Icy wind snuffs `Peking Spring'

Click to follow
BEHIND THE closed doors of a courtroom in the eastern city of Hangzhou, the Chinese government will today draw a firm line under a year when freedom of political thought had appeared briefly to gain ground.

In the most high-profile case against a dissident for three years, Wang Youcai, a 32-year-old former student activist, will go on trial for allegedly "inciting the subversion of state power".

About 300 miles away in the city of Wuhan, his associate, 49-year-old Qin Yongmin, will walk into another court to face similar charges. After the optimism of a so-called "Peking Spring" has come the chill wind of a winter crackdown.

The two men will be found guilty - there has never been a non-guilty judgment in such a case - and will receive punitive jail terms for their attempts over six months to register the independent China Democracy Party.

Xu Wenli, the 55-year-old veteran dissident who was also arrested last month, has yet to be charged but may suffer the same fate. Almost three dozen other dissident figures have also been questioned or detained since the beginning of November.

Today's trials are a blunt reminder that, while the legal system is improving, it counts for nothing for dissidents such as Mr Wang and Mr Qin. A lawyer who wanted to defend Mr Wang has been harassed by police to such an extent that he has abandoned the attempt. Mr Qin's family were given only three days' notice of his trial, leaving them no time to try to organise a defence.

To prevent demonstrations outside Mr Wang's trial, police in Hangzhou took seven local China Democracy Party members into custody on Tuesday and warned others not to travel to the city.

The response of the outside world has been muted. This year has been one of diplomatic triumph for China, when the leadership in Peking secured repeated praise from Western leaders for its response to the Asian financial crisis.

The dissidents' names are not unknown in Western capitals. It was at the start of President Bill Clinton's visit in June that Mr Wang and colleagues tried to register the China Democracy Party in Zhejiang province, and the American President spoke out publicly when he and other dissidents were detained for questioning.

In October, Tony Blair was embarrassed on his China trip when Mr Xu was taken in by police. The Prime Minister immediately raised the case with his hosts. On both occasions, the dissidents were swiftly released to avoid causing political difficulties at home for the foreign statesmen.

In the second half of the year, following the Clinton tour, China played host to more than half a dozen European leaders and the United Nations human rights chief, Mary Robinson.

During this period, dissidents were picked up for a few days or a couple of weeks, but most were then released. There was regular contact across the country between activists involved in the China Democracy Party, the sort of co-ordination which had not been seen since the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. News of their activities, and detentions, regularly reached the outside world, mainly through a Hong Kong-based human rights group.

But now the run of foreign visitors has come to an end and the goalposts have moved, as is demonstrated by the timing of the current crackdown.

Tomorrow, China officially celebrates the 20th anniversary of Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms which rescued the country from the tragedy of the 1966- 76 Cultural Revolution. The government may be beset by economic challenges, but it can justifiably claim that those policies have improved the living standards of the vast majority of its population. Yet by scheduling the trial of the two dissident for today, the rest of the world's attention will once again be diverted on to China's human rights shortcomings.

At the beginning of the year, it was all going to be so different. With President Jiang Zemin firmly ensconced after 1997's 15th Communist Party Congress, it seemed that there was more scope for political debate. Individual academics, journalists, and even the odd official started publishing papers and books addressing political reform. Intellectuals felt free to gather in informal discussion groups. There was talk of a "Peking Spring" ahead of the Clinton visit, and suggestions that Mr Jiang was pondering the need for political reform. The Chinese President took the unprecedented step of taking part in a press conference with Mr Clinton which was broadcast live on Chinese television.

Dissidents seized the moment, and became bolder, especially after China said it would sign the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (which it finally did in October). These activists decided to play on China's own, very public commitment to improve the rule of law, by seeking formally to register the China Democracy Party. By taking this legalistic approach, they sought to call Peking's bluff.

Western governments, now sold on "engagement" with China over human rights rather than confrontation, eagerly stepped up legal education projects. During the Blair visit, for instance, a mock trial was conducted to show the benefits of an open legal system. Countries fell over each other as they set up training courses of Chinese lawyers and legal officials. But none of this helps the plight of Mr Wang and Mr Qin.

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, commenting on the crackdown against dissidents, last week declared: "This has nothing to do with human rights."