China rounds up dissidents in advance of official US visit

CHINA released its most famous dissident yesterday after holding him in custody for 24 hours. Other political activists remained in police detention following the crackdown at the end of last week ahead of the arrival of the United States Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, on 11 March.

Wei Jingsheng, who was picked up by police on Friday morning, yesterday telephoned a colleague and said he was in a rural county to the north of Peking and planned to return home later in the day. There were no details of his detention.

It also emerged that at least six dissidents in Shanghai had been detained for around 24 hours during the visit to the city last week of John Shattuck, the senior US human rights envoy, who was in China assessing the need for further human rights progress. One of them, Yang Zhou, told Reuter that his home was surrounded by plainclothes public security officials on Thursday when he had been due to meet Mr Shattuck. He was then taken into detention and released on Friday.

Mr Yang told Reuter: 'They said, unless you change your thinking we will strike against you with great severity, and each time we strike it will be harsher.'

At least five others were also detained, including Bao Ge. Mr Bao has campaigned for Japan to pay compensation to the Chinese for Second World War atrocities and has been warned that he could be detained again later this month when the Japanese Prime Minister visits China.

The Chinese government appears to have been more concerned with blocking meetings between dissidents and US officials than with the impact such actions might have on the human rights dialogue with the United States.

Mr Wei dined with Mr Shattuck when the US envoy was in Peking, and his recent arrest may have been to warn him not also to see Mr Christopher this week. Mr Wei, an outspoken pro-democracy activist from the Democracy Wall era, was released last September after serving all but six months of his 15-year sentence.

There was no news yesterday about three legal activists, Zhou Guoqiang, Wang Jiaqi and Yuan Hongbing, who were detained on Friday and accused by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of violating criminal laws.

The crackdown on Thursday and Friday brought a swift response from President Clinton, who in June must decide whether China has made sufficient human rights improvements to secure renewal of its Most Favoured Nation trading status. 'We strongly disapprove of what was done, and it obviously is not helpful to our relations,' he said. A 'very stern statement' had been sent to the Chinese authorities.

China's attempted public relations exercise seemed to have gone awry yesterday when five American journalists returned from an official trip to the notorious Lingyuan No 2 prison in Liaoning province after being refused permission to talk to Liu Gang, 33, who was jailed after the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstration.

The journalists were shown videos of Mr Liu, saw him on silent closed-circuit television, and at one point were allowed to watch him through a window as he walked with guards. But they were not permitted to ask him about reports that he has suffered physical and psychological torture.

Xin Tingquan, a warden, said Mr Liu was a liar. 'Because he distorts the truth and he says things that do not accord with the truth, we don't let anyone (visitors) talk with him,' he said. 'We're not afraid of letting you see him. But he says some untruthful things.'

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