China frees dissident in effort to win US favour

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AS the countdown is under way to President Bill Clinton's decision on whether to renew China's Most Favoured Nation (MFN) trading status, Peking is sending conflicting signals over the fate of dissidents.

Yesterday brought news of the release of a Protestant religious prisoner, and the arrest of a human rights activist. There was confirmation that an elderly pro-democracy activist has been granted a passport to leave the country, and reports that the most senior official arrested after the June 1989 Tiananmen Square movement is seriously ill, and is being denied medical care.

An official Chinese announcement said that Zhang Ruiyu, 54, a former physical education teacher in Fujian province, serving a four-year sentence for religious activities, had been paroled for good behaviour. Diplomats said the early release was linked to the MFN decision. It followed the decision this week to grant a passport to Yu Haocheng, 66, a prominent activist, who will take up a position at an American university. It was his tenth application.

But later it emerged that Shanghai police had arrested Yang Zhou, a prominent member of the Chinese Association for Human Rights. A crackdown on the city's human rights activists has been under way in recent weeks.

The monitoring group, Human Rights Watch/Asia, said that Bao Tong, 62, a former top Communist Party aide, was very ill with thyroid and lymph node cancer.

President Clinton has linked MFN renewal to 'significant' human rights improvements before the 3 June deadline. Human rights groups say China has not satisfied that demand.

But Mr Clinton's National Security adviser, Anthony Lake, said on Wednesday that he was 'not pessimistic' about China's MFN chances. He said that China had made progress towards meeting American conditions, and the Clinton administration had been working to 'drain the venom' out of rhetoric surrounding the issue.

Last month Peking released one of its best-known dissidents, Wang Juntao, serving a 13-month sentence as one of the alleged 'black hands' behind the Tiananmen Square movement. But these high profile releases have been accompanied by fresh arrests.

Human rights groups welcomed Ms Zhang's release. But they said religious repression remained widespread. According to Asia Watch, the home of Ms Zhang, a member of an unofficial 'house church', was raided by police in May 1990. They confiscated Bibles and religious literature. Ms Zhang was burned in the face with electric prods and beaten so badly that several teeth were broken. She was arrested three months later and charged in March 1991 for 'counter-revolutionary propaganda and incitement'.

At her trial she was accused of 'holding illegal meetings, distributing seditious propaganda through cassette tapes, attacking the government, and corresponding with foreigners'. She was sentenced to four years in jail, having previously spent a total of seven years in prison.

Earlier this year, China's State Council introduced new regulations to restrict foreign and unofficial religious activity. These provide a legal basis for the government's control of religion. The laws ban proselytising by foreigners and unofficial religious gatherings. Local officials are told to 'resolutely resist' the house church evangelists. According to the Hong Kong-based China News and Church Report, house churches are still active across China, despite the new regulations.