Chinese crack down on dissident as President Hu prepares UK trip

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The Independent Online

The extradition of the US-based dissident Peng Ming is the latest demonstration of China's willingness to chase down opponents of the government wherever they are.

With China's President Hu Jintao due to arrive in Britain on a five-day state visit in early November, Peng's life sentence is a timely reminder of the Chinese sensitivity to public opposition.

There are well-grounded fears that opponents of the Chinese government will be prevented from demonstrating in public when Mr Hu arrives. When the then Vice-President Hu visited the UK in 2001, the Chinese asked that supporters of the Falun Gong and Free Tibet movements, both of which are banned in China, be kept away from him.

The Metropolitan Police obliged by blocking the demonstrators.

This Wednesday, stewards at the Germany- China football friendly in Hamburg prevented Tibetans from unfurling Tibetan flags at the game after a request from the Chinese.

"If the regime can carry out such censorship abroad, how will the situation for freedom of expression and press freedom look during the Olympic Games in Beijing in 2008?" said Chompel Balok, spokesperson for the Tibetan Youth Association in Europe.

Peng, the 48-year-old founder of the China Federation Party, was found guilty of involvement in terrorist activities, kidnapping and of being in possession of counterfeit Chinese currency by the Wuhan Intermediate People's Court in Hubei Province. He was also stripped of his political rights for life and fined 35,000 Yuan (£2,500).

Peng was arrested in Burma in May last year, after attempting to cross the border from Thailand with 10,800 Yuan (£760) in fake Chinese currency. He was subsequently extradited to China in August 2004.

But human rights groups have claimed that his extradition was a violation of international law, as Peng had UN refugee status and was entitled to be protected from being returned to a country where he had expressed a well-founded fear of persecution.

Peng's arrest is reminiscent of the circumstances surrounding the arrest of the prominent US-based pro-democracy activist Wang Binzhang. Wang was kidnapped while in Vietnam and brought back to China, where he was sentenced to life in prison on terrorism and espionage charges by a Shenzhen court in February 2003. The Chinese said Wang was kidnapped by an "unknown" group.

A former communist party (CCP) member and manager of a state-owned firm, Peng, from Hubei Province, is one of the few Chinese pro-democracy activists to have advocated the use of force to bring about change in China.

"The CCP is evil to the core and will not change on its own," he said when interviewed in America in 2002. "We have to use immoral, dirty means to overthrow this regime. We want to grab complete power from them."

Sentenced to 18 months in a labour camp in the late Nineties, Peng fled to the US after his release in 2000. But he continued his activities while in exile. In 2003, he was behind a plan to explode a hot-air balloon over Tiananmen Square and scatter pro-democracy leaflets a stone's throw from the Zhongnanhai compound that is home to China's leaders. The scheme failed when the eight people due to detonate the balloon by remote control were then detained by police.

Peng's sentence was announced in a brief statement by the official Xinhua News Agency After a one-day hearing on 22 September, the Wuhan court found that "Peng had disseminated and pushed forward his violent and terrorist propositions through articles, the publication of books and by issuing articles on the internet."

Xinhua claimed that Peng had set up a terrorist training camp in Burma in June 2003 and had funded his activities by organising six kidnappings in Wuhan, Changsha and Beijing, between 2002 and 2004.