights."

The dozens of mainland signatories to the recent petitions have, nevertheless, urged Mr Clinton to take the risk. Describing themselves as the "voice of China's opposition", the 71 signatories also called on Mr Clinton to meet Bao Tong, the most senior communist party official to be jailed after June 1989.

Mr Bao served a seven-year sentence for allegedly leaking secrets to the Tiananmen square protesters about the crackdown and this month spoke publicly for the first time since his release, calling for curbs on the power of the party.