Peking releases journalist early

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The Independent Online
IN A RARE demonstration of compassion, the Chinese government yesterday paroled its best-known female political prisoner, 56-year-old Gao Yu, just in time to welcome in the Year of the Rabbit with her family in Peking.

Ms Gao, a journalist, had spent more than five years in jail for allegedly revealing state secrets in articles she wrote, a charge she has always denied.

"This is my happiest Spring Festival in 10 years," said Ms Gao's son, Zhao Meng, who added that his mother had been banned from talking to reporters under the terms of the parole. The Chinese New Year, known as Spring Festival, starts today and is a time when families traditionally gather together at home.

Ms Gao's arrest and imprisonment was one of the most vindictive actions of the Chinese government. She was detained early in October 1993, just before she was due to take up a post at Columbia University in the United States. Rather than let her fulfil this dream, the authorities detained her, tried her in secret and handed down a harsh jail term.

In 1995, Ms Gao was awarded the Golden Pen of Freedom prize by the Paris- based World Association of Newspapers, which was followed in 1997 by Unesco's annual press freedom award.

The reasons for paroling Ms Gao more then seven months before her sentence ends are probably threefold. Her jail term was due to finish on 1 October, when China plans lavish celebrations to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic, an event it would not want overshadowed by the release of a high-profile dissident. Second, Ms Gao was suffering health problems, including high blood pressure, heart disease and kidney problems. "Her health is not good," said her son.

Most pertinently, the release is ahead of next month's visit to Peking by Madeleine Albright, the United States Secretary of State, and the forthcoming Geneva meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Commission, where some Western countries are expected to press for censure of China's recent crackdown on dissidents.

For the government, the Year of the Rabbit presents difficult challenges. The economic outlook is uncertain, as can be seen by the subdued Chinese New Year shopping. Soaring unemployment and a general perception that this will be another difficult year for China's industrial sector have encouraged people to keep their money in their pockets.

The State Statistics Bureau announced yesterday that Chinese exports had declined 10.8 per cent in January, and retail prices fell 2.8 per cent. Amid this rather bleak backdrop, the best attempt to inject some seasonal cheer into society has been the decision by a handful of big cities to lift the ban on lighting firecrackers, the traditional way to banish unfriendly mythical beasts and ensure an auspicious start to the new year.

For Peking, stability is the watchword this year. China's leaders want, above all else, no surprises.

A speech just published by the Communist Party chief of Peking, Jia Qingling, warned: "We must be on close guard constantly to crush infiltration, subversion and splittism by foreign and domestic enemy forces and we must pay attention to sensitive period duties, at all times remaining vigilant against hostile elements which may take advantage of contradictions to create incidents." That "sensitive period" is the upcoming 10th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown in Peking on 4 June 1989, when the army brutally fired on unarmed pro-democracy protesters.

The prime minister, Zhu Rongji, used his Chinese New Year address yesterday to reiterate the message. "Strengthen the rule of law and democracy, resolve internal conflict, crack down on all kinds of illegal activity and ensure political stability," he urged.

Despite already recently jailing China's few remaining leading dissidents, Peking is keeping up the pressure on renewed attempts by activists to launch the China Democracy Party and to quash any attempts to mark the events of 4 June.

At least two dissidents were detained for questioning over the weekend after the nascent opposition party applied for permission to hold a congress in the city of Wuhan next month.